Crime does pay: Analysing thrillers for clues to culture

What we can learn from crime fiction - apart from whodunnit, obviously.

Murder most foul.

Well, maybe. But also murder most interesting.

The fact is that crime fiction is incredibly popular. Readers can’t seem to buy thrillers and ingest them quickly enough. There are many reasons for this – the books provide escapist pleasure, they allow people to experience situations they will (hopefully) never actually experience in real life, they are written in an exciting style that draws readers in, they offer a glimpse of a different culture and/or group of people and/or career, they can teach about the legal system or the criminal underworld or forensic science, and so on.

But from an analytical or academic point of view, it is also fascinating to read crime stories because of what they can tell us about the time and place they were written in. In other words, they subtly offer clues about culture.

Popular literature is generally popular for a reason. Readers want to read work that speaks to them in some way. And popular novels reflect popular culture and the views of the time; they can be considered a sort of combination of gauge and mirror. Obviously, what authors and which types of text are popular changes depending on what is happening in a given society. Would Charles Dickens’ novels be bestsellers today? And does anyone remember formerly bestselling author George Lippard? Would his works appeal to us?

As I write this, the majority of the books on the New York Times bestseller list are genre literature, and a majority of those texts are thrillers.

So what can we learn from looking at thrillers?

We can get a sense of what people in a particular culture fear, what they are anxious about, what they look forward to, what they desire. In short, who they are and how they got that way.

If English language books have become more graphically violent over the years, as is the case to a large extent, does that mean that we have grown more accustomed to violence? Does that suggest that we have adjusted to the idea of some violence being part of our everyday lives but that we fear increasing amounts of danger? And are we most concerned about torture now, or about children being abducted, or about political espionage?

Judging by some thrillers, terrorism is much on our minds right now; there seem to be clear reasons for this. At the same time, though, we want a break from political tensions, so we frequently turn to crime novels featuring the legal system and medicine. And note how I haven’t used the term detective fiction; that’s because at this point in time we don’t want to rely solely on an expert to solve our crimes. Rather, we want to see an amateur – a feckless bounty hunter, a depressed alcoholic, a chef, a librarian – empowered enough to make sense of what’s happened. Our society wants to see individuals succeed, even in fields they haven’t been trained in.

We can also read the books to explore how different groups are portrayed. For example, women are much more active in contemporary thrillers written in western countries than they were a century ago. Does that reflect feminism’s influence and women’s enlarged spheres of opportunity?

We can even take this further and look at translated crime fiction, thereby comparing one culture to another. Scandinavian thrillers are the style du jour. Though they often feature a crime, it often isn’t the crime in and of itself that is the main point. Indeed, Scandinavian thrillers tend to look both beyond the crime and also inwards, blaming society in general and the government’s disappointing welfare policies more specifically for whatever ills people are facing, and thus for the crimes they may commit. The bigger crime in many of these books is the one perpetrated against humanity. People who thought their beautiful idyllic nations would take care of them have been disappointed. Scandinavian crime novelists suggest that their countries have gone from socialist paradise to criminal hell

In sum, crime fiction can be read simply as distracting, relaxing entertainment. But to do so is to let the authors get away with murder, because they are embedding clues to our society within their books. All you have to do is pick up a novel or two and explore what the plots and characters might tell you about the people and times in a given culture.

After all, murder will out.

B J Epstein is a lecturer in literature and translation at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. She is also a writer, editor, and Swedish-to-English translator.

Bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin. Photograph: Getty Images

B J Epstein is a lecturer in literature and translation at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. She is also a writer, editor, and Swedish-to-English translator.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge