Most of would probably say that loyalty is a good quality. Certainly we want our friends to be loyal to us; we want to know that there are certain people who can be counted on no matter what happens. And loyalty really is important in a lot of ways. But is it possible for loyalty to be taken too far? Are there times when one should not be loyal? It’s a tricky question actually, which makes it also a very interesting one. Little wonder it’s explored in crime fiction as much as it is.
Loyalty plays an important role in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed on the second night of his journey across Europe on the famous Orient Express. Hercule Poirot is on the same train and agrees to look into the case. He soon finds that Ratchett has a hidden past that has, as the saying goes, came back to haunt him. Poirot also discovers that the only possible suspects are the other passengers whose compartments are in the same coach as Ratchett’s. So Poirot gets to know the different passengers and in his own unique way, gets them to talk about themselves and their backgrounds. As the novel goes on Poirot finds out how much of what the suspects tell him is true and how much is not. Here’s a bit of the conversation that ensues when Poirot confronts one suspect with the fact that that suspect has lied:
“‘In fact, you deliberately lied to us…’ [Poirot]
‘Certainly. I would do the same again…I believe, Messieurs, in loyalty – to one’s friends and one’s family and one’s caste.’”
As it turns out, that sense of loyalty has everything to do with this particular murder.
In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, Inspector Cockrill is called to Heron’s Park military hospital when postman Joseph Higgins dies there during what’s supposed to be routine surgery. At first it looks as though Higgins’ death was a tragic accident as sometimes happens during surgery. So everyone thinks Cockrill’s main role will be to file the official “accident” paperwork. But then, Sister Marion Bates has too much to drink at a party and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered and that furthermore, she knows how it was done. Later that night she herself is murdered. Now it’s clear that Higgins’ death was no accident, so Cockrill looks more deeply into the case. He finds that there are only six people who could have killed both Higgins and Bates, so his focus is on those suspects as he investigates. When Cockrill discovers exactly how Higgins was murdered he also finds out who the killer was. In this novel, you could argue that in a sense, Higgins was killed partly out of loyalty. It’s also fair to say that loyalty plays a role in hampering Cockrill’s investigation.
In Margaret Truman’s Murder at the FBI, we meet special agent Christine Saksis. When fellow agent George Pritchard is murdered at the FBI’s Washington DC headquarters, Saksis and her partner Ross Lizenby are tapped to investigate the murder. They have to move very carefully on this case because one of the most important things that the FBI drums into its employees is “Don’t embarrass the bureau.” One theory of the case is that Pritchard was murdered by a terrorist group whose membership he was going to reveal. It’s a credible explanation too and Saksis and Lizenby are under an awful lot of pressure to pursue it. But little by little other possibilities arise, including the fact that Pritchard was going to reveal some ugly secrets at the agency itself. As the investigation goes on Saksis finds herself with very conflicting loyalties. She is proud to be an FBI agent and is loyal to the agency. At the same time the more she learns about this case the more she questions that loyalty. It’s an interesting look at the role loyalty plays in the way people think.
Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors also gives readers a look at loyalty within a group; in this case it’s the L.A.P.D. Homicide detective Shane Scully gets a call one night from Barbara Molar, the wife of Scully’s former cop partner Ray Molar. Barbara is frantic because she’s afraid her husband is about to kill her. Scully rushes to the Molar home where he confronts Molar. Molar fires at Scully but misses. Scully’s return bullet hits its mark and soon enough Scully finds himself the target of an internal investigation led by prosecutor Alexa Hamilton. Although Ray Molar was in reality a brutal man who abused his wife and his authority as a cop, he was also beloved on the police force; he was considered a “cop’s cop” who mentored several of the newer cops. So right away Scully becomes a pariah. It’s soon clear too that the “Powers That Be” are not going to treat Molar’s killing as a “typical” internal investigation. Scully learns that the department is angling to have him charged with murder. In order to protect himself, Scully starts asking questions to find out why he’s becoming the department’s fall guy. He soon learns that Molar was involved in several things that the department “higher ups” want kept quiet. In this novel, there’s quite a lot of discussion of loyalty, both to the force and to Molar.
Loyalty to the force is also a major theme of Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. The Tasmania police force is rocked when one of its members Sergeant John White is stabbed while he’s investigating a break-in/robbery. The most likely suspect in the case is Darren Rowley, a part-Aboriginal teenager who’s been in and out of trouble with the law for a long time. Everyone says that John White was a true “good guy” – a dedicated cop who stayed “clean” and mentored many, many younger officers. Everyone loved him and all of the other members of the force are devastated by his murder. We see this murder and its after-effects from several perspectives, including those of White’s friend DI Richard Moore, who’s investigating the death; probationer Lucy Howard, who was with White at the break-in scene when he was killed; police commissioner Ron Chalmers, who has to handle the investigation at the “higher-up” level; and Constable Cameron Walsh, for whom White was a mentor. Loyalty plays a critical role in the way these people see both White and Darren Rowley, and in the way people on the force deal with the investigation, with Rowley’s lawyer, with the press and with the public. We also see it in the way the various members of the police force see the justice system that seems to them to be rigged in favour of criminals.
Family loyalty is another important kind of loyalty and we see that in action if you will in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. In that novel, brothers Gates and Mason Hunt are coming home after a late night one night when they encounter Gates’ romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Gates Hunt already had a confrontation earlier in the day with Thompson and now the argument heats up again and almost before anyone realises what’s happening, Gates Hunt has shot Thompson. Mason feels a strong sense of loyalty to his brother because of the way his brother protected him from their abusive father when they were younger. So he helps his brother cover up the crime. Life goes on for both brothers and Mason Hunt becomes a successful commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. Then Gates Hunt is arrested for cocaine trafficking and given a long sentence. He begs his brother to help him get out of prison but Mason refuses. Gates Hunt has squandered every opportunity he had, and Mason refuses to bail him out any more. So Gates threatens to implicate his brother in the Wayne Thompson shooting if Mason won’t use his “pull” to free him from prison. When Mason refuses again, Gates makes good on his threat and Mason Hunt finds himself charged with murder. Now he’ll have to find a way to clear his name and outwit his brother’s legal team if he’s to avoid being imprisoned himself.
Loyalty can be a powerful and positive trait. It colours our perceptions and often, our actions. It’s not always a clear-cut force for good, but it’s most definitely a force to be reckoned with, as the saying goes.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Pretenders’ song.