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.