Category Archives: Glen Peters

It is the Music of a People Who Will Not be Slaves Again*

As this is posted, it’s Bastille Day. Among other things, the day commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison, and the start of the French Revolution. The revolution itself was complex and multi-faceted. But one of the major issues at hand was social class and social inequities.

Class differences and class struggles feature in a lot of fiction, including crime fiction. There are far, far too many examples for me to discuss in one post. And that makes sense. For one thing, social class differences, and the resentment around them, are very real; this is something that resonates with readers. For another, the context lends itself well to the sort of conflict and tension that can add much to a story. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of lots more.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, a group of passengers boards a boat for a cruise of the Nile. Among them is a young man, Mr. Ferguson, who claims to be on the cruise to ‘study conditions.’ He’s an outspoken critic of the wealthy and privileged classes, and there’s talk that he’s a communist. He believes strongly in the overthrow of society as it is, and expresses nothing but contempt for those who don’t work with their hands. On the second night of the cruise, another passenger, Linnet Doyle, is shot. The most obvious suspect is her former friend, Jaqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. But soon enough, it’s proven that she couldn’t have committed the crime. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the cruise as well, has to look elsewhere for the killer. And Mr. Ferguson’s feelings about the upper classes are not lost on him. Here, for instance, is a comment Ferguson makes about the victim:
 

‘‘Hundreds and thousands of wretched workers slaving for a mere pittance to keep her in silk stockings and useless luxuries. One of the richest women in England, so someone told me – and never done a hand’s turn in her life.’’
 

It turns out that this murder isn’t at all what it seems to be on the surface. And it’s interesting to note how class resentment and the desire for revolution is woven into the story in Ferguson’s character. I see you, fans of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.

In Glen Peter’s 1960’s-era Mrs. D’Silva’s Detective Instinct and the Saitan of Calcutta, we are introduced to Joan D’Silva, who teaches at a Catholic school in Kolkata/Calcutta. One day, her son discovers the body of a former student, Agnes Lal. After the inquest, two other former students visit Mrs. D’Silva, to tell her that Agnes was murdered, and ask for her help in finding the killer. Then, one of those students is arrested for stabbing a factory manager. He says he’s innocent, and that the confession the police produce was forced. Mrs. D’Silva looks into the case more deeply, and finds that all three former students were members of the Workers’ Revolutionary Movement of Bengal. This group is dedicated to overthrowing the current government and stripping Anglo-Indians of their power. As Mrs. D’Silva works to clear her former student’s name, she learns how people’s passion for a better world, and even for revolution, can be used to manipulate them. And it turns out that these murders are more than just a case of young people who are determined to tear down ‘the system’ and build a new one.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising takes place in 1981 Houston, where Jay Porter is a low-rent lawyer who’s trying to make his name. In one plot thread of the novel, Porter’s father-in-law asks for his help. The Brotherhood of Longshoremen (BoL) which is a black union, wants pay and other parity with their white counterparts who belong to the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILU). Both groups want higher living standards, better wages, and better benefits. One of the BoL members has been beaten up by thugs from the ILU; and, unless those thugs are caught, both groups will be at a huge disadvantage during an upcoming strike. Porter happens to know Houston Mayor Cynthia Maddox, and his father-in-law wants him to ask Maddox to use her influence to get justice for the young man who was attacked. Porter has a history, both with Maddox and with the police. He was associated with the student unrest and Black Power movement of the late 1960s, and understands all too well why some people still feel that revolution is needed. At the same time, he has no desire to be on the wrong side of the law again. So, he has to walk a very fine line, as the saying goes, to try to help get a more equal living standard for the longshoremen without risking trouble with the law.

Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope introduces readers to Riel Delorme. He’s a Regina-based Métis activist and a leader of a group called the Warriors. This group is dead-set against any development in the city, claiming that it will only benefit the wealthy. And the Warriors aren’t afraid to get violent if needs be. They believe that if that’s what it takes to protect the disenfranchised people of the city, then it’s worth it. So, when one of the employees of the development company is killed, Delorme is definitely, ‘a person of interest.’ Things get complicated for Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourne Shreve, because her husband, Zack, is an attorney who represents the company. Her daughter, Mieka, becomes romantically involved with Delorme. And she’s caught in the middle. Among other things, while she has sympathy for Delorme’s point of view, she can’t condone violence, and she certainly isn’t sure she wants her daughter in a relationship with Delorme.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place in India during the 1920s – the last decades of the British Raj. At the time, there was quite a lot of agitation for home rule, and that agitation was sometimes violent. There were plenty of people who wanted a full-scale revolution against the British. And Stoddart uses that plot point in A Madras Miasma. In one thread of that novel, there’s a demonstration against the entrenched British establishment. Le Fanu is, of course, part of the police force. He’s sworn to uphold the law, and he doesn’t want trouble. On the other hand, he thinks the revolutionaries have well-taken points, and he can see the advantage of power-sharing. Plenty of those in powerful positions don’t want to give up their privilege, though, and aren’t willing to work with the protestors. The planned demonstration goes forward, and things get very ugly. Twenty-three demonstrators are killed, and eighty-five are injured. And someone uses this unrest to commit a very deliberate killing.

