As this is posted, it’s 128 years since Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly convicted of treason against France. Along with the anti-Semitism that led to his original conviction, it was also felt that sacrificing Dreyfus was necessary to protect the French army and government. There’s more to it than that, of course, but the decision to sacrifice someone in order to protect the powerful was an important part of the case.
It’s not a new phenomenon of course. There are many cases where someone lower in the pecking order pays the price to protect those at higher levels. It’s there in crime fiction, too. In fact, in more than one of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, Bosch runs into cases where someone’s career (his own in a few cases) is considered expendable.
There are other examples of this in crime fiction, too. For instance, in one plot thread of Phillip Margolin’s Executive Privilege, we meet Portland attorney Brad Turner. He’s looking for the strongest start possible to his career, and that means being available when the partners want him to take a case. So, when he’s assigned to represent convicted killer Clarence Little pro bono, he accepts. It seems that Little, who’s already in prison for other murders, has been accused of murdering Laurie Erickson. Little says he’s innocent and, in the course of defending his client, Turner starts to look at other possibilities. The more he learns, the more he suspects that Little is telling the truth. The victim was the daughter of a woman who was secretary to US President Christopher Farrington when Farrington was governor of Oregon. Could there be some connection? If so, this could be a case with serious implications. As Turner finds out, he’s pulling on the threads of a murder conspiracy with a wide reach and sources in some very high places.
Fans of Qiu Xaiolong’s Chief Inspector Chen series will know that Chen has had several cases in which a person is sacrificed in order to protect high-level criminality. I’ll only mention one of them here (although the entire series is well worth reading). In Death of a Red Heroine, Chen and his assistant, Detective Yu Guangming, investigate the murder of Guan Hongying. She was somewhat of a celebrity, having been publicly lauded as a national model worker, so her death will be a high-profile case. Chen and Yu soon focus their attention on a taxi driver who picked up the victim. He’s soon arrested, and the authorities are only too happy to claim that the police have solved the crime. But as Chen looks into the case more, he begins to believe that the taxi driver isn’t the murderer. His investigation leads to wealthy and powerful members of the upper levels of government – ‘High Cadre’ people. And it turns out that the taxi driver has been sacrificed to protect the real murderer.
There’s a slightly different sort of sacrifice in Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly. In that novel, we are introduced to Giorgio Tassini, a night watchman for a glass blowing factory owned by Giovanni de Cal. One night, he is killed in what looks like a tragic accident. But Commissario Guido Brunetti isn’t so sure that’s true. There are some things about the death that don’t seem consistent with an accident, so he decides to look further into the case. He soon runs into resistance, though. Tassini was convinced that the glass blowing factories are responsible for illegally dumping chemicals into Venice’s water. In fact, he blamed that practice for his daughter’s many special needs. It’s soon made clear to Brunetti that the powerful people who own the factories want this death to be put down to accident, or even suicide, rather than murder. But Brunetti isn’t satisfied with that explanation, so he keeps looking, and he finds that Tassini paid the ultimate price to protect some powerful people.
Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road is the story of Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen. He’s been more or less ‘exiled’ to the rural South Australia town of Tiverton because it’s believed he was a ‘whistleblower’ during a police internal investigation. Right from the beginning, he’s treated badly, sabotaged, and his job made harder in every way possible. One day, the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is found by a roadside and Hirsch starts an investigation. As you can imagine, he gets no help from his new colleagues, but he keeps working to find out who killed the victim. As he gets closer to the truth, the trail starts to lead to some highly-placed people – people who are willing to sacrifice Hirsch’s career rather than have the facts come out.
And then there’s Abir Mukherjee’s Captain Sam Wyndham. He is a member of the Indian Police Service, serving in 1920’s Calcutta/Kolkata. In the first of this series, A Rising Man, he and his assistant, Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, work the case of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal, whose body was found in an alley near a local bordello. He was VIP, so the case gets high priority. At this time, during the last years of the Raj, there’s a great deal of simmering resentment between the English and the Indian people, and plenty of talk of revolution. One of the leaders in that camp is Benoy Sen, who’s recently come to the area. When he’s caught and imprisoned, police and government leaders claim they have their man, and they want Wyndham to ‘rubber stamp’ that explanation. But Wyndham is not sure that Sen is responsible. Is Sen the killer the government makes him out to be? Or is he being sacrificed to protect someone in a position of power?
When someone has a lot to lose, as powerful people do, it’s not hard to see why a scapegoat might be chosen. That’s what happened in the Dreyfus case, and that’s what happens in plenty of crime novels. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE; The title of this post is a line from Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend.
8 thoughts on “They’ll Hurt You, Yes, and Desert You*”
Can’t think of any examples to add, but I very much enjoyed Robert Harris’ take on the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy. I don’t think I categorised it as crime fiction at the time, but it certainly has aspects of the crime novel. You’ve also reminded me that I really must read more of the Inspector Chen books… *sighs* 😉
I’m so glad you mentioned An Officer and a Spy, FictionFan. You’re right that it crosses that boundary between crime fiction and other sorts of books. I think that line is sometimes quite blurry. And I don’t even want to think about the number of authors I need to read…. *deep sigh*
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Interesting post, Margot, and I do find the Dreyfus case fascinating. You remind me I have a book about it somewhere by Piers Paul Read, which I must dig out! 😀
Thanks, KBR. I find the Dreyfus case really interesting, too (and unsettling, really). And, yes, I do hope you’ll find that Piers Paul Read book and post about it; just the subject matter piques my interesting!
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I hadn’t heard of the Dreyfuss case but was very interested to read about it. Suspect he’s just one of hundreds of people sacrificed in that manner. I’m sure I must’ve read a few books that have such events in them but nothing’s coming to mind. You are reminding me though that I keep meaning to read something by Donna Leon as I enjoy books set in Italy, even though I’ve yet to go there. We watched the entire series of Inspector Montalbano, set in Sicily, a couple of years ago and fell in love with the island. Have you been to Italy?
It is an interesting case, Cath, on a lot of levels. The worst part is how very sad it also is, and I suspect you’re right that Dreyfus was by no means the only person sacrificed that way. As for Donna Leon’s series, I truly do hope that you’ll get the chance to try some of her work. Her Guido Brunetti is an excellent character, and the series really does place the reader in Venice. If you’ve not read the Andrea Camilleri series on which the Montalbano TV series is based, I highly recommend them. They, too, set the reader distinctly in Italy (Sicily, mostly). The stories are well told, I think, and there’s some solid wit in them. As for going to Italy myself, no, I’ve not (yet) been there. I must have it on my mind, though, as you’ll see in my next Spotlight…
I remember watching a TV series about J’accuse and the Dreyfus case in my childhood and in my naivety I thought that sort of thing would not happen nowadays…
I know what you mean, Marina Sofia. One doesn’t want to think that sort of thing still happens, but it does. Hopefully talking about it will help…