Sunday, January 3, 2010

Partners in Crime ...*

When we read about real-life or fictional crimes, we often think about “the murderer” as a person – one person – who kills. The police find or are given evidence that eventually lead to the arrest of that killer. Sometimes, though, a crime isn’t a one-person job. In crimes like that, not only does the sleuth have to figure out how and by whom the murder was committed, but also, he or she has to unravel the conspiracy. In well-written crime fiction, a conspiracy can add a fascinating plot point as well as a dose of suspense to the story. A conspiracy can also add an engaging intellectual challenge for the reader.

Sometimes, it’s obvious from the beginning of a novel that there’s a conspiracy. Many thrillers are like that. For instance, Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules is an example. In that novel, investigative journalist Aleksandr Lubin has amassed a dossier on Ivan Kharkov, an extremely wealthy Russian who’s got far-reaching interests. Lubin wants to warn Israeli Intelligence about something he’s found out about Kharkov, and he wants to communicate only with Gabriel Allon, an operative for the secret Israeli intelligence group, The Office. Allon reluctantly agrees to meet with Lubin, but before Lubin can deliver his message, he’s stabbed with a fast-acting poison and dies. Allon goes to Moscow to uncover the conspiracy that’s led to Lubin’s death. What he finds is that Kharkov had sealed a deal to sell arms to Al-Qaeda. Now, Allon has to stop this international conspiracy before the arms deal can be concluded.

We’re also told of a conspiracy in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem, which Doyle had intended to be Sherlock Holmes’ final adventure. Holmes visits Watson one night, obviously in a state of anxiety. He tells Watson that he’s uncovered a vast criminal conspiracy headed by Professor Moriarty, his brilliant but evil nemesis. Holmes has slowly gathered the evidence he needs to connect Moriarty and the top members of his gang with at least forty crimes, and many arrests, including that of Moriarty, are imminent. Holmes asks Watson to take a trip to the European Continent with him, since Holmes’ life is now in danger. Watson agrees, and they leave London. Moriarty finds out, though, and he follows Holmes to Germany, where they meet in a now-famous face-to-face battle at the Reichenbach Falls.

There’s also a larger conspiracy in Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the Sienese Conspiracy (AKA The Death of an Irish Consul). In that novel, Chief Inspector Peter McGarr investigates the deaths of former SIS agents Browne and Hitchcock, and tries to prevent a third, that of newly-appointed British ambassador to Italy Sir Colin Cummings. The first two victims were found in the same place, and McGarr believes that the same person is killing off a group of former SIS agents. He accompanies Cummings to Siena, but he’s unable to protect his charge from a sniper’s bullet. McGarr remains in Italy to uncover the truth behind this third murder, and he finds that all three deaths are connected to shady politics, shadier business, and a bitter dispute over North Sea oil drilling rights.

Sometimes, conspiracies aren’t that obvious – or that “public.” For example, in some novels, even though one person commits a murder, other people know about it, and know who the guilty person is, but they keep silence. We see a fine example of this in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder after Hours). Wealthy Harley Street doctor John Christow and his wife, Gerda, leave London for a weekend in the country with Christow’s friends, Sir Henry Angkatell and his wife, Lucy. Also staying at the house are several Angkatell cousins. Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a week-end cottage nearby, is invited to the Angkatell home for Sunday lunch. When he arrives, he sees the body of John Christow almost artistically splayed by the pool. The scene seems so artificial that at first, Poirot thinks that it’s a tableau staged for his amusement. He quickly realizes, though, that Christow is really dead – shot, so it seems, by his wife, who’s holding the gun. Very quickly, Poirot realizes that all is not as it seems, and before long, he also finds out that he’s matching wits against a group of people who know all about the murder – and are saying nothing.

That’s also the case in Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (AKA Murder in the Calais Coach), in which Poirot investigates the murder of Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman on his way to Paris on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night out, Ratchett is stabbed to death, and, since he’s on the same train, Poirot agrees to find the killer, if he can, before the train finishes its three-day trip. In order to do this, Poirot has to find out exactly who Ratchett was, and who would have wanted to kill him. He also has to penetrate a very famous “conspiracy of silence” as he interviews Ratchett’s fellow passengers. There are other Agatha Christie novels in which it turns out that witnesses and suspects are conspiring, but I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of them.

