Wednesday, August 9, 2017

When Mysteries Become Political

Sometimes mysteries take on the major political issues of the day. Strangely, among that list I don't include most of le Carré's cold war thrillers. While some of his world-weary characters are true-believers and act out of a political consciousness, most are just doing their jobs or, often enough in le Carré's world, finding ways to avoid doing their jobs. It is the apolitical nature of several of le Carré's novels that make them so unsettling. Spies spy because. . . they are spies. Through the books' POV, we have the perspective of the British spies and they become our heroes out of familiarity, not out of noble purpose.

In The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré takes on Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and pro-Palestinian terrorism as it spills over into Europe. An actress is recruited to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist group and is indoctrinated in both Israeli and Palestinian points of view with her sympathies (and the readers sympathies) whip-lashing between allegiances. Le Carré doesn't flinch when looking at the violence by both sides in the conflict and the constant need to strike back. The actress-protagonist-recruit is taken to the brink of a nervous breakdown by the conflicting worlds where everyone is right and everyone is wrong. The need to stop a terrorist seems almost minor in the enormous scale of the conflict. She escapes, barely, with her life and with her mind only partially intact.

The story is harrowing, enlightening, and is loaded with the thousands of details and human insights that make le Carré a world's-best craftsman of the novel.

Author: John le Carré (David John Moore Cornwell)
Book: The Little Drummer Girl
Publication: 1983.
Rank: #68 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 184,686
Age of author at time of publication: 52
Previous novels published by this author: nine.
Opening line: It was the Bad Godesberg incident that gave the proof, though the German authorities had no earthly means of knowing this.
Significance: Another masterwork from a master writer.

Which is the best le Carre novel? at the New Yorker.

If le Carré writes the apolitical East-West espionage thriller, then Tom Clancy writes the political one. In Clancy's The Hunt for Red October, the United States is the beacon of freedom and the Soviet Union the land of oppression. I've never read Clancy beyond his first novel. Perhaps his later characters have more nuance. In The Hunt for Red October, the Russian characters were cut out of one of two cardboard stocks: the hero and his supporters who are hijacking the submarine, and the bureaucratic zealots who seek to stop him. The Americans are cleft-chinned and brave.

Nevertheless, this is a pulse-pounding read. The real star, perhaps, the real main character is the military technology which is made believable by the attention to details as is evidenced in the first sentence (presented below).

Author: Tom Clancy
Book: The Hunt for Red October
Publication: 1983.
Rank: #84 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 151,091
Age of author at time of publication: 37
Previous novels published by this author: first novel.
Opening line: The Red October captain first rank Marko Ramius of the Soviet Navy was dressed for the Arctic conditions normal to the Northern Marine submarine base at Polyarnyy.
Significance: Launched the career of an author who helped define the modern espionage thriller.

The Four Just Men is an unusual book in that it takes the point of view of the terrorists who are represented as vigilante heroes. The just men of the title are an international league who commit murders to right injustices and kill off the dishonest. This concept is stretched to the realm of the political when they plan to murder a Cabinet Minister to prevent the passage of what they see as an unjust law: one that will expel aliens. The story proceeds following the police's attempts to thwart their plan and the tension comes from whether it will be successful. The target of the assassination is depicted as heroic.

Perhaps the real story of The Four Just Men is that the novel, self-published, came with the promise of an award of five-hundred pounds to whomever could solve the locked-room mystery central to the case. The book and the promise of a big payout (about 56,000 pounds in today's currency), became a sensation. Unfortunately for Wallace, he did not stipulate that the reward should go only to the first person who solved the mystery. And, in fact, the mystery was not difficult, and when the solution came out Wallace was driven to bankruptcy by the crowd of supplicants.

The book does not hold up for me. I'm not a fan of the vigilante genre in general and The Four Just Men seemed to me to be neither that clever nor just. The police never seemed to ask the right questions and it is by their lack of sensible actions that allows the plot to advance. On the other hand, it is a short novel, a novella by most standards, and made for a brisk read, and was a welcome relief after having downed several 200,000-plus word novels.

Author: Edgar Wallace (Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace)
Book: The Four Just Men
Publication:  1905.
Rank: #100 on the CWA list.
Word Count: 37,586
Age of author at time of publication: 37
Previous novels published by this author: first novel.
Opening line: If you leave the Plaza del Mina, go down the narrow street, where, from ten till four, the big flag of the United States Consulate hangs lazily; through the square on which Hotel de la France fronts, round by the Church of Our Lady, and along the clean, narrow thoroughfare that is the High Street of Cadiz, you will come to the Café of the Nations.
Significance: A unique novel/contest that made quite a splash and launched the productive career of Edgar Wallace who, among other works, gave us King Kong.

The Four Just Men and its reward.

Finally, one of the most direct shots into politics by a mystery, came in the form of Rex Stout's novel, The Doorbell Rang. The novel follows a businesswoman, Rachel Bruner, who was so impressed by the anti-FBI non-fiction book, The FBI Nobody Knows, that she sent out a copy to every U.S. Senator and Member of Congress. The FBI responds by tailing her and tapping her phone. Bruner goes to Nero Wolfe and his co-investigator Archie Goodwin for help to stop this harassment. The investigative pair goes after the FBI and wins. The story ends as the two directly humiliate J. Edgar Hoover.

The FBI Nobody Knows
was an actual book. As can be imagined, although he already had an FBI file, Rex Stout was placed under intense investigation after the book's release. Always an activist, maybe he was old enough that he didn't give a damn. Adding to Stout's mystique was his rich billy-goat beard. He wrote artisanal mystery novels before the term artisanal became art is anal.

Rex Stout speaks about the FBI and Hoover, here.

Rex Stout in his later years.

I've read that one of Rex Stout's talents is that he conveys a sense of fun in the investigation, and even more, that he had fun writing the book. This is evident in The Doorbell Rang.

I was young in the sixties and I remember the time when Hoover was worshiped. I remember gathering around the television to watch The FBI, most especially fixed in my mind was when my mother's first cousin was a guest star. Being Latino, he played a Cuban terrorist.

How on earth could J. Edgar Hoover deny the existence of organized crime for thirty-years when it was the national crime story? Some say blackmail. Maybe it was incompetence that had the FBI touting villains like Machine Gun Kelly and tailing Einstein and virtually everyone else who didn't fit their narrow political views.

Author: Rex Stout
Book: The Doorbell Rang
Publication:  1965.
Rank: #66 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 50,728
Age of author at time of publication: 78
Previous novels published by this author: #41 in the Nero Wolfe novel series.
Opening line: Since it was the deciding factor, I might as well begin by describing it.
Significance: At a time when mystery novels were mostly apolitical, at a time when the FBI was held by most in high esteem, this novel by an established master took on the FBI, portraying them as corrupt, as planting evidence, and as political zealots. Stuck the finger out at J. Edgar Hoover. As The Nation stated: No doubt about it — the best civil liberties mystery of all time.

 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
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