Just Leave Everything to Me*

Unofficial LeadersThere are certain people who become, if you want to put it this way, unofficial leaders in their communities. They don’t have official status (e.g. mayor, department manager, and so on). But they command respect, and they get things done. When the police are investigating a crime, they know that they won’t get nearly as far without the cooperation of these leaders.

That’s especially true in what I’ll call ‘shadow communities.’ By that, I mean communities that aren’t really geopolitical entities such as towns. Rather, these are unofficial groups of people linked by an interest, ethnic background, or some other commonality.

You see this sort of leadership emerge in real life, and it’s there in crime fiction, too. Oh, and before I go any further, you’ll notice that this post won’t really have discussion of crime bosses. Too easy

In several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Sherlock Holmes gets very valuable help from a group of street children he calls the Baker Street Irregulars. These are children who don’t go to school and often don’t have regular homes. In the Victorian world in which Holmes lives, no-one pays very much attention to them, so they can come and go without being noticed. That makes them very useful as Holmes’ ‘eyes and ears.’ They’re an interesting ‘shadow community,’ without an established infrastructure. But they do have a social structure in place, and they work as a group. Their leader is a boy called Wiggins. He obviously doesn’t have official status as any kind of authority. But the others look up to him, and he serves as their liaison with Holmes.

We also see an example of the ‘shadow community’ of street children in William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series. These novels take place mostly in Moscow in the years just before World War II. At that time, often called the Great Purge, there were thousands of arrests of people who were considered ‘enemies of the state.’ If they weren’t killed outright, they were imprisoned or sent away, often to Siberia. Many of them left behind children, who were sometimes considered suspicious simply because of their parents’ arrests. These children were often left to fend for themselves as best they could. In The Holy Thief, the first of this series, Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID meets a group of such children. He’s investigating the death of a woman whose body was found in a former church, as well as another, similar murder. Korolev learns that a group of street children was near the scene when the first murder occurred, and he wants to talk to them. He finally tracks them down and learns that they are led by Kim Goldstein, whose

‘‘…parents got caught up in something or other…’’

and is now managing for himself. Goldstein and Korolev establish a kind of rapport, and his help turns out to be valuable in this novel and in The Twelfth Department.

In William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, we meet Jack Laidlaw of the Glasgow police. He and his team investigate when eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson goes missing and is later discovered raped and murdered. There isn’t much to go on, and there is a great deal of pressure to find the killer. So Laidlaw decides to visit John Rhodes, who holds court in a pub called The Gay Laddie. Laidlaw says this about Rhodes:

‘‘He’s an honourable thug. He won’t like this kind of thing. He might lend us his eyes and ears for a week.’’

This part of Glasgow has a ‘shadow community’ that’s not really run by the civil authorities, except nominally. Things happen when John Rhodes wants them to happen. He’s not a crime boss, really, but he has connections all through the area, and everyone knows better than to cross him. Laidlaw and his assistant, DC Brian Harkness, have a conversation with Rhodes, and after a little staking out of positions, enlist his cooperation. It’s an interesting example of the way these ‘shadow communities’ work.

Maureen Carter’s Working Girl introduces readers to DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss of the Birmingham Police. When fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found murdered, Morriss and her team investigate. It turns out that Michelle was a commercial sex worker, so Morriss wants to talk to other sex workