Monday, May 31, 2010

I Believe I've Passed the Age of Consciousness and Righteous Rage*

Passion for a cause can galvanize a group of people and make for real change. Often those changes lead to important improvements. For example, civil rights, protection of workers, environmental protection and other major changes have come about because people got passionate about a cause, protested, called attention to the problem and insisted on change. A lot of dedication and passion are needed if a cause is going to move forward. Is it possible to carry that passion too far? Well, if crime fiction is any indication, then passion, even for what most people would call a worthy cause, has to be tempered with judgment, even compassion. An excess of zeal is just as dangerous as any other excess if it’s put ahead of anything else. In crime fiction, protestors and causes can add levels of suspense and interest. They can also be very effective motives (and covers) for murder.

Agatha Christie deals with causes and passion for them in a few of her novels. For instance, in Dead Man’s Folly, Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective story writer, has created a Murder Hunt as a kind of scavenger hunt event for an upcoming fête. She begins to get the sense that something more is going on than a simple fête, so she asks Hercule Poirot to come to Nasse House, where the fête is to be held, and investigate. On the day of the fête, Marlene Tucker, who’d been chosen to play the “victim” in the Murder Hunt, is strangled. Poirot realizes then how right Ariadne Oliver was, and begins to search for clues to the crime. One of the suspects in the murder is Alec Legge, a young scientist who’s been staying in a nearby cottage with his wife, Peggy. Alec Legge made the mistake of getting involved with a radical political group. When he tried to distance himself from the group, he found himself in real trouble. Since Marlene Tucker was the kind of girl who found out people’s secrets, it’s quite possible that Legge killed her to hide his association with the group.

In The Clocks, we meet Colin Lamb, a member of the Secret Service. He’s on the trail of a spy who’s been selling secrets to “the other side.” In his search for the guilty party, Lamb finds himself in quiet Wilbraham Crescent, a neighborhood in the town of Crowdean. He’s passing one particular house when a girl comes out of it, screaming that there’s a dead man in the house. Before long, Lamb’s drawn into the case, not the least because he’s also drawn to Sheila Webb, the young woman who raised the alarm and who may have more of a connection to the murder than even she realizes. Lamb brings the case to his father’s friend, Hercule Poirot. Together, the two find out who the dead man was, and who murdered him. In the course of that investigation, Lamb also finds out who the spy is who’s been selling information. Towards the end of the novel, Lamb is discussing matters with the spy, and the two have a conversation about dedication to this cause. Lamb says:

“With you a cause came first.”
“As it should do.”
“I don’t agree.

“You haven’t got what it takes for this job.”
“I’m content”...
to be human.”

John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler also takes up the question of causes. In this case, the zeal and passion are in the form of student protests that take place on the campus of Hewes College, where Professor Arnold Weschler teaches classics. A radical group has come to Hewes College, and it’s believed that they’re responsible for several events on campus. President Winthrop Dohrn asks Weschler to use his influence to stop the students. Weschler’s estranged brother, David Weschler, is one of the leaders of the student group, and Dohrn wants Weschler to contact his brother and intervene. Weschler is reluctant to do so, but he is concerned for his career, which hinges on the president’s goodwill, among other things. So he agrees. He makes contact with David, and begins to get to know the members of the student group and even have sympathy for some of them. Then the president’s grand-daughter is kidnapped. Next, a bomb goes off at the home of the president, killing him. Now, Weschler knows he’s up against a killer. He also knows that David is very likely to be saddled with the crime unless he can prove his brother’s innocence. In the end, Weschler finds that the murderer let zeal for the cause win out over what we might call humanity.

In Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage, the focus is on environmental causes. Inspector Wexford goes up against several disparate environmental groups who unite to protest the building of the Kingsmarkham Bypass. The new road will go through Framhust Great Wood, among other places, and Wexford’s dismayed at what he sees as the coming destruction of the countryside. His wife, Dora, who’s already a member of more than one environmental-protection group, is just as unhappy about it. Then, the protest against the bypass becomes more dangerous, and hostages are taken. Among them is Dora Wexford. Now, Wexford and his team have to “race against the clock” to free the hostages and stop the protestors from doing any further damage. In the end, Wexford finds that the group’s zeal has been manipulated, and that in this case, wiser heads didn’t prevail, so to speak.

