Do You Still Feel the Pain of the Scars That Won’t Heal*

As this is posted, it’s 157 years since the U.S. Civil War/War Between the States ended. There was an end to official hostilities, but that doesn’t mean there was an end to the animosity that went with the war. In fact, a lot of people argue that there’s still plenty of resentment on both sides. And that’s not surprising. The conflicts and differences that go along with wars don’t go away magically just because there’s an end to a war. And that background of tension can be a realistic way to add suspense, and even character development, to a novel.

For example, Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles takes place shortly after the end of WW I. It’s a very tense time, and there’s still a lot of feeling about the war, even though the guns have stopped. In the novel, Hercule Poirot makes his debut as a Belgian refugee who’s living in an English village with a group of other refugees. He’s drawn into investigating a case of murder when his benefactor, Emily Inglethorp, is poisoned. The most likely suspects are the people in her household, and those who visited regularly. One of those people is Dr. Bauerstein, who lives nearby. He’s an expert on toxicology, which makes him suspicious. What’s more, he’s German, and there are certainly people who hold that against him. That adds an interesting layer to the novel, and it’s not surprising that people would feel that way. There are other suspects, though, and other possibilities. So, Poirot has to consider several possibilities.

Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police is the first outing for Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, who is chief of police in the small town of St. Denis, in France’s Périgord region. The novel’s focus is the murder of Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr, an émigré from Angola. At first, it looks like an anti-Muslim hate crime. But the family has been in the area, and accepted by the town, for a very long time. So, why all of a sudden would someone commit a hate crime like this? And, as Bruno gets involved in the investigation, he learns that there is more than one possibility when it comes to who murdered the victim. As it turns out, this murder is related to the town’s past, to long memories, and to resentment that hasn’t gone away.

A great deal of Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money takes place in Cambodia, where Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan is trying find a man named Charles Avery, who went missing from his Bangkok apartment. Matters are made complicated by the fact that Avery’s business partner has been found dead. Avery’s sister hired Quinlan to trace her brother, and the trail has led to Phnom Penh. It turns out Avery was involved in several questionable deals, and there are plenty of people who don’t want to talk to Quinlan, because they’re afraid to anger the wrong people. Still, he pursues the case and finds out the truth about Avery and about who murdered his business partner. Throughout the novel, we see the lasting scars of the Khmer Rouge and the resistance against that group. The conflict has been over for several years, but there are deep scars and long memories, and it’s clear that people’s resentment and sometimes fear are very much alive.

From about 1968 until 1998, Northern Ireland was the scene of violent conflict. Religion, politics, and economics all played roles in what’s often called the Troubles, and it divided families and caused thousands of deaths on all sides. The peace accord that ended this era was struck over thirty years ago, but that doesn’t mean that the hostility instantly ended. Even today there’s lingering resentment and lack of trust. Just because people had their fill of the death and bloodshed doesn’t mean they forgot their animosity. One series that captures this is Brian McGilloway’s series featuring Garda Ben Devlin. He lives not far from the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, so he’s seen and heard his share of the mistrust and bad feeling that stayed long after the Troubles ended. He does his best to navigate the sometimes very tenuous sociopolitical situation, but he can’t help but be impacted by it. Those leftover scars form a realistic background to the cases Devlin investigates.

In Ausma Zehat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, we are introduced to Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government. This unit is usually involved in anti-bigotry and community issues, so it’s a surprise when they are asked to investigate the death of Christopher Drayton, who died after a fall from Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs. It soon comes out, though, that Drayton might actually be Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal known as the butcher of Srebrenica. It hasn’t been that many years since the war in Bosnia, and many people remember the things that happened there. That means that this is going to be a delicate matter, as the question is sure to arise: how did Canada come to allow a war criminal to live there? Still, Khattak and Getty start the investigation. They soon learn that, as the saying goes, old sins cast long shadows, and there are people who remember Krstić. But there are other suspects, including the members of Krstić’s household. So, Khattak and Getty face a complicated case. In this novel, the war in Bosnia and the lingering pain from it play a role in the story and add a layer to the novel.

There are plenty of other places in the world where the end of official conflict hasn’t meant the end of animosity. That tension and delicate balance can add a solid layer of suspense to a crime novel or series, as well as a solid sense of setting. Which ones have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Daniel.


12 thoughts on “Do You Still Feel the Pain of the Scars That Won’t Heal*

  1. I’d forgotten the Mysterious Affair at Styles was Poirot’s beginning and his refugee status in that book. I’m 4-5 books into Walker’s Bruno series and the pas often influences current day crimes. Interesting.

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    1. I always liked the way Christie gave Poirot a bit of backstory in that novel, Anthony. We don’t learn a lot about him but some things, and I think it adds to his character. I’m glad you’ve had the chance to read some of Walker’s work. I think he writes well, and I especially appreciate the sense of place and local culture in the novels. And the food. There’s the food. You’re right, too, that several of Walker’s plots tie the present with the past. I think it’s interesting, too.

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  2. Fine examples of the endurance of grievances. In The Boat People by Sharon Bala the story covers Tamil refugees seeking a home in Canada after the Sri Lankan civil war. Reckless accusations are made they are Tamil Tiger terrorists. The refugee hearing is a long and difficult process.

    Iin Testimony by Scott Turow there is an international criminal court investigation into the alleged massacre of hundreds of Roma in Bosnia about 10 years after that brutal civil war ended. The Roma have been scapegoats and victims for hundreds of years. They have been persecuted or worse after many European conflicts.

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    1. Thanks, Bill. Your examples are exactly the sort of thing I had in mind when I wrote this post, and a welcome reminder that I still need to read The Boat People. I think it’s all too easy to forget the terrible damage and scars from conflicts like the war in Bosnia and the Sri Lankan civil war. And yet, those wars had lasting consequences, and the people affected by them have been terribly scarred. And some, like the Roma, have had to deal with it for many generations.

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  3. Ha, in Scotland we still bang on about a battle that took place in 1314, so I definitely agree that it takes a long time to get over wars! Stuart MacBride addresses the rabid end of Scottish Nationalism in a Logan McRae novel, All That’s Dead. He exaggerates it a bit, suggesting that there’s an extremist terrorist element to it which thankfully there hasn’t been for a long time now, but there is no doubt that the debate is toxic and too often based on hatred of the Auld Enemy, England, rather than on a positive prospective for the future. Odd, since for the last three hundred years Scotland and England have fought together side by side rather than against each other. I guess we need to teach history better in schools! 😉

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    1. Yes, I’d say 708 years ought to be enough time to let the animosity go, FictionFan! 😉 Thanks for mentioning the MacBride; I’ve heard of it, but haven’t (yet) read it. It’s interesting how some debates (and that’s one of them) still are so often fed by those old animosities. People just want to keep that sort of thing alive, I suppose. I agree with you that it’d be much healthier to plan for a more positive future. Hopefully that will happen. In the meantime, I’m all for teaching history in more effective ways in schools. I’ve always thought it’d save us a lot of sorrow!

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  4. I’ve read a few books over the years set in Miami and Florida generally and a lot of the time they feature Cuban emigres. A common feature seems to be their loathing for Castro and his regime. Most of the time it’s detail as opposed to a major plot point.

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    1. That’s a clear example of one of those lingering animosities, Col. I’ve read books with that feature, too. In face, there’s a series by Carolina Garcia-Aguilera that takes place in Miami and features her PI protagonist Lupe Solano. The main character’s family is Cuban by origin, and there’s anti-Castro feeling throughout the series.

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      1. Margot, that’s not a series or author I’ve heard of before.
        I always find the anti-Castro thing kind of interesting, especially as what was in situ before the revolution (Batista) wasn’t exactly a regime that could be classed as benevolent towards all the people.

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      2. No, indeed, Col. The Batista regime wasn’t exactly benevolent at all. I wonder what might have happened had a different leader removed Batista, or had the Batista regime been more supportive of and responsive to the people…

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