Category Archives: Robin Cook

Ancient Minds, Ancient Lives*

relicsAs this is posted, it’s the 94th anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb. That find taught us much about what life must have been like during Tutankhamen’s time, and that’s such an important aspect of archaeology. Whenever there’s a find, it’s not just the actual objects that matter. It’s also the windows they offer on life in a very different era. That, too, is fascinating.

We see that aspect of archaeology in quite a lot of crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. Finding out what life was like at another time is a sort of mystery in itself, so it makes sense that we’d see that theme in the genre. And that’s not to mention the monetary value of such discoveries, which can be considerable.

There are plenty of examples in crime fiction, too. For instance, fans of Agatha Christie will know that her second husband was an archaeologist, and that she accompanied him to the Middle East. The theme runs through a few of her stories, too, such as Murder in Mesopotamia. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Louise Leidner, who is killed one afternoon in her room. She has accompanied her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, on a dig a few hours from Baghdad, and all the members of the excavation team come under suspicion. At one point, there’s a discussion of the value of what the team finds. It comes out that Dr. Leidner is a lot more interested in pottery and other daily-use objects than in gold. And it’s only partly because he has to pay the workers much more if they find gold. As much as anything, it’s because pottery and other such objects really show what life was like.

In Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man, we are introduced to archaeologist Harry Steadman. He’s a professor at Leeds University, until an inheritance frees him to do what he wants. And what he wants is to excavate Roman ruins in Yorkshire. He goes through the process of getting the necessary permissions, hoping that he will make some noteworthy finds. But instead, he is killed by blunt force trauma. DCI Alan Banks and his team investigate, and find several leads. For one thing, there are those who didn’t want the victim doing any digging. For another, there are the inevitable academic politics at Leeds. And those aren’t the only possibilities. It’s a complex case, and as Banks works through it, he learns that Steadman wasn’t in it, as they say, for the money. He was genuinely fascinated by what he might learn about life in Roman Britain.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway will know that she is a forensic archaeologist associated with North Norfolk University. In The Crossing Places, the first of this series, she is asked to lend her expertise when a set of remains is discovered. DCI Harry Nelson suspects that the bones may belong to Lucy Downey, who disappeared ten years earlier, and he wants confirmation of his theory. But Galloway can’t provide that. The bones turn out to be much, much older than ten years. In fact, they belong to an Iron Age child. In one plot thread of this novel, that find spurs Galloway to arrange for an excavation in the place where the bones were found. She’s hoping to learn more about the people who lived in the area at that time. Even small things such as a bead bracelet can provide fascinating information, so it’s no wonder she’s eager to dig. Those Iron Age remains don’t really solve the Lucy Downey case. But they do give a perspective on the search to find out about life in different times.

We also see that in Kate Ellis’ series featuring DS (later, DI) Wesley Peterson and his friend, Neil Watson. Watson is an archaeologist who, in The Merchant House, has discovered a four-hundred-year-old home that originally belonged to a wealthy merchant named John Banized, and his wife, Elizabeth. The dig team has only six weeks to learn what they can from the place, because the area is set to be developed as a block of new residences. In the process of their excavation, Watson’s team unearths a pair of skeletons in the basement of the house. As they wait to get forensic information, Watson searches for a diary that Banized kept. He’s learned that it was passed on from generation to generation. So, if he can find a modern-day descendent of the family, he may learn much about life during Banized’s era. That story unfolds as Peterson also investigates a modern-day mystery – the murder of a young woman.

There’s also Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte mysteries. Tayte is a genealogist, so his stock in trade is tracing families’ lineage. And as he does, he often finds letters and other everyday objects that throw light on the past. That’s what happens, for instance, in In The Blood. He’s hired by wealthy businessman Walter Sloane to trace his wife’s lineage as a gift for her. The trail leads to Cornwall, and Tayte gets the ‘green light’ to go there and follow up on the leads he’s found. He finds that Sloane’s wife has modern-day distant kin in England, but they don’t seem eager at all to help him put the pieces of the puzzle together. In the meantime, we meet Amy Fallon, whose husband Gabriel was lost two years earlier in a storm. Just before he died, he told Amy that he’d found out a secret. He never got the chance to tell her what that secret was, but construction on their house has revealed it. There’s a hidden set of steps that leads down to secret basement. In the basement is a very old, carved, wooden writing box with a love letter in it. Fallon tries to find out who might have owned the box, and her trail leads her to Tayte. Each in a different way, they find out the truth about things that happened hundreds of years earlier, just from an everyday writing box.

There are even thrillers, such as Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk, that involve excavations. In that novel, neuroscientist Edward Armstrong is hired by a breakout biotechnology company called Genetrix. The goal is for him to develop a new anti-depression medication. He meets and falls in love with a nurse, Kimberly Stewart, whose family owns a house that’s several hundred years old. In the process of renovating the house, she discovers ergot growing in the old basement. That discovery provides answers to some bizarre questions haunting her family. And it opens up real possibilities for Armstrong’s research. But it also has frightening consequences.

There’s just something about discovering very old objects. They give a window on what life was like during a particular time. And they add to our knowledge. Little wonder there’s so much interest in them.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s You Can Make History (Young Again).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elly Griffiths, Kate Ellis, Peter Robinson, Robin Cook, Steve Robinson

Dr. X Will Build a Creature*

DollyAs I post this, today would have been Mary Shelley’s 219th birthday. As you’ll know, her most famous work, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, addresses an ethical question that’s challenged us for a very long time. Just because we can do something, does that mean we should do it? It’s not surprising this question would have come up at the time Shelley wrote this novel. Electricity had recently been channeled for human use, and it frightened a lot of people. And that wasn’t the only scientific development of the day, by any means. To many people, it must have seemed that it was all moving too quickly, in very dangerous directions. So Shelley’s cautionary tale makes sense given the era.

But it’s by no means the only story that addresses that question. We see it come up in crime fiction quite a lot, and it raises interesting ethical issues. And those issues can add a solid layer of suspense to a plot, and invite readers to stay engaged.

Agatha Christie’s play, Black Coffee, revolves around a potentially very dangerous scientific advance. Famous physicist Sir Claude Amory has developed a formula for an atomic bomb (the play was written in 1930, before this possibility became a reality). As you can imagine, the formula is worth a great deal of money, and Sir Claude has come to believe that someone in his family wants to steal it for that reason. And as we get to know the different people in his household, it’s not hard to see why he feels that way. He asks Hercule Poirot to travel to his country home at Abbot’s Cleve to find out who the guilty party is. Poirot and Captain Hastings make the trip, but by the time they arrive, it’s too late: Sir Claude has been poisoned, and the formula’s been stolen. The play itself isn’t regarded as one of Christie’s best works. However, it does raise the question of what we should do with the knowledge of how to make such a devastating weapon. Sir Claude wanted to provide it to the government in order to protect the country, but the question could be asked: should the information be available? It’s a difficult dilemma that US President Harry Truman faced some fifteen years later.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, we are introduced to Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their two children, Pete and Kim. The Eberharts make the move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. Housing’s less expensive, taxes are lower, schools are good, and it’s the perfect small town to raise a family. At first, things do seem to go well, and everyone settles in. Not long after the family’s arrival, Joanna makes a new friend, Bobbie Markowe. Little by little, Bobbie begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe her. And in any case, they’ve just moved, and the idea of moving again is out of the question. But then, Joanna learns to her dismay that Bobbie was right. Something sinister is going on in the town. Levin doesn’t specifically address the question of whether we should do something just because we can. But the novel does show what can happen when the wrong people have access to frighteningly successful technology.

The question of whether we should do something just because we can is explored in a slightly different way in Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Smilla Jaspersen is a half-Inuit Greenlander who’s now living in a Copenhagen apartment building. She’s terribly upset when ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, who lives in the same building, dies from what looks like a tragic accidental fall from the roof of the building. But Smilla isn’t so sure it was an accident. The evidence she sees in the snow suggests something else, and she starts to ask questions. The trail eventually leads back to Greenland, so Smilla gets a place as a maid/cleaner on an expedition ship that’s going there. That’s where she discovers the truth about Isaiah’s death. Some readers have said that the second half of this novel is a little more like a science fiction story than a murder mystery. Certainly it raises the question that a lot of science fiction does: should every scientific investigation be pursued? Are there some things we should leave alone?

Stefan Tegenfalk’s Anger Mode is the first of his trilogy featuring Stockholm County CID detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge. In it, a series of brutal murders are committed, all by people who work in some capacity for the justice system. What’s even stranger is that none of the killers has any idea why the murder was committed. Gröhn gets assigned to the case, and soon finds that there are plenty of people, some in very high places, who don’t want him to solve the murders. In fact, his career nearly derails because of it. And in the end, we learn that one important element of this story (and of the trilogy, really) is the question of scientific developments and technology, and where they may lead. It’s a look at the issue within the thriller context.

