Very often, fictional sleuths have to move a bit carefully as they do their jobs. They may be investigating powerful and/or very dangerous people. Or (for police sleuths), they may have been told not to focus their energies on certain cases. There are other reasons, too, for which a sleuth might have to be very careful in investigating.
Sometimes, it’s the larger political situation that limits or even threatens what a sleuth can do. That context can add an interesting layer of suspense to a novel or series. In those situations, the sleuth has to go up against not just a group of suspects, but also political and other authorities that can be even more dangerous. One post isn’t enough space to list all of the novels and series that have this context; I know you’ll think of more examples than I could, anyway.
After the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930s, ordinary citizens soon learned that they had to be extremely careful about where they went, what they did, what they said, and so on. Anything that brought them to the notice of the authorities could potentially result in a death sentence or worse. Several authors have used this climate of fear as a background for their novels and series. For example, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series begins in 1936, when the Nazis are fully in power. Gunther is a former police officer who’s turned private investigator, and sometimes, the trails he follows lead to some high places. He often has to balance finding out the truth against staying alive.
The same is true of Rebecca Cantrell, whose Hannah Vogel series begins in 1931. Vogel is a crime reporter who’s well aware of how powerful and dangerous the Nazis are. In several of the novels in this series, she has to come up with very creative ways to avoid calling attention to herself. When she does find herself in Nazi crosshairs, she has to find ways to stay alive, and it’s not always easy. Even when something isn’t directly happening to Vogel, it’s clear that she’s living in the sort of fearful atmosphere in which no-one can be trusted.
There’s a similar atmosphere in William Ryan’s series featuring Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. These novels take place just before the outbreak of World War II. Stalin is firmly in power, and the dreaded NKVD is, as the saying goes, everywhere. Citizens are encouraged to denounce anyone who says or does anything that could be conceived as disloyal to the Party or its leadership. So, people have learned, sometimes the hard way, not to trust anyone. Against this backdrop, Korolev is charged with solving crimes, which sometimes include murder. And sometimes, the crimes he investigates get very close to very highly-placed people. So, he and his assistant, Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka, have to be extremely careful as they do their work. It doesn’t help matters that Moscow’s criminal underworld is also dangerous, and sometimes takes an active interest in the crimes that Korolev and Slivka investigate.
Fans of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels can tell you that they, too, take place against the background of Party power and in a climate of distrust and fear. As the series begins (in Gorky Park), Renko is a Moscow homicide detective. As he investigates, he often finds himself in conflict with high Party officials, corrupt bureaucrats, and sometimes criminal gangsters. And he discovers that that corruption doesn’t end when the Soviet Union breaks up.
From 1948 to 1991, South Africa’s official policy was apartheid. This set of laws had powerful impacts on every aspect of people’s lives. The rule governed where one lived and worked, whom one could marry, and where one’s children went to school. They also governed the sort of social relationships one had. And there were several government agencies whose task it was to enforce the laws, often brutally. People know that speaking out, being seen with someone from a different race, or otherwise questioning the system, could get you killed. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series takes place in this environment. Beginning in the early 1950s, it tells the story of Cooper, who is a Johannesburg-based Detective Sergeant (DS) with the police. As he looks into cases, Cooper frequently has to cross racial lines. That in itself is risky, especially since people are strongly encouraged to report any suspected anti-apartheid activity. And Cooper isn’t universally liked, especially when the trail leads to people in authority. So he has to be very careful whom he trusts.
That’s also true of Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. He is a Buenos Aires-based police detective at a very dangerous time (the late 1970s) in the country’s history. The military government wields supreme power, and anyone seen as ‘trouble’ is quickly ‘disappeared.’ Often, such people are later found dead. Lescano knows that anyone might denounce him to the authorities, so he is very careful in his choices of confidants. That doesn’t entirely keep him out of trouble. But it keeps him alive.
And then there’s Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen series. Chen Cao lives and works in late-1990s Shanghai. At that time, Chinese society is integrating a few elements of capitalism, and ‘pure’ Maoism isn’t as common as it was. But the government is still very much in control what people see, read, and so on. And it’s not wise to go against the wishes of those who are high on the Party’s ‘ladder.’ More than once in the series, Chen and his assistant, Yu Guangming, have to move very quietly and carefully as they look into cases. That’s especially true when what they find goes against the official government line.
It adds real challenge to a fictional sleuth’s investigation when it has to take place against a sociopolitical climate of fear and lack of trust. That element can add suspense and conflict to a novel or series. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s The Lady’s Got Potential.