About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Police in Totalitarian States in Crime Fiction (Part I)

On Monday I posted a review of Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo. The book caused me to think about the problems faced by police working in totalitarian states. In this post and Friday’s post I will be discussing books involving police officers in dictatorships moving from the 1930’s through the 1990’s.

In The Good German by Joseph Kanon one of the primary characters is a policeman who has been an officer during the Nazi rule before and during World War II. Through those years he has hunted criminals for a criminal regime. Is he a good German by chasing criminals for an evil cruel government? Another character, to stay alive, was a greifer, a Jew who found Jews hiding in Berlin.

Should a police officer serve a totalitarian state?

In Mark Mazower’s book, Hitler’s Empire – How the Nazis Ruled Europe the writer sets out how the existing police services before Nazi rule continued as police under the Nazis. While I am sure most dealt with ordinary crimes on occasion in Western Europe and, regularly in Eastern Europe, the regular police were involved in rounding up Jews. It was frightening to Child 44  read how many Eastern European police participated in the Holocaust.

by Tom Rob Smith is set in the U.S.S.R. in the early 1950’s where the nation is still caught up in the iron grip of Stalin. Secret Police officer, Leo Demidov, is shaken when he realizes that he is chasing a veterinarian who has sought to escape Russia when the veterinarian realizes he is under investigation for anyone the subject of a secret police investigation will be found guilty. Demidov suddenly perceives that many of the people he has pursued are not enemies of the state seeking to do harm to the U.S.S.R. Later he is in a Kafkaesque situation where the party line requires he not search for a serial killer of children because the socialist paradise could not have a serial killer. The police have been finding “undesirable” members of the nation guilty of the murders rather than acknowledge there is a serial killer.

What happens to a police officer when the suspect is always guilty and only certain people are criminals?

The officer is no longer an investigator solving crime in such circumstances. He or she has become a mere agent for the state disposing of unwanted or troublesome citizens. There is no objective search for criminals causing harm.

Needle in a Haystack is set in the late 1970’s in Argentina where the Junta is the governing dictatorship. The detective, Perro, is called to a crime scene where there are three bodies. Two of them are young people whose faces have been mutilated by multiple shots to the head. The third victim is a middle aged man who has been shot once in the stomach.

His investigation is immediately limited by the victims. He can investigate the murder of the middle aged man but only if it does not involve the other victims. The two young people have been killed by government death squads and the Junta prevents the police from investigating deaths it has caused.

What happens when the officer only investigates crimes not involving the state?

Respect for police and the Rule of Law is diminished when the police must close their eyes to vicious premeditated murder. Who could have confidence in the police in Argentina to investigate crime?

On Friday I will put up a post continuing the analysis through the 1980’s in the U.S.S.R. and Communist China in the 1990’s.


  1. Interesting thoughts you raise Bill, not sure I know the answers either. I can barely imagine living in such a state, let alone being in the police under such a regime.

  2. Agree you are rising here some interesting thoughts, Bill. Have you read The De Luca Trilogy by Carlo Lucarelli (Carte Blanche; The Damned Season; Via delle Oche). Also the firsts Petros Markaris main character was a police inspector during a dictatorship.

  3. I've never read crime-fiction with "police in totalitarian states" as a theme, though I've read a fair bit (read KGB, Stasi and Ovra) from newspaper and internet articles to know what they're capable of. KGB, of course, has been a recurrent theme in many spy and Cold War novels. Thanks for bringing these two additional books to my notice.

  4. Very interesting post - I very much enjoyed Needle in a Haystack by Mallo. I have recently read Murder on the 31st Floor, by Per Wahloo (half of the Sjowall/Wahloo partnership that wrote the Martin Beck series). This book has been republished in the UK in a new translation by Sarah Death. It was first written in 1964. It is a very bleak depiction of a police investigation in a totalitarian state.

  5. Bill - What a fascinating idea for a post, and you raise some good questions! There are most definitely some crises of conscience, if you want to call it that, when the police have to serve a totalitarian state. Your post made me think of William Ryan's series featuring Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID. Thus far the books are The Holy Thief and The Darkening Field. The novels take place in Stalinist Moscow just before World War II. A fascinating look at life as a cop in a totalitarian state.

  6. Bill I can also suggest A Widow Killer by Pavel Kohout about the last days of the third Reich, Qiu Xiaolong books on China and I'm currently reading Mixed Blood by Roger Sminth on post-apartheid South Africa.

  7. Bill don't forget also Leonardo Padura's books set in Cuba.

  8. Bernadette: Thanks for the comment. I can imagine how frustrating it must be for police when they cannot do their job.

  9. Jose Ignacio: Thanks for the comments. You are overwhelming me with excellent suggestions. Please keep them coming.

    I have neither read any of the The De Luca Trilogy nor the Markaris books (I have been keeping an eye out for them in bookstores) nor the Widow Killer (I searched for it last year for Bernadette's Euro tour in Saskatchewan but no copy was to be found) nor Roger Smith (I do have one of his books on my TBR pile) nor Padura's books.

    You anticipated Qiu Xiaolong. His books are a part of tomorrow's Part II post.

  10. Prashant: Thanks for the comment. I find crime fiction can be a window on the societies and times in which they are set.

  11. Maxine: Thanks for the comment. I have a Sjowall/Wahloo book on my TBR pile. Murder on the 31st Floor sounds interesting and depressing at the same time.

  12. Margot; Thanks for the comment. Your daily reflections have led me to reflect on mysteries and come up with meditations. I love the phrase "crises of conscience". I expect it will appear in a future post with attribution to yourself.

    I am not familiar with William Ryan's books. As with Jose Ignacio and Maxine you are sending me off to look for a new author.