As this is posted, it would have been César Chávez’ 91st birthday. Chávez was, of course, an activist whose focus was farm workers, especially migrant farm workers. His work resulted in better working conditions, collective bargaining (under the auspices of the United Farm Workers), and more. Of course, Chávez wasn’t the only activist to try to improve living and working conditions for workers. There’ve been many in real life.
There’ve been plenty in crime fiction, too. Activists make for interesting characters, since their passion is an important character trait. And that passion can have all sorts of consequences. Activism also can add interesting tension to a story.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, a group of people embarks on a cruise of the Nile. One of them is a man who calls himself Mr. Ferguson. He is an activist who is determined to improve the lives of working people. Ferguson views the wealthy as parasites who contribute nothing to society, and he has nothing but contempt for the ‘better class’ of people he meets on the cruise. One of those people is Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who’s on a honeymoon trip with her new husband, Simon. When she is shot on the second night of the cruise, Hercule Poirot works with Colonel Race to find out who is responsible. The most likely suspect is the victim’s former friend, Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, who was engaged to Simon before he met Linnet. But she can be proven to have been elsewhere at the time of the shooting, so she cannot be the murderer. This means Poirot and Race have to look among the other passengers and the crew for the killer. Mr. Ferguson’s socialist views aren’t the reason Linnet is killed, but they add an interesting layer to the story, and they give his character some ‘flesh.’
Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning sees Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe travel to Holm Countram College. The school is undergoing renovations, and the construction workers have uncovered the body of the college’s former president, Alison Girling. She was supposed to have been killed in a freak avalanche five years earlier, during a skiing holiday. Now it’s clear that she never got to her destination. As Dalziel and Pascoe investigate, they get to know several of the students on campus. One of them is student activist Stuart Cockshut, who’s very much a radical, and wants all sorts of changes that he sees as improvements. His ‘boss’ is Franny Roote, who’s one of the campus leaders. The activism plays its role in the story, and it’s interesting to see the tension between the student leaders and Dalziel. As you can imagine, he has little patience for the student radicals and their demands.
In Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly, we are introduced to Marco Ribetti. He is an activist leader whose group wants to stop the Venice glass-blowing industry from pouring toxic waste into the local water system and canals. His politics and beliefs are very much at odds with those of his father-in-law, Giovanni de Cal, who owns one of the factories. That doesn’t prevent Ribetti from getting involved in protests and other activity, including demonstrations at de Cal’s place of business. When he is arrested one day during a protest, Ribetti asks his friend, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello for help. Vienello agrees, and gets his boss, Guido Brunetti, involved. They arrange for Ribetti’s release, but things are far from over. Not long afterwards, Giorgio Tassini, night watchman at de Cal’s factory, dies of what looks like a terrible accident. But Brunetti isn’t convinced this death was accidental. So, he and his team look more closely into the case.
In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, sometimes-lawyer Jack Irish gets a call from a former client, Danny McKillop. He’s recently been released from prison, where he served time for a drink-driving incident that killed a local activist, Anne Jeppeson. McKillop wants to meet with Irish, but before they can get together, McKillop is murdered. Irish feels guilty as it is, because he didn’t do a good job of defending his client. So, he decides to try to find out what happened. As he looks more deeply into the case, Irish learns that McKillop was framed. Someone else killed Anne Jeppeson, and it wasn’t an accident. There are several possible killers, too, as she and her group were trying to stop a multi-million-dollar Melbourne developed called Yarra Cove. She wanted to keep that area available and affordable for the working-class people who live there, and someone stopped her. As Irish gets closer to the truth, he finds greed and corruption in very high places.
And then there’s Gail Bowen’s Riel Delorme. He’s a Regina-based Métis activist whom we first meet in Kaleidoscope. In that novel, he and his group are trying to prevent a development in the economically depressed North Central part of the city. His methods are arguably questionable, but the goal is to improve the lot of the people who live in that part of Regina. The development company is represented by prominent attorney Zack Shreve, whose wife is Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. When one of the developer’s employees is killed, Riel is a likely suspect. But it’s not as simple as that. Matters get even more complicated when Joanne learns that her daughter, Mieka, is romantically involved with Delorme. It’s an interesting exploration of how a development project can divide people.
There’s a lot of work to be done in the world, so it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of activism. Those who lead those movements are often interesting in their own right, and they can add interest, tension, and more to a crime novel. These are just a few. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Webber and Tim Rice’s New Argentina.