Let's be honest; we don't live in a perfect world. I'd bet that most of us would agree that there's too much crime, corruption, pollution, injustice, sickness and lots more. It's perfectly natural to get angry about some of the things that are wrong in our societies. Sometimes, that anger sparks people to try to do something about whatever their particular cause is. Sometimes, it simply leads people to needless violence and destruction. Other times, it leads people to become bitter and have what's often called a "chip on their shoulder." In crime fiction that sort of righteous anger can also add a fascinating element to a character or plot. It can also add a motive for murder.
Several of Agatha Christie's novels feature characters who carry that sort of anger. For example, in Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot is on a cruise of the Nile. On the same journey are Simon and Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who are on their honeymoon. One night, Linnet is shot. The most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, who's also Simon's former fiancée. It's soon proven, though, that she could not have committed the murder, so Poirot and Colonel Race (who's got his own reasons for being on the cruise) have to look elsewhere for the culprit. One other possible suspect is Mr. Ferguson, an unusual young man who is, as he puts it, "studying conditions." He's terribly angry about the injustice of class differences and says that he's in favour of violence as a way to right the world's wrongs. In fact, he says he'd like to kill Linnet Doyle because
"What good has that woman ever been to anyone or anything?…Hundreds and thousands of wretched workers slaving for a mere pittance to keep her in silk stockings and useless luxuries."
He's an interesting character and even more so when we find out a secret he's been keeping.
And then there's Howard Raikes, whom we meet in Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). He's a left-wing activist who wants to tear down the existing social structures and build something completely new. He's in love with Jane Olivera, whose uncle, Alistair Blunt, is a wealthy, powerful but conservative banking leader. Raikes hates Blunt and everything he stands for. One day, Blunt's dentist Henry Morley is shot in his surgery, and it soon seems that his murder might have been part of a larger plot against Blunt. First, one of Morley's other patients disappears. Then there's another death. Raikes becomes a suspect in this plot as Hercule Poirot and Inspector James "Jimmy" Japp investigate. It turns out that the solution to the mystery is both simpler and more complicated than it seems on the surface. One of the elements that makes this story interesting is question of social change, how it should be brought about and what the future should be like.
That sort of righteous anger forms the backdrop for Peter Robinson's A Necessary End. In that novel, DI Alan Banks and his team brace for an anti-nuclear demonstration to be held in Eastvale. The demonstrators come to town and sure enough, there are conflicts and clashes among the citizens, the demonstrators and the police. In the midst of the chaos, PC Edwin Gill is stabbed. Banks' boss, Superintendent Richard Burgess, is convinced that one of the demonstrators killed Gill, and is determined to find the guilty party among them. It's true that many of the demonstrators are angry about the development of nuclear weapons and there were some clashes with police. But Banks isn't convinced that Gill was killed by a demonstrator, so he investigates the case, much to his superior's chagrin. It turns out that Gill was murdered for an entirely different, more personal reason.
In Donna Leon's Through a Glass, Darkly, we meet Marco Ribetti, an environmental activist. One day he's arrested during a protest, and asks his friend Inspettore Vianello for help. Vianello and his boss Commissario Guido Brunetti manage to get Ribetti freed - and end up in the middle of a murder investigation. It turns out that Ribetti's father-in-law Giovanni de Cal is the owner of one of the local glass-blowing factories that may be responsible for a great deal of illegal toxic waste dumping. When de Cal's night watchman Giorgio Tassini is killed after his own protests against the factory's dumping practices, de Cal becomes a prime suspect.
There are also some chilling examples of how that anger can be manipulated. For instance, in Joseph N. Gores' short story Watch For It, Eric Whitlach is a radical student activist who's injured and hospitalised when a bomb he's planted in a college cafeteria goes off prematurely. As soon as Whitlach's well enough, the police plan to take him into custody. Whitlach's friend Ross (one of the few people Whitlach really trusts) finds out about what's happened to his friend and sneaks into the hospital to see him. While he's there, he tells Whitlach of secret plans he and some fellow radicals have made to free Whitlach from the hospital before the police can take charge. That short story, more than many other stories I've read, shows how people's anger can be exploited. Of course, that's just my personal opinion…
Sometimes, of course, sleuths themselves are driven by what you might call righteous anger. They see what they consider to be injustice or corruption and that anger drives them to want to make it right. That's the case with Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. In novels such as The Black Ice and Angels Flight, Bosch goes up against what he sees as a corrupt L.A.P.D. system. In those novels, Bosch channels his anger, you might say, into getting to the truth behind the cases he's working on and setting things right. In The Last Coyote, Bosch's anger gets the best of him; he assaults a superior and is forced to take a leave of absence and get psychotherapy. But even that doesn't really stop Bosch from trying to do the right thing. Instead, he uses the time to investigate the 30-year-old murder of a prostitute whose death no-one really took seriously. For Bosch, though, it's a very serious and personal matter, as the woman was his mother.
Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus also has a proverbial "chip on his shoulder." He wants to be a good cop and do his job, and he has no patience for the bureaucracy and officialdom of the police. Rebus does have difficulty managing his anger, but he tries to channel it. In novels like The Black Book and Resurrection Men, we see how Rebus uses his anger at "the system" to get to the heart of the cases that he investigates.
Of course, as with anything else, the theme of "the angry character" can be made contrived. But when it's done well, it can also be quite compelling. But what's your view? Which "angry characters" have you enjoyed?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Prelude/Angry Young Man. This is just my opinion, so feel free to disagree, but this one really shows Joel's talent as a pianist…