It's Hallowe'en, a time of witches, ghosts, goblins and other frights. Lots of people like to tell scary stories at this time, and it's an interesting reminder of how fascinated we are with "things that go 'bump' in the night." But there's something even scarier than ghosts and goblins going on right now in the U.S.: election season. Yes, even as I post this, politicians and their campaign teams are canvassing for votes, and that is enough to scare anyone off. Crime fiction authors know how scary politics and politicians can be, especially at election time, so there are lots of interesting stories out there about political machincations.
For instance, in Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), politics and politicians block an investigation that Chief Inspector James "Jimmy" Japp and Hercule Poirot are conducting into the shooting death of Henry Morley, Poirot's dentist. At first, there seems to be no reason to murder Morley; he didn't have a large fortune, and, so it seemed, no enemies. Soon, though, the case is complicated by the fact that one of Morley's patients is powerful banker Alistair Blunt, who's got lots of political clout. He's also, therefore, got several political enemies. Then, one of Morley's other patients suddenly dies of what looks like an overdose of anesthetic, and another of his patients disappears. Poirot and Japp now see that there's a lot of intrigue behind the deaths and disappearance and in fact, at one point, their investigation is more or less called off. Japp's told to drop the case, so he asks Poirot to continue looking into the matter, and Poirot does. In the end, he's able to find out how politics and power have influenced this case, and who's responsible for the murders and disappearance.
In Christie's short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Poirot gets involved in a great deal of political intrigue. Prime Minister David MacAdam is scheduled to make a critical speech at a gathering in Paris. MacAdam's political enemies want England to take an appeasement approach to the worsening European political climate just before World War II; MacAdam and his allies feel differently, and his speech is expected to "rally the troops" against the growing political threat. However, he disappears on the way to the speech. So the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet visit Poirot secretly and ask him to find the Prime Minister. Poirot and Hastings only have a day to find the missing politician, because the speech is scheduled for the next day. Poirot and Hastings agree, and begin their investigation, determined to find the Prime Minister in time to get him to his speech. Besides being an interesting look inside politics, this story also has an intriguing theme of the "impossible crime."
We also get a look inside politics in Margaret Truman's Murder at the Kennedy Center. Senator Ken Ewald is poised for a bid to become the next U.S. president. He and his campaign staff have organized a glittering fund-raising event at Washington, DC's Kennedy Center, and it seems to be a great success. Towards the end of the evening, though, Andrea Feldman, an Ewald staff member, is shot. Georgetown law professor MacKenzie "Mac" Smith is walking his dog late that night and discovers her body. It happens that Smith is a friend of the Ewald family. So when Ken Ewald's son Paul is accused of Andrea Feldman's murder, the Ewalds ask Smith to defend him. Smith agrees and he begins to look into the case. He finds that the murder is directly related to Ewald's political career, and that the game of politics is much more dangerous than Ewald knew.
Of course, it's no safer to be a politician than it is to be around one. For instance, in Ngaio Marsh's Died in the Wool, New Zealand MP Flossie Rubrick goes to a wool shed on her husband's sheep station to practice an important political speech she's going to give. She never returns. Three weeks later, her body is found encased in a bale of wool. It's suspected that Flossie Rubrick's murder may be related to international intrigue and espionage, so her nephew asks Sir Roderick Alleyn to come to New Zealand and investigate. Alleyn agrees and travels to the Rubricks' home. There he finds that the members of Flossie Rubrick's household were all keeping secrets, including espionage, and that Flossie may have found out about her "homegrown" political enemy.
In Vince Flynn's Term Limits, three powerful Washington politicians are murdered in quick succession by a group of rogue military commandos. They believe that all politicians are corrupt and deserve to die, and they promise to keep killing politicians until power is restored to the American people. Michael O'Rourke, a former Marine, thinks that the killings bear the stamp of Special Forces operatives, and teams up with the FBI to find out who the members of the group are. O'Rourke is conflicted, though. On the one hand, he agrees with the group that politicians basically are corrupt; he's seen too much "backroom dealing" to have much faith in them. On the other, O'Rourke has no desire to see vigilantism. Besides, his brother Tim is a junior Congressman, and he's got no wish to see his brother in danger. Michael O'Rourke's feelings of divided loyalty play an important role in the suspense in this story.
Robert Barnard's A Murder in Mayfair also shows how deadly politics can be. Colin Pinnock is poised for real political success. His Parliamentary Party has just won a stunning victory in the recent round of elections, and he's just been offered a position as a junior minister in the Department of Education and Training. Pinnock's joy is soon dampened when among the many congratulatory letters and postcards he receives is a cryptic note asking, "Who do you think you are?" At first, Pinnock doesn't think much of the note, but he begins to wonder what the writer meant and what the message really was. Before long, he's looking into his own background and what he finds is shocking. Pinnock finds out that he may be the illegitimate son of Lord John Revill. Years earlier, Revill had disappeared after allegedly murdering his wife. He left behind a pregnant nanny, with whom it was said he was having an affair. At the time, it was suspected that Revill's money and power had allowed him to escape a trial and prison sentence. The closer that Pinnock gets to the truth about that long-ago murder, the more danger he brings on himself. In the end, Barnard ties together those past events and Pinnock's present life as Pinnock solves the mystery of his own birth and of the threats to his life.
And then there's the story of American Senator Frances McGuire, whose murder Washington police offer Fiona FitzGerald investigates in Warren Adler's Immaculate Deception. McGuire has taken a strong conservative political stance that includes vocal opposition to abortion. At first, McGuire's death looks like a suicide. Soon, though, FitzGerald suspects that the death may have been murder. Since McGuire was a strong voice for the right-to-life political view, she made both powerful political friends and equally powerful enemies. And when the autopsy reveals that McGuire was six weeks pregnant at the time of the death, the picture gets even more complicated. Especially when it turns out that her husband was not the father. So there are several suspects on both sides of the abortion issue, as well as suspects within McGuire's own family. As she sifts through the evidence, FitzGerald faces political pressure to pass the death off as a suicide, as well as pressure to catch the killer.
There are plenty of other crime fiction novels in which high-stakes politics and powerful politicians play a role. I've only mentioned a few of them. But even these few serve as a reminder of the scary and fearsome world to which politicians belong. You're advised to be very careful…..
Of course, the only thing more frightening than election season is not voting and not making your voice heard. That is truly eerie…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobby "Boris" Pickett's The Monster Mash.