Revolutionary Crime Fiction

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer makes the Crime Reads list of 21 Crime Novels Set During Revolutions and Rebellions.

In honor of the 4th of July, we decided to celebrate crime fiction set during all revolutions, even those that succeeded only in establishing themselves in our collective historical memory. No matter the revolution, these works share some surprising affinities.

Complex crime stories taking place during revolutions tend to fall into three main categories, each of which you’ll find amply represented on this list: spy fiction that directly engages with the political situation described; crime-within-a-crime fiction aimed at capitalizing on the chaos of revolution to showcase the pointlessness of pursuit (looking at you, Les Miserables); and a more diffuse category of social change against the backdrop of a revolution, usually exploring the disconnect between changing roles among revolutionary male elites and stagnant roles for women, laborers, and minorities.

This list may infuriate traditionalists (just as revolutions themselves do). We’ve used a liberal definition of both “crime novel” and “revolution,” and while you will find both crimes and revolutions in each of the selections below, forgive us (like the British did after they figured out India was worth way more than some tiny set of colonies full of rapacious settlers unable to respect treaties) for our loose approach to definition. To paraphrase George Orwell, all revolutions are suited for crime novels, but some are more suited than others. The American, French, and Cuban revolutions may be the best represented on this list, but we assure you, we spend a long, long time looking for a crime novel about the Haitian Revolution, and sadly, turned up nothing. (If you know of one, please comment with the title!)

Charles Rosenberg, The Trial and Execution of George Washington (American Revolution)

Alternative history tends to not go too far back in time, lest representation of reality stray too far from our present moment, but what better way to explore the crime aspects of a revolution, then by writing an alternative history crime novel in which George Washington goes on trial for his traitorous behavior? Charles Rosenberg has done exactly that and while the dovetailing of conservatism in both England and the US precludes me from straight out saying that we’d all be better off if the British had won, slavery would have certainly been abolished way earlier.

Elmore Leonard, Cuba Libre (Spanish-American War / War of Cuban Independence)

Revolutions and wars offer up death and instability, but they also offer opportunity, namely of the economic variety. They’re a hustler’s dream, and Elmore Leonard, being the bard of all hustlers, naturally took on the subject in 1998 novel, Cuba Libre— part historical novel, part crime caper, part western. Cuba Libre looks at the tumultuous turn of the century in Cuba, when revolution was in the air, the Spanish were the colonial antagonizer, and the US jumped into the mix with ulterior motives of its own. The novel follows an elaborate scheme involving a sugar baron, a cowboy bank robber, the USS Maine, and a wild cast of characters. It’s not often mentioned in the Leonard canon, but certainly has a place in the revolutionary crime fiction rolls.

Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (French Revolution)

Perhaps the most obvious work to include on this list, Les Miserables is equally concerned with criminality, the criminalized, the revolutionary, and their intersections. Hugo’s masterpiece follows a reformed criminal and his dogged pursuer for the ur-text of the “small crime within a large crime” novel, in which the act of pursuit loses all context, and we, the reader, root for chaos, as a way to restore a potential future to our hero on the run.

Joseph Conrad, The Duel (Napoleonic Wars as continuation of French Revolution)

Duelling was once so popular, and so deadly, that most nations criminalized duels, or at least restricted their legality to allow for only those of the same rank to fight. Conrad’s The Duel, later made into a brilliant film by Ridley Scott in the 1970s, follows two officers in Napoleon’s army as they fight duel, after duel, after duel; occasionally they earn a reprieve from fighting each other as each rises through the ranks. Since duelling was for the most part a crime during this time period, and since the Napoleonic Wars spread the message of the French Revolution despite Napoleon’s dictatorial role, we decided that The Duel kind of counts as a crime novel during a revolution….kind of…

Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry (Russian Revolution)

Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry is possibly the most violent book I have ever read (and those who follow this site know that that’s saying something). While not a crime novel—or even a novel—this collection of short stories is full of crimes; Red Cavalry follows an anarchist cavalry regiment fighting the White Russians during the Civil War accompanying the Russian Revolution, and both sides spend a fair amount of time engaged in animal abuse, sexual assault, and hate crimes (although the White army definitely ends up committing a whole lot more of the hate crimes).

Leonardo Padura The Man Who Loved Dogs

Leonardo Padura, The Man Who Loved Dogs (Aftermath of Russian / Cuban Revolutions)

The Man Who Loved Dogs is one of the most ambitious and accomplished novels from an icon of Latin American crime fiction. Padura weaves together three stories, each of them post-revolutionary in its own way: the rivalry between Trotsky and Stalin; Trotsky’s exile and subsequent assassination in Mexico; and the Cuban twilight years of Trotsky’s KGB-trained assassin. Padura unfolds these tales with lush, lived-in details that simultaneously drive the story forward and subvert the very ideas that infuse each strand. This is a revolutionary detective novel for the political cynic who harbors secret ideals and clings to old romantic notions.

Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Affair (Algerian Revolution)

In Kamel Daoud’s heroic effort to fix Camus’s The Stranger, Harun, the brother of the unnamed Arab man murdered in The Stranger, seeks justice for his brother’s demise, here given the name of Musa. Daoud follows his characters through the many bitter trials of colonialism, then at last gives them their vengeance against the backdrop of the Algerian Revolution.

Xiao Bai, French Concession (lead up to Chinese Revolution)

I love books featuring competing jurisdictions; a nightmare for a detective, they are a criminal and a revolutionary’s best friend. Set in Shanghai in the 1930s, French Concession is a sweeping tale of spies, revolutionaries, assassins, and political police, that may not take place during a revolution, but leaves revolutionary change as the only possible outcome of the book’s events.

sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (Vietnamese Revolution)

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s literary spy thriller follows a double agent through the Vietnam War and the revolutionary changes implemented afterwards, with a cynical eye towards the hypocrisies of all sides. The Sympathizer won both the Edgar Award and the Pulitzer, and a mention of those awards only hints at the unparalleled brilliance and unflinching cynicism of this novel.

Victor Santos and Alex de Campi, Bad Girls (Cuban Revolution)

On the eve of the Cuban Revolution, three women must work together to smuggle millions of dollars out of Havana on New Year’s Eve, 1958. This lushly illustrated graphic novel is the perfect vehicle for this intricate heist story.

Paco Ignacio Taibo II, The Shadow of the Shadow (Mexican Revolution)

In Mexico City in 1922, four friends from disparate backgrounds meet to play dominos—a labor organizer, a journalist, a poet, and a lawyer—and to discuss the progress of the revolution, seemingly hijacked by Obregon before a truly radical plan for post-war Mexico can be implemented. Despite their initial reluctance to interfere, the four friends soon become involved in investigating a series of murders linked to US oil interests. Taibo captures the romance of revolution, the chaos of transition, and the rapacity of capitalism with unerring precision.

Stacia Brown, The Glovemaker (The Levellers)

During the English Civil War, a small but vocal contingent of Cromwell’s supporters took his message of radical equality to its logical conclusion and set up a proto-Marxist utopia of shared land and resources, that was soon enough brutally destroyed. Stacia Brown’s The Glovemaker follows the trial of a young woman accused of infanticide, and touches on many of the social and political upheavals of 17th century England, including the long-gone, but never-forgotten Levellers, and appears to be the only mystery novel that does so.

Paul Vidich, The Good Assassin (Cuban Revolution)

Vidich’s second novel is a tangled web of spies, sympathizers, and revolutionaries. It’s 1958 Havana, and the CIA suspects that its man in the capital is redirecting guns meant to support Batista’s troops to Castro and his rebels in the mountains. Vidich wrote for CrimeReads about the challenge of writing in the shadow of Graham Greene—the comparison to Our Man In Havana can hardly be ignored—but The Good Assassin has traces of Conrad and le Carre, as well: allegiances are mixed, moral forces are confused, and the spies are utterly, irredeemably human.

Elliot Pattison, Savage Liberty (American Revolution)

In Pattison’s fifth installment of his Bone Rattler historical mystery series, he takes his fighting Scotsman to the American Revolution, where series protagonist Duncan McCallum quickly becomes involved in intrigue and treachery surrounding the Sons of Liberty.

Suzanne Adair, Camp Follower (American Revolution)

Just one of many stand-alone mysteries from Suzanne Adair that explore the complexities of women’s roles during the American Revolution, but by far the one with the best name, Camp Follower is the surprisingly modern story of a society journalist for a loyalist magazine assigned to write a feature on a brilliant British officer, but soon comes under suspicion of being (gasp!) a rebel spy.

Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála “Emmuska” Orczy de Orci, The Scarlet Pimpernel (French Revolution)

While my memories of The Scarlet Pimpernel are vague at best, and intertwined with Black Adder’s parody, I believe that The Scarlet Pimpernel, like much of the adventurous historical fiction published throughout the long 19th century, counts as espionage fiction (the baroness first created her famous character in 1906). The adventurous Pimpernel snatches imperiled aristocrats away from certain death at the hands of revolutionaries, and looks good doing so.

Alan Furst, Night Soldiers (Soviet International Revolution)

Furst’s masterpiece was the start of an epic series and a rich portrait of the Soviet international revolutionary intelligence network. In 1930s Bulgaria, Khristo Stoianev watches as local fascist forces murder his brother. He is soon recruited by a charismatic stranger who indoctrinates him into Soviet ways and sends him to be trained at NKVD headquarters. Khristo is dispatched across the continent, sewing discontent and revolution. His own disillusionment is part of the journey. Furst is one of the titans of 20th century espionage and political fiction, and this is the book to start with. The Fourth of July is as good a reason as any.

Liam O’Flaherty, The Informer (Irish War of Independence)

A classic of Irish literature and often remembered for the 1935 John Ford-directed film, The Informer is as dark as they come. It’s 1922 in Dublin and Gypo Nolan, a bitter former IRA man, walks from one indignity to the next. After being picked up by the police, he decides to collect on a reward by informing on one of his IRA brothers-in-arms. This moment of weakness costs him dearly, as he’s hunted both by a guilty conscience and his old revolutionary pals.

Joseph Conrad, Nostromo (The “Costaguana” Revolution)

Set in the fictional country of “Costaguana”—a stand-in for La Gran Colombia—Conrad’s masterpiece looks at the inevitable march of industry, as colonial powers (some more benevolent than others, all driven by a kind of messianic capitalist zeal) drag minerals from the earth and run roughshod over the working classes, local and imported. Revolution comes to the port city, families and companies are torn apart, allegiances are tested, and fortunes are won and lost. It’s hard to put this Conrad novel into a category—historical, adventure, or heist novel. Better to read it as a sweeping epic of the kind and complexity few have ever rivaled.

Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat (Anti-Trujillo D.R.)

“Revolution” may be technically incorrect (and sure, it’s not a neat fit in the “crime” genre, either), but Vargas Llosa’s epic thriller is certainly full of revolutionaries, plotters, and rebels. The author reimagines a period of monumental upheaval in the Dominican Republic, during the final years of the dictator, Rafael Trujillo, before and after his assassination in May 1961. The historical record is the basis here, but the rest is all Vargas Llosa: passionate debate, internal turmoil, and a series of overlapping conspiracies and plots, as personal interests collide and conflict.

Basma Abdel Aziz, The Queue (Unnamed Nation Immediately Post Arab Spring Protests)

Aziz’s The Queue takes place in an unnamed country after a semi-failed revolution, wherein a despotic government has been replaced by a seeming reformist one. When the new government in power reacts violently to mass protests, a quixotic form of damage control emerges where doctors are ordered not to treat patients with government-inflicted wounds, as the government could not possibly have shot at unarmed protestors, and thus any attempt by a protestor to seek treatment must be considered a despicable slander upon government forces. A wounded man, slowly dying of the bullet stuck in his belly, joins an ever-growing line outside of a bureaucratic center known only as “The Gate,” where hope slowly gives way to despair as the line grows ever longer. Not a novel about a successful revolution, but not one of a completely failed revolution, either, The Queue is more a cynical parody of how bureaucracy continues, no matter which government is in charge, as well as examining the process by which protest becomes criminalized.

Category: Reviews

 

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