Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Thin Veneer...

One of the many lessons that crime fiction teaches us is how thin the veneer of civilisation really is. In just about every culture, there’s a structure and a code of rules, both written and unwritten, that govern the way we treat one another. That’s one reason why most of us wouldn’t consider committing murder. Most children are taught from a very young age what their culture expects of them and how to live as a part of a society. But when that social structure we learn breaks down, or when the structure itself rewards what most of us would call brutality, we see a different side of human nature and sometimes, it’s not a very pretty sight.

Agatha Christie shows how thin that veneer is in And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel (which Christie herself was said to have liked very much), ten people receive invitations to Indian Island off the Devon coast. Each letter is a little different, so for different reasons, each person accepts. Everyone arrives on the island and gets settled in, but after dinner, everyone is shocked when each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one person. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. And then another. It’s soon clear that there’s a murderer on the island, and as a storm cuts the island off, the survivors try to find out who the murderer is and stay alive themselves. As the novel goes on, we see the social structure that the guests are all accustomed to slowly erode, and that adds a very chilling layer to the novel.

We also see a bit of what lies beneath that veneer in Christie’s Ordeal By Innocence (also said to one of Christie’s personal favourites). Jacko Argyle was tried and convicted for the murder of his stepmother Rachel Argyle. Although he claimed innocence, Argyle was imprisoned and died there. Two years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary recovers from a bout of amnesia and remembers that he can corroborate Jacko Argyle’s claim of innocence. Calgary travels to Sunny Point, the family home, and shares the fact that Jacko Argyle didn’t kill his stepmother. Now, the surviving members of the Argyle family realise that if Jacko Argyle was innocent, one of them must be guilty. As Calgary and Rachel Argyle’s son-in-law Philip Durrant slowly discover what really happened, we see the social structure of this family slowly fray.

Alex Scarrow’s Afterlight also shows us what happens when social structure breaks down. The global supply of oil has crashed and led to the end of the life most of us take for granted. Among the survivors of the crash is a group of people living on an oil rig off the coast of Norfolk. This group, led by Jenny Sutherland, has managed to become self-sufficient and is functioning fairly well. Another group of survivors, this one led by Alan Maxwell, is living in the Millennium Dome in London. That group’s rules, and Maxwell’s authority, are enforced by a brutal group of young soldiers. The delicate social structure on the oil rig is threatened when the group rescues Valerie Latoc, a Belgian who was found badly wounded in a nearby town. As he recovers, he begins to threaten the social fabric of the group by taking advantage of the small disagreements and conflicts that inevitably arise in groups of people. Then, when Jenny Sutherland’s son Jacob and his friend Nathan find out that the people living in the Dome may have electricity, they can’t resist the urge to travel to London and find out for themselves. This decision proves to be a very dangerous one, and we see as the novel goes on how easily social structure can wear down.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a visit from Andrea Curtin, an American widow who lived in Africa for several years before returning to the United States. Curtin wants to know the truth behind the disappearance of her son Michael. Ten years earlier, Michael Curtin had joined a commune dedicated to eco-friendly living and agriculture. Then, one of the members of the group reported him missing. A search was made but neither Michael Curtin nor his body was found. Now, his mother asks Mma. Ramotswe to see if she can find out what really happened. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and travels to the commune where Michael Curtin was last known to have lived. She slowly gets to the truth of the matter and as we learn what happened to him, we also get a look at what happens when there is a very delicate social structure that breaks down.

Sometimes, of course, the social structure itself rewards or at least condones what most of us would agree is brutality. So people act in violent ways because they see it as the price of survival. For example, in Simon Lelic’s Rupture (AKA A Thousand Cuts), DI Lucia May is called in to investigate the shooting deaths of three students and a teacher at an exclusive London school. The shooter, Samuel Szajkowski, turned the gun on himself, so he can’t explain what happened. May is expected to simply “rubber stamp” the explanation that Szajkowski simply “snapped,” and that the shootings were the work of one deranged person. As she begins to interview students and staff, though, May becomes aware that this is more than just a case of one person with mental illness. Instead, we find that the school’s culture and social structure had a great deal to do with what happened. This structure is eerily mirrored in the structure of May’s own work environment, which has a similar brutal culture.

In Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight, Harry Bosch investigates the murder of Elias Howard, a prominent Los Angeles attorney who’s made his name prosecuting charges of brutality and racism against the L.A.P.D. Howard was just about to begin litigating a case on behalf of Michael Harris, who was convicted of the rape and murder of twelve-year-old Stacey Kincaid. Harris claims that he was innocent and that the L.A.P.D. tortured him in order to force him to confess. Because of Howard’s history of targeting the L.A.P.D., the very police who are supposed to protect our social structure are the most likely suspects. As Bosch investigates Harris’ claims, he finds that in fact, Harris was right. Evidence was tampered with and there are other real problems with the case against him. So not only is Bosch faced with finding Howard’s murderer, he’s also trying to find out who really killed Stacey Kincaid. As he investigates both cases, Bosch goes up against a social structure in the L.A.P.D. that protects its own, quietly condones corruption and seems to reward brutality.

That’s also the case in Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors. L.A.P.D homicide detective Shane Scully gets a frantic call from Barbara Molar, the wife of Scully’s former partner Ray Molar. She’s being abused by her husband and is afraid he’s going to kill her. Scully arrives in time to save Barbara’s life but when Molar shoots at him, Scully kills Molar in self-defense. Before he knows it, though, Scully’s the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation. He also becomes the target of most of the L.A.P.D, for whom Ray Molar was a hero – a “cop’s cop.” The truth is that Molar was a brutal person who was frequently unfaithful to his wife and who abused her physically more than once. But the L.A.P.D. culture has protected him. So when Scully starts asking too many questions, he becomes a pariah. He also finds that he’s being set up in order to hide some very high-level corruption. As much as anything else, this novel shows what happens to people when a social structure condones certain behaviour.

The good news is that in nearly all of these novels, we also see tremendous courage and the inner strength to maintain what most of us would call humanity. Humans are capable of that, too. But what do you think? Just how deep is that “veneer of civilisation?” Which novels have you enjoyed that explore this question?


  1. Just finished 'And Then There Were None' about a week ago - it is officially my favourite mystery (thriller?). That one had me baffled, guessing and re-guessing right to the end (and then some). You're spot on, it was a great example of the darkness that lies beneath characters' moralistic facade.

  2. Charmaine - So glad you enjoyed that one as much as you did. Isn't it a chilling look at what can like beneath even the most straitlaced surface? I admit it; the first time I read that one I missed some important things that I didn't notice until I read it again. And even after reading it several more times, there are still little things I pick up each time I glance back at it.

  3. Don't take it as anything but a compliment to your power to extract the essense of a book, but this is one bunch of books I am definitely going to stay away from.
    The one fundamental thing about me is that I believe that people are intrinsically good, and it is circumstances that challenge them. All these books (except maybe the Borsch - I can understanding wanting to get justice for one of your own) fly against that belief, and I am not sure I am strong enough to read them yet.

    Great post, Margot. And have I missed not having time to visit your blog all week :-(

  4. Rayna - Thanks for the kind words, Rayna :-). I am always honoured when you have the time to stop by and leave me a comment.

    And you do have a very good point. Some books really do challenge one's beliefs and ways of thinking and they can be more difficult to read. You're not the only one who believes as you do about people and I admire that part of you very much. In fact, that's one thing I like very much about Harry Bosch, Kurt Wallander and several other sleuths. They are good, decent people who try to make the world better. And yet, they aren't boring, "flat" characters with no imperfections. Give me a fallible, far-from-angelic sleuth who still tries to do the right thing...

  5. Margot, I too am not very comfortable with the veneer of civilization being too thin, and perhaps that is why "And Then THere Were None" is one of my least favorite Christie works in spite of its immense popularity.

    I find "The Lord of the Flies" very disturbing for the same reason.

    On another note, I'm back after a hiatus from blogging and its great to "see" you again - hope all is well!

  6. A very interesting question Margot. Don't know if you have read Brodeck's Report by Phillipe Claudel. I think it takes your question to the limit. Like in the case of an entire population, Nazi Germany. Under certain circumstances maybe Hobbes was rigth (Homo homini lupus). Fortunately there is a 'veneer of civilization' that prevents us to kill each other in all kind of senses. I don't think people in general is good or bad but, under certain circumstances, everyone is able to ....
    Maybe that's the underlaying question in crime fiction.

  7. Book Mole - How nice to see you again! I missed you -so glad you're back :-). You're right that it's disturbing to think of how thin that veneer can be. And you're by no means the only one who finds books such as And Then There Were None and Lord of the Flies difficult to read or distasteful for that reason.

