“I didn’t know what frightened me more, radical Muslims or radical Americans.”
—Sara Paretsky, Blacklist
“‘Welcome to the police state,’ Rebus added. ‘They pulled that…stunt…because they could.’
‘You say “they” as if we are not on the same side.’
‘Remains to be seen, Siobhan.’”
—Ian Rankin, The Naming of the Dead
When national security issues and protection of the privileged and powerful override constitutional protections and the rule of law, is that society in danger of becoming a proto-police state? This is the question raised in two excellent political crime novels by the Chicago writer Sara Paretsky and her Edinburgh counterpart Ian Rankin. Blacklist (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003), Paretsky’s eleventh outing of her feisty private investigator, Vicky Warshawski (V. I.), is set against the backdrop of post-9/11 America, when the Patriot Act provided overzealous officials with powers from Homeland Security that threatened civil liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Paretsky’s story spans over fifty years going back to the blacklist period of the 1950s, a broad tapestry which enables her to draw a direct line between the fear generated by the politics of McCarthyism and the politics of fear in an America traumatized by a major terrorist attack. One common link between the historical eras is race, and whether racial minorities – in this case, blacks and Muslims – receive justice in America. Rankin’s sixteenth John Rebus novel, The Naming of the Dead (Orion Books, 2006), is set in 2005, during the week of the G8 Gleneagles summit outside of Edinburgh and the London Tube bombings. The protection of the politically powerful meant that vast numbers of security forces invaded Edinburgh and were empowered to suspend the normal rule of law, which resulted in the flouting of their power and the intimidation of citizens, including, in Rankin’s novel, the truculent Rebus. Both novels question the balance between freedom and safety when the perpetrators of violent crimes are apparently able to elude justice by exploiting their privileged status and the fear of the time.
House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) who were hunting people they perceived to be communists. The journalist Marcus Whitby was a respected writer researching a story on a black dancer, who, after a period of fame, became a victim of the blacklist; she lost her teaching position and was forced to decamp to Africa in order to save her career. When Whitby travelled to the exclusive ultra-posh suburb to check on the veracity of what would be damaging revelations, he was killed. The local cops initially attributed his death to a misadventure or suicide, but V. I., hired by the Whitby family to find the truth, uses her resources, including an old friend of her late-father cop on the Chicago police force, to discredit this cover story.