As this is posted, it’s 57 years since the establishment of the Peace Corps. As you’ll know, Peace Corps volunteers do grassroots-level work (teaching, medical assistance, agriculture, and more) in remote areas and areas of extreme poverty. You may know someone who’s been in the Peace Corps. Perhaps you were a volunteer, yourself.
The Peace Corps is by no means the only international volunteer group. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the International Red Cross, and lots of other groups also work all over the world. These groups do essential work to improve life, help in times of war and disaster, and more. There are several such groups in real life, and it’s no surprise to find them in crime fiction, too.
For instance, Michael Palmer’s Second Opinion introduces Dr. Thea Sperelakis. In the novel, she’s working with Médecins Sans Frontières. But she returns to her native Boston when her father, Petros Sperelakis, is gravely injured in a hit-and-run incident. He is the distinguished founder of the Sperelakis Center for Diagnostic Medicine, housed in Boston’s Beaumont Hospital, so an interest in medicine runs in the family. At first, the incident is put down to a terrible accident that someone won’t admit. But Thea’s brother, Dmitri, doesn’t think that’s true. Their father, who can communicate after a fashion, lets them know that there may be serious medical fraud going on at the Beaumont. Whoever is behind the fraud is willing to do whatever it takes to cover it up. Thea gets a job at the Beaumont, and goes undercover, in a way, to try to get to the truth about the fraud before the person who attacked her father strikes again.
Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Nina Borg is a Copenhagen-based nurse who works with the International Red Cross. She’s been on the scene of more than one disaster and is passionate about helping those in desperate need. In fact, that’s been a major source of conflict between her and her family, who want her to stay out of danger, and who want more of her time. When she is in Copenhagen, she does her best to help immigrants who are in dire situations. That often gets her into a great deal of danger, but Nina can’t imagine not helping those who most need it.
In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney gets a new client. Maryanne Delbeck died of a fall (or push, or jump) from the roof of the building she was living in in Pattaya. The police report indicates that it was probably a suicide, but Maryanne’s father, Jim Delbeck, doesn’t believe that. He hires Keeney to find out what really happened. Keeney discovers that the victim belonged to an Australian NGO called Young Christian Volunteers. When she died, she was volunteering at a Pattaya children’s home/orphanage called New Life Children’s Centre. With that information in hand, Keeney goes to New Life in the guise of volunteering, so that she can find out if there might be a connection between the death and the children’s home. In the novel, there’s very interesting information on how groups like Young Christian Volunteers work.
Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead is the first of her novels to feature Esa Khattak of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government. This group concerns itself with hate crimes and anti-bigotry, so it’s a surprise to Khattak when he’s called in to investigate the death of Christopher Drayton. The victim died of a fall from Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs, and it’s hard to tell whether it was or was not murder. But even if it was, there seems on the surface to be no reason for the CPS to involve itself. Then, Khattak learns that Drayton was very likely was Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal known as the butcher of Srebrenica. If that’s the case, then this could present a major problem for the government. Why would a war criminal be allowed to live in Canada? One issue Khattak faces is that, as a student, he was a volunteer in Bosnia during that war. He helped in different capacities and saw his share of the horrors that went on there. He is also a Muslim. Because of all of this, he can’t be completely objective. So, he brings his assistant, Sergeant Rachel Getty, in on the case. Together, the two look into the matter. They find that there are actually several possibilities when it comes to suspects and motives…
Sometimes, governments rely on volunteers within their own borders. For instance, in Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods, the body of a medical student, Gladys Mensah, is found in a wood not far from the Ghanian town of Ketanu. The victim was a volunteer for Ghana Health Services AIDS Outreach, so the Minister of Health takes a particular interest in the case. Wanting to send Ghana’s best to do the investigation, the Minister taps Accra’s CID. And the best in that department is Detective Inspector (DI) Darko Dawson. He’ll miss his wife and son while he’s away, but this trip will give him a chance to reconnect with his aunt and other relatives. So, Dawson willingly takes on the case. He’s not entirely welcome in Ketanu, since the local police chief takes his presence as meddling. But he gets to work and, in the end, finds out who killed Gladys.
International and other volunteering has a long history. And it really can make a positive difference. It’s also an interesting context for a crime novel. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Stein’s Peace Corps.