Thursday, May 6, 2010

It's the Lure of Easy Money, It's Got a Very Strong Appeal*

Most of us aren’t what you’d call greedy. But when the opportunity to make some easy money comes along, it can be hard to resist. That’s especially true if one’s already beset with financial trouble or disgruntled. That’s often the way that people get drawn into smuggling: there’s an opportunity for lots of money. Of course, money isn’t the only motive. Some people are drawn into smuggling on principle; others because smugglers have some sort of hold over them. Whatever the “draw,” smuggling offers the potential for real financial gain – and even greater danger. Perhaps it’s because the stakes in smuggling are high that it’s a popular theme in crime fiction. Of course, as times have changed, the way smuggling’s depicted has also changed. Still, it seems to be an enduring theme.

Smuggling is a plot point in a few of Agatha Christie’s novels. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay off the Devon coast. Also staying at the hotel are beautiful and notorious Arlena Stuart Marshall and her husband, Kenneth and stepdaughter, Linda. Very soon, talk begins to circulate that Arlena’s found a lover in Patrick Redfern, who’s staying at the hotel with his wife, Christine. Before long, it’s clear that they’re having an affair. One day, Arlena is found strangled. Suspicion falls first on her husband, since it seems he likely knew about her affair. He’s got an alibi, though, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for a suspect. As they’re investigating, they uncover a drug smuggling ring operating locally. In fact, the way the system works, drugs and money are exchanged at the very cove where Arlena’s body was found. So one of the theories of her murder is that she found out about the drugs ring and was murdered to keep her quiet. Of course, in true Christie style, all is not as it seems…

There’s also a smuggling ring in Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). In that novel, Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Felicity Lemon, asks him to help her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, get to the bottom of some mysterious thefts going on at the student hostel she manages. Poirot agrees to see what he can find out. When Celia Austin, one of the hostel’s residents, confesses to being responsible for many of the thefts, it seems that the mystery at the hostel has been cleared up. Then, two nights later, Celia dies of poisoning. When it becomes clear that this wasn’t a suicide, Poirot suspects that there’s much more going on at the hostel than there seemed. As he investigates, Poirot finds that the hostel was being used as a base for a smuggling ring. Celia accidentally found out some of what was going on, and wasn’t clever enough to keep quiet about what she knew. Christie actually makes us feel some sympathy for one of the smugglers, who never intended murder, and would have turned the murderer in if it hadn’t meant self-incrimination.

Drug smuggling is featured in Tony Hillerman’s The Dark Wind, in which Jim Chee, one of Hillerman’s sleuths, stumbles on the wreckage of a plane crash while he’s investigating vandalism to a local water tower. The plane was used to transport drugs onto the Navajo Reservation, but the drugs themselves have disappeared. It’s not long before the FBI agent sent in to investigate the drugs ring suspects Chee of complicity, since he found the wreckage quite conveniently. So it’s as much to clear his name as anything else that Chee looks into the case himself. He soon finds that the drugs ring is likely connected to a local man, Joseph Musket, who has a rather shady reputation, anyway. When Musket disappears, it seems clearer than ever that he was involved in the smuggling somehow, but before Chee can find him and ask him about the drugs ring, more tragedy strikes. In the end, Chee almost loses his own life as he looks for the person who’s really behind the water tower damage and the drug smuggling.

Former Gulf War pilot Cass Ridley pays the ultimate price for being involved with smuggling in Ed McBain’s Money, Money, Money. After the Gulf War, Ridley’s found that she can earn an awful lot of money by flying shipments of cocaine into the U.S. for a drug smuggling gang. She’s doing well with that new enterprise until one day when her apartment is burglarized and some of her money stolen. Not one to shrink from a challenge, Ridley decides to find out who’s responsible for the theft and burglary. When Ridley is murdered, the detectives of the 87th Precinct are assigned the case. Steve Carella is paired with the 88th Precinct’s Ollie Weeks, since Ridley’s death has crossed precinct boundaries. Investigating Ridley’s death turns out to be much more difficult than Carella or Weeks imagined, because the Secret Service managed to trace Cass Ridley’s stolen money before Carella and Weeks could, and changed the bills. So Carella and Weeks are now faced with several mysteries that they’re eventually able to connect. In the end, it turns out that the mysteries of the money and of Cass Ridley’s murder are related to a large and powerful drug gang.

In Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, Harry Bosch runs up against a powerful Mexican drug-smuggling operation. In that novel, Bosch is looking into the apparent suicide of L.A.P.D. officer Sergeant Calexico Moore. The L.A.P.D. brass is afraid that too much exposure of the Moore case could be embarrassing for the department, because there’s evidence that Moore might have been involved with a drug-smuggling gang. In order to keep Bosch from doing too much investigation of Moore’s death, his superiors assign him to “clean up” other cases left behind by a colleague who’s out on stress leave. When Bosch connects one of those other cases to the Moore death, he comes to believe that there was more going on with Calexico Moore’s death than it seems, and his search for answers leads him to a large drug-smuggling ring. Even though the smuggling gang isn’t directly responsible for Moore’s death, the operation plays an important role in the novel.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates diamond-smuggling in Blood From a Stone. When an illegal Senegalese immigrant is murdered, Brunetti and Sergeant Vianello begin to look into the man’s identity in order to find out why he was killed. They don’t find out much about him, but they do find out where he lived. When they get to the room he had, they find a cache of valuable diamonds. Just as Brunetti begins to get a few answers, the case is taken out of his hands and assigned to another Ministry. Now, Brunetti is sure that there’s much more going on than the murder of one illegal immigrant. In the end, he and Vianello uncover a powerful arms-for-diamonds smuggling ring that some very important people don’t want made public.

Arms smuggling also plays an important role in Janet Evanovich’s Two for the Dough. Stephanie Plum, Evanovich’s sleuth, has been assigned to find fugitive Kenny Mancuso. Mancuso is accused of shooting his former best friend, Moogey Blues, in the knee. When Mancuso flees, Plum and her partner, Ricardo Carlos “Ranger” Manoso are sent to find him. Matters get more complicated for everyone when Moogey Blues is shot again, and this time, killed. Now, Kenny Mancuso is desperate, and Plum is in even more danger as she looks for him. It turns out that Mancuso was involved with some very dangerous people in an arms smuggling operation. While the arms smuggling isn’t the real reason for Moogey Blues’ murder, it provides the context for a lot of the action in the story.

In Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast, detective Harry Hole and his partner, Ellen Gjelten, are on the alert when it seems that a new kind of rifle is being smuggled into Norway. At the same time, Hole is monitoring the activities of a Neo-Nazi group and its connections to an ex-convict who’s just narrowly escaped being jailed again. Hole and Gjelten discover that the Neo-Nazi group also has ties to the arms-smuggling ring; just as they are getting close to the truth about that connection, though, Gjelten is tragically killed. Now, Hole is faced not only with his grief over his partner’s death, but also with tying her murder in with another murder, the arms smuggling, and some terrible buried secrets from World War II.

Smuggling is a very risky business, so it’s no wonder that it’s often featured in crime fiction; as always, space limits the number of examples I can share here. Smuggling as a theme can be suspenseful and engaging, and there really are smuggling rings, sometimes involving some apparently very respectable people. So in that sense, smuggling’s a realistic plot point. On the other hand, if it’s not done well, it can appear melodramatic. Smuggling-related plots can be graphic, too. What’s your view? Do you enjoy plots where smuggling’s an important element? If you do, which novels have you liked?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glenn Frey’s Smuggler’s Blues.

On Another Note….
I’d like to thank Mason Canyon for awarding Confessions of a Mystery Novelist this Sweet Blog Award. That means a lot to me, and I appreciate the honor. And folks, please be sure to visit Mason’s excellent blog, Thoughts in Progress. It’s a fine collection of book reviews, a wide variety of guest authors, and more. Instead of passing it along in the more customary way, I’d like to do this. All of you who blog regularly work very hard to make your blogs excellent. You all deserve the award on that score, so if you’d like, please feel free to take the award “home” with you. Tell ‘em Margot awarded it to you : ).


