As this is posted, it’s 53 years since the opening of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. As you’ll know, it’s a fictional re-telling of the Salem witch trials of the 17th Century. Miller used the play to speak out about the anti-communist paranoia – the McCarthyism – of the early 1950s. In the play, we see how fear and lack of understanding can end up in tragedy, and we’ve certainly seen it in real life, too.
That plot point can also add to a crime novel, too. For one thing, it seems to be a human characteristic. For another, it adds suspense and sometimes character layers.
For example, in Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is faced with three murders. All of the victims were somehow associated with the Badwater Clinic, run by Dr. Bahe Yellowhorse. The clinic makes use of both western medicine and Navajo spiritual and healing traditions, and there are people from both schools of thought who don’t like what’s happening there. So, there is more than one possible murderer. Then, a would-be assassin targets Sergeant Jim Chee. Now, he’s drawn into the investigation. It turns out that Navajo beliefs in skinwalkers – witches who can take other shapes – plays an important role in the novel. So does the fear of falling under the influence of a skinwalker.
Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk is the story of Boston-area neuroscientist Dr. Edward Armstrong, who is doing work on possible medical treatments for depression. He’s been hired by a new company to create a psychotropic therapy, and he’s excited at the idea of making headway on his research. He and his team are under a great deal of pressure to come up with something quickly, since the pharmaceutical company won’t make a profit if he doesn’t deliver. Then, Armstrong gets what he believes is a breakthrough. He’s been dating a nurse, Elizabeth Stewart, who is renovating a home that’s been in her family for hundreds of years. In fact, one of her ancestors who lived there was executed on suspicion of witchcraft. It turns out that the hallucinations and other symptoms used as evidence were actually caused by ergot growing below the basement. Armstrong is fascinated by the idea of using ergot’s psychotropic effects in his research, and he and his team get to work. It ends up, though, that there are tragic consequences that no-one had considered.
M.C. Beaton’s Death of an Outsider begins as Constable Hamish Macbeth takes some time away from his usual post at Lochdubh to fill in for a colleague in the village of Cnothan. Macbeth is not exactly given a warm, cheerful welcome, and the feeling is mutual. Still, he tries to do the best he can to carry out his duties. One of the villagers, William Mainwaring, is possibly even more disliked than Macbeth is. He and his wife, Agatha, are English ‘incomers’ who’ve taken up crofting. But it’s suspected that Mainwaring is involved in some dubious activities. What’s more, he’s contemptuous of the locals, and Agatha isn’t much better. Then, Agatha complains to Macbeth that she’s being pursued by a group of witches. Macbeth isn’t superstitious, and he’s no fan of the Mainwarings, but he has to investigate a citizen complaint. And it is true that some strange things are going on. Matters come to a head when Mainwaring is murdered. Now, Macbeth has to work with the wary locals to try to find out who killed the victim.
Alexander McCall Smith introduces his protagonist, Mma Precious Ramotswe, in The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe has recently opened her detective agency, and it’s not long before she begins to get clients. One of them is a schoolteacher named Ernest Pakotati, whose eleven-year-old son has gone missing. He is desperate to find the boy and wants her to help. Mma Ramotswe is particularly upset about this case, as you can imagine, and starts working on the case immediately. Before long, she learns that the boy’s disappearance could be related to local witchcraft, and that adds a lot of complication. On the one hand, Mma Ramotswe doesn’t believe in traditional witchcraft, and it’s not politically expedient in modern Botswana to express those beliefs. On the other hand, plenty of people do believe in witchcraft. There’s an underlying respect for, if not fear of, witch doctors and others who deal in the occult. So, it’s not easy to find out the truth.
And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Miriam Kaplan, who goes by the name Meroe. She is a Wiccan who lives and has her shop, The Sibyl’s Cave, in a Melbourne building called Insula. Meroe is skilled in herbalism and other sorts of healing, and she follows many of the Wiccan traditions. She is friends with Greenwood’s sleuth, Corinna Chapman, who lives and works in the same building. Chapman doesn’t always understand Meroe’s beliefs and skills, but she’s not afraid of her, either. And it’s interesting to see how Meroe is portrayed in this series.
People often seem to fear the unfamiliar. There are myriad examples from real life, and it’s there in crime fiction, too. That fear can lead to suspicion and worse, sometimes with tragic consequences. These are just a few examples from crime fiction. I know you’ll think of others.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Hornsby’s Sneaking Up on Boo Radley.