It’s Who You Know*

NetworksMost of us are members of social networks, whether we really think about it or not. And it’s sometimes surprising how those networks come up. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever said (or heard) something like this: ‘You went to [name of university]? So did I!’ People use networks all the time to get things accomplished. Ask anyone who’s ever been in charge of an alumni donation drive for a school.

Those networks can also serve a social purpose. People who belong to exclusive clubs, for instance, have a group of wealthy, well-placed allies who can help them get things done. It might be arranging a business loan, getting a place for a child at an elite school, or something else.

We all use our networks, however casual they may be, because it’s efficient. So it’s little wonder we see these networks operating in crime fiction too. Sometimes, they serve a very useful purpose. Other times, they turn out to be deadly.

In Agatha Christie’s They Do it With Mirrors (AKA Murder With Mirrors), for instance, Ruth Van Rydock takes advantage of her finishing-school network. She’s become concerned about her sister Carrie Serrocold, who lives with her husband Lewis at a Victorian-Era property called Stonygates.  The place has been converted into a school for delinquent boys, so there’s a great deal of coming and going, as it were. There aren’t any obvious signs, but Ruth suspects that Carrie may be in danger, so she writes to Jane Marple, an old friend from the school she attended in Florence. Miss Marple is conscious of that school network, too, and is happy to oblige her friend. She visits Stonygates herself to see what’s going on. Tragedy strikes soon enough. Carrie’s stepson Christian Gulbrandsen, who is one of the school’s trustees, pays a business-related visit. One night, he’s shot while he’s writing a letter, and that letter goes missing. Miss Marple extends her visit to find out who the killer really is and what the motive is.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder begins when Howard Van Horn wakes up from what seems to be a blackout. That’s happened before, and it’s cause enough for concern as it is. But when he sees that he’s got blood on himself, he becomes terrified that he must have done something horrible. So he taps his school network and contacts an old friend from college, Ellery Queen, to ask for help. Queen agrees to do what he can, and together, the two begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The trail leads to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where Van Horn grew up and where his father Dietrich now lives with his second wife Sally. One night during Queen and Van Horn’s visit, Sally is murdered. As it happens, Van Horn was having a blackout that night, so he’s a natural suspect. He even comes to believe it himself. But Queen isn’t convinced, and continues to investigate. And in the end, he finds out what really happened to Sally Van Horn, and why.

There are a lot of other stories in which school networks play an important role (I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night). And of course there are examples of school societies such as fraternities and sororities that also figure in crime fiction. But school networks are by no means the only ones.

In many cultures, extended family serves as a network. In those cultures, any kind of kinship status entitles one to hospitality, financial assistance, and so on. And some fictional sleuths find those networks to be very useful.

For example, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Kinship ties are particularly important within the Navajo culture. In fact, traditional Navajo introductions include references to family networks. That’s done in order to establish the relationship between two people who meet for the first time. If it comes out that there is any kinship, however distant, those two people could not consider a romantic relationship. But they could claim kinship privileges and they would assume kinship responsibilities. As fans of this series know, several of Hillerman’s novels include scenes where Chee makes use of his own family network to get information or assistance. There are also, of course, scenes where others make use of their networks to protect their kin from the police. It works both ways.

M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth also makes use of his family network. He is ‘just’ the village bobby for the Highlands village of Lochdubh, but his kinship ties are extended. In Death of a Cad, for instance, he investigates the shooting death of Captain Peter Bartlett. At first it looks like a terrible hunting accident, but soon enough, Macbeth finds evidence that this was murder. He wants to get as much information as he can about the people present at the time of the murder, in order to work out which one(s) had a motive:

‘Like many Highlanders, Hamish had relatives scattered all over the world, and he was thankful he still had a good few of the less ambitious ones in different parts of Scotland.’

Macbeth makes a few calls to get the background he wants. And he finds out some very useful information from, in this case, his fourth cousin.

Of course, being involved in a network can be very dangerous, too. That’s especially the case if someone is believed to have betrayed that network. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Five Orange Pips, John Openshaw brings a very strange case to Sherlock Holmes. His Uncle Elias, with whom he lived, was found dead in a pool on his estate. His death followed a series of increasingly bizarre reactions and incidents. What’s especially strange is that it all seemed to start when Elias Openshaw received a letter containing five orange pips. Now John Openshaw’s father Joseph has gotten a letter containing pips as well, but he won’t go to the police about it. He’s badly frightened, though, so his son has taken the case to Holmes. When Holmes gets to the truth behind the pips, he sees that it all has to do with the Ku Klux Klan, which had formed in the US after the Civil War, and had (so people thought) disbanded.