There’s a psychologically very interesting “conspiracy” case in Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain. Retired Oxford don Felix McClure is found stabbed to death in his apartment. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis begin the process of investigating McClure’s history, his associations and those who may have had a reason to kill him. In the process, they become suspicious of Ted Brooks, who was McClure’s former scout and who had a motive for murder. When Brooks is also murdered, Morse realizes the two killings are probably connected, and he looks for those who might have known or worked with both victims. That search leads him to a fascinating “conspiracy of silence.” As it turns out, more than one person knows exactly what’s behind both murders, and everyone who knows is keeping silence. That doesn’t stop Morse, though, from unraveling the mystery.

Dexter also describes a conspiracy in The Jewel That Was Ours, in which Morse and Lewis are sent to investigate the theft of the Wolvercote Tongue. The Wolvercote Tongue is part of a Saxon belt buckle, the other part of which is on display at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Laura Stratton, an American tourist who’s traveling with a group, has brought the Wolvercote Tongue to Oxford to donate it to the Ashmolean, but before she can, she suddenly dies and the Wolvercote Tongue is stolen. The next day, Theodore Kemp, curator of the Ashmolean, is murdered. Morse soon realizes that the theft and Kemp’s death may be connected, and he and Lewis start to sort through the alibis, lies and hidden secrets involved in the case. In the end, they find out that more than one of the suspects and witnesses are “in on” the crimes.

Conspiracy also plays an interesting set of roles in Ian Rankin’s Exit Music. In that novel, John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke are called in to investigate the brutal murder of Alexander Todorov, a dissident Russian poet. Todorov’s poetry and politics have alienated the clique of wealthy Russian businessmen who now live in Edinburgh, and one of them, Sergei Andropov, has said he wished Todorov were dead. Shortly afterwards, Charles Riordan, a recording expert who’d been working with Todorov, is killed when his studio goes up in flames. As Rebus and Clarke piece together Todorov’s last hours, it seems that there might be a conspiracy behind the murder. Not only is Todorov a part of a close-knit, powerful group, but also, he may be doing business with Rebus’ nemesis, Ger Cafferty. Riordan’s tapes could threaten that conspiracy, and it was Riordan who taped Andropov’s remark about Todorov. As it turns out (and in a very neat twist), Rebus and Clarke do, indeed, have to deal with a “conspiracy of silence.” However, it’s not at all the kind of conspiracy they’d thought at first.

What’s your view? Do you enjoy novels that feature conspiracies? Which are your favorite "conspiracy" novels?

*NOTE: Anyone who knows what an Agatha Christie fan I am will know why I chose this particular title.


  1. I don't enjoy political conspiracy thrillers usually (I'm ashamed to admit that I get confused!) but I really enjoy conspiracies like "Orient." Great post, Margot!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - I know what you mean. One of the challenges of political conspiracy thrillers is that sometimes, it's hard to know what "side" the characters are on. That can add to the suspense, of course, but it does make it hard to keep track of the characters. Unless they're very well-written, I have to say that political thrillers aren't my first choice, either. "Personal" conspiracies like Orient, though? Bring 'em on!

  3. I agree with Elizabeth: I usually find conspiracy books weak and unconvincing. I did not think Murder on the OE a convincing solution, though I did quite like the book up until that point. Many conspiracy novels (before Dan Brown but increasingly after him) feature religious or other similar shadowy groups, often protecting some secret through the ages - not my cup of tea at all. (eg The Library of Shadows by Michael Birkegaard.) And many political or spy conspiracies seem to me to rely on far too much efficiency and perfection among the consiprators! (And how many times can one ejoy reading consipracies to kill the president or blow up a major city?) Even convincing writers make me a bit cross on this front - I am no particular friend of the global pharma industry but John LeCarre's novel The Constant Gardner was so persuasive but highly inaccurate on the research/business side that it made me rather cross.
    One conspiracy book I did like was Absolute Power, David Baldacci's debut - but he has not managed to match it (by a long way) since, in my view.
    Also, of course, J K Rowling did it very well by applying very tight plotting and a consistent set of rules to her fantasy universe. But she's an exceptional author.
    Possibly the conspiracy novels that work best are when the conspiracy is a relatively minor one, that isn't beyond the bounds of possibility for the conspirators to achieve, or for the good guys, whoever they may be, to uncover what is going on without resort to supernatural or unexplained technological powers.

  4. Maxine - One of the things, I think, that keeps readers interested in a particular crime novel or series is whether it's plausible. It takes a particularly talented author (Rowling is a great example) who can get us to believe something that's very far outside the realm of possibility. When a conspiracy doesn't ring true, it's very easy to lose interest. As you say, too, those large conspiracies depend on everyone doing his or her job perfectly, with no slip-ups. They also rely on the sleuth(s) to be able to stop the conspiracy, and that's not easy to make believable.

    I think that's why many people prefer those "smaller" conspiracies, where two people plot together to commit murder or pull off a crime. In fact, as I read your post, I was thinking of Loophole, or How to Rob a Bank by Robert Pollock. In that novel, a group of five disparate people, four of them hardened thieves, plot to rob a bank. The details of their plot and how it works out on the day of the robbery are at once funny and revealing about how conspiracies can turn out. It's a good example of why the most believable conspiracy novels are those where the plotters can actually do what they plan, and where, as you say, the sleuths have a chance to catch them.

  5. I hate to say I've read very few conspiracy books that I enjoyed. For the most part, I get bogged down with some of the detailed writings. The authors tend to draw out the information too much.

  6. Mason - It is sometimes hard, isn't it, to keep track of all of the details in some conspiracy novels. And, as you say, when the author takes the time to explain each part of the plan, that can, indeed, bog a plot down. That's why conspiracy novels tend to be most effective when the conspiracy isn't complicated, and when it doesn't involve something complex, like taking over a country. The most effective ones seem to involve just two or three people plotting something like the murder of one person.

  7. Anyone who knows what a Francesca Annis fan I am will know why I liked your title. ;o)
    I love conspiracy stories, and especially those where there is a connection between the victims that is obscure and requires the police to delve into the victims past.
    Then there are those other less grandiose conspiracies. When in Niccolo Ammaniti's The Crossroads the three lowlife characters plan to remove an ATM machine from the wall of a bank you know things will go horribly wrong.
    The characters in Elmore Leonard's Swag also don't have much chance of their conspiracy to rob succeeding, but the reader is still gripped by the action to keep turning the pages.

  8. I enjoy Daniel DeSilva's books. I've read them all. I'll go against the tide and bravely admit I like political conspiracy novels with the caveat that that the conspiracy has to make sense. Don't give me the run-of-the-mill power hungry villain, if I want to read about them, I'll read a James Bond. But pushing certain political or ideological agendas? Bring it on. Good fun.


  9. Hmmm...nah, I don't really like conspiracy novels but I'm always willing to eat my words - I probably do like some - I like the intrigue of Henry VIII's court for instance and anything written about that time and place has to write about conspiracies. Do you know that conspiracy means 'to breath together'? Cool eh?

  10. Norman - I thought you'd appreciate that title : ). You're right, too, that conspiracy novels where the victims have a hidden connection are fascinating. Then, the sleuth and the reader have the challenge of finding out what that connection is. When I read your comments about Swag, especially, they reminded me (as did Maxine's (see above)) of Loophole (also see above). In both novels, you see groups of people who have these grandiose dreams of wealth from bank robbery. The characterization is quirky, too. Of course, for several of the characters, things turn out better in Loophole than in Swag. As you say, the real fun in those kinds of novels is watching the action as the characters make their plans.

    Elspeth - You've put your finger on a very important aspect of good political thrillers: the conspiracy has to be original and sensible. Then, the reader can get caught up in the action. Daniel Silva is a good example of a thriller writer where the conspiracies are not just power-hungry-supervillains. Some of Vince Flynn's novels are like that, too. I think that one of the reasons that I like crime fiction as much as I do is that there is such a variety from which to choose. People like yourself who like conspiracy thrillers can get their fill. So can those who like quiet cozies. Or very dark noirfiction. Doesn't matter; crime fiction's got it.

  11. Jan - Thanks! That makes sense, and your comment warms my linguist's heart. I always like knowing where words come from. You raise a really interesting point, too, about historical mysteries. There are several series where there's political intrigue that ends up in murder. Your comment put me in mind of Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma series. Of course, that series takes place before the Turdor years, but it's an example of the kind of court intrigue you mention.

  12. I don´t like conspiracies either. One of my few exceptions is The Daughters of Cain - because the protagonists are so human, and because I sympathize with them!

    I hope Exit Music will also prove to be an exception as it is on its way to me from Abebooks.

  13. Dorte - I agree completely that The Daughters of Cain has very sympathetic characters. I understood why they act as they do, and they are, as you say, quite human. I hope you like Exit Music. The characters involved aren't sympathetic, really, but it's an engaging plot (at least it was for me), and Rankin does have some interesting surprises in store.