Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Politics of Murder

Politics plays important roles in our lives. Even people who aren’t particularly interested in what happens in Parliament, Congress or their local governments are affected on a daily basis by the “behind-the-scenes” negotiation and decision-making that is politics. Politics infuses governments, corporations, academe and just about every other organization. Politics can be interesting, even gripping. The “backroom” manipulation, exploitation and “dirty tricks” that are so often a part of politics makes for irresistible gossip and can lead to serious consequences, so it’s no surprise that politics is often a theme in crime fiction. After all, good crime fiction is based on suspense and an engaging plot. Good crime fiction also connects with the reader, so the reader can identify with what’s happening in the novel. Since politics touches all of us, it’s a natural fit for a mystery novel.

In some mystery novels, politics plays a primary role. The main plot of the novel is about political intrigue. For instance, in Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series, Rapp is a CIA operative who works with an ulta-secret counter-terrorism group, the “Onion Team.” In novels such as Separation of Power, Act of Treason and Protect and Defend, Rapp gets involved in international espionage, CIA politics and even US election politics. In that way, Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series is similar. Allon is a professional assassin who works for Israel’s Office of Intelligence and Special Tasks. His “cover” is art restoration. He’s an expert at collecting intelligence, capture and interrogation and, when necessary, assassination. The Gabriel Allon series is focused on Middle East politics in general and terrorism/counterterrorism in particular.

Of course, international intrigue and espionage aren’t the only ways in which government politics can end in murder. Many of Margaret Truman’s Capital Crimes novels focus on presidential and other U.S. national politics. For example, in Murder at the Kennedy Center, the murder of Andrea Feldman threatens the presidential campaign of her employer, Senator Ken Ewald. When his son, Paul, is arrested for the murder, Ewald calls in his friend, Mackenzie “Mac” Smith, a law professor at Georgetown University to clear Paul of the crime. What Smith finds is that a number of Ewald’s political enemies (and even some political allies) had good reason to kill Feldman.

Glen Peters’ Mrs. D’Silva’s Detective Instinct and the Shaitan of Calcutta also centers around political intrigue. In that novel, Joan D’Silva is a teacher at a Catholic school in 1960 Calcutta. One day, her son finds the body of a young girl, a former student, washed up on a riverbank. After the inquest, two other former pupils convince Mrs. D’Silva that the girl was murdered and ask for her help in uncovering the truth. Her search for the girl’s killer quickly gets more complicated when one of these former pupils is arrested for stabbing a factory manager during a riot. It soon turns out that all three girls have been involved in a communist-led political movement with the goal of overturning the Indian government and upsetting the privileged position that most Anglo-Indians have held. You can read reviews of this novel at The View from The Blue House, Crime Scraps and It’s a Crime (Or a Mystery...).

Agatha Christie also addresses politics in some of her novels. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford get involved in espionage in several of their adventures. In N or M, they’re on the trail of a dangerous Nazi spy. In Postern of Fate, they discover a long-secret web of espionage in the small village to which they just retired. In The Clocks, Colin Lamb, who works for British Intelligence, is searching for an important link in a communist intelligence network when he gets involved in the investigation of the murder of a mysterious stranger. In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders), Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp investigate the murders of an inconsequential dentist and a Greek tycoon, and the disappearance of a seemingly harmless, middle-aged would-be actress. All of these events are tied to governmental politics and at one point, Japp is even called off the investigation because it’s coming too close to people the British government wants to protect. But Poirot perseveres until he finds out the truth behind the bizarre events. Christie makes mention of government and politics in several of her other novels, too, as various characters give their opinions of the government and its decisions.

Poltics isn’t limited to government; it’s a part of virtually every organization. For example, university politics is the theme of John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler. In that novel, Classics Professor Arnold Weschler gets reluctantly involved in the investigation of a radical student group, a kidnapping, some thefts and the bombing of the home of the university’s president. Weschler gets involved mostly because of university politics: he’s recruited by the university president and sees it as a “command performance,” especially since his own job is at stake. University politics also plays an important role in my own Publish or Perish. In that novel, the politics of tenure decisions, academic fellowships, work-based romances and scholarly publications figures in the murder of a graduate student.

One of the most interesting kinds of politics in murder mysteries is law-enforcement politics. Police departments all over the world are affected by internal and external politics, and these politics can add an engaging layer of suspense to a novel. For example, several of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels feature what’s supposed to be cooperation between the FBI and the Navajo Tribal Police. The infighting, “turf-protection” and “score-keeping” that goes on provides a fascinating backdrop in novels like The Ghostway, The Sinister Pig and The Wailing Wind. Very often in these novels, Chee is in trouble with either his own supervisor or the FBI (sometimes both) because he’s not a respecter of traditional “turf” boundaries. His goal is to solve the mystery. Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus also often has to struggle with police politics. In Black and Blue, for instance, Rebus undertakes several investigations while he’s under internal inquiry by the same person he’s previously accused of taking bribes. As a result, he’s given a minder whose job is to report everything Rebus does and says. Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti also gets caught up in departmental politics. For instance, in Death and Judgment, Brunetti ties together the seemingly disparate murders of a prominent attorney and an accountant. Along the way, he has to do battle with corruption at the highest levels and the politics of police investigation in Venice.

How does politics figure into your favorite mystery novels and series? How do your favorite sleuths deal with politics?

One More Note……..Due to the wonders of modern technology, I’m able to be in two places at the same time today (Wednesday, 28 October). I’m also guest-blogging at Elizabeth Spann Craig’s fantastic writer’s blog, Mystery Writing is Murder. It’s a different sort of post from the kind you see here. If you’re interested in how the writing process works, and how we criminally-minded mystery novelists do what we do, please stop by and visit me there.


  1. I do love reading about office politics gone wrong, university politics and the quest for tenure, hospital politics, and law enforcement politics. And local politics is fun to read about, too. Anything dealing with national politics would be a turnoff for me (and many Gen Xers.) Somewhere along the way we seemed to have gotten disgusted with it all! :) And I was a poli sci minor, back in the day!

    Thanks SO MUCH for your wonderful, interesting post on my blog. I really appreciate it!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - No need to thank me; it's an honor to guest-post for you. You make a really interesting point about the kind of politics that a mystery explores. In the end, an engrossing mystery keeps the reader "hooked" because of the events and characters. So when politics gets personal, as it often does with local politics, office politics, etc., we see how the individual characters are affected, and that keeps us reading. When politics is more impersonal, especially for those who aren't interested in the "chess game" that is national and international politics, it's not as absorbing.

    You also bring up an interesting point about being in "Gen-X." The reader's background, generation and culture may have a lot to do with the kinds of books s/he finds interesting.

  3. Ed Gorman's recent book Sleeping Dogs was about a political consultant and quite insightful into what that entails.

  4. Patti - Thanks for mentioning Sleeping Dogs. I've got that on my TBR list, but haven't gotten that far in the "the pile" yet. Maybe I'll move it up a few notches : )

  5. I love politics; always have. I like finding out what goes on behind the scene and hearing the clash of ideas. You're absolutely right, Margot, politics are everywhere because it's all about power and who has it and who doesn't. As a character on The West Wing says "It's the game that never ends." Bring it on.


  6. Elspeth - How did I know that you'd be interested in politics : ). You have a well-taken point, too - politics is all about power, and power is everywhere, so politics is everywhere. The idea that some people have power and some people will do anything for it is just really fertile ground to sow a murder mystery : )