For a lot of people, it’s important to belong to a community. It can be very comforting to be among people who share your culture, language, lifestyle, or something else. That’s why very often, even in large cities, you’ll find smaller groups of people who have some sort of bond. Those smaller communities, even when they’re not closed off (e.g. a cloister) can be very interesting to explore. And they make for interesting contexts for a novel.
There are all sorts of possibilities in terms of plot and character development when the author explores smaller communities within larger ones. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction. I’m quite sure you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we are introduced to Hercule Poirot, a former member of the Belgian police who’s had to escape to England. He and a group of fellow Belgians have settled in the village of Styles St. Mary and are trying to pick up their lives as best they can. They were sponsored and helped by wealthy Emily Inglethorp, and all of them are very grateful to her. So when she is poisoned, Poirot takes a very particular interest in solving the murder. We don’t get a very deep set of insights into the inner workings of this small Belgian community, but we do learn that they’ve been more or less accepted by the locals. In fact, one of them mentions that while he’s not overly fond of foreigners, he doesn’t mind the Belgians.
London is of course home to many different smaller communities. For example, Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters takes place in Jerusalem Lane, one of London’s historic districts. Among the other people who live in that small community are Meredith Winterbottom and her sisters Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe. They’re the great-granddaughters of Karl Marx, who actually lived in that area at one point. A large development company wants to buy up Jerusalem Lane to turn it into a shopping and entertainment district. One by one, the various residents sell up, but Meredith Winterbottom refuses. Then, she dies, apparently a successful suicide. But when DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla look into the case, they notice small things that don’t quite add up to suicide. So they begin to investigate more deeply. It turns out that along with the development company and its representatives, there are other people in whose interest it was to get Meredith Winterbottom out of the way. As Brock and Kolla look into the case, we get an ‘inside’ look at Jerusalem Lane and the network of relationships among its residents.
There are also many smaller immigrant communities in London. Anya Lipska’s DC Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka novels explore one of them: immigrants from Poland. Kiszka is a veteran of the uprising against the former USSR that began in the Gdansk shipyards. He’s settled into London, but is still tightly connected to the Polish community there. In fact, he’s known as a ‘fixer’ among his fellow Poles – someone who can get things done. Since the imigrant Polish community is tight-knit, there aren’t many degrees of separation between Kiszka and any one other member of that group. That’s part of what makes him very useful to Kershaw when she investigtes crimes that affect London’s Polish community. Kiszka and Kershaw meet in Where the Devil Can’t Go, when he is a suspect in a murder she’s investigating. From both of their perspectives, readers get the chance to see how a smaller community functions within a larger one, and how each impacts the other.
New York is also composed of many, many different smaller groups of people. One of them for instance is its Russian community. There are lots of crime novels that focus on Russian-born and Russian-heritage New Yorkers. One of them is Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House. When US Congressman Paul Latham is found dead, it’s thought at first that he committed suicide. But that’s not by any means the only possibility. So when Georgetown University Law School Professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith learns of the case from a former student, he agrees to look into it. He finds a connection between Latham’s death and the economic climate that emerged in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. At one point in the novel, one of the characters travels from his home in Russia to New York, where he’s been told to wait for further instructions. He’s taken in by a former countryman and we see how the members of New York’s Russian community have created their own small world-within-a-world.
Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street explores smaller communities based on socioeconomic status. One warm night, Valerie ‘Val’ Merinao and June Giatto get on a pink rubber raft to take a ride on the bay near their home in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Early the next morning, local teacher Jonathan Sprouse finds Val, injured but alive. June has disappeared. As we learn about the impact this has on the people who knew her, we see that there are really two small communities here. One is mostly middle-class, ‘respectable’ and largely Roman Catholic. The other is working poor/unemployed, mostly non-White, and more on the fringes of society. June’s disappearance and the investigation into it show how small communities can be formed around common economic situations and ethnic culture as well. And what’s interesting here is that these two groups live very close to each other; yet until June goes missing, they don’t really interact very much.
But proximity can matter a great deal in creating a small community within a larger one. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a Roman-style Melbourne building called Insula. The people who live and work there are disparate in some ways, but they’ve formed their own small group and they take care of each other. In this case, what started out as more or less being thrown together in the same place has evolved into a close-knit community.
There are many other examples of stories and series that explore these communities-within-communities. I’m thinking for instance of the Asian community in Los Angeles, which we read about in Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons. There’s also Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series, which features New York’s Chinatown. Which of those communities has stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.