  1. I prefer smuggling in a sub-plot (as in the Christie examples) rather than as the main plot. This probably has something to do with my preference for cozy whodunits rather than thrillers - I somehow associate a lot of smuggling in a book with thrillers. I did enjoy Ian Rankin's Mortal Causes and The Hanging Garden. The former involved gun-running in Ireland, and the latter had refugee smuggling from Eastern Europe as a theme.

  2. Oh, and congratulations on the lovely award - you truly deserve it!

  3. Smuggling as a plot can be intriguing as it leads to suspense and murder. If it's done right, the reader can also be surprised that the smuggler was really working undercover all the time. THE DARK WIND is a great example of using smuggling as the plot.

    Congratulations on the award. Even though you do have thought provoking posts on murder and mayhem, your blog is sweet.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Book Mole - Aww...thank you : )! I appreciate it very much. Isn't it interesting how smuggling is associated with thrillers? In what you'd call cozies, you don't expect smuggling to be a central theme, but it's not at all surprising in thrillers or noir novels (By the way, I like cozies, too). And thanks for mentioning those great Rankin books. They really are good examples of smuggling.

    Mason - *Blush* You are so kind! Thank you! Oh, and I like it, too, when you find out later that smugglers aren't always who they seem. It adds some neat turns and twists to the plot, doesn't it? I'm glad you liked The Dark Wind, too. I think that was a terrific read, and it highlights how deceptive appearances can be.

  5. You have got to be the most knowledgeable reader/writer out there. I don't know how you come up with such great examples of every topic. But you have to put them in book form.

  6. Patti - You are much, much too kind. Thanks for such nice words. Actually, I am planning to do just that, hopefully at the end of the year when I've finished the manuscript I'm working on now.

  7. Congratulations on your cute award.

    Generally, I think smuggling works best in old crime novels. It appeals to me when poor people along the cost make a little extra by smuggling whereas modern smuggling of drugs (and women!) is just cruel and repulsive.

    Small wonder, though, that I loved The Redbreast anyway. I remember writing in a review of one of Nesbø´s books that it took an excellent writer to make a bank robbery interesting. Nesbø seems to be able to capture me with ANY plot.

  8. Tak, Dorte : ) Funny, I have exactly the same reaction to Nesbø´s writing. If you showed me the outline of one of his plots, and didn't tell me who the author was, or identify Harry Hole by name, my first reaction would probably be, "Umm..I don't think so." And then I open a Nesbø and can't stop reading. That takes real talent. I have to say Michael Connelly has the same effect on me. In general, though, I agree with you about smuggling plots. In fact, I deliberately didn't mention novels where women or children are smuggled; I just couldn't do it. I know that may be closed-minded of me, but I just couldn't...

  9. I'm a little like the Book Mole--I associate smuggling with thrillers, although clearly that's not the case! Thanks for giving these examples, Margot--it'll help with my summer reading.

    Congrats on the award!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  10. Congrats on the award. Also, I want to say, I love how in depth your blogs are. I'm always amazed how many books you know but I think I've told you this before. And, your photos. I like how you take them by yourself and how well they fit your blog.


  11. Elizabeth - Thanks : ), and it's my pleasure to add to people's TBR lists; goodness knows others have extended that kindness to me ; ) You know who you are ; ). You know, it's funny; I was surprised, myself, at how many non-thrillers have smuggling as part of the plot. I suppose I shouldn't have been; smuggling's lucrative, so there are lots of people involved in it, and always have been. Interesting what our perceptions are, though.

  12. Clarissa - Thank you! And how very kind of you to say such nice things : ). I'm blushing now : ). I actually enjoy taking those 'photos, although I've had some interesting adventures getting some of them. Sometime I'll write my memoirs ; ).

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