    José Ignacio - Thanks for bringing up Brodeck's Report. It certainly does take up that question and explore what people can be like when that veneer is stripped off. There's such a fascinating metaphor in the book, too, of that veneer being gone as the police officer in the town where the story takes place has gone.

    And I think you are right: one of the underlying questions in crime fiction is what circumstances would make a person kill. For each of us those circumstances might be different, but it is, as you say, a central question.

  8. I have never delved much into the mystery genre, maybe a Ruth Rendell here and there, but your summaries made me want to pick up some of these books.

  9. So glad you featured Afterlight in this post, Margot. I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope you did too. I think it struck a great balance between being a credible and yet exciting story.

    I agree about the veneer - I think most crime fiction peels it off at the end of the book (or before), sometimes quite extremely eg in the case of Lisbeth Salander (Stieg Larsson). In fact, Swedish authors seem to be particularly good at this, thinking of Sun Storm (Asa Larsson), Shadow (Karin Altvegen) and others.

    My best

  10. Damyanti - Thank you :-). If my blog gets you interested in reading crime fiction, then I've accomplished a lot of what I set out to do, so your kind words mean a lot to me. And Ruth Rendell is a very fine place to start when it comes to reading mysteries.

    Maxine - Oh, I agree about Afterlight. I did enjoy it very much, I think as much for the characters as for anything else. And that's part of what made it credible. Scarrow's portrayal of the people in the two colonies, if you want to call them that, is in my opinion, spot-on.

    And I hadn't thought about it, but you are right about Swedish crime fiction and the way it peels away the veneer of civilisation. It's quite clear in Stieg Larsson's trilogy and I see it in Altvegen and Håkan Nesser's work, too. And I'm glad you brought up Asa Larsson. I'm becoming familiar with her work and I'd have to agree; it, too, shows just how thin that outer layer is....

  11. Unlike Rayna, I am a firm believer in people's dark side. Yes, it's true. Come to the dark side - we have cookies. I'm fascinated by stories that explore the premise that every one of us has a dark side and what it takes for it to break forth. Yes, it's always a choice. Yes, many times the circumstances are extreme and the behaviour might be understood on a certain level. But that escalation to violence is always a choice.

  12. I like novels that scratch at the surface of civilisation and reveal just how thin it is. I like to do that in my novels, explore ordinary people and see how little it takes to make them do something out of the ordinary.

  13. Elspeth - Oh, so that's the appeal of the Dark Side - cookies!

    Seriously, though, You have such a well-taken point about the choices we make. We may be in one or another situation, but we make the decision to let that dark side of human nature take over - or not. Ambrose Bierce is said to have written: In each human heart are a tiger, a pig, an ass and a nightingale. Diversity of character is due to their unequal activity. I see his point.

    Vanda - I know exactly what you mean. I do a similar thing - or try to - when I write. I try to explore what kinds of circumstances make ordinary people behave in extraordinary ways, including in violent ways...

  14. I think the veneer cracks more and more in life and literature. Or perhaps the lacquer is just not what it was.

  15. Patti - Oh, that very well could be! Certainly it does in literature of all kinds, and a quick look at the newspaper or a news website shows something quite similar in real life. I wonder if the lacquer is getting thinner, or people just aren't as interested in preserving it, or if it was always cracked but we pretended it wasn't...

  16. You have a lovely tea set! Oh, and I've seen that knife so often, I would recognize it anywhere. Just love your pics!

    You post today is deep. I agree that culture dictates a lot about how we act and what is acceptable. Sadly, the more a culture is surrounded by violence, the more desensitized it becomes to it. Yesterday, a shooting happened close to where I was and I wasn't as scared as the first time it happened. The first time I wouldn't have left the house but yesterday, I still went out for dinner.

    People still live their lives, just adapting to how society changes around them. I think they have to. That's one reason why when a person commits one murder, it's easier for them to commit a second... and third...

    Great topic.

  17. Clarissa - Thank you :-). The tea set belonged to my grandmother-in-law, who was a wonderful woman. I treasure it...

    And thanks for the kind words about my pictures. I do enjoy taking them...

    I think you have a very good point, albeit a sad one. When violence is a part of a culture, or if not a part of it, at least surrounds it, the people in that culture do become more inured to violence. Your story about the shooting near you just shows that so clearly.

    And you've got a very good point: people have to survive. Surviving involves adapting. Sometimes, adapting involves violence. If committing murder gets easier after one's done it, that may indeed be part of the reason why...