Soon after my new novel, The Question Is Murder was released, I was invited by Mystery and Suspense magazine to write a feature story examining the history and attraction of political mysteries, with a list of some of my favorites. Here are the first few paragraphs of that story, with a link for those who want to read the rest:
“What do love, greed, and envy have in common? They’re all great motives for murder. Check out any good mystery and chances are high that one or more of those qualities are behind the evil deed.
But lurking beneath those three motives is often something else—the lust for power, either power over an individual or a group. And it’s that lust for power that defines a political mystery. Politics, after all, is the art of getting someone to do what you want them to do—sometimes for noble causes and sometimes for selfish reasons, sometimes through persuasion or incentives, sometimes through blackmail or violence. And when neither reason nor threats work on those blocking your path, well, you just may have to get rid of them. And that’s the makings of a good political mystery.
Political power is hardly a new source of suspense and drama. The thirst for control goes back to the beginning of time, and we find it in literature as early as ancient Greece and through the Middle Ages. Shakespeare made a living off of it. Think of Julius Caesar or Macbeth. These were not political mysteries in the true sense because we knew from the start who was guilty, but no one did a better job than the bard when it came to examining the underlying hunger for power. Traitors like those who did in Caesar populate political thrillers to this day, and many authors are still trying to replicate the evil in Lady Macbeth, though no one has done it as well as Shakespeare.
Trying to date the modern political mystery is a fool’s errand, but I’ll give it a try by pointing to Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, which was published in 1931. That was a time when political power was local, and muscle was the only kind of lobbying in vogue for the ward bosses who held it. Hammett’s violent scenes seem mild compared to today’s, but he knew when and how to use them to keep a plot moving. (Keep Reading)