Two Mystery Writers Who Tackle Dark Money

With the tragic outcome of the murders at the Pittsburgh synagogue this year, the mail bombs sent to prominent Democrats, and the upcoming midterm elections, it’s hard to focus on anything but our own country these days.

Nevertheless, there is another story of dark money flowing not just in America but in much of the world that, like Sean McFate’s political thriller series, is being portrayed by nonfiction authors and mystery book writers rather than our news media.

That story is about opioid addiction. Estimates in the United States alone are that 80,000 Americans died of overdoses last year. Opioid deaths are fast outstripping heart attacks as the number one cause of death here.

Today I’ll be writing about two of my favorite mystery series writers’ latest books about the political corruption and ethical dilemnmas raised by opioid epidemics happening in other countries.

These authors are Louise Penny and Donna Leon. Louise Penny’s series are set in Canada. Donna Leon’s series are set in Italy.

Mysteries and political thrillers

If you’ve been reading my Brucenomics blog, now ten years old, you know I love mysteries. I’ve reviewed several writers who created mysteries related to the field of economics that you might like:

Marshall Jevons’ Murder at the Margin and Fatal Equilibrium,  featuring detective Henry Spearman, tenured Economics professor at Harvard University  (written by  two economists).

Emma Lathan’s Green Grow the Dollars and  A Place for Murder, a series featuring banking vice-president John Thatcher (written by two women college friends, one an economist)

Shizuko Natsuki The Obituary Arrives at Two O’Clock, a look at the era of stagflation in Japan as the hero Kosuki Okita investigates a murder at a golf club where he works as a landscaper.

Unlike hard-boiled detective stories, mystery series rarely delve into the corruption underlying modern politics. Mysteries are generally concerned with restoring justice on an individual level.

However, Donna Leon and Louise Penny are the exceptions to Dashiell Hammett’s distinction in the 1930s between English mysteries and American detective stories.

Like Sean McFate’s military thrillers, these two women mystery writers dig deep into political corruption on a global level.

Donna Leon has long written much about political corruption in her beloved city of Venice and in Italy. Just about every book Leon has written about her detective, Guido Brunetti has a larger theme of environmental, political or institutional corruption that intersects with murder on a personal level.

Louise Penny, on the other hand has written many books that delve into the psychology of murder. However, in Penny’s latest mystery, Penny expands her view.

Penny places her detective, Armand Gamache into a dangerous political situation as he pursues a murder that takes place in Three Pines, the off-of-the-maps village in Quebec Canada where Gamache now resides.

Louise Penny Glass Houses (2017)

Louise Penny’s brilliance lies in the characters she has created and the setting of Three Pines for her stories.

Her characters are city dwellers who have stumbled across Three Pines and became so enchanted they’ve stayed there, setting up their own businesses or professions. An artist, two innkeepers, a bookstore owner (formerly a pyscholgist) and finally a police detective from Montreal.

Not since Agatha Christie has a mystery writer been able to successfully create plots and characters that give clues but leave readers with a hard time figuring out “who dunnit”.

In addition, Penny is wonderfully droll when drawing her flawed but real characters and literary, even bringing in an alcoholic poetess with her pet wild duck for breaking tensions felt before and after murder.

The bucolic lives of the villagers are  disrupted when an archetypal character from the medieval European age called a Cobrador shows up on the village green. He or she is wearing a dark robe with a hood and simply stands there day after day facing the village inn and not speaking.

The Cobrador represents a Conscience come to witness the sins of someone in the village, but no one knows who.

InPenny’s latest book, Glass Houses, the issue of political corruption is tied to the police themselves. The opioid epidemic has hit olympian rates not just in Canada, but across the border in the U.S. As we finally learn, Three Pines, the village in the woods, is quite near the U.S. border.

Gamache and his two faithful sidekicks have been struggling with what to do about the opioid epidemic in Canada. They have come to distrust their own colleagues in the Montreal police force and others in government. They suspect that dark money is buying the safety of opioid smugglers.

Following the Star Trek’s meme oft-spoken by Mr. Spock in the first TV series, Gamache and his reluctant confidants have come to believe that “the need of the many outweighs the needs of the few”.

It’s a desperate gamble Gamache takes, and like a hardboiled detective story, there is a high price to pay. While the murder is solved satisfactorily, we are left wondering about the next book in the series (coming out soon). Will those higher up in government will be affected by what Gamache has done?

Donna Leon The Temptation of Forgiveness (2018)

Donna Leon’s detective reminds me a lot of the 20th century Emma Lathan books featuring banker, John Thatcher.

Like Thatcher’s bank President, Brad Withers, Guido Brunetti’s superior is a boss lacking his underlings’ superior ability to see the big picture behind what’s going on in front of him.

Vice-Questore Patta views his purpose as going no further than protecting the wealthy in Venice and his own family. Corruption among the elite class in Venice is of great concern to him to keep covered up. Corruption lower down he has no interest in.

This often puts a powerless Brunetti in conflict with Patta. Patta also has a Mini-Me type of assistant named Scarpa with whom Brunetti has to contend.

Brunetti has help from a some of his detectives, but the shining star of this series is Signorina Elettra, Elettra is Patta’s sexy, smart, and subversive secretary.

Only Elettra holds the secrets to how use of the new computers that came into the offices of the Questore in early part of this century. She also has a secret microphone planted in her boss’ office in order to keep track of what’s he’s up to. She is Guido’s guiding light when it comes to finding data on the Web.

She and Guido’s conversations are the highlights of this book. Also interesting are Guido and his wife’s (and sometimes there two children’s) discussions of politics and literature.

Leon’s current mystery starts with a mother concerned about her son’s drug use. Shortly afterwards it continues with the murder of the woman’s husband. As in Penny’s book Glass Houses, a murder of an individual leads Brunetti into digging deeper into the dark money opioid scene in Italy in her 2018 book The Temptation of Forgiveness.

Here too there is an ethical dilemma for Brunetti, although it comes at the very end of the book. In Leon’s series, Brunetti lives in a place were all the citizens seem to accept crime and corruption as normal events that most try to steer clear of.

For example, while stopping for coffee and a brioche, Brunetti asks a barman why they haven’t voted for a new government in five years. The barman answers “So long as we have football on television, no one much cares if we elect a government or if some ancient politician appoints one.” (p. 41).

This is what makes these books so compelling. Especially right now. As we are experiencing previously unimaginable amounts of violence in our country and disconnection with each other.

Will America become the same as Italy or Canada? Impelling heroes like Gamache to engage in dangerous, perhaps unethical acts, to try to root out political corruption, greed, dark money, ignorance, and addiction?

Or forcing us to give up in despair like Brunetti? Will we wind up having academic discussions about corruption that we know we can do nothing about? Trying to do good work while increasingly feeling only desperation and despair?

Or can we find another way?