Category Archives: Margaret Truman

The Phantom of the Opera is There*

operasDo you enjoy the opera? Operas run the gamut from light and comic to very dark and tragic. And there are all sorts of forms of opera. When you think about it, there can be at least as much drama behind the scenes of an opera as there is on stage. So, it’s no wonder that opera features in crime fiction. It’s said, for instance, that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler (she features in A Scandal in Bohemia) is a former opera singer. And there are lots of other examples, too.

In Agatha Christie’s short story Swan Song, we are introduced to renowned opera singer Paula Nazarkoff. She’s much in demand, but makes time to accept an invitation from wealthy Lady Rustonbury to take the lead in an opera production to be staged at her country home. The diva sets one condition, to which Lady Rustonbury agrees, and plans are made. On the night of the production, famous baritone Roscari, who was to take the male lead, is taken ill. Fortunately, Edouard Bréton lives nearby, and is persuaded to take Roscari’s place. The production goes ahead, and the audience is transfixed. At the pivotal point, though, Bréton is murdered. The truth about this murder lies in the victim’s past. You’re absolutely right, fans of Lord Edgware Dies.

In Rex Stout’s novells, The Gun With Wings, Nero Wolfe gets a visit from Margaret ‘Peg’ Mion and Fred Weppler. They explain to Wolfe that they’re in love and want to marry, but they can’t. That’s because there’s still suspicion surrounding the death of Peg’s former husband, famous opera singer Alberto Mion. The official account is that he committed suicide, and on the surface, it looks that way. He was found in his soundproof studio, with a fatal gunshot wound, and the gun lying next to his body. But Peg insists that he would never have killed himself. She tells Wolfe that she and her lover can’t really feel comfortable marrying until they know the truth. Wolfe takes the case and soon learns that there are other suspects. For instance, baritone singer Gifford James had a grudge against the victim – had even injured him in a quarrel. And there’s Clara, James’ daughter, whom Mion had seduced. There are other possibilities, too. There’s also, of course, the chance that one or both of Wolfe’s clients murdered the victim. It’s a sort of ‘impossible, but not really’ mystery, but Wolfe gets the answers.

Gladys Mitchell’s Death at the Opera (AKA Death at the Wet) finds her sleuth, Mrs. Bradley, investigating a murder at the Hillmaston School. Maths mistress Calma Ferris is shy and quiet, but has still managed to upset several people at the school. For example, she’s alienated the games mistress, the art master, and the English mistress, among other problems. On the other hand, she’s offered to underwrite the school’s upcoming production of The Mikado. And, in fact, she is selected to take the role of Katisha. She doesn’t turn up for the performance, and is later found backstage, drowned in a sink full of water. The school’s Headmaster asks Mrs. Bradley to look into the matter, and she agrees. As any fan of Gladys Mitchell can imagine, this is far from a straightforward case…

Ngaio Marsh’s Photo Finish features renowned coloratura soprano Isabella Sommita. She’s being stalked by a photographer named ‘Strix’ who’s been taking unflattering ‘photos of her and selling them to newspapers. In order to escape this, Isabella accepts an invitation from her lover, Sir Montague Reece, to stay at Waihoe Lodge, his home in southern New Zealand. Also invited are Sir Roderick Alleyn and his wife, Agatha Troy, who’s been commissioned to paint a portrait of the singer. Isabella appears in an opera written especially for her, and, shortly afterwards, is found stabbed. Alleyn investigates, and finds that there are several possibilities. For one thing, ‘Strix’ has made his way to the lodge. Then there’s the victim’s new lover, who wrote the opera. And there’s Reece. In the end, Alleyn finds out the truth, and it’s not what one might have expected.

In Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Opera, Georgetown School of Law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith, and his wife, Annabel Reed-Smith, get involved in an upcoming production of Puccini’s Tosca. The opera will be staged at the Kennedy Center’s Washington National Opera, and Smith is to serve as an ‘extra’ (his wife is on the National Opera Board). Taking part in this production will be a very promising Toronto soprano, Charise Lee. One day, she doesn’t show up for rehearsal, and a search is made. She’s found stabbed in the chest, and the Board asks Smith to help look into the case. He works with former cop-turned-PI Raymond Pawkins to find out who killed Lee and why.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice, the first of her series featuring Venice police detective Commissario Guido Brunetti. In that novel, world-renowned conductor Helmut Wellauer is poisoned backstage with cyanide during a performance of La Traviata at the Teatro La Fenice. Brunetti is called to the scene, and begins investigating. He soon finds more than one motive for murder. For one thing, Wellaeur was well known (and disliked) for his homophobia. It’s also said that he had Nazi sympathies. And then there are the personal reasons that several people might have for murder. It’s not an easy case. Fans of this series will know, too, that Flavia Petrelli, whom we meet in this novel, makes a return in Falling in Love, in which she comes to Venice to take the lead role in Tosca. Unfortunately, she’s acquired a determined stalker. When her friend, Federico ‘Freddy’ D’Istria is attacked, Brunetti learns that this stalker is extremely dangerous; he’ll have to work quickly to find out who he is.

See what I mean? Opera can be exciting, even magnificent. But safe? I’m not so sure of that…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, and Richard Stilgoe’s The Phantom of the Opera. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Gladys Mitchell, Margaret Truman, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout

Nobody Was Really Sure if He Was From the House of Lords*

legislatorsWatch (or read) any news reports, and you’ll be reminded of something interesting about democratic governments. They are often led by presidents, prime ministers, or their counterparts. But in reality, a lot of political power rests with legislators. They may be members of Parliament, members of Congress, or of some other legislative body. Whatever their position, these people often have quite a lot of power.

It’s interesting to see how they’re treated in crime fiction, too. Legislators are natural fits for crime fiction, if you think about it. There’s power, money, status – and vulnerability. Just a quick look at the genre should show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to Lady Westholme, MP. She and her friend, Miss Pierce, join an excursion to the famous Middle East city of Petra. With them on the trip are several other people, including newly-minted doctor Sarah King, and the members of the Boynton family, who are also touring the Middle East. From the moment that we meet her, Lady Westholme is assertive (some might even say aggressive) and quite clear in her views. There’s an interesting scene, for instance, where she has an argument with a representative from the travel company about the size and amenities of the car that’s to take the group to Petra. Needless to say, Lady Westholme wins the day. On the second afternoon of the trip, Mrs. Boynton (matriarch of the Boynton family) suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure. That’s not surprising, considering her age and health. But Colonel Carbury, who’s the investigator in the area, isn’t entirely convinced. He asks Hercule Poirot, who’s also in the Middle East, to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. It turns out there are several suspects, too, as Mrs. Boynton was tyrannical, manipulative, and cruel to the members of her family. In the end, though, Poirot gets to the truth about the murder.

Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder is the story of Sir Derek O’Callaghan, MP. He’s written a controversial Anarchy Bill that specifically targets leftist revolutionaries and their activities. There’s no guarantee that the bill will be accepted, but it does have support. Sir Derek believes firmly that it will help keep the country safer. Others claim it squelches free speech. Whatever the bill’s fate, it seems clear that it’s going to spark fierce discussion. One day, Sir Derek is giving a speech when he suddenly collapses from a ruptured appendix. He’s rushed to a nearby nursing home run by his longtime friend, Sir John Phillips. There, he undergoes an emergency operation, which he survives. Later, though, he dies of what turns out to be hyoscine poisoning. Sir Roderick Alleyn and his assistant, Inspector Fox, investigate. And one important avenue they explore is the bill that Sir Derek had written. It’s not the only possibility, though, and the two end up with several suspects. I see you, fans of Died in the Wool.

P.D. James’ A Taste For Death introduces us to Crown Minister Paul Berowne. As a close advisor to the Prime Minister, he’s got plenty of power and ‘clout.’ One day, he’s found dead in a church not far from his home. Also found there is the body of a local tramp, Harry Mack. Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin investigate the deaths. They do, of course, look into Berowne’s political life. People in a position of power often make enemies. They also look into his personal life, and there are plenty of suspects there, too. It turns out to be a complex case that challenges the team.

As you’ll know, Margaret Truman was the daughter of US President Harry S. Truman. She was also a crime writer who wrote the well-regarded Capital Crimes series. More than one of those novels involves crime, corruption and murder in the US Congress. For instance, in Murder at the Kennedy Center, US Senator Ken Ewald is making a bid for the presidency. He has a very good chance at being elected, too, as he’s politically astute. He has an egalitarian agenda, but he also knows how to play the ‘power game.’ One night, at a glittering fund-raiser, Ewald staffer Andrea Feldman is shot. Georgetown University Law School professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith discovers the body – or, rather, his dog does – during a late-night walk. Soon enough, he’s drawn into the case, because he knows the Ewalds. Ewald himself is a suspect, since his gun was used in the murder. But so is his son, who was having an affair with the victim. Those aren’t the only possibilities, though. For as many friends as Ewald has, he has enemies, too, and some of them would be only too happy to see his campaign in ruins. It’s an interesting look at the ins and outs of legislative politics. So, by the way, is Truman’s Murder in the House.

In Robin Cook’s medical thriller, Seizure, we meet US Senator Ashley Butler. He’s a conservative, who’s staunchly opposed to stem-cell research and other, similar, medical advances. He’s also a strong proponent of ‘traditional family values.’ He’s used his constituents’ concerns about the economy, social change, and other issues to cement his role as one of the most powerful senators in Congress. His next goal is the US presidency. But even as it is, he has an awful lot of ‘clout.’ The, he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. If the truth about this comes out, Butler knows he’ll never be elected, and may not even keep his Senate seat. So, he reaches out to Dr. Daniel Lowell, who’s been doing exactly the sort of research Butler has publicly opposed. He offers Lowell a deal: if Lowell will perform the controversial procedure he’s been studying on Butler, then Butler will withdraw his opposition to this sort of research. And that isn’t trivial. Millions of dollars ride on whether the government will or will not support medical and other scientific research. Lowell agrees, unable to resist the opportunity to try his new procedure. The two make their plans, and surgery is scheduled. It doesn’t work out the way either plans, though, and the result involves real danger.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, the first of her Joanne Kilbourn novels. As the series begins, Kilbourn is a political scientists and academician. She’s been working on the campaign of Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk, who’s just been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s Official Opposition party. He’s got a very promising future as a provincial political leader, but it all ends one afternoon at a barbecue, where he’s scheduled to give an important speech. He’s just about to start, when he suddenly collapses and dies. Kilbourn is devastated at the loss of her friend, so, partly as a way to deal with the grief, she decides to write a biography of Boychuk. As she does, she gets closer and closer to the truth about his death. In fact, she could very well be the next victim…

Just because someone has a lot of power, as legislators often do, doesn’t mean one’s safe from harm. And it’s interesting to see how that combination of power and vulnerability is treated in crime fiction. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ A Day in the Life.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Margaret Truman, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Robin Cook

Going to the Candidates’ Debate*

CampaignsYou may not be aware of this 😉 but there’s a major election coming up in the US later this year. And right now, the candidates are, not surprisingly, doing everything they can to garner support.

No matter where you stand on politics, or what you think of one or another party or candidate. It’s not easy to try for public office. For one thing, everything you say and do is put under the proverbial microscope. So there’s no such thing as privacy. For another, seeking public office can be extremely expensive. And there’s the wear and tear that comes from a lot of travel, many speeches and events, and the endless hand-shaking.

And then there’s the matter of what a candidate is supposed to promise to do. On the one hand, saying what people want to hear may get you support. But will it really win elections? And if it does, what happens if those promises are meaningless? On the other hand, being truly candid about what you can and cannot do, and what you support and don’t support, will mean that you could very well lose fans.

Still, getting elected to public office, especially powerful public office, is alluring to a lot of people. So it’s little wonder that so many people go through the challenges of trying to win elections. It can be a dangerous undertaking, though. Don’t believe me? Here are just a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

In Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Kennedy Center, we are introduced to US Senator Ken Ewald. He’s got his eye on the presidency, and he’s gathered a staff of people who are trying to help him win that office. One night, they arrange a glittering fundraiser at the Kennedy Center. It’s well-attended and on the surface, successful. But after the event is over, Andrea Feldman, an Ewald staffer, is shot. Georgetown School of Law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith happens discovers the body late that night when he’s walking his dog. Smith knows the victim, since he is a friend of Ewald’s, and has supported his candidacy. So he’s quickly drawn into the murder case. He’s even more drawn in when Ewald’s son, Paul, is arrested for the crime. Paul claims to be innocent, and there are plenty of other people who could have had a motive. Several of them would be only too happy to see the end of Ewald’s presidential bid.

The backdrop for Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness is the convening of the first Scottish Parliament in three hundred years at Queensberry House. Roddy Grieve is the leading candidate for the new governing body, with a very promising career ahead of him. So when his body is discovered on the property of Queensberry House, there’s a great deal of pressure on the police to solve the murder. Inspector John Rebus is already involved in another murder case – a much older one – in which a body was discovered behind a fireplace in the same building. Rebus becomes convinced that the two cases are connected, and so they turn out to be.

One plot thread of Michael Connelly’s Echo Park concerns the murder of Marie Gesto, who walked out of a Hollywood supermarket one night, but never made it home. The case has never been solved, and it’s haunted L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch, because it was his case. Now, Raynard Waits has been arrested in connection with two other murders. He has hinted that he might trade information on other murders, including the Gesto case, in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. Bosch isn’t too happy about this deal, but Rick O’Shea, head of the District Attorney’s Office Special Prosecutions team, wants to arrange it. His view is that if those other cases are solved, the families will have some peace. So he wants this deal made as soon as possible. O’Shea is running for the office of District Attorney, so Bosch is quite cynical about the motivations involved:
 

‘‘Gotta get it in before election, right?’ Bosch asked’ 
 

Needless to say, O’Shea isn’t happy about Bosch’s interpretation, but it reflects the pressure that’s often put on candidates.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist as well as an academic, so political campaigns are woven into several of novels in this series. The very first one, for instance (Deadly Appearances) begins with a speech that Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is making at a community picnic. He’s just been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s provincial Official Opposition party, but not everyone is enthusiastic about his campaign. Still, he has a very bright future ahead of him. During the speech, he suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. He was both a political ally and a personal friend to Joanne, so she is grief-stricken at his death. As a way of dealing with that, she decides to write a biography of him. As she does so, she gets closer and closer to the truth about who poisoned Andy and why.

Fans of these novels will know that later in the series (12 Rose Street), Joanne’s husband, attorney Zach Shreve, runs for mayor of Regina, and she serves as his campaign manager. The race is a close one, and since Zach is running against an incumbent, it won’t be an easy campaign. Then, a series of disturbing and frightening events start to occur, beginning with a disruption of the opening of the Racette-Hunter Centrre. That’s a project that Zach has championed to improve the quality of life in North Central Regina. It’s not long before it’s clear that someone will do anything, including murder, to impact the election.

And then there’s Alan Orloff’s Deadly Campaign. Edward Wong has just won the Democratic primary election to represent his district in the US Congress. Soon, he’ll face his Republican opponent in the general election. One night, Wong’s uncle, Thomas Lee, hosts a celebration for his nephew at the Northern Virginia restaurant he owns. During the party, a group of thugs bursts in. They’re armed with baseball bats, and bent on doing damage. Wong’s family doesn’t want to involve the police, but Lee has other ideas. He asks Channing Hayes, co-owner of a nearby comedy club, to ask around and see if he can find out who’s responsible. Hayes reluctantly agrees, and soon finds himself drawn into the greed and money involved in campaigns. And there’s the matter of the murders that occur along the way, too…

Campaigning for office can be difficult, expensive, and exhausting. As you can see, it can also get you involved in murder. But that doesn’t stop people doing it. And now I’ll close with perhaps my top choice in fictional commentary about political campaigns. This comes from Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, which features Sheriff Walt Longmire. He’s trying to solve some baffling murders at the same time as he’s up for re-election. One of the crime scene investigators comments on the murders:
 

‘‘You blow one homicide, it looks like a mistake. You blow two, it starts looking like negligence. Or worse yet, stupidity.’’
 

Here’s Longmire’s priceless response:
 

‘‘I thought I’d use that on the bumper stickers in the next election, VOTE LONGMIRE, HE’S STUPID.’’
 
 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson.

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Filed under Alan Orloff, Craig Johnson, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Margaret Truman, Michael Connelly

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