How Can You Run When You Know?*
It takes courage to speak out against injustice and to speak truth to power. The consequences can be severe – sometimes even costing lives. What’s more, those consequences don’t just impact the person who speaks out; they can impact that person’s family members, friends, and more. And yet, there are people who feel strongly enough about the excesses of power, or about injustice, that they risk arrest or much worse to speak out. It’s certainly true in real life, and it’s true in crime fiction as well. There are many examples in the genre; space only allows me to mention a few. I know you’ll think of more than I could, anyway.
In one plot thread of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö The Laughing Policeman, for instance, a group of anti-war protesters have gathered at the American Embassy in Stockholm. A US senator is visiting, and the group wants to use the opportunity to voice their views. Police resources are stretched thin, and the protesters are angry, so things start to turn ugly and violent. It gets even worse when Detective Martin Beck and his team learn that a bus has been attacked and nine passengers murdered. At first, it looks as though a terrorist is responsible for what happened, but Beck isn’t so sure. So, he and the girlfriend of one of the victims start to put the pieces of the puzzle together. That leads them in the end to a link with a past crime.
Felicity Young’s The Anatomy of Death/A Dissection of Murder is the first in her series featuring Dr. Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland. It’s 1910, and Dr. McCleland hs just finished qualifying as a forensic pathologist. She travels to London, where she’s hoping to work with Dr. Bernard Spilsbury. For the moment, though, she’s working in a local women’s hospital. That’s how she discovers that a women’s suffrage march in Whitechapel has turned violent. Several protesters were beaten and arrested, and three were killed. Dody’s been asked to do autopsies on the dead women and report her results. Two of the deaths have straightforward explanations, but the third is different. Dody begins to suspect that this woman, Lady Catherine Cartwright, might have been deliberately murdered. If so, there’s a specific killer involved, and Dody starts to look for answers. Among other things, this novel shows the risks many women took to exercise their right to vote.
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is in part the story of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who publishes Millennium magazine. He and his team go up against wealthy and powerful Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom, but Wennerstrom sues for libel. He’s well-connected, so Blomkvist loses the lawsuit, and his magazine will likely have to fold. Then, another wealthy business executive, Henrik Vanger, makes Blomqvist an offer. He will support Millennium financially and give Blomqvist the evidence he needs to bring down Wennerstrom. In return, Vanger wants Blomqvist to find out what happened to his great-niece Harriet Vanger, who went missing some forty years earlier. Blomqvist doesn’t have much choice if he’s going to have a chance against a powerful adversary like Wennerstrom, so he agrees to the deal. He soon finds out, though, that it can be very, very dangerous to go up against powerful people who don’t want the truth to come out.
In Brian Stoddart’s A Madras Miasma, it’s 1920’s Madras (now Chennai), during the last years of the Raj. There is simmering resentment against the continued British presence in India, and sometimes, it boils over. Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu is responsible for keeping peace in the area, but that’s not easy. For one thing, he has sympathy for those who want home rule, although he doesn’t condone violence. For another, in this novel, he’s got a murder on his hands. The body of a young British woman, Jane Carstairs, has been pulled from the Buckingham Canal. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much motive, and there’s a possibility that she fell into the canal accidentally. But Le Fanu and his assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah, aren’t sure that’s what happened. It won’t be an easy case, though, as the trail leads to some high places. At one point in the novel, there’s a large protest over the British occupation, and Le Fanu is hoping that it will be peaceful. Instead, his supervisor wants the protest quashed by any available means, including violence. Things turn very ugly, and the result just makes anti-British sentiment all the worse. I see you, fans of Abir Mukherjee’s Sam Wyndham novels.
Protests, of course, are not the only way to speak truth to power. In Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China, for example, a shadowy online group works to expose and stop corruption in the top echelons of China’s hierarchy. The group names and shames Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, and he is soon arrested and confined to a hotel room until his trial. On the one hand, the government benefits from the information it gets from the online group, and it’s a good opportunity to tout the government’s intolerance for corruption. On the other hand, the group uses its forum to protest other aspects and members of government, so it’s in the government’s interest to limit, if not get rid of, the group. When Zhou dies, apparently of suicide, Chief Inspector Chen Cao is assigned to the case, and it’s made clear to him that he’s expected to ‘rubber stamp’ the official explanation, which is suicide. Chen’s not sure that’s the case, though, and as he starts asking questions, he finds the link to the online group and learns more about how they protest. He also finds out for himself how dangerous it can be to go up against the powerful. Fans of this series know that Chen risks a lot more than once to speak truth to power.
Speaking truth to power is difficult, dangerous, and sometimes tragic. But people do it, and the result can make change for the better. Which stories have stayed with you?
This post is dedicated to the memories of Allison Krause, Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Sandra Lee Scheuer and William Knox Shroeder. They were killed on 4 May 1970, at Kent State University, by members of the Ohio National Guard, during a peace protest against the Vietnam War.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Ohio, made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.