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?