Now You See the Light*

As this is posted, it would have been George Orwell’s 119th birthday. As you’ll know, Orwell used his writing to sound a warning about, among other things, totalitarianism. The dystopian worlds he created showed the consequences of power being in the hands of just a few people, or just one, and his Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have become classics.

Of course, Orwell is by no means the only author who’s used fiction for social criticism.   Many authors in different genres have used their writing that way. Even if you confine yourself to crime fiction, there are plenty of examples.

Certainly, authors of speculative crime fiction used their writing to send warnings and express social criticism. For instance, Isaac Asimov’s Lije Baley series features New York City police detective Elijah Baley. In the futuristic world in which he lives, the population has gotten so large, and the environment so toxic, that people live in domed cities that spread out over very large areas. Within those domes, housing, food, and so on, are distributed based on IQ and perceived value to society. But even those, like Baley and his wife, who are considered of reasonably high IQ and value, don’t exactly have luxurious lives. While the novels keep their focus on the crimes that Baley and his partner, R. Daneel Olivaw investigate, Asimov also used them to warn about challenges like overpopulation. His view was that humankind’s best hope for survival was to explore space and eventually make use of it. And that view, as well as his pessimism about the future of life on this planet, comes through in the stories.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels make up a police procedural series set in Stockholm. The novels focus on the crimes that Beck’s team investigates, and we follow along as the police find out the truth. But more than that, these books critique the Swedish society of the time. The series is particularly critical of wealthy industrialists, right-wing politicians, and authoritarianism. That said, though, it’s interesting to note that the stories themselves are about people and the crimes that make them victims and perpetrators. Those things, more than the politics, invite the reader to stay engaged.

Several of Attica Locke’s novels critique the racism and the power structure in US society. Black Water Rising and Pleasantville both feature Jay Porter, a Black Houston-area lawyer. In both novels, Porter is up against some powerful corporate forces. He’s also well aware of the racism that’s a part of life where he lives. In fact, in his college days, Porter was a part of the Black Power movement, although you really couldn’t call him radical. The focus of these novels is the crimes that Porter investigates. But Locke also uses the stories to discuss the inequities in that society. Her novels Bluebird, Bluebird and Heaven, My Home feature Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. He’s all too familiar with the racism of his part of Texas. That’s part of why he moved away in the first place. But he’s returned, because for him, Texas is home, and he wants to do what he can to make it a better place for everyone to live. Locke’s novels show racism for the complex, nuanced issue that it is; many of the characters are not ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and there are people of all races on the proverbial side of the angels – and not.

In Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, the issue is climate change. The novel takes place after climate disasters have made millions of people refugees; many of them have made their way to Helsinki. And that’s a big part of the problem. The police and other agencies are so overworked that the police don’t even bother to investigate crimes unless they are major crimes, such as multiple murders. Even then, there’s little real investigation. Only the wealthy have a chance at a decent life, and only they can afford to hire the expensive private security companies that take advantage of police staffing shortages and people’s vulnerabilities. Although this sociocultural setting is the background and context for the novel, the story is really about a writer, Tapani Lehtinen. He’s become worried about his journalist wife, Joanna, whom he hasn’t heard from in over twenty-four hours. It was always Joanna’s habit to contact him daily, even when she was pursuing a story, so he is concerned that something’s happened to her. He decides that his best bet is to go looking for her, beginning with tracing the story that she was following. And that leads him to the search for a man named the Healer, who’s responsible for killing several executives from companies that are perceived as being responsible for climate change. It’s an interesting mix of critique and the telling of some individuals’ stories.

Katherine Dewar’s Ruby and the Blue Sky addresses the challenge of climate change and sustaining the environment. Dewar has been involved in environmental issues for several years, and that comes through in the novel. When a rock band called the Carnival Owls wins a Grammy Award, lead singer Ruby takes the stage to accept the award. In her acceptance speech, she makes a passionate plea for sustainability, and urges everyone to stop buying things and instead, to re-purpose, re-use, and so on. Her eager fans are quick to take up the call, and that represents a real problem for manufacturers. Ruby’s speech soon gets the interest of a group that tracks the things corporations do to the environment. On the one hand, Ruby loves the idea of doing something for the greater good. On the other, she loves her music, and doesn’t want to stop touring and writing new songs. And in the meantime, she’s attracting the attention of some very dangerous people…

These are just a few examples. There are lots of other authors, too, who’ve used their stories to send warnings and show consequences. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up.


10 thoughts on “Now You See the Light*

    1. Thanks, KBR. I agree with you about the Martin Beck novels. The authors did such a wonderful job of making their points and calling attention to issues, but still telling a great story. That’s not an easy task!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. TBH, this kind of crime fiction which takes up too many issues plaguing our world doesn’t much appeal to me while at the same time I do enjoy a more mainstream novel discussing these issues. And I am also wary of celebrity activists.


    1. I know what you mean about celebrity activists, Neeru. Just because a person is famous doesn’t mean that person can’t be sincerely committed to a cause, but still, I do wonder sometimes. And, yes, a novel can be an ordinary crime fiction novel that happens to discuss a social issue, but that can be a difficult balance.


  2. These are the kind of stories that appeal to me most (as long as the social critique doesn’t overwhem the story), and that was one of the reasons I set up Corylus Books: translated crime fiction with a social edge. You mention many of my favourites in this post, I’d also add Dominique Manotti, Jean-Claude Izzo and Karim Miské (Arab Jazz), as well as the very powerful novella Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy that we published. The French seem to be very good at giving us a snapshot of the fissures and unresolved problems in their society and politics.


    1. Thanks for mentioning both Izzo and Miské, Marina Sofia. Both do such a fine job of bringing up social issues and making statements, but without taking away from the book’s quality. I ought to have included them but didn’t, so I’m glad you did. And it’s good to know Corylus is out there bringing us this sort of reading. Little Rebel sounds interesting…


  3. On the whole I’m not a fan of “issues” in crime novels though it can work if it’s done very well, and if the author isn’t banging his or her point of view too heavily. Even my beloved Reginald Hill annoyed me on occasion by his assumption that his readers would automatically share his opinions. But it’s the relentless drive to make every book, crime or otherwise, into a polemical statement of fashionable values that makes me retreat more and more into vintage and classic reading. Sure, they addressed issues too, but with rather more depth and subtlety than a lot of today’s writers, who I often feel do most of their research on Twitter… 😉


    1. You have a point, FictionFan, about how heavily an author pushes one or another point. As I see it, the main reason a reader reads a book is for the story – the characters, the plot, and so on. Pushing a point – even if the reader agrees with it – can take away from the story. And that’s to say nothing of the readers who don’t agree. I think it’s that focus on plot (and in several cases, characters, too) that make the vintage mysteries appealing. As you say, it’s not that they don’t bring up issues. But they serve the story, not vice versa, if that makes any sense. And as far as Twitter research goes….please don’t get me started. Just…don’t. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I did enjoy John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night which provided a powerful message about racism without seeming like Ball was on a soapbox.


    1. That’s a really good example, Col, of what I had in mind with this post. I think Ball concentrated on the story first, and that’s what keeps the reader engaged. As you say, the message about racism was powerful and clear, but it doesn’t feel like Ball is preaching.


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