“Better no company than bad company” is a very old saying. Similar to it is the saying that we’re known by the company we keep. There’s some real truth to that line of thinking, actually. We do tend to pick friends and associates who are similar in at least some ways. And it always seems that people who spend a lot of time in the company of nasty people just tend to get themselves in trouble. We see a lot of that in real life, and it’s true in crime fiction, too.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, for instance, Dr. Watson hears an odd story from Holmes. A Greek interpreter named Mr. Melas has more or less been kidnapped by Harold Latimer and compelled to go to a remote house and help Latimer and an associate named Wilson Kemp communicate with a young Greek man who seems to be their prisoner. Latimer and Kemp want this young man to sign some papers, and Melas immediately senses that all is not well. The young man is not convinced to sign the papers, and Melas is taken away from the house and abandoned. He manages to make it back home, and the next day tells his story to Holmes’ brother Mycroft, who belongs to the same club. Mycroft asks his brother to investigate, and Holmes and Watson get involved just in time to save Melas’ life. As it turns out, the young man had come to England to rescue his sister Sophy, who’d gotten mixed up with Latimer and Kemp, both of whom are very nasty people. They tried to get Sophy to sign over all her property and money to them, and when she refused, they kept her as a prisoner. At the end of this story, we find out that Latimer and Kemp meet a very appropriate fate.
In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, we meet Alec Legge, a young scientist who’s taken a cottage in the village of Nassecomb with his wife Peggy. He’s been under a great deal of stress lately, and the getaway is designed to give him a rest. They’ve only been in Nasscomb for a few months when Legge’s peace and quiet are shattered. He had gotten mixed up with a radical political group, but when they went too far for him, he tried to extricate himself. Now, the group’s made it clear that they have no intention of making it that easy for him to leave them. As if those worries weren’t enough, Legge gets mixed up in a murder case when a local girl, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, is strangled during a fête at the local estate Nasse House. Hercule Poirot’s been invited to the fête to present the prizes for one of the events. So when Marlene Tucker’s body is discovered, he works with Inspector Bland to find her killer. It turns out that she was murdered because of a secret she’d learned, so Poirot looks into the lives of everyone who was a part of the preparations for the fête. One of those people is Alec Legge. Now, not only is Legge in great trouble because of his past political associations, but he’s also a murder suspect.
In Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover to find out who killed copywriter Victor Dean. Dean fell to his death down a spiral staircase at his workplace, Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. At first, his death looks like a tragic accident but he left behind a half-finished letter in which he mentioned that someone at the company was involved in illegal activities. Pym’s top managers are worried about the company’s pristine reputation, so they hire Wimsey to take Dean’s place and find out what he can. Wimsey agrees and soon enjoys success as “the new copywriter.” He also begins his investigation. He learns that someone in the company has been getting paid to use company advertising as a tool for a powerful drugs gang to set up meetings with local drug dealers. When Dean found out about this agreement, he began to blackmail the killer, who struck back by murdering Dean. In reality, it was the killer’s involvement with very much the wrong sort of people that got that person involved in murder.
Getting mixed up with the wrong kind of people is a serious problem for Trevor Sharp in Peter Robinsons’s Gallows View. Trevor is a teenage boy who’s somewhat of a misfit. His father’s concerned about him because lately, Trevor’s been mixed up with Mick Webster, who’s already been in a lot of trouble. Mick himself is mixed up with some fairly unsavoury people, so his friendship with Trevor just draws Trevor into a bad situation. When a series of break-ins begins to happen in the Yorkshire town of Eastvale, newly-arrived DI Alan Banks slowly comes to the conclusion that Trevor Sharp knows more than he’s saying about it. Then, there’s a murder. As Banks and his team work to figure out what’s really happened in Eastvale, we also see more than one person try to warn Trevor Sharp that he’s in with bad company and needs to re-think what he’s doing. Tragically, he’s got other plans…
In Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors, L.A.P.D. homicide detective Shane Scully gets an unusual request. Sandy Sandoval is a prostitute who also happens to be an excellent and effective L.A.P.D. informant. She’s been asked to work on a very dangerous undercover assignment, and doesn’t want to put her fifteen-year-old son Charles “Chooch” at risk. So she asks Scully to look after Chooch while she’s working her case. Scully’s not very comfortable with the idea, but he agrees. Soon enough, he finds out that Chooch has been in a lot of trouble, and not just at school. He’s been mixed up with some very dubious people and using drugs. Scully tries to help Chooch see that he’s headed for extremely serious trouble if he doesn’t make some wiser choices, but Chooch isn’t interested in hearing much of what Scully has to say. It doesn’t help matters that at the moment, Scully’s in a serious mess of his own. In response to a late-night frantic call, Scully went to the home of his former partner Ray Molar to try to protect Molar’s wife Barbara from her own husband. Molar shot at Scully, but his bullet missed. Scully’s self-defense bullet did not. Now, Scully faces a review of his conduct that quickly mushrooms into a possible murder charge when he discovers that Molar was mixed up with very much the wrong people. Before long, but Scully and Chooch are in real danger unless Scully can find out who’s been sabotaging him and why.
There’s a really interesting case of getting mixed up with a dangerous group in Tana French’s The Likeness. In that novel, Dublin detective Cassie Maddox is recovering from the effects of a former case, and has been transferred from Dublin’s murder investigation squad to the domestic violence team. Then, she gets a call that changes everything. The body of a young woman has been found, and what’s particularly eerie is that she looks exactly like Cassie. What’s more, her identification carries the name Alexandra Madison, which is the alias Cassie used in her last assignment. At the urging of her former supervisor, Cassie assumes the Lexie Madison identity once again to penetrate this unknown woman’s world and find out who the woman really is and who killed her. As Lexie, Cassie joins an eccentric and strangely close-knit group of housemates at Whitethorn House, outside Dublin. They’re not “bad company” in the usual sense (e.g. gang members or members of a crime ring), but they aren’t a “typical” group of people. Once she becomes a part of this group, Cassie finds the members both strange and appealing, and before she knows it, she’s mixed up in a very dangerous game. She also finds out who the young woman really was and why she was murdered.
Getting mixed up with the wrong people can get a person into very big trouble. As crime fiction shows us, minding the company we keep can be pretty important. Which “bad company” novels have you enjoyed?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bad Company’s Bad Company.