Class has been a bone of contention for a very long time, and it certainly played an important role in the French Revolution. Little wonder that we see it come up in crime fiction, too. These are just a few instances. Over to you.

 

ps  The ‘photo is, of course, of a print of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. I know, not exactly the same revolution. But it fits…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Do You Hear the People Sing?

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Attica Locke, Brian Stoddart, Gail Bowen, Glen Peters

There is a Life About to Start When Tomorrow Comes*

Political MovementsThere’s something about political movements that gets people really passionate. Some, of course, are drawn to the potential power involved. But for a lot of people, it’s the vision of what they see as a better future that drives them.

Political movements have been responsible for a lot of positive social change, such as better working conditions, universal suffrage, and anti-discrimination legislation. They’ve also done much to right long-standing wrongs (forced removal of Native American/First Nations children from their homes to attend government schools being just one example).

But political movements have their dark sides too. For one thing, we don’t all agree on what counts as ‘a better future.’ For another, even when a movement has what we might call a positive purpose (e.g. support for the working class), that doesn’t mean that everyone involved in the cause is noble, or that ugly things don’t happen.

Plenty of crime fiction includes or at least touches on political movements and struggles. They’re well-suited to the genre, I think. Space only permits me a sampling; I know you’ll think of lots more.

Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death) introduces us to Howard Raikes. Young and idealistic, Raikes is involved in an activist movement to tear down existing governments and re-build the world. To him, entrenched government officials and those who support them need to be swept away in order for positive change to happen. Raikes is romantically involved with Jane Olivera, niece of powerful banker Alistair Blunt. On most things they agree, although Jane is much less violent in her views and more patient. They both get drawn into a case of murder when Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot in his surgery. One theory of the murder is that someone was trying to get to Blunt, which makes Raikes a natural suspect. Hercule Poirot was also a patient of Morley’s and was at the victim’s office on the morning of the murder. So he works with Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is.

One of the characters we meet in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourne Shreve series is Riel Delorme, a Regina-based Métis activist. When we first encounter him in Kaleidoscope, he’s trying to put together opposition to a new development in the economically depressed North Central section of Regina. Delorme has a troubled past, and plenty of personal demons. But as the saying goes, his heart’s in the right place when it comes to wanting to improve the lot of the people who live in North Central. He and his group believe that the planned development will disenfranchise the residents, increase the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ and concentrate local wealth and power in too few hands. So he’s a very likely suspect when one the development company’s employees is murdered. Shreve and her attorney husband Zack get involved in this case on two levels. First, his law firm is representing the development company. On another level, her daughter Mieka is romantically involved with Delorme. This isn’t a simple case of ‘greedy developer vs crusading protectors of the downtrodden.’ In this novel, the developer is hardly all ‘bad,’ and the activist group isn’t exactly a chorus of angels. It’s an interesting look at how a smaller-level political movement impacts those involved.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is the fictional re-telling of the real-life case of Maggie Heffernan. In 1900, she was convicted of the murder of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie meets and falls in love with Jack Hardy. They become secretly engaged, and Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. When Maggie learns that she’s pregnant, she writes to him several times, but gets no answer. Knowing her family will reject her, Maggie moves to Melbourne and finds work in a Guest House. When the baby is born, Maggie moves both of them to a home for unwed mothers. Then she learns that Jack has moved to Melbourne. She tracks him down, only to have him reject her utterly. With nowhere to go, Maggie tries to find lodging. She and the baby are turned away from six lodging houses, and that’s when the tragedy occurs. Maggie is arrested, imprisoned, and marked for execution. She finds a champion in Vida Goldstein, the first woman to run for Parliament in the British Commonwealth. Vida is a leader in the movement for women’s suffrage and women’s rights, and that group is happy to have Maggie as a sort of ‘textbook case’ of gender inequity. There’s also an interesting look at the women’s suffrage movement in Felicity Young’s The Anatomy of Murder.

Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders takes a look at another political movement, Australia First. On the surface of it, the movement stands for supporting Australian businesses, protecting the country from subversion by outside forces, and so on. It all sounds quite patriotic. But this novel takes place in 1943, when the country is at war with the Axis powers. There’ve been disturbing links between Australia First and Nazism, so the group died out. But when John Quinn and his son Xavier are found brutally murdered, it becomes clear that the group may be re-forming. If so, Melbourne police Inspector Titus Lambert and his second-in-command Joe Sable have a serious problem. One thread of this novel concerns the way idealism and the hope of a better future can be manipulated in appalling and horrible ways.

Glen Peters’ Mrs. D’Silva’s Detective Instinct and the Saitan of Calcutta places readers in 1960’s Calcutta/Kolkata. Joan D’Silva, a teacher at a Catholic school, gets involved in a case of murder when her son discovers the body of a former student Agnes Lal. After the inquest, two other former pupils tell Mrs. D’Silva that the victim was murdered; then they ask her help in finding the killer. Soon afterwards, one of those students is arrested in connection with the stabbing of a factory manager. He claims he’s innocent, and has been forced to confess, and D’Silva begins to look more deeply into the case. That’s when she discovers that all three former students were members of the Workers Revolutionary Movement of Bengal, which is dedicated to overthrowing the current Indian government and stripping high-ranking Anglo-Indians of their power. As Mrs. D’Silva tries to clear her former pupil’s name and solve the murder, readers see how passionate people can be about political movements and righting what they see as society’s wrongs. We also see how that idealism can be used for certain people’s purposes.

There’ve been several novels featuring the IRA and other groups who’ve championed Irish independence and self-determination. Authors such as Brian McGilloway, Bartholomew Gill and Will Thomas, among many others, have looked at the vision those groups have had of a better future for Ireland. As we know, it’s not been as simple as that, and no side of the conflicts in that part of the world has been really innocent.

And that’s the thing about wanting a better future, and agitating for it. It’s messy and complicated; and it sometimes results in conflict and a lot worse. Little wonder such movements are popular contexts for crime novels.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Do You Hear the People Sing?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bartholomew Gill, Brian McGilloway, Felicity Young, Gail Bowen, Glen Peters, Robert Gott, Wendy James, Will Thomas

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November…

Today (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) is Guy Fawkes Day, which commemorates Robert Catesby’s failed plot to assassinate England’s King James I (Fawkes was one of Catesby’s fellow plotters). Of course, there’ve been lots of plots against governments since then, some of them more threatening than others. And that premise – a group of people plotting against a government or governments – has been popular in crime fiction, too. That’s not surprising, really; it can make for a tension-filled story. So I thought today might be a good day to take a quick look at the way this theme plays out in crime fiction.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s His Last Bow, Holmes and Watson take on the delicate and difficult case of Van Bork, a German émigré to England. As it turns out, Van Bork has been quietly collecting intelligence on the British government and its military capabilities for the past four years. He’s planning to pass that information on to his own government as World War I approaches. When Holmes discovers Van Bork’s real identity and intentions, he and Watson come up with an ingenious plan to stop Van Bork. I don’t want to give spoilers; this dénouement’s more effective if you don’t know what’s coming.

Agatha Christie mentions plots against governments in more than one of her stories and novels. And of course, her sleuths Tommy and Tuppence Beresford get involved in foiling several espionage plots. I’d like to focus on just one of Christie’s stories that mention this theme. In her short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Poirot and Hastings get an unexpected visit one night. The Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet secretly ask his help in finding Prime Minister David MacAdam, who’s apparently been kidnapped. MacAdam was scheduled to make a critical speech at a gathering in Paris. World War II is looming, and MacAdam’s plan is to make a “rally the troops” speech. MacAdam’s political enemies, though, want to bring down his government and move England towards an appeasement approach to the unfolding crisis.  Poirot and Hastings are given one day to find the Prime Minister, since his speech is scheduled for the next day. They begin their investigation and in the end, find out what happened to MacAdam and who is responsible for the kidnapping.

Oh, and incidentally, Christie’s short story Murder in the Mews has nothing to do with political plots, but does take place on Guy Fawkes Day. So I felt compelled to mention it ;-).

Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool also has a theme of political plotting. New Zealand MP Flossie Rubrick goes to one of the sheep pens on her husband’s farm to prepare a speech she’ll soon be giving. She doesn’t return and the alarm’s raised, but her body can’t be found (Hmm… another case of a politician who disappears just before a major speech; seems these politicians risk more than just a drop in the polls 😉 ). Three weeks later, her body turns up encased in a bale of wool. This murder looks as though it might be politically-motivated, and even involve espionage. So Rubrick’s nephew contacts Inspector Roderick Alleyn, asking him to investigate. It turns out that several members of Rubrick’s family – including Rubrick herself – are hiding secrets. So Alleyn has to dig deeply to find out whose political interests were served by Flossie Rubrick’s death.

Vince Flynn has written several political thrillers that include this theme of plotting against governments. In Term Limits, for instance, three powerful Washington politicians are murdered in very quick succession. A group of rogue military commandos claims responsibility, saying that the murders will continue until power is restored to the people. This group believes that all politicians are corrupt and deserve to die. Former Marine Michael O’Rourke believes the killings bear the hallmarks of Special Forces operatives, and he teams up with the FBI to catch the killers. What’s interesting here is that although O’Rourke wants the killers caught (his brother Tim is a junior Congressman), he also sympathises with the group’s views. O’Rourke’s personal conflict adds a solid layer to his character and to the story.

Glen Peters’ Mrs. D’Silva’s Detective Instinct and the Saitan of Calcutta also has a theme of political plotting. In that novel, which takes place in 1960 Calcutta, Joan D’Silva is a teacher in a Catholic school. One day, D’Silva’s son Errol finds the body of former student Agnes Lal washed up on a riverbank. After the inquest, two other former pupils, Anil Sen and Philomena Thomas, tell D’Silva that Lal was murdered and ask for her help in finding the killer. Then Sen is arrested for stabbing factory manager Thomas James during a riot and forced to confess, although he says he is innocent. As D’Silva begins to look into the case, she discovers that all three former pupils were members of the Workers Revolutionary Movement of Bengal, which is a group dedicated to overthrowing the current Indian government. Led by a saitan called Dutta, It also has the goal of upsetting the privileged position that most Anglo-Indians have held in that society. So while D’Silva is trying to find out who killed Lal and clear Sen’s name if she can, she also has to contend with the machinations of Dutta and his followers, who’ve been encouraged to wreak as much havoc as they can.

Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, which takes place in 17th Century Scotland, also weaves in a theme of political plotting. Former candidate for the ministry Seaton is now undermaster at the local grammar school in Banff. Early one morning, Seaton is shocked to learn that the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson has been found in Seaton’s own classroom. Soon afterwards, Seaton’s friend Charles Thom is arrested for the murder. Thom was Davidson’s rival for Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter, so he is a logical suspect. But Thom claims he’s innocent and begs Seaton to clear his name. Seaton agrees and begins to ask questions. It’s not long before he discovers that several people might have wanted to murder Davidson. Some drawings Davidson left behind suggest that he might have been part of a Spanish plot to overthrow the British government and bring Catholicism back to Scotland. If that’s true, then Davidson could have been killed by someone who found out about that plot, or by one of his political compatriots. In the end, Seaton finds out who really killed Davidson and why, and as he does, we learn how the political intrigues of the time influence people’s attitudes.

There’s worldwide political intrigue in Lindy Cameron’s Redback. That’s the story of a crack Australian retrieval team led by Bryn Gideon. The team is called into action when a group of delegates to the Pacific Tourism and Enviro-Trade Conference is taken hostage by a group of rebels. The team rescues the hostages and soon learns of other seemingly random incidents in other parts of the world. There’s a devastating train-bombing in France, an explosion at a U.S. military base and a group of murders, including that of Australian Attorney-General Barnaby Cross. Journalist Scott Dreher begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and before long, it’s clear that these events are related. They’re the work of a shadowy terrorist group and Team Redback is soon drawn into the search for the group and its leaders. It’s a game of “cat and mouse” as Redback and the terrorist plotters square off against each other, and Redback proves itself more than a match for them.

Political plots and conspiracies can form the basis for a compelling and suspenseful novel. Or they can fall flat if the plot is too unbelievable and the characters too “flat.” But what’s your view? Do you enjoy novels with political plots as their theme?  Penny for the Guy? 😉 (I know…outdated, but I couldn’t resist)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Glen Peters, Lindy Cameron, Ngaio Marsh, Shona MacLean, Vince Flynn