Politics on the mystery shelves with a spoiler alert

My blog earlier this month drew questions, comments and links concerned not with dystopian literature, but with mysteries and popular fiction. They were focused on books by prolific authors whose careers lasted many decades of political contexts. The blog and Wiki worlds have debates on which arch villains were which pre-pro-anti- or neo- which movement.   We can consider this blog to be an excuse to re-read fiction (with an occasional screen adaptation) or a thank you note to the paperback publishers who are bring out reprints of Allingham, Buchan, Christie, Daly, etc. to the Mystery shelves.

Agatha Christie is particularly interesting since she had such a long career and because she allowed her characters and their social milieus to age along with her.  Her 2nd book, The The Secret Adversary (1922), introduced Tommy and Tuppence Beresford as protagonists and gave us an excellent preview of her ability to juggle their narrative voices, with individual perils and their frequent mistakes. The villains were mostly in it for the money, but the ones with political motives were attempting to find a letter lost on the Lusitania, that proposed an alternative solution to World War I.   Note — This trope shows up occasionally in more post-Armistice fiction and may have related to a specific rumor from the teens. The book also uses a common trope of the avuncular, helpful, successful man who is revealed at the very last minute as the actual villain. That plot twist was also favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, who used it in his The 39 Steps (based loosely on the novel by John Buchan (1935), Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942).

The British Fascist movement has become a common theme in recent novels, such as Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989) and Robert Barnard’s A Charitable Body (2012).  Although very different books, each refers to past activity at 30s stately house parties, which are revealed to the readers to be pro-appeasement or downright pro-Fascist.   It may be that house parties were already an overly common setting for mysteries, so fewer contemporaries used them for specifically political references.   Or, possibly, if I re-read more novels more carefully, I will find those missed references.

After a period of developing her ability to create clever domestic mysteries involving recognizable, normal British people (always her strongest suit) who are motivated by love and money, Christie returned to the Beresfords in N or M (1941). It was overtly political, as a retired Tommy returned to his Special Branch service. His assignment at a British seacoast resort town was to locate a 5th column unit, that being the contemporary term for spies pretending to be recognizable, normal British people.  Her possible suspects included refugees and Irish activists, but, as she often did, the story lies in the characters who seem to be set dressing.

In the Cold War era, Christie seldom relied on political motivations. Her mysteries are brilliant depictions of the aging of her continuing characters — the Beresfords, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and their various friends and police connections. As they aged, they obsessed about the young and changes in British society.  Christie did pepper her characters’ social commentary with some political issues. She focused on Youth Cults in at least two novels, including They Came to Bagdad (1951) which features one of her intrepid young women heroes, with a love of adventure and bad taste in men. The fascinating one for me is Passenger to Frankfurt (1970), which overtly connects the youth cult to a European neo-Nazi leader and includes an amazing description of a private concert of Wagner.

She also wrote two later mysteries that focus on the question of whether Brain Drain (of scientists leaving England) was motivated by Communism. Destination Unknown is a complicated romance between two people in disguise and the scientist exodus turns out to have a financial basis. The Clocks (1964), the incredibly clever novel that started me thinking about these politicized mysteries in the first place, also deals with the Brain Drain and Communism within an complex menu of possible red herrings.   It is best known as the novel in which Poirot details his taste in mystery fiction, citing real, fictional and disguised authors, but it should also be read for its plot manipulations.

Did I miss any? Head to the Mid-Manhattan Library or your local bookstore and check for more political clues.


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