You Got to Have a Membership Card to Get Inside*

In real life and in crime fiction, a murder can happen nearly anywhere and among nearly any group of people. When murder takes place in a private community, or a community that sets itself apart, the sleuth has two jobs, really. One is, of course, to find out who the killer is. The other is to penetrate that community and get an understanding of it. That’s not always easy to do. In some crime fiction, the issue is resolved because the sleuth is a member of that community (although that, of course, brings its own challenges). In other crime fiction, the sleuth isn’t a member of the community but has gained the trust of at least some people in that community. Either way, an “inside look” at a private community can add a real layer of interest to a crime fiction novel.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t an “official” member of the community of England’s “well born.” In fact, he sometimes makes very effective use of his status as a foreigner and somewhat of an outsider. And yet, he’s gained what you might call “honorary membership” in the community because he’s solved cases for some important members of that community. Poirot knows that it’s a small community, so word gets around and names get passed along. For example, in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Poirot solves the poisoning murder of beloved clergyman Stephen Babbington, who suddenly dies at a cocktail party that Poirot is attending. Also present at the party are Lady Mary Lytton Gore, a member of the gentry, and her daughter Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore. Poirot solves the mystery of Babbington’s death and the deaths of two other people, and gains Lady Mary’s trust. In Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) that trust provides Poirot with a “ticket” into the world of Meredith Blake, who owns Handcross Manor. Blake and his brother Philip were present at a nearby estate, Alderbury, on the day when its owner Amyas Crale was murdered. So Poirot wants an account from each of them as to what happened that day. At first, Meredith Blake is reluctant to talk to Poirot; he’s uncomfortable discussing the murder as it is, and Poirot is a foreigner – not “one of us.” Lady Mary’s letter, though, breaks down some of Blake’s resistance and helps Poirot get the information he wants. In the end, he uses accounts from the Blake brothers and the other people who were “on the scene” when Crale died, and finds out who the killer is.

We learn about a few private communities in Donna Leon’s books featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. For instance, in The Girl of His Dreams, Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich, a member of Venice’s Rom community. At first, it looks as though the girl died from an accidental fall into a canal while she was robbing an apartment. But it soon turns out that her death doesn’t have that simple an explanation. In order to find the answers, Brunetti has to “get into” the Rom community, and that’s not as easy as it seems. For many good reasons, the Rom don’t trust the Venice police and Brunetti has his own prejudices. But Brunetti is determined to find out who killed Ariana Rocich, so he (and the reader) slowly “get inside” the Rom community. Brunetti also has to use his membership, if you will, in Venice’s upper-class community (his wife Paola Falier is a member of the aristocracy). Readers get to see inside both private communities as Brunetti solves this case.

Sometimes, sleuths are (or were) members of a private community. This gives them an advantage in the sense that they understand the community and often have background knowledge about the community. That’s what happens in Tony Hillerman’s  Skinwalkers. Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police is investigating three seemingly unrelated killings. Then there’s a fourth attempt; this time, the intended victim is Jim Chee, also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police and an aspiring yata’ali, or Navajo singer/healer. Leaphorn and Chee are both members of the Navajo Nation, but Chee is the more traditional of the two, and he understands Navajo healing ceremonies better than Leaphorn does. So Leaphorn works with Chee to find out what connects the murders. It turns out that the link among them is that the victims were all associated in some way with the Badwater Clinic, where both Western and traditional Navajo medicine are practiced. In the end, Chee’s membership in the private community of Navajo healing and Navajo life are crucial in solving the murders. As Hillerman fans know, Skinwalkers is by no means the only novel in which Chee’s (and to a lesser extent, Leaphorn’s) membership in the private community of Navajo life are helpful when they’re solving cases. And Hillerman’s novels give readers a fascinating look at this community.

We get an “inside look” at the private community of Sweden’s Lapland province in Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson series. In Sun Storm, the first Martinsson novel, Viktor Strandgård is found brutally murdered in the church of The Source of All Our Strength in Kiruna, where Martinsson grew up. Strandgård’s sister Sanna finds his body and the next morning, calls her friend Martinsson, now a Stockholm tax attorney. Sanna begs Rebecka to come back to Kiruna and help her deal with the necessary police interview and with getting Sanna’s two children Sara and Lova through the ordeal. Sanna’s always been fragile and needy, and it doesn’t surprise Rebecka in the least that she has asked for help. Rebecka has her own reasons for not wanting to return to Kiruna but Sanna persuades her, very much against her will, to go. Martinsson feels a strong connection to Kiruna and her trip there reminds her of some of the things she loved about growing up in that area. This sense of being a member of that private community makes investigating Strandgård’s death extremely difficult for Martinsson since it involves people from her own past and her own community. The search for Strandgård’s murderer also forces Martinsson to deal with the incident that made her leave Kiruna in the first place. In this novel, not only do readers get a look inside the Lapland community but also, a look inside the private church community.

Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder novels give readers a look inside the private Amish community of Ohio. Burkholder is the Chief of Police in quiet Painters Mill, where she herself grew up Amish. Burkholder left the community years ago but has now returned in her new role.  Burkholder uses her “inside” knowledge” to find out the truth behind the murders she investigates and as she does so, readers get an “inside look” at the lives of the Amish.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s Jim Qwilleran moves from the city to the quiet, private Moose County community of Pickax, “400 miles north of nowhere.” At first, he’s somewhat of an outsider and not really a member of the community. But he soon makes a place for himself among the locals. He’s a journalist, and his weekly column wins him many fans and friends. He’s also the heir to a very large fortune and he uses his inheritance to support the community in a lot of large and small ways. So you could say that Qwilleran earns membership in that community (although to be fair, he doesn’t buy that membership through bribery). Through Qwilleran’s eyes, we get to know the members of the Pickax community. That “inside look” at Pickax has won Braun millions of fans and it helps Qwilleran solve cases.

Whether it’s a religious, cultural or geographical community, the ability to “get into” private communities can be very useful when a sleuth is on the case, and it can make for fascinating layers and sub-plots in crime fiction novels. I’ve only mentioned a few examples; there are lots more. But what’s your view? What do you think of this sort of plot? If you’re a writer, do you use that plot point of the closed/private community?


In Memoriam

This post is dedicated to the memory of Lilian Jackson Braun, who was instrumental in the development of the modern cosy mystery and whose Cat Who…novels were beloved parts of millions of libraries. She will be missed.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Five Man Electrical Band’s Signs.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Donna Leon, Lilian Jackson Braun, Linda Castillo, Tony Hillerman

9 responses to “You Got to Have a Membership Card to Get Inside*

  1. One of my favourite mysteries is Josephine Tey’s “Miss Pym Disposes” which takes place in a private girls’ college in England. Of course, it takes place decades ago, but since I went to a private girls’ school, the atmosphere was certainly one I knew well. I still read it from time to time, even though I know it so well, I can quote from it.

  2. Elspeth – Oh, I’m glad you mentioned Josephine Tey; she was a talented author. And your mention of the private community of a girls’ school is a terrific example of what I mean. That’s certainly one of those communities that has its own rules and is, in its way, secluded.

  3. Margot: P.D. James has used closed communities in many of her books including The Black Tower, Death in Holy Orders, The Murder Room, The Lighthouse and The Private Patient. Often it has been a combination of a remote setting with a small community at that setting.

    Armin Wiebe looked within the Mennonite community or rural Manitoba for Murder in the Gutenthal. The connections between the mystery and the community made it a good book.

  4. Bill – Thanks for reminding me of P.D. James’ work. The novels you mention are clear examples of the kind of thing I had in mind. And I’m glad you brought up the point about a remote setting, because geography can play an important role in closing off a group of people.

    I haven’t read Wiebe’s novel, but the premise sounds intriguing. I grew up in a part of Pennsylvania where there is a large Mennonite community, and it would be interesting to see how Wiebe treats the premise of murder among that group, and what the Manitoba Mennonite community is like.

  5. Agreed on Josephine Tey. Great post, as usual, Margot – and I especially appreciated your inclusion of Asa Larsson’s debut. I think The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser meets your criteria?

  6. Yes, P.D. James came to mind right away. And I think mental hospitals have been used quite often.

  7. Maxine – Thank you :-). I like the Larsson novels very much; I can see why you so much enjoy that series. And yes, The Inspector and Silence certainly qualifies. I’m very glad you mentioned it; it never fails that I publish one of these posts and only later get reminded of other books that fit whatever it is I’m writing about. Thanks for adding some richness to the post.

    Patti – Yes! Mental hospitals are most definitely private, closed-away communities. Sometime I’m going to write a post just about that scenario; when it’s done well, it can be absolutely engrossing as a premise.

  8. How community is important. What an interesting and to me ironic topic. Your wonderful analysis of these great authors’ books relates to an awesome PBS masterpiece classic I just watched through Netflix. It’s called Place of Execution and is based on a novel by Val McDermid. It takes place in the past and the present, moving back and forth in time. The past: 1964 in a small community where everyone knows everyone. The plot revolves around the disappearance of a 13 year old girl whom the inspector is convinced was murdered, though they can’t find the body. It turns out that she’s not the only child in the community impacted by what happened at the time; some of the children and eventually all of them in the community were and could have been impacted. The suspense, the twists and turns were incredible. It’s a case of a woman reporter gaining access to the community. As it turns out, she WAS a member of it at one time. The story is awesome!

  9. Ann – Thanks for the kind words :-). And I’m so glad you brought up A Place of Execution. I admit I haven’t seen that television special, but the book certainly shows us what a small, private community can be like. What I find especially interesting about your comment (and something I didn’t really discuss in depth in this post) is that in private communities, tragedies such as murder can have an even greater impact than they can in larger communities that are more anonymous. In those smaller and more “closed in” communities, as you say, people know one another and are more likely to interact with one another than in large communities. So the tragedies of life don’t just happen to someone one reads about in the paper. They happen to one’s friend, or one’s mechanic, or one’s grocer, or one’s accountant.

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