For United We Stand, Divided We Fall*

InfightingYou’d think that when people have either a common goal or a common opponent that they’d stick together. And sometimes that happens. After all, as the saying goes, unity brings strength. But it’s surprising how often stress leads to fragmented relationships and in-fighting. In fact, police use that fact when they’re investigating what they think is a ‘conspiracy of silence.’ If you pit one person/group against the other, then the conspiracy breaks down and you find out the truth about a crime. Crime fiction is full of that kind of in-fighting. There’s only space here for a few examples, but they should show you what I mean.

One of the classic examples of how in-fighting sabotages co-operation is in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). Ten people are invited for a stay at Indian Island off the Devon coast. On the evening they arrive, each is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. Very soon it’s clear that someone has lured everyone to the island and is killing the guests one by one. You’d think that under those circumstances, the survivors would work together, co-operate and catch the guilty person. And that’s sort of what they agree to do. But the murderer has found ways to foment mistrust among the members of the group. That mistrust eventually leads to in-fighting and that in turn leads to… well, I won’t spoil the story for those who’ve not read it.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called in when Nicholas Quinn, the newest member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate, is poisoned. The Syndicate is responsible for overseeing examinations in non-UK countries with a British education tradition, so it’s held in very high regard. Quinn was not a universal choice for membership, and a little digging soon turns up more than one motive for murder. But the members of the Syndicate aren’t very helpful to the detectives. Morse guesses correctly that everyone in the group has something to hide, but he doesn’t get very far at first. Then, he’s able to get the members to turn against each other and that process gives him information he needs to find out who killed Quinn and why.

Michael Dibdin’s police sleuth Aurelio Zen uses in-fighting to his advantage in Ratking. He’s seconded from Rome to the Perugia questura to help in a high-profile kidnapping case. Wealthy magnate Ruggerio Miletti has been abducted, and although there’s no word that he’s been killed, the police haven’t been able to find him or his kidnappers either. Zen begins work on the case by talking to Miletti’s family members as well as other members of his ‘circle.’ And it’s not long before he suspects that there’s more to this case than it seems, and that most people aren’t telling him everything they know. He’s right too as each member of the Miletti family has a personal agenda. Part of Zen’s strategy for finding out the truth is turning the superficially close-knit family members against each other, and that leads to just the in-fighting that gives him vital information to solve the case.

Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear is the story of the murder of Paul Fowler. He and some friends are at a park tossing a football around one afternoon when Fowler is shot. New South Wales Police detective Ella Marconi and her partner Murray Shakespeare take the case and begin to interview Fowler’s friends, former business associates and ex-wife Trina. It’s soon clear that some of the witnesses are not telling everything they know because they’ve agreed to stick together and keep their mouths shut. But when Marconi and Shakespeare manage to foment disharmony in the group, they’re able to fragment that unity and find out some critical information about the case.

In T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell, London attorney Jill Shadow agrees to take on a new case. Hungarian national Bella Kiss has been arrested at Heathrow Airport for smuggling drugs into the UK. She admits that she had the drugs, but she won’t reveal anything about who paid or coerced her into smuggling them. She is at the same time both uncooperative and terrified, so at first Shadow tries to find out the truth about the case herself. And she does in fact put some of the pieces together. But she soon finds that without her client’s co-operation, she’s not going to be able to be of much help. Then, there’s a murder. Now Shadow tries to get more information from her client by arguing that there’s no sense being loyal to people who won’t be loyal in return. At first Bella remains closed-mouth. But when Shadow drops her case, Bella re-thinks her position. Eventually Bella tells Shadow what she knows, and that leads to important information about the drugs traffickers and the murder.

And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson face the most awful nightmare any couple can imagine:  the loss of their nine-week-old son Noah. They’ve just arrived in Australia after a long trip from Scotland when they report Noah missing. At first the Australian media and the public are very sympathetic. A massive search is undertaken and there is a lot of support for the couple. But then, questions begin to be raised. Soon enough, people begin to wonder whether the truth about Noah is more awful than anyone knew. It’s not unheard-of of course for couples to be responsible for the death of their child and then cover it up.  The police are aware of this and in one interesting plot thread they interview both Joanna and Alistair, but separately. And during the interviews, the police try to turn the couple against each other. In the end, we do learn what really happened to the baby and those interviews form a solid layer as the police try to get answers.

In-fighting can fragment even a strong relationship or committed agreement. The police count on that when they’re investigating, and very often, they’re right about its usefulness.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tony Hiller and Peter Simon’s United We Stand, made popular by The Brotherhood of Man.  


Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Helen Fitzgerald, Katherine Howell, Michael Dibdin, T.J. Cooke

6 responses to “For United We Stand, Divided We Fall*

  1. Great post relating to excellent bookish examples.

  2. In Dorothy L Sayers Gaudy Night, there’s an interesting effect when there is an outbreak of poison pen letters and vandalism in a women’s college. This does have a bad effect on the students and staff – there is increasing tension, rows, bad feeling, even a suicide attempt. But Lord Peter points out in the end that they did NOT let the culprit destroy their spirit, that they did just about manage to stick together and see it through.

    • Moira – That’s a well-taken point about the atmosphere that develops during this novel. There really is dissent, and it takes all of their determination not to really fall apart as a group.

  3. No examples I can think of, although often married couples get stressed by involvement in a crime and it ends up threatening their trust in each other and their relationship. I am speaking about fiction, of course, but I suspect it is true in real life also.

    • Tracy – I suspect you’re probably right. Once something traumatic happens in a marriage, whether it’s involvement in a crime or something else, this can indeed turn couples against each other when the stress level is really high.

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