|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on October 4, 2018 at 9:05 PM|
The spoilers this time will not only be a spoiler for Dance Hall of the Dead, but also for The Moonstone, by Willkie Collins, at least to the extent that an important element of the former reminded me of an important element of the latter. So if you haven’t read The Moonstone yet (often considered the first recognizable modern mystery novel ever), go read it and then come back.
Speaking of one thing reminding me of another, friends of mine had recommended for a couple years that I read Disco of the Departed by Colin Cotterill, a mystery set in 1970s Communist Laos. Once I read it, I did enjoy it. But I had started to wonder if the title was some kind of homage to or play on Dance Hall of the Dead. But I did not notice any elements of Cotterill’s book that echoed any of the actual plot elements of Hillerman’s – so the title was just a coincidence?
At any rate, as I said pre-spoiling, the resolution of the mystery was satisfying. It turned out that the murdered boy had grabbed some artifacts from the archaeological that had a significance he had not anticipated – they could prove that the major anthropological discoveries taking place on his tribe’s land were actually frauds. The scientist who perpetrated the fraud disguised himself as the Zuni figure to commit the murder, and then tries the same gambit to pursue the witness to the midst of a major Zuni celebration. The vivid description of the ceremony is another bonus of the book. At any rate, it does not go well for the archaeologist as Zuni vigilantes apprehend him while in his blasphemous disguise and he is never seen again. Whether they attacked him for the blasphemy or because they suspected or knew his role in the murder is never determined.
This trope, of vigilantes bringing about justice that the authorities would be unable to or that would take too long through normal channels, is one of my least favorite mystery tropes, though it seems to be quite common. In The Moonstone, the main perpetrator would have gotten away with his crimes but for three vigilantes who have pursued him halfway around the world because the titular diamond (which is what the Moonstone is) is sacred to their religion. Come to think of it, in Willkie Collins’ other masterpiece, The Woman in White, it is again vigilantes working outside the law who bring down one of the evildoers who had escaped justice – this time, Italian revolutionaries. The movie version of The Firm (but not the book – I hope I didn’t reverse it) had the Mafia act in the cause of justice when the hero reveals that the titular crooked organization was ripping them off on legal fees.
I don’t know if anyone has ever done or could even theoretically calculate statistics, but I think it is safe to say that most cases of vigilante justice do not actually end up punishing a real perpetrator (or historically, even a real crime). Trial by jury is our Constitutional right and I am going to go out on a limb and say I am grateful for it – you don’t have to spin the globe too many times to find countries whose citizens know exactly how it is to lack legal protections. So why do mystery writers repeatedly long for a situation where justice can be served without proof of guilt? In these examples, it isn’t even that the hero is the one bending the rules to enact what he sees as justice. In that context, even a celebration of “one man law” like 24 or Death Wish is more respectable because at least the reader is encouraged to admire personal vengeance. But repeatedly returning to a plot twist where a third party enacts vengeance just seems passive. And in Dance Hall of the Dead, much more so than in Willkie Collin’s novels. we have a hero who is a legitimate lawman and for whom the reader feels admiration. And I don’t remember anything about the crime that would make it impossible to prove in court. So why undercut the efficacy of your hero?
Categories: Edgar Winner Reviews (Spoilers)