04 July 2018
This being the Fourth of July I would like to say a few words about one of our country’s most successful exports. We didn’t invent it, but we have certainly helped spread it around.
In fact, this product has become so popular that even countries which objectively seem to be lacking in it will claim to be rolling in the stuff.
I am referring to democracy.
You may be thinking: well, sis boom bah, but what does this have to do with mystery fiction?
A lot, as it happens. I’m not the first to say this but it bears repeating: mystery fiction only becomes popular in democracies. (Ahem. Jeff Baker pointed out that ancient China, not known for its polling stations, brought us Judge Dee. Okay then.)
I think I know why this is the case. If you live in a country where the laws themselves are secret (as used to be true in the Soviet Union) or the King/Ayatollah/Dear Leader can arbitrarily decide who is guilty, then what’s the point of reading about detectives? If trials are just public theatre to reveal what has already been decided behind the scenes, what use are crime novels?
The author of a cozy mystery believes (or pretends to believe) that he is describing a society in which justice can be done, and therefore investigation matters.
The hardboiled hero lives in a more cynical world, but even she believes that there is some possibility of justice that is worth fighting for. And the hardboiled author believes that she lives in a society in which she can get away with writing so cynically.
Yes, I know Athens wasn’t such a great democracy, allowing only male citizens to vote. On the other hand, ancient Athenians might argue that a country that only votes every few years and lets representatives decide all the specific issues is a funny kind of democracy, too.
Another play from that era is Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, which shows the punishment of crime moving from the realm of direct vengeance or divine punishment to the decisions of impartial juries.
I wrote most of what you see above a decade ago and it appeared then at Criminal Brief. I can't say I have as much faith in democracy as I did back then. Terms like collusion, emoluments, and interference may have something to do with that.
Have sales of paranoid thrillers been rising while crime novels have dropped? Expand this to 300 pages and you can get a Ph.D.
But in the mean time, go ahead and wave a flag if you feel like it. It’s the mysterious thing to do.
04 July 2016
by Susan Rogers Cooper
As today is the Fourth of July, I felt it only fitting that I do something patriotic, and what's more patriotic than a good conspiracy theory? Nothing notable has happened in our country that hasn't been clouded (or, to some, sprinkled with sunshine) by a good conspiracy theory. Was there someone on that grassy knoll? Did John Wilkes Both really act alone? Did FDR really know about Pearl Harbor before it happened? Did the FBI have forewarning of 9/11? Who knows? Well, somebody surely does, but maybe not the ones who purport the juicy theories.
I decided (mainly because I'm not beneath loving a good theory or two myself) to research rumors that might have been running a muck during those latter years of the 18th century. And I came across a doozy: Massachusetts writer J.L. Bell, a leading historian on the Revolutionary War (author of, among others, THE ROAD TO CONCORD), revealed some interesting tidbits in an article entitled, “History, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts.”
In an article written on July 19, 1775, The Reverend Ezra Stiles of Newport reported that on a trip to Paris, British Captain Jno. Hansen, due to irrelevant (in my view) circumstances, became intimately acquainted with the French Pretender's secretary. During a meeting with this unnamed secretary, he – the secretary – left Capt. Hansen alone in his office. On the secretary's desk was an unsealed packet. Capt. Hansen read the contents of this packet, which stated that Lord North and the Earl of Bute (present and past First Ministers of Britain) said the “plan” was almost finished, that the “draught of troops for America would soon leave England so defenseless that the Pretender with 20,000 troops might land and march all over England.”
Hansen fled with the packet to England and informed Lord North of the contends of the packet. Lord North then paid off Capt. Hansen. But by spring of that year, America was “deluged” in war and Hansen felt guilty about his part in this. He went to New York where he told the Congress, which credited the information and sent Capt. Hansen to show it to the Continental Congress.
Rev. Stiles concluded in this article that Lord North had regained the packet from Capt. Hansen. Stiles felt that if Capt. Hansen had retained custody of the packet he could have convinced the King and the Nation and “restore tranquility between Britain and America.” Rev. Stiles went on to surmise that perhaps the top ministers of the British government had started the trouble in America just to tie up the British army, letting the Pretender sail from France and seize power.
Rev. Stiles wasn't the only one to think along the lines of a conspiracy theory. Roger Lamb, a sergeant in the British army, wrote in an article that, in essence, the French supported America in the Revolution so as to separate Great Britain from the colonies and help France regain their former station in Europe. He went so far as to claim France sent “secret emissaries” to the colonies to “spread dissatisfaction.” The colonists began to gradually change from the “warmth of attachment to the mother country, which had so particularly characterized them,” to, well, pissed off. As J.L. Bell concluded, Sergeant Lamb, writing for a British audience, could not concede that the American colonists might have felt dissatisfaction all on their own.
On reading this, my take is we must thank the French for more than just the Statue of Liberty. Whatever their reasons for supporting the colonies in their bid for independence, we appreciate the help. So this fourth of July, tilt back a Coors Lite with a Perrier chaser, and grill yourself a cheese burger with a side of escargot. Just a thought.