There are also many novels in which members or former members of the Mob pay a very high price for anything perceived as betrayal.  Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas, for instance, is the story of Fred and Maggie Blake and their children, who’ve recently moved from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. They’ve got more than the usual challenges that ex-pats often face, though. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mob who was targeted when he became a federal witness against the group. Now he and his family are in the US’ Witness Protection Program, and are supposed to be looked after by its staff. But that may not be enough when word of the family’s whereabouts gets back to New Jersey…

Most of us depend on our networks of family, fellow alumni, fellow society members, and so on. Sometimes those networks can provide invaluable support. But sometimes they draw people into very dangerous situations.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Reed Nielsen’s I Never Walk Alone, recorded by Huey Lewis and the News.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, M.C. Beaton, Tonino Benacquista, Tony Hillerman

24 responses to “It’s Who You Know*

  1. What a great subject – it really is all about connections in life and in crime fiction!
    Donna Leon shows our dear Brunetti sometimes making use of his wife’s parents’ aristocratic connections (almost against her will) to find out about the darker sides of Venetian society. And Anne Perry’s Victorian detective Thomas Pitt also relies on his wife Charlotte’s curiosity and her relatives’ passion for gossip to gain an entry into society and be able to conduct his investigations.

    • It really is about those connections, isn’t it, Marina Sofia? Thanks for those terrific examples. You’re absolutely right, of course, in both cases. It’s interesting, too, that those ‘upper class’ connections can mean so much in certain societies. Other kinds of connections mean more in other cultures. I find that fascinating, too. Thanks for the kind words.

  2. Col

    I’m looking forward to reading Badfellas at some point. Another great post Margot.

  3. I want to read “Badfella”! Thanks for giving me another tip for my TBR list, Margot.

  4. Hi Margot. Another great post. It’s a stretch to think of this group as a social network, but I couldn’t help thinking of SPECTRE, the seemingly always present villainous organization of the Bond novels and movies.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Bryan. I like your example a lot. SPECTRE and other evil groups may not exactly count as social networks. But they do have a tight support system. And they do play important roles in spy fiction and thrillers. I’m glad you brought that up.

  5. Kathy D.

    Well, a really nasty network on Chicago’s South Side is plaguing V.I. Warshawski, who is investigating an insurance agency, a law firm, a concrete manufacturer and a priest — who may all have nasty ties.
    There is also a hitman in the mix in Sara Paretsky’s latest — and quite fun — book, “Brush Back.” It is very funny and if one needs a light read, this is it..
    Grew up in Chicago. Never knew of all this criminal activity!

    • Yes, indeed, Kathy. Sometimes some very, very nasty people can form a sort of network. And that can play havoc with the sleuth. Thanks for bringing up that great example.

  6. I had never heard of Badfellas. It sounds really good, going to have to look for it.

    • I recommend it, Tracy. It’s a good story. It’s dark, but there’s wit to it, and some interesting ‘culture’ clash as the ‘Blakes’ get used to their new home.

  7. Another great post as always Margot – when you think about it so many of us belong to multiple network groups – hopefully supportive ones! like many of the other commenters today really like the sound of Badfellas

    • Thank you, Cleo. You’re right that we all belong to several networks that we may not think about very often, but that are there. And I do think Badfellas is a good ‘un. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  8. Margot: In the Ava Lee mysteries of Ian Hamilton there is a worldwide connection between overseas Chinese that involves a complex blend of families and friends. Lee could not solve financial crime without these Chinese networks.

    • No, Bill, you’re absolutely right; she couldn’t. From what I understand about the Chinese culture, those networks of extended family and friends are vital. And Hamilton certainly addresses that in his work.

  9. Margot, I think, police and spy informers were the earliest instances of such a network, social or otherwise, and secretive as they were, they played an important role in both crime and espionage fiction. In fact, they have been portrayed in all cultural mediums, be it books, films, television, and even comics.

    • You know, Prashant, I hadn’t thought about that when I was planning this post, but you’re absolutely right. Informers have been an important part of policing and espionage for a very, very long time. That network is still useful to uncovering crime. I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  10. I enjoyed William McIlvanney’s very realistic portrayal of Glasgow gang culture in “Laidlaw” as a social network that worked as its own kind of policing and justice system outwith the law – he shows how in certain areas of the city people would turn to gang leaders rather than the police to take vengeance on anyone who had done them wrong. He avoids the mistake of making that kind of vigilante thing look good though – his gangsters are still shown as very bad people.

    • What a great example, FictionFan! You’re right (and so is McIlvanney) that gangs really are social networks. Members support each other and call on each other when they want to get something done. And you’re right; when gangs have a lot of power, other people know it. They in turn reach out to those gang networks to get things done. As you say, that doesn’t mean that gangs are a beneficent network – quite the opposite. But they do serve ‘network’ purposes. And you’ve reminded me that I still haven’t put any of McIlvanney’s work in the spotlight. I must do that.

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