Monday, March 22, 2010

Power Corrupts...

The urge to have power and use it is one of the stronger forces in human nature. I don’t have enough background in psychology, biology or sociology to explain why this is so, although it may have something to do with our species’ struggle to survive. The need to dominate and to have power is arguably at the root of business and other rivalries, “turf wars” of all kinds and, so many researchers say, domestic violence. For some people, power is more important than anything else, and for others, power is a very attractive quality. Since the urge to control and be powerful is such an integral part of many humans’ makeup, it makes sense that it also plays a role in crime fiction. After all, power is a very strong motive for murder. Abuse of power is a very realistic way to make oneself a murder victim.

There’s an interesting discussion of power in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). Hercule Poirot reluctantly pays his semi-annual visit to his dentist, Mr. Morley. A short while later, Morley’s dead – shot in his office. Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp asks Poirot to get involved in the case, since Poirot was one of the patients who visited Morley that morning. Japp himself is involved because another of Morley’s patients, Alistair Blunt, is a wealthy and powerful banker, and Scotland Yard officials think that Blunt may have been the real target. There are several people who’d like nothing better than to get him out of the way. Matters get more complicated when another patient of Morley’s, a shady Greek businessman, dies of an overdose of anesthetic. Then, a third patient of Morley’s, a middle-aged spinster with, it would seem, no enemies at all, disappears. It’s soon very clear to Japp and Poirot that there’s a lot more to Morley’s death than just the murder of a dentist. Poirot finds out who’s behind the murders and the disappearance. When he does, he discovers that the real motive for everything has been the desire for power and the belief that the murderer is entitled to that power. In fact, Poirot says this about the murderer:

“Within you the love of power grew to overwhelming heights.”

There’s another example of the effects of power in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil. In that novel, Queen is renting a home in Hollywood so he can get some rest and do some writing. He’s no sooner settled in, though, than nineteen-year-old Lauren Hill visits him, asking for his help in solving the mystery of her father’s death. Leander Hill, Lauren’s father, died of a heart attack after receiving the ghastly gift of a dead dog, and a cryptic note that more was on the way. His business partner, Roger Priam, also has been receiving strange notes and packages. Lauren believes that her father’s heart attack was deliberately caused, and wants Queen to find out who’s responsible. Queen is very reluctant but eventually agrees. He tries to find out from Priam who might have wanted to frighten him. Priam knows, but refuses to give Queen any information, so Queen ends up investigating the case with very little help. When he finds out the truth behind Leander Hill’s death and the threats against Roger Priam, Queen discovers that a love of power has played a major role in what’s happened.

Power is a major theme in several of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers. In part, that’s because very often, there’s real competition for resources in hospitals. So, for instance, there may be competition between doctors who have hospital privileges but bill for their services, and doctors who are salaried, and members of the medical school’s faculty. That’s what happens in Godpplayer. In that novel, Thomas Kingsley, a brilliant heart surgeon, is a member of the surgical staff at Boston Memorial Hospital. He’s well-paid, revered for his skills, and has a great deal of power at the hospital. Kingsley’s wife, Cassi, is a psychiatry resident at the same hospital. After several unexplained deaths, Cassi begins to suspect that something more than terrible accidents may be going on. So she and her friend, pathologist Robert Seibert, begin to investigate the deaths. Before Cassi knows it, she’s up against some very powerful hospital forces. What’s interesting about this novel is that we see issues of power being addressed at more than one level. On one level, the rivalry between the medical school and the surgical staff doctors is woven throughout the story. There’s also the hierarchy in the hospital. Cassi is a resident; her husband and the other doctors have much more power and status, and are not, at first, willing to take seriously anything that Cassi might suggest, since she’s not “one of them.” Finally, there are the power issues between Thomas and Cassi Kingsley themselves. While this novel is arguably not Cook’s finest, it’s a very interesting study of power.

So is Contagion, in which Cook’s sleuths, Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery, investigate a series of unexplained deaths from a virulent strain of influenza that hasn’t been seen in many decades. All of the deaths occur at Manhattan General Hospital, which is associated with AmeriCare, a large health insurance company. AmeriCare is involved in an ongoing power struggle with its chief rival, National Health. So it seems clear that someone at National Health will go to any extreme to undermine AmeriCare. Soon, enough, though Stapleton and Montgomery realize that solving this case isn’t as simple as finding a killer among National Health’s employees. In the end, Stapleton finds out who’s behind the mysterious deaths. When he does, he also finds out that power, and the desire for it, have a great deal to do with the killer’s motivation.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code brings up interesting questions of power within the Catholic Church. Harvard historian Robert Langdon is called to the Louvre to help investigate the death of curator Jacques Saunière. Saunière left several coded symbols behind to help point to his killer, and Langdon is an expert on those historical symbols. When he gets to the museum, Langdon meets Sophie Neuveu, Saunière’s grand-daughter, who is a talented cryptographer.The two begin to investigate Saunière’s death, and find that it’s connected to a centuries-long power struggle between different forces within the Catholic Church. Langdon and Neuveu end up getting caught up in a battle between those forces, with both sides after them. In the end, they’re able to find out who killed Saunière and why and how that murder fits in with the hierarchy of power in the Church.

An especially clear example of the effect of power is in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first of his Millenium trilogy. Mikael Blomkvist is the publisher for a struggling publication, Millenium. As the novel opens, Blomkvist has just lost a libel case against Hans-Erik Wennerström, a powerful Swedish industrialist. In fact, it’s Wennerström’s power and influence, more than anything else, that’s protected him from Blomqvist’s lawsuit. Blomqvist is desperate to save his publication, so he makes an agreement with Henrik Vanger, another powerful industrialist. Vanger agrees to provide Blomkvist with information he needs to bring Wennerström down. In return, Blomkvist agrees to find out what happened to Vanger’s grand-niece, Harriet Vanger, who disappeared years ago. Blomkvist and his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander, begin their search for the Vanger family’s past. Throughout the novel, we see the way in which power protects people and the ways in which it hampers investigations and in the end, we see how being powerful has corrupted several of the characters.

What do you think of that old saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely?” Do you see it in the crime fiction you’ve enjoyed?


  1. I *definitely* see it, and not just in crime fiction! :) There's something fun in seeing someone powerful (and corrupt) get brought down a notch. the case of crime fiction...murdered.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - I know just what you mean. It really does give us a sense of satisfaction when the mighty fall, doesn't it? That's especially true when that mighty person is also corrupt. That's what I love about crime fiction. You can make that happen : ).

  3. That is one of the fun things about reading. The bad guy gets his justice desserts so to speak. In the case of the corrupt and powerful, we feel life has been righted by their downfall.

  4. Crime fiction gives us a wonderful stage upon which to view all the despicable types. The powerful tycoon harming the vulnerable is one that nobody mourns when he's murdered. And, for the murderer, the pursuit of power or trying to hang on to power is a great motive and all the better because most times they are mentally competent. I don't like feeling sorry for the villains and sometimes the murderer who is mentally ill doesn't give a satisfying outcome.

  5. Mason - You've got a good point! it isfun when the corrupt and powerful "get theirs," isn't it? We get a sense of catharsis when we know that someone who's bloated with power has fallen. I know I do.

    Bobbi - I like that kind of motive, too - where the murderer is trying to hang onto or get power. It's easier to feel no sympathy at all, so when the murderer is caught, the reader isn't conflicted. It's a very satisfying ending. I agree with you that the powerful tycoon as the victim can make for a good plot, too, as long as the character isn't too "stock." Crime fiction lets us see what happens when someone pushes too far, or is too greedy or too swollen with power.

  6. I enjoy reading the downfall of the powerful, corrupt and bullying types.

  7. Glynis - I know what you mean. It can be enjoyable to see those who are "drunk on power" get their comeuppance. There's something very satisfying about it, isn't there?

  8. I worked at a hospital years ago in which power and the struggle to keep or attain it created an evil atmosphere. For that reason, I guess, Robin Cook novels scare me half to death; I simply can't read them. Too much power in those who have human lives in their hands is one of the most frightening things I can think of. After leaving that job, I worked in private medical offices but could still see the trickling down effect of those power struggles. Creepy.

  9. Barbara - It is eerie, isn't it? When people have that much power and misuse it, that really is frightening. Sometimes that happens with judges, too (and police). It happens in real life and in novels. For instance, in C.J. Box's Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, there's a powerful judge who uses that power to influence the outcome of an adoption case, and it's scary.

    I can well imagine that you've seen that kind of power struggle in a medical office as well as a hospital. Wherever they practice, doctors have a lot of power...

  10. Acton was right when he said: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The end of the quote is "Great men are almost always bad men" which is certainly food for thought!

    The best book I've ever read exploring this premise is HOUSE OF CARDS by Michael Dobbs. His protagonist, Francis Urquhart, is a wonderful mix of Iago, Richard III and Macbeth. The brilliance is,(especially in the television series - starring the formidable Ian Richardson) you want to root for this antihero as he schemes and manipulates his way towards his goal of becoming prime minister.

    The television version has a different ending than the book. In my opinion the TV version is better - far more chilling. Watch it. Amazing work.

  11. Elspeth - Thanks for the rest of that quote. It is, indeed, food for thought.

    Also, thanks for letting me know about the House of Cards TV series. I don't watch lots of TV, so I haven't seen this one, but the premise sounds both creepy and fascinating. I'll have to see if I can find the DVDs. I love your description of Urquhart, by the way : ).

  12. Margot; It's an old series - you'll only find it on DVD. Brilliant.

  13. Thanks, Elspeth - I shall institute a search.

  14. I've seen it in a few books but I've seen it more in real life.

    Great usual.

    Have an award on my blog for you... you will see it later today.


  15. Ann - Thank you : ). It's very kind of you to give the nod to Confessions..... You're right that real life is just full of examples of people who get swollen with power," so to speak. As often as we see it, it sometimes surprises me that people still fall into that trap, but they do.

  16. Yes, "one rule for us, one rule for them". As is rather notably the case with our British MPs at the moment, ouch. Independent bodies to set salaries, expenses etc are very necessary. And ban all the lobbyists and "special advisers".

    I agree particuarly about the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this is a very good examination of different types of power.

  17. Maxine - Please forgive me not getting back to your comment before now! How embarrassing!!

    It is amazing, isn't it, how there does seem to be a "double standard" for those who are in power. Those with money and influence live by one set of rules. The rest of us live by another. I like your ideas of independent bodies keeping a check on things like salaries, perks and the like. I think it might serve as a nice leveling influence. Of course, there are a lot of logistics that would have to be worked out, but...