Of course, lots of other thrillers do a similar thing. Robin Cook’s thrillers, for instance, often raise the question of medical ethics. Novels such as Godplayer, Coma, and Chromosome 6 explore some of what is possible in medicine and science. And they ask whether it’s in our interest to take those fields as far they can go.

Mary Shelley explored that issue in Frankenstein. Nearly 200 years later, we’re still wrestling with it. Every time we make a scientific, medical or technological advance, we are also faced with the question of whether that advance does more harm than good. It’s not an easy issue, which makes it a really intriguing element in a crime story.

ps. The ‘photo is of Dolly, the famous cloned sheep, and one of her offspring.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard O’Brien’s Science Fiction Double Feature.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Mary Shelley, Peter Høeg, Robin Cook, Stefan Tegenfalk

You’re In the Care of a Spin Doctor*

PR and Spin DoctorsIt’s a competitive world out there. So, for a lot of people and businesses, image is everything. They have to inspire confidence and build loyalty. That’s where public relations and ‘spin doctors’ come in. They’re the ones who work to ensure that the public sees the company in the best possible light. They also do ‘damage control’ when there’s a problem.

PR people certainly play roles in real life. They help build brand image and the good ones articulate the company’s (or person’s) message. They can be interesting characters in crime fiction, too. And including a PR angle (or even conflict) can add a solid plot point or layer of character development to a story.

Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise is the story of Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., a very respectable advertising agency. One day, copywriter Victor Dean has a tragic fall down a staircase at Pym’s, and dies. At first it looks as though it could have been just a terrible accident. But Dean left behind an unfinished note that calls that conclusion into question. The note says that he’d discovered one of Pym’s employees was using the company’s advertising for illegal purposes. For Pym’s, this is a PR disaster, so they don’t want to call in the police. Instead, they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover as Dean’s replacement and find out the truth. This he agrees to do, and he starts looking into the matter. It turns out that Dean was right: someone was using the company’s advertising to arrange meetings between drugs gangs and local drugs dealers. When Dean found out who it was, he blackmailed that person and paid the price for it. It’s an interesting case of a PR firm that needs a PR boost of its own.

In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts, Queen is temporarily working for Hollywood’s Magna Studios. The project is a film biography of famous actors Blythe Stuart and John Royle. The two had a very stormy romance and public breakup, and the gossip about them has been popular for a long time. Each married someone else and now has a grown child; and at first, the studio people think they’ll refuse to do the film. But to everyone’s shock, they agree. More than that, they rekindle their romance and decide to get married. For publicity man Sam Vix, this is a nightmare. He’d depended on the couple’s feud to sell the film. Then, Vix and the publicity team decide to make the best of the situation. They arrange with Stuart and Royle to give their wedding the ‘Hollywood treatment,’ and have it take place on an airstrip. From thence, the couple and their children will leave for a honeymoon trip. All goes off as planned; but by the time the plane lands, Stuart and Royle are dead of what turns out to be poison. Queen works to find out who the killer is and how the killer managed to poison the newlyweds.

As Hugh Pentecost, Judson Philips wrote a series of mysteries featuring Pierre Chambrun, manager of New York’s very upmarket Hotel Beaumont. A hotel’s image is extremely important, so one of Chambrun’s valued employees is his PR chief, Mark Haskell. In fact, this series is written in first person, from Haskell’s point of view. As the series goes on, it’s interesting to see how Haskell handles press announcements and other public image events. It’s also interesting to see how the hotel deals with PR challenges such as police searches and arrests.

Carole Nelson Douglas’ Temple Barr is a freelance PR expert. As such, she’s hired by hotel/casinos (she’s based in Las Vegas), corporations and so on help create or restore the images they want. Companies consult with her to choose TV advertising campaigns, push new logos or spokespeople, and otherwise keep their names before the public. Among other things, this cosy series offers an interesting look at what PR people do.

Public relations is important to the plot of Robin Cook’s medical thriller Contagion. In that novel, medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery are faced with a mysterious set of deaths at Manhattan General Hospital. They seem to be caused by a particularly virulent strain of influenza, and there’s a great deal of concern. But, as Stapleton discovers, the concern is as much for the hospital’s image as it is for anything else. For that reason, the hospital’s administrators want there to be as little obvious investigation as possible. From Stapleton’s point of view, this puts patients at risk, so he frequently butts heads with those in charge. He and Montgomery learn that Manhattan General is affiliated with insurance giant AmeriCare. That company’s major rival is National Health. As the story goes on, we learn how the competition between those companies impacts what’s going on at the hospital. We also see how important public image is in the medical field.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner, Rajiv Patel, are taking a holiday at Krabi. There, they meet a guide, Chanida Manakit, who goes by the name of Miss Pla. When her body is found washed up in a cave, Keeney and Patel feel a personal sense of loss, and decide to extend their stay for a bit and ask some questions. It’s difficult to say exactly how the victim died, but Keeney doesn’t believe the police theory that it was an accident. Miss Pla was far too good a swimmer for that. So Keeney and Patel trace Pla’s last days and weeks. They learn that she was working with an environmental group. Her task was to attend meetings between local villages and Nukun, the public relations officer for Apex Enterprises, a development company. While at those meetings, Pla was to ensure that villagers’ concerns were articulated. For the company, these meetings are important for public relations. Apex wants to cultivate the image of being sensitive to the local culture and its needs, and the people who run these meetings have to keep that image at the forefront. And Miss Pla’s role in the company’s PR plan plays its part in what happens to her.

PR people and ‘spin doctors’ have important and sometimes difficult tasks to do. That’s especially the case when a company or politician gets into trouble or does something illegal or unethical. There are all sorts of interesting possibilities when that happens, and crime fiction certainly shows that.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from TV Smith’s For Every Hit There’s a Miss.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Carole Nelson Douglas, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Hugh Pentecost, Judson Philips, Robin Cook

Get Away From These Demagogues*

DemagoguesLet’s face it: the world can be a very scary place. Tragedies happen, changes happen; and sometimes, life seems to be full of frightening news. At times like that, some people try to use others’ uncertainty and fears to gain power, or at least ascendency, over others. And that sort of demagoguery can have devastating and lasting consequences. We certainly see it happen in real life. We’re seeing it now.

It’s certainly not unique to real life, though. There’s plenty of demagoguery in crime fiction, too. And that makes sense. For one thing, the use of rhetoric and bigotry instead of reasoned debate has been going on for a lot time. For another, the sort of conflict that demagogues exploit can serve as a very useful tool for building tension in a story. There are a lot of examples of this in the genre. I’ll just mention a few.

Some novels and series explore the consequences of the actions of real demagogues. For instance, both Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series and Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series are set (at least partly) in Berlin just before and then during the Nazis’ rise to power. In both of those series, there are good reasons for people to be uncertain and afraid. It’s the height of the worldwide Great Depression, there’s little food, and the currency isn’t worth very much. There aren’t many jobs, either. Against this background, as you’ll know, Hitler rose to power in part through exploiting people’s fears, and setting up easy targets for them to blame. You’ll also know just how horrible the consequences of that demagoguery were.

We also see that pattern in William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series, which begins in Moscow just before World War II. Josef Stalin is firmly in power, and has consolidated his control of the Communist Party. He’s done that in part through playing his political rivals off against one another, and by preying on people’s fears of what might happen if he’s not there to steer the proverbial ship of state. And that’s not to mention the fears people have already had about securing life’s basic necessities. The consequences of that demagoguery have been tragic, too, as hundreds of thousands of people have died in Stalin’s purges and other oppressions. Against this background, Korolev and his assistant, Sergeant Slivka, have to move very carefully. One wrong move and they could be next on the list, so to speak. At the same time, they are charged with upholding the law and catching criminals. It’s not an easy balance to strike, and Ryan acknowledges that fact.

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was also arguably a demagogue. He exploited Americans’ fears of Communism to the point where many people were jailed and worse. Others lost their jobs (and any chance of getting another one), were shunned by others in their communities, and more. We see part of the impact of that demagoguery in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is a sort of unofficial PI in post-WWII Los Angeles. One day, he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter says that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars in back taxes – money he has no way of paying. He’s resigning himself to prison when FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers him a way out. If Mosley helps the FBI bring down suspected Communist Chaim Wenzler, Craxton will make those tax problems go away. Mosley has little choice but to accept. And in any case, he, too, has been taught to fear Communism, and Craxton appeals to his patriotism on that issue. The case turns out to be much more complicated than Rawlins imagined when he finds himself becoming friends with Wenzler. It’s even more complicated when he’s framed for two murders.

Argentina has had more than its share of demagogues. Many of the military rulers have used people’s fears, as well as their concerns about meeting their basic needs, to get and maintain power. For instance, Juan Perón came to power with the backing of (and a great deal of appeal to) the working classes. Once in power, he maintained his position through increasingly authoritarian decisions. The impact of that demagoguery lasted for many decades, long after Perón was no longer in office. Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lascano series takes place in late 1970’s Argentina, a time when a military dictatorship is in control of the country. People have been taught to fear the political left; and those who are suspected of having leftist sympathies are brutally silenced. So are those who are suspected of questioning or, worse, opposing, the existing government. It’s a very difficult political landscape for a police officer who’s just trying to do his job, and Mallo depicts this faithfully.

In Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair runs directly into demagoguery when he gets involved in finding out who murdered his uncle, also named Rowland. There’s a good possibility that Uncle Rowland was killed by members of the New Guard, an ultra-right political group led by Colonel Eric Campbell. Campbell’s been taking advantage of people’s misery (the novel takes place in 1931, and the Great Depression is taking a toll) and fear, and appealing to their patriotism to gain power. He and the New Guard are planning to install a new government in Australia, one run by ‘a few right thinking men’ who will preserve traditional ways of life and the current class order. He’s gotten plenty of people afraid of Communism, working-class revolts, and other perceived threats, and is set to gain real power. The radical left isn’t taking this lightly, and is preparing for an all-out battle. Rowly wants not only to find out whether Campbell sanctioned his uncle’s murder, but also to prevent violence if he can. But it won’t be easy.

And then there’s Robin Cook’s Seizure, in which we are introduced to US Senator Ashley Butler. He’s a demagogue who’s used people’s fear of the unknown to gain quite a bit of power. He’s strongly opposed to stem-cell research and other, similar, scientific advances. He’s also a staunch supporter of the ‘traditional’ family and ‘traditional family values.’ And he’s used his constituents’ worries about societal change, the economy, and other issues for his own purposes. Then, he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Butler knows that if the facts of his medical condition are made public, he’ll never succeed at becoming president, which is his goal. So, despite the rhetoric he’s used, he reaches out to Dr. Daniell Lowell, who’s been doing exactly the kind of research Butler has publicly opposed. Lowell is no friend to Butler, as he’s seen quite a lot of scientific progress stymied by Butler. He’s also not a fan of Butler’s rightist social leanings. But when Butler offers to withdraw his opposition to stem cell research, Lowell can’t resist the opportunity to use his controversial procedure to see if he can help Butler. Technically speaking, this is more a thriller than a crime novel. But the character of Ashley Butler was too good an example of a demagogue not to mention it.

In case you hadn’t noticed, demagoguery is alive and well. In crime fiction, it almost always has unfortunate, sometimes tragic consequences. I think it does in real life, too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Nettie Moore.

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Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Philip Kerr, Rebecca Cantrell, Robin Cook, Sulari Gentill, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

How to Succeed*

Internal PoliticsUnless you’re self-employed (and even, sometimes then!), you likely work with other people. And that nearly always means office politics. Political machinations take different forms, of course, depending on the kind of work you do. But they’re likely to be there in some way or another.

All of that tension and conflict can make for very effective plot lines in crime fiction. You’ll notice as this post goes on, by the way, that there won’t be mention of police politics. There are far too many examples out there, as the police figure a great deal in crime fiction. Even taking that form of politics out of the conversation, though, there’s plenty of office politics in the genre.

For example, any attorney can tell you that there’s often a great deal of politics involved in that profession. It certainly helps to have a law degree from a prestigious school. But in many law firms, moving ahead takes more than that. It means very long hours, especially at first, and showing everyone that you’re the first to arrive and the last to leave. We see that in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. The main plot thread of that novel is the murder of Katherine Thorn, common-law wife of Toronto radio personality Kevin Brace. Brace himself is the most likely suspect; in fact, he even admits to the first witness on the scene,
 

‘‘I did it.’’
 

Crown prosecutor Albert Fernandez knows that a quick conviction in such a high-profile case will mean a lot for his career. And though he’s not unprincipled, Fernandez also knows that getting ahead often means playing politics. So he makes sure to get to his office before anyone else, to be the last to leave at the end of the day, and to ‘dress the part.’ In this particular case, he also goes very hard for the win, as the saying goes. Fernandez’ bosses want him to take the case to trial, too, so he’s under a lot of political pressure to refuse a plea deal with Brace’s lawyer Nancy Parish. He doesn’t want to see an innocent person convicted, but at the same time, a loss in a case like this could spell trouble for him. I won’t give away spoilers, but there are other places in this novel where that kind of politics plays a role.

Fledgling attorneys also know that they may not get very far in their careers if they go against what a firm partner, especially a senior partner, wants. That’s the way law firm politics are. And sometimes that can mean real trouble for the beginning lawyer. That’s what Brad Miller discovers in Phillip Margolin’s Executive Privilege. In one plot thread of that novel, we learn that he’s a newly-minted attorney who works at Reed, Briggs, Stephens, Stottlemeyer and Compton, Oregon’s largest law firm. As do many new attorneys, Miller works an exhausting number of hours, and is otherwise taken advantage of by the partners. One day, the firm’s top attorney, Susan Tuchman, directs him to take on the pro bono case of Clarence Little, who’s been convicted of murdering Laurie Erickson, and is due to be executed. Little wants Reed, Briggs to handle his appeal. From the firm’s perspective, it’s just a matter of form, and Tuchman doesn’t want Miller spending any real time on it. But the more Miller gets to know about the case, the more he begins to suspect that Little is not guilty of the crime for which he’s about to be executed. Now Miller runs straight up against law firm politics. He knows that his career at Reed, Briggs depends on his pleasing the partners and doing what he’s told. On the other hand, this case is turning out to be quite different to what he’d been informed it would be. Among other things, this plot thread gives a really interesting perspective on the politics involved in working for some large and powerful law firms.

As anyone who’s ever worked in a hospital can tell you, politics play an important role there, too. Junior doctors, interns and other medical professionals who are on the ‘lower rungs’ of the hospital hierarchy know that it’s not enough to do one’s job well and establish a good rapport with patients. It’s also important to catch the attention of senior doctors, and get (and stay) in their good graces. Sometimes this means getting caught in ‘turf wars’ between conflicting senior doctors. It’s had a lot of other consequences, too, some of them serious. Authors of medical thrillers often use the reality of hospital politics as important plot points. I’m thinking, for instance, of some of Robin Cook’s thrillers, where we see a junior hospital doctor or pathologist who notices a pattern that senior doctors either want to cover up or don’t believe.

This sort of plot thread has shown up in medical mysteries for quite some time, actually. Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need (which he wrote as Jeffery Hudson), was published in 1968. This story features junior pathologist John Berry, who tries to clear the name of a colleague and friend who’s been accused of negligence and of performing a then-illegal abortion. Along the way, Berry runs up against the most powerful doctor in the hospital, J.D. Randall. That layer of politics adds much to the suspense in this novel.

There’s also plenty of politics in higher education (Oh, come on! You were just waiting for me to mention academia, right?😉 ). It’s easy to see why, too. For one thing, tenure is highly coveted at institutions that grant it. So some people will go to great lengths to become tenured. And even when that’s not an issue, there are all kinds of promotion, funding, staffing and other decisions that are impacted by institutional politics. I’ve written about it myself (Publish or Perish, if you’re interested).

And I’m by no means at all the only one. Just ask Christine Poulson’s creation Cassandra James. Head of the English Literature Department at St. Ethelreda’s College, Cambridge, she is no stranger to the politics of academia. In one plot thread of Murder is Academic, for instance, she’s just taken the reins at the department, and one of her tasks is to prepare everyone for the upcoming Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The department’s funding and security depend heavily on its success with the RAE, so everyone’s scholarship has to be as impressive as possible. That’s not going to be an easy task, considering that James is also mixed up in the murder of her predecessor (she discovered the body, for one thing). Among other things, this series (of which Murder is Academic is the first novel) gives readers a close look at the internal politics of university life. Still interested in academic politics? You can also check out Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw mysteries, of which Simon Said is the first. There are many more examples, too.

But you don’t need to be a lawyer, doctor or professor to understand internal politics. Just look around, and I’ll bet you’ll see plenty of examples. That colleague who toadies to all the ‘right people,’ that boss who’s more concerned with her own promotions than with supporting her department, that sales executive who angles for the corner office, well, you know what I mean. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just got an email about a meeting I’ve been invited to attend. Never mind that it’s during the weekend, it could be my chance to really get ahead! 

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Frank Loesser.

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Filed under Christine Poulson, Jeffery Hudson, Michael Crichton, Phillip Margolin, Robert Rotenberg, Robin Cook, Sarah R. Shaber