There’s also a protest in Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly. In that novel, Marco Ribetti is arrested during a protest outside a paint factory. The group he’s with is protesting the way the factory disposes of its toxic waste. Ribetti ‘phones his friend, Sergeant Vianello, and asks for help. Vianello asks Commissario Guido Brunetti to come along and help get Ribetti out of prison. The two men arrange for Ribetti’s release, but Brunetti soon finds out that there’s more to this story than a protest group. It turns out that Ribetti’s father-in-law, Giovanni De Cal, owns a glass factory that’s been accused of illegal dumping of toxic waste. One of the main accusers is Georgio Tassini, who works in a rival glass factory. Tassini has claimed that several of the glass factories (including his current employer) are polluters, and blames the toxic waste dumping for his daughter’s severe special needs. When Tassini is found dead early one morning, Brunetti investigates. In the end, Brunetti finds that Tassini’s protests against the illegal dumping cost him his life.

We get a look at the inside, so to speak, of a protest in Peter Robinson’s A Necessary End. The small town of Eastvale becomes the target of an anti-nuclear demonstration. This novel begins with the preparations for the demonstration, and the reader gets to “listen to” the strategies the protestors have developed for being heard. The demonstration turns ugly, and the protestors clash with the police and with locals. In the midst of the arrests, injury reports and so on that follow the violence, it’s discovered that P.C. Edwin Gill has been stabbed to death. At first, it’s believed that he was killed by one of the protestors, but it’s soon clear that there was more to Gill’s death than a protest gone out of control. For one thing, CID Superintendent Richard “Dirty Dick” Burgess soon turns the investigation into a personal vendetta, which flames up already-seething local resentments. DCI Alan Banks guesses that Gill may not have been murdered by one of the demonstrators, but he’s taking a real risk in going up against his superior. In the end, he realizes he’s going to have to uncover what was really going on in Eastvale in order to find Gill’s real killer and stop the undeclared “war” between Burgess and a local sixties-style commune.

In well-written crime fiction, questions about zeal for causes, demonstrations, and protests can add a fascinating layer of interest, even suspense, to the plot. They can also make us think about how much zeal is too much. Have you enjoyed novels that explore causes, protests and impassioned demonstrations? Which ones have you liked best?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Prelude/Angry Young Man.


  1. For the life of me, I can't think of any novels about causes although I'm sure I've read many. Everyone has a cause they're into...whether they know it or not.


  2. Clarissa - I think you're right; we all have something we're passionate about. Some of us are blindly devoted to whatever that cause is, and some aren't. But nearly all of us care about something...

  3. Rendell's Simeola (I think that's the title) made me aware of the problem of young girl's being brought into England illegally and used as slaves. Shocking.

  4. Patti - Oh, yes! Simisola is a very powerful book, isn't it? *shudder*... I'm glad you mentioned it.

  5. As always an excellent post Margot. For some people I think it's really hard to balance passion for a cause with being reasonable - in real life as well as in fiction. Road Rage is one of my 'go to' books for this subject (it's my favourite of Rendell's) but another book that has zealots committing crimes is L J Sellars' The Sex Club which features some nasty right wingers who think that killing people is acceptable if those people are engaging in activities that are considered morally wrong (i.e. abortion).

    I think these kind of books often go wrong because the authors end up taking a side on the issue and letting their opinions take over from the narrative. Even some of my favourite authors, like Sara Paretsky have, in my opinion, gone off the rails a little when they try to do this kind of thing.

  6. Bernadette - Thanks : ). Isn't Road Rage an excellent book? I can see why you like it the most of Rendell's books. It's funny that you mention The Sex Club and its premise of moral arbitration. In that way, it reminds me of one of the characters in Donna Leon's Suffer the Little Children. This character is a self-appointed moral arbiter who has a way of ruining the lives of those who commit what this character considers sins. Interesting parallel...

    You are right that when authors do tackle issues like this, it's very tempting to turn a novel into a soapbox instead of a good story. It can be hard to avoid integrating one's own views, but I agree, that can definitely detract from the plot.

  7. I'm another who can't think of a title right off. However, feeling strongly for or against a cause can lead a story in so many directions. Interesting post. I always learn so much from your post. Thank you. :)

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Mason - Thanks for the kind words : ). You're right that issues, and the people who are truly passionate about them, can certainly lead one in so many, many different directions. That's what can make for an intriguing storyline.

  9. Oh gosh. Here we go with my horrid memory again, but there was a book with a group similar to PETA that was letting research animals go and then setting fire to the facility? Or was it PETA people letting hound dogs go from a foxhunt area and then setting fire to the barns. Hmm. Anyway, it was good! And I can't remember the author or title either. Clearly. :)

  10. Thank you Margot, for this post (as well as all the others). Reading these is like attending a course in writing. I've had many, many A-ha -moments, thanks to your expertise.

  11. Elizabeth - Oooh, now you've intrigued me!! Hmmm.. I'm going to do some research and see if I can track down the book you're referring to. Animal rights issues certainly get people passionate, and there are so many debates in that area. I'm definitely going to see what I can find out.

    Christine - *Blush* Thank you - you are very, very kind. I'm glad you find something of use here...