Category Archives: Margaret Truman

Another Scandal Every Day*

corruptionTransparency International has released its 2015 Global Corruption Perception rankings. That’s an annual ranking of nations based on transparency of government activity, press access, independence of judiciary, and other factors. On the one hand, it’s sad, but not surprising, that no country is corruption-free. On the other, there are countries that, based on these factors, have much lower levels of corruption than others. Want to see where your country ranks? You can check it out right here.

Government corruption is a very, very common topic in crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. There’s a lot of money involved, and very important people whose careers and reputations are at stake. All of that makes for suspense and for an effective context for a crime novel. In fact, there are so many such novels that I only have space to mention a very few. I know you’ll be able to think of lots more.

Many of the novels in Maj Sjöwall and Per Whalöö’s Martin Beck series address the topic of corruption in the Swedish government and members of the Swedish business community. And that series isn’t, of course, the only one that does so. Those who’ve read Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon novels know that they also feature plot threads where Bengtzon, who’s a journalist, investigates government corruption.

Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano novels also address high-level corruption, this time in 1970s Argentina. At that time, and in that place, the military is very much in power. Anyone perceived as a threat to that power faces imprisonment or worse. The government is not answerable to the press or to the people, so all sorts of crimes go uninvestigated and unpunished. In Needle in a Haystack, the crime is the murder of a pawnbroker named Elías Biterman. His death is made to look like an Army ‘hit,’ the same as many others at that time. And Lescano knows better than to question what the Army does. But there are some things that are different about this killing, and that piques Lescano’s interest. He begins asking questions that several powerful people, including government officials, do not want asked. Throughout the novel, we see how extensive the corruption is.

There’s a look at high-level corruption in Australia in Peter Temple’s Black Tide. Sometime-lawyer Jack Irish gets a visit from Des Connors, one of his father’s friends. Connors wants Irish to help him make out a will. In the course of that conversation, Irish learns that Connors’ son Gary has ‘gone to ground’ after borrowing (and not paying back) sixty thousand dollars. Now Connors is in real danger of losing his home, so Irish decides to help try to find Gary and get the money back. The search for Gary leads to some very high places, and a record of vicious ways of dealing with journalists or anyone else who might want to expose the wrongdoing. Irish is mostly concerned about making sure his client gets his money back and doesn’t lose his home; but in the end, he finds that that’s just the proverbial tip of a very dangerous iceberg.

Qiu Xialong’s series featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao includes several plot lines involving corruption at high levels of government. For example, in Enigma of China, Chen is asked to ‘rubber stamp’ an official theory of suicide when Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, is found dead. And there is reason to support that theory. For one thing, the victim was found hung in a hotel room, with no-one seen going in or out. For another, he was in that hotel room because he was under police guard after having been arrested for corruption. It’s believed that he took his own life rather than face the charges. But Chen isn’t completely convinced that this was suicide. So, very delicately, he and his assistant, Detective Yu Guangming, begin to look into the matter. They soon find that there is definitely more to this death then the suicide of someone who was about to be publicly humiliated for corruption. This isn’t the only novel, either, in which Qiu addresses the way corruption can work, at least in late-1990s Shanghai.

One of the plot points in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night is the way in which corruption can link the very wealthy and powerful to police and government officials who will co-operate for a price. Social worker Simran Singh travels from Delhi, where she lives, to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. She’s there to help the police unravel the truth behind a terrible crime. Thirteen members of the wealthy and powerful Atwal family have been poisoned, and some of them stabbed. The only family member left alive is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. She hasn’t said anything, really, since the crime, so police don’t know whether she is guilty, or whether she is also a victim, but just happened to survive. It’s hoped that Singh will be able to get the girl to talk about what happened that night, so that police can complete their investigation. Singh begins to ask some questions, and in the end, uncovers much more than just a young girl who ‘snapped.’

Ian Rankin also explores the way corruption links up wealthy and powerful people with the government leaders who can get them what they want. In several of his John Rebus novels, Rankin looks at the impact that that corruption has on everyone. Here’s what he says about it in Black and Blue:
 

‘Corruption was everywhere, the players spoke millions of dollars, and the locals resented the invasion at the same time as they took the cash and available work.’
 

Rebus himself sometimes feels corrupt as he finds himself having to make deals and work with all kinds of people in order to get the job done.

There are plenty of novels that explore government corruption in the US, too. Margaret Truman’s series featuring Georgetown University law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith deals with this topic quite frequently. Murder at the Kennedy Center, for instance, is the story of the killing of Andrea Feldman, a campaign worker for Senator Ken Ewald’s bid for the US presidency. Smith knows Ewald, and in fact, supports his candidacy. So he’s willing to help when Ewald’s son Paul is suspected of the murder. Paul was having an affair with the victim, so he’s the most likely suspect, too. But it turns out that he’s by no means the only one. Smith discovers that there are several powerful people who want nothing more than for Ewald’s campaign to be de-railed, and are willing to go to great lengths to do just that.

And no post on government and high-level corruption would be complete without a mention of Donna Leon’s series featuring Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti. Many of the cases he and his team investigate involve corruption in very high places, and people who may or may not ever ‘face the music’ for what they do.

Government corruption is a continuing global problem. It’s not going to go away quickly. So it’s no surprise that so much crime fiction deals with it. Hopefully if people keep talking and reading about it, this will keep our attention on the problem…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Third World’s Corruption.

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Filed under Donna Leon, Ernesto Mallo, Ian Rankin, Kishwar Desai, Liza Marklund, Maj Sjöwall, Margaret Truman, Per Wahlöö, Peter Temple, Qiu Xiaolong

It’s the Terror of Knowing What this World is About*

AnomieAny major change, especially a major social change, can make people uneasy. That uneasiness and anxiety – sociologists have called it anomie – can have drastic consequences. Some sociologists have looked at this from the broader perspective of general lawlessness. Others look at it from a more individual perspective – as a factor in deviance and lawbreaking. Either way you think about it, there’s certainly evidence for anomie in the real world.

There is in crime fiction, too, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Crime fiction deals with lawlessness, lawbreaking, and the perceived need to keep order. And from a purely literary point of view, that uneasiness and anxiety can make for a solid layer of tension and interest in a story.

Agatha Christie touches on anomie a few times in her stories. Just to give one example, in Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot pays a visit to Nasse House, in Nassecomb, at the request of his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as one of the attractions at an upcoming charity fête; but she’s come to suspect that there’s more going on at Nasse House than the preparations for the big event. She wants Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. On the day of the fête, Mrs. Oliver’s fears are justified when the body of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is discovered in the boathouse on the property. On the surface of it, there seems no motive to murder the girl. But Poirot keeps asking questions, and discovers that Marlene had found out some things it wasn’t safe for her to know. One of the themes that runs through this novel is the set of major socioeconomic changes that came after World War II. A few characters mention, for instance, the breakup and sale of former estates, and their use as Guest Houses and hostels. Others mention the increase in ‘foreigners’ in the country. As one character puts it,
 

‘‘So many things are hard, M. Poirot.’’
 

Admittedly, anomie isn’t the reason for Marlene’s murder. But it certainly is woven through the anxiety a lot of people feel in this novel.

After the breakup of the former Soviet Union, there was a great deal of social anxiety both there and in the other Warsaw Pact nations. There was exhilaration; at the same time, there was anxiety. If there wasn’t going to be a Soviet Union any more, what was there going to be? We see that anxiety in many novels of and about that era. I’ll just mention one. In Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Georgetown University law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith gets involved in the shooting death of US Congressman Paul Latham. At first Latham’s death is branded a suicide. But one of Smith’s former students, who’s now with the CIA, convinces him that there’s more to this death than that. One possible explanation for the murder is that Latham had made contact with a businessman who’s trying to make inroads into the new post-Soviet economy. And there are some very dangerous Russian ‘businessmen trying to fill the power vacuum in Russia. Negotiating these waters is Yvgeny Fodorov. With the fall of the Soviet Union, everything has changed, including his mother Vani. Nothing makes sense any more, and he feels truly disaffected by what he sees as the ruination of Russia. This makes him ripe for manipulation by the new Russian Mafia, and before he knows it, Fodorov is deeply involved in a much bigger and more dangerous scheme than he knows.

When the system of apartheid in South Africa ended, many people weren’t sure what was going to come next. If the ‘old order’ wasn’t going to determine life in that country any more, than what was? As much as people rightly celebrated the end of the apartheid era, they also weren’t sure what was going to come next. We see that anomie in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. In that novel, former journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie, and their children are on a drive outside Cape Town when their car is ambushed and goes over an embankment. Dell is the only survivor. For reasons he doesn’t know, he’s soon framed for the murders of his family members and jailed in preparation for what will likely be a rigged trial. His estranged father, Bobby Goodbread, comes to his rescue, finding a way to get Dell out of prison. Then, for different reasons, they go in search of the man who actually killed Dell’s family. Also looking for the same man is Disaster Zondi, a bureaucrat who’s just lost his job. And then there’s seventeen-year-old Sonto, who usually goes by her English name, Sunday. She’s trying to escape becoming the fourth wife of the man who killed the Dell family. As the fates of these people intersect, we see the larger anxiety caused by the major social changes in the country. Nothing is certain and there seems no order of any kind. And that shows in many of the events in the story.

There are also plenty of crime novels that focus more on personal anomie – on the anxiety people feel when they’re rootless, with no order in their own lives. Several of Pascal Garnier’s stories have that sort of anomie as one of the elements. For example, in How’s the Pain? we are introduced to twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. He’s rather aimless and purposeless, and not particularly good at anything. But he does have a driver license. And that’s just what Simon Marechall needs. Marechall has his own kind of anxiety. He’s an ageing contract killer who sees the end of his career coming. But he wants to get in one more job while he can. He wants Bernard to drive him to the French coast so that he can take care of his business, and Bernard agrees. What else, really, is there for him to do? What he doesn’t know at first is exactly the sort of business his new boss is in. If you’ve read Garnier, you know that this will not end happily ever after…

Natsuo Kirino’s Real World offers another look at the kind of rootlessness and anxiety that can lead to anomie. In that novel, Toshiko Yamanaka and three of her friends are drawn into a case of murder when the police suspect that Ryo, the boy who lives next door to Toshiko, has killed his mother. Toshiko has some information to share about the killing, but decides to lie to the police. She and each of her three friends interact with Ryo, who has fled, and each decides not to turn him in. As the days go by and Ryo does not return, we see how things spin out of control for all five young people. The result is tragic, and the novel highlights the alienation these teens feel. For various reasons, they don’t feel a part of their families’ society or culture. And they don’t have a strong sense of purpose in life. That anxiety and their uncertainty about where they fit in and what they’ll do plays a major role in the choices they make.

Nicole Watson’s The Boundary addresses the rootlessness and lack of purpose that change has brought to the Corrowa people of Brisbane. The real action in the story begins when a judge rules that the Corrowa people cannot prove their claim to Brisbane’s Meston Park. Hours later, the judge is murdered. Then, one by one, other people connected with the case are also killed. Among other things, this investigation forces several people involved, including the police who look into the murders, the lawyer who took the case to court, and others, to face their feelings of anxiety and unease about who they are and where they fit in.

And that’s the thing about anomie. Whether you look at it on a societal level or look at things such as delinquency, that sort of anxiety and lack of order and purpose can have real consequences. And that can add a rich texture in a crime novel

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure.  Bowie’s loss is a blow, and he will be much missed…

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Margaret Truman, Natsuo Kirino, Nicole Watson, Pascal Garnier, Roger Smith

A New World Order Has Been Formed*

1990sIt’s only been twenty years or so, so perhaps we don’t have a real perspective on the era yet. But the 1990s saw some major changes on several levels. And the crime fiction of and about that era reflects them. There won’t be space in this one post for me to mention all of them, so I’ll just mention a few. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more.

One of the most iconic moments of the decade was the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela from prison on Robben Island. The ‘photos and videos of that day are unforgettable. Four years later, Mandela was elected President of South Africa. That time of the end of apartheid and the beginning of whatever might come next was both heady and uneasy. In a lot of ways, it still is. And Deon Meyer has captured the pain and promise of that time in several of his novels, such as Dead Before Dying, which was first published in Afrikaans in 1996. His characters come from a wide variety of different backgrounds, and all are trying to find places in the new South Africa. One thing that comes through in Meyer’s work is that such a major societal change has meant a lot of discomfort and uncertainty. That’s led to quite a lot of violence and other problems. Yet, Meyer’s South Africa is also a beautiful country with rich natural and human resources and much potential.

Another major event of the 1990s was the negotiation and long political process that led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. That agreement, which involved the UK, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, established the conventions under which Northern Ireland is governed today. It also established several cross-border authorities and commissions created to oversee the end of armed hostilities and to deal with logistics such as the exchange of prisoners and the return of remains to families for burial. This treaty hasn’t completely and magically ended tension in the area. However, novels such as Colin Bateman’s 1995 Divorcing Jack show what places like Belfast were like before the treaty was signed. And there are many other novels too that depict the long history of conflict in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. In the last decade (Brian McGilloway’s work shows this), life on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland has achieved a sort of balance; people go on with their lives, and most would probably tell you they’re just as well pleased not to have to bury any more combatants.

In 1993, the Soviet Union broke up, leading to major shifts in geopolitics and business. And if you read crime novels such as Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Robin Cook’s Vector, or Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, you see a major shift in theme that reflects the breakup. Older crime fiction, or crime fiction about the Cold War, very often features espionage, CIA v KGB agents, and so on. But more recent crime fiction has new themes; the new Russian business oligarchs, Eastern European crime leaders, and human trafficking are just a few of the topics featured in novels of the last two decades.

There’s another important development that arguably fell out from the breakup of the Soviet Union; related power shifts among its former allies. For instance, the former Yugoslavia faced its own political crises during the late 1980’s and finally broke apart after the end of the Soviet Union. The war in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo cost many thousands of lives, and had effects in lots of places. Just ask Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. He is Chief of Police in the small French town of St. Denis. He is also a veteran of that war, and still bears the psychological scars of it, although he’s certainly functional. It’s part of why he’s just as well pleased to be living in a (mostly) peaceful place.

The end of the Soviet era also led to the introduction (or, better stated, re-introduction) of capitalism in a lot of places. That’s what we see in Qiu Xiaolong’s series featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. This series takes place in the late 1990s, when China is beginning to experiment with its own version of capitalism. In several of these novels, we see the interplay between traditional Chinese culture and Maoist communism, as well as the impact of more easily available consumer goods. It makes for an interesting backdrop to the stories.

One of the most important developments of this era, from several different perspectives, actually, was the advent of the Internet. There was email (although fully available, easily accessible email took a few years), but the instant information and communication we take so much for granted didn’t exist until after the mid-1990s. That single development has led to many, many other cascading developments such as social media, online shopping, ebooks and much more. And it’s all happened very quickly. For instance, Angela Savage’s series featuring PI Jayne Keeney takes place in the late 1990s. By then, you could access email at Internet cafés and in offices, and there were several web sites available; Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel use computers in that way in The Dying Beach. But Internet-ready mobile ‘phones were still in the future.  So were blogs and sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, where users post their own content. And of course, that’s led to a whole new kind of crime novel…

The 1990s brought about several other changes, too – many more than I have space to mention. And because it’s only been twenty years or a bit longer, it’s very hard to say what all of the long-term outcomes of those changes (and sometimes upheavals) will be. As time goes by, we’ll see; I don’t think this story’s end has been written yet. What do you think? What are your strong memories of the 1990s? What do you see coming from it all?
 

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Who needs 1990s memorabilia when your own child is the best possible result of that decade? :-)

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Renaissance Man.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Brian McGilloway, Colin Bateman, Deon Meyer, Ian Rankin, Margaret Truman, Martin Walker, Qiu Xiaolong, Robin Cook

My Little Town*

Communities within CommunitiesFor a lot of people, it’s important to belong to a community. It can be very comforting to be among people who share your culture, language, lifestyle, or something else. That’s why very often, even in large cities, you’ll find smaller groups of people who have some sort of bond. Those smaller communities, even when they’re not closed off (e.g. a cloister) can be very interesting to explore. And they make for interesting contexts for a novel.

There are all sorts of possibilities in terms of plot and character development when the author explores smaller communities within larger ones. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction. I’m quite sure you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we are introduced to Hercule Poirot, a former member of the Belgian police who’s had to escape to England. He and a group of fellow Belgians have settled in the village of Styles St. Mary and are trying to pick up their lives as best they can. They were sponsored and helped by wealthy Emily Inglethorp, and all of them are very grateful to her. So when she is poisoned, Poirot takes a very particular interest in solving the murder. We don’t get a very deep set of insights into the inner workings of this small Belgian community, but we do learn that they’ve been more or less accepted by the locals. In fact, one of them mentions that while he’s not overly fond of foreigners, he doesn’t mind the Belgians.

London is of course home to many different smaller communities. For example, Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters takes place in Jerusalem Lane, one of London’s historic districts. Among the other people who live in that small community are Meredith Winterbottom and her sisters Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe. They’re the great-granddaughters of Karl Marx, who actually lived in that area at one point. A large development company wants to buy up Jerusalem Lane to turn it into a shopping and entertainment district. One by one, the various residents sell up, but Meredith Winterbottom refuses. Then, she dies, apparently a successful suicide. But when DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla look into the case, they notice small things that don’t quite add up to suicide. So they begin to investigate more deeply. It turns out that along with the development company and its representatives, there are other people in whose interest it was to get Meredith Winterbottom out of the way. As Brock and Kolla look into the case, we get an ‘inside’ look at Jerusalem Lane and the network of relationships among its residents.

There are also many smaller immigrant communities in London. Anya Lipska’s DC Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka novels explore one of them: immigrants from Poland. Kiszka is a veteran of the uprising against the former USSR that began in the Gdansk shipyards. He’s settled into London, but is still tightly connected to the Polish community there. In fact, he’s known as a ‘fixer’ among his fellow Poles – someone who can get things done. Since the imigrant Polish community is tight-knit, there aren’t many degrees of separation between Kiszka and any one other member of that group. That’s part of what makes him very useful to Kershaw when she investigtes crimes that affect London’s Polish community. Kiszka and Kershaw meet in Where the Devil Can’t Go, when he is a suspect in a murder she’s investigating. From both of their perspectives, readers get the chance to see how a smaller community functions within a larger one, and how each impacts the other.

New York is also composed of many, many different smaller groups of people. One of them for instance is its Russian community. There are lots of crime novels that focus on Russian-born and Russian-heritage New Yorkers. One of them is Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House. When US Congressman Paul Latham is found dead, it’s thought at first that he committed suicide. But that’s not by any means the only possibility. So when Georgetown University Law School Professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith learns of the case from a former student, he agrees to look into it. He finds a connection between Latham’s death and the economic climate that emerged in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. At one point in the novel, one of the characters travels from his home in Russia to New York, where he’s been told to wait for further instructions. He’s taken in by a former countryman and we see how the members of New York’s Russian community have created their own small world-within-a-world.

Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street explores smaller communities based on socioeconomic status. One warm night, Valerie ‘Val’ Merinao and June Giatto get on a pink rubber raft to take a ride on the bay near their home in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Early the next morning, local teacher Jonathan Sprouse finds Val, injured but alive. June has disappeared. As we learn about the impact this has on the people who knew her, we see that there are really two small communities here. One is mostly middle-class, ‘respectable’ and largely Roman Catholic. The other is working poor/unemployed, mostly non-White, and more on the fringes of society. June’s disappearance and the investigation into it show how small communities can be formed around common economic situations and ethnic culture as well. And what’s interesting here is that these two groups live very close to each other; yet until June goes missing, they don’t really interact very much.

But proximity can matter a great deal in creating a small community within a larger one. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a Roman-style Melbourne building called Insula. The people who live and work there are disparate in some ways, but they’ve formed their own small group and they take care of each other. In this case, what started out as more or less being thrown together in the same place has evolved into a close-knit community.

There are many other examples of stories and series that explore these communities-within-communities. I’m thinking for instance of the Asian community in Los Angeles, which we read about in Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons. There’s also Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series, which features New York’s Chinatown. Which of those communities has stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Barry Maitland, Henry Chang, Ivy Pochoda, Kerry Greenwood, Margaret Truman, Michael Connelly

When the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down*

(FILES) West Berliners crowd in front ofThere are certain ‘watershed’ moments in time that change everything. They force a sort of paradigm shift that’s thrilling and exhilarating, but at the same time can be nerve-wracking. Everything people have known is now different, and it can be frightening to conceive of a new order, no matter how desperately the old order needed to be changed. I’m sure we could all think of examples of those major changes throughout history. I’ve only space here for a few of them; I hope they’ll suffice.

The old social order in the US for many generations was institutionalised racism. And even in places where there weren’t laws mandating it, there was often de facto segregation. Beginning in the 1940s, though, those walls started to fall. First it was Major League Baseball. Then it was the US military. And bit by bit more change happened. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought the issue to the forefront of the national conversation. The paradigm began to shift, and brought with it a whole new social order. Does this mean racism is over? Of course not. There’s still racism, and there’s still awkwardness about race, and those things make having a national conversation about it difficult. We don’t know what kind of a new social order will develop; it’s only been fifty years and we have quite a ways to go. But the end of de jure segregation in the US was a watershed moment in history. Speaking strictly for myself, the moment was captured when Barack Obama took the Oath of Office as the 44th US President. No matter what you think about him, his politics, etc.. (This isn’t really about politics anyway), it changed the rules.

We see that watershed captured in a lot of crime fiction. I’ll just share one instance. In Walter Mosley’s Little Green, which takes place in 1967, Los Angeles PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a missing Black man nicknamed Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a group of hippies, so Rawlins begins his search with those people. He hears that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about them so he makes contact with her and arranges to meet her at a restaurant. While they’re there, something happens that surprises Rawlins; here’s his observation about it:

 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’

 

The paradigm shift away from the old order may not be complete yet, but Rawlins’ moment of happy surprise is obvious.

In 1947, India became independent. As you’ll know, the independence movement had been building for some time, but it culminated with the raising of the flag of India in August of that year. It was a joyful, exhilarating time. It was also a time of awkwardness and change, as all watersheds are. There was a whole new paradigm and India had a whole new course to chart, as the saying goes. That’s captured just a bit in H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. In that novel, which takes place in the early 1960s, Ganesh Ghote has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector with the Bombay Police and is hoping to take some much-needed time off with his pregnant wife Protima. Instead, he is sent to the town of Mahableshwar to look into the apparent suicide of Iris Dawkins, whose husband is a friend of Ghote’s boss Sir Rustom Engineer. Ghote’s job is to find out what drove the victim to kill herself. When he arrives and starts asking questions though, he discovers that this isn’t as straightforward a case as he thought. It takes time, but little by little, he finds out the truth about what happened to Iris. One of the threads in this novel is the changing dynamic between Anglo-Indians and Indians without a British background. The rules have changed, and the social order is different now. This makes for some awkwardness as Ghote investigates (after all, he’s investigating a lot of White people). India’s independence is only 67 years old as I write this. It’s hard to see what sort of country will emerge as India evolves. But those choices are India’s to make.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison on South Africa’s Robbin Island. That iconic image of him leaving the prison is etched on many people’s memories. And it marked a watershed moment in history. The social order imposed by apartheid (and by common consent even before those laws) was changed. The rules everyone had lived by for a very long time no longer structured people’s lives. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series captures neatly the world of South Africa during the apartheid years. When apartheid ended in the early 1990s, this opened up an entirely new set of possibilities for the country. This paradigm shift meant that the dynamic among Afrikaners, English, Blacks, Indians and others within the country would have to change, and that hasn’t been easy. Of course, it’s only been twenty years as I write this. If you read the work of Deon Meyer, Roger Smith or Jassy Mackenzie, it’s clear that the new social order, whatever it will eventually be, is still evolving. But with that uncertainty has also been the excitement and joy for millions of people of having their futures in their own hands.

As I post this, today marks the 25th anniversary of another watershed: the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989. From just after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and its allies had been engaged in a Cold War (which blew hot more than once) with the US, the UK and their allies. Millions of people had never known any other kind of social reality. There was a certain structure to life, and for most people, the concept of living in any other way was unimaginable. When the wall came down though, this event changed everything. It wasn’t a sudden moment of change; pressure had been building in Eastern Europe for democracy or at least for autonomy from the then-Soviet Union (as an example, just look at the Gdansk-based Solidarity movement of the 1980s). And even in the Soviet Union itself, pressure had been growing for personal freedom and for a move towards democracy. But that moment, when the wall was breached and then officially opened, marked a paradigm shift. And when the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the countries of Eastern Europe (to say nothing of the former Soviet states) had a whole new social order to create.

That new reality hasn’t been easy. Anya Lipska addresses that very issue in her novels featuring DC Natalie Kershaw and Janusz Kiszka. Kiszka is Polish, a veteran of the Gdansk uprising and movement towards Polish independence. The new Poland isn’t always to his liking; it’s not as uniquely Polish as he’d prefer, now that it’s so easy to interact with the world. Kiszka lives in London, where he sees even more the impact on the Polish community of integration with the rest of the world. But at the same time, he wouldn’t want the old order restored.

We also see some of the uncertainty in Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Robin Cook’s Vector and Ian Rankin’s Exit Music. In all of those novels (and there are many others), we see for instance the rise of the Russian and Eastern European Mobs as the economies of Russia and Eastern Europe evolve. We also see how the political processes in those countries have changed as the sociopolitical paradigm has shifted. None of this has been easy.

But (and here’s the important thing), those processes and those changes are now in the hands of the people most directly affected by them. Of course the choices aren’t always pleasant, but there are choices. There are challenges and difficulties, but there are also options and opportunities that were never possible. That’s what watersheds are all about, really: challenges, but wonderful possibilities at the same time.

On this anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, my thoughts are with those who gave their lives to make those opportunities possible.

ps. I wish I had been there to see the wall actually opened. I wasn’t, but Time magazine was. Thank you, Time, for this ‘photo.

 
&Nbsp;
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp and George Green’s Crumblin’ Down.

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Filed under Anya Lipska, Deon Meyer, H.R.F. Keating, Ian Rankin, Jassy Mackenzie, Malla Nunn, Margaret Truman, Robin Cook, Roger Smith, Walter Mosley