I’m sure you’ve read about (or perhaps even met) people who stir up controversy for the purpose of publicity (or at least, getting attention). Some people generate controversy because of the causes they support or what they do professionally. That’s certainly true in real life, and it’s true in crime fiction, too. And controversial characters can add some interesting tension to a story. That controversy can even make for a solid motive for murder.
For instance, Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder opens as Sir Derek O’Callaghan, MP, puts forth a very controversial Anarchy Bill that’s designed to go after leftist revolutionaries. Sir Derek claims it will keep the country safer. His opponents see it as a threat to free speech. Whatever side one stands on, it’s a topic of much debate. One day, Sir Derek is giving a speech when he suddenly collapses with a ruptured appendix. He’s rushed to a nearby clinic run by his friend Sir John Phillips. There, he undergoes an emergency appendectomy, which he survives. Later, though, he dies of what turns out to be hyoscine poisoning. Sir Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate the murder. One strong possibility here is that Sir Derek was killed because of his views on political leftists.
As Jeffery Hudson, Michael Crichton wrote A Case of Need, which takes place in Boston. The novel was written in 1968, when abortion was not legal in the United States. Still, there were doctors who were willing to perform the operation. One of them is Dr. Albert Lee, an obstetrician connected with Boston’s Memorial Hospital. He becomes the focus of controversy when he is arrested for performing an abortion on Karen Randall, the daughter of one of Memorial’s most powerful surgeons. The abortion was botched, and Karen ended up dying, so the charges here are very serious. Lee, though, claims not to be responsible. He tells his friend, pathologist Dr. John Berry, that he has performed abortions, but Karen’s wasn’t one of them. He asks Berry to find out who killed Karen and clear his name, and Berry agrees. It’s going to be very difficult, though. He’s up against some powerful hospital resistance, since Lee is a convenient target. It doesn’t make matters easier that Karen kept her share of secrets, and unearthing them could be dangerous. Still, Berry searches for the truth and finds out what really happened.
In Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot, we are introduced to controversial journalist Kathryn Morrissey. She’s written an exposé of the way that several wealthy, well-known Canadians treat their children. In doing so, she’s peeled back the ‘nice’ veneer in those families, and that’s gotten several people upset. Among many other issues, there’s the issue of these families’ privacy. And there are plenty who say that her work is biased and that she didn’t give those families the opportunity to tell their own stories. One of her subjects, Sam Parker, is so angered by the story that he shoots Morrissey, wounding but not killing her. He’s arrested and hires Zack Shreve to defend him. It’s going to be a difficult case, though. No-one disputes the fact that Parker did the shooting, so it’ll be hard to work with that stipulation. Still, Shreve is a skilled lawyer, and there are all sorts of questions about publishing controversial stories, and what the limits are to privacy and to what can be printed.
There’s a real controversy in Theresa Schwegel’s The Good Boy. Judge Katherine ‘Kitty’ Crawford issued a ruling which indirectly led to the death of Felan White. She began getting death threats, and it was thought wise to offer her protection. Pete Murphy was one of the police assigned to guard the judge. But he was transferred to the K-9 corps when gossip about his relationship with the judge began to circulate. One day, at what he thinks will be a routine traffic stop, Murphy encounters White’s brother. Things spiral and before Murphy knows it, he’s in deep trouble and his job is on the line. Among other things, White claims he was stopped and harassed because of his brother. It’s a complicated, difficult situation, and places Murphy right in the middle of a controversy he never intended.
And then there’s Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice, Quiet Holiday. In it, Justice Harish Shinde (called the Judge throughout most of the novel) and his law clerk Anant travel to the town of Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. They’ve been invited to stay with an old friend of the judge’s, Sinkhar Pant, and are looking forward to escaping the full heat of a Delhi summer. Pant has also invited other guests, including NGO managers Ronit and Kamini Mitta. The Mittals’ NGO is very controversial. It sponsors HIV/AIDS education, and many people think it’s inappropriate, even obscene. Another guest, Pant’s cousin Kailish Pant, is very much a supporter of what the Mittals are doing. But not everyone is, and there is a certain tenseness about the topic. Then, one afternoon, Kailish Pant is murdered. Inspector Patel investigates, and one of his leads is the way people feel about the NGO. When he sees that Judge Shinde and Anant are guests, he gets helpful information from their insights and background information. Among other things, this novel shows how a controversy can spark anger and more.
People involved in controversy may not always intend what they do to stir up anger and debate. But it happens. And that can lead to suspense, layers of character development, and more. Which controversial characters have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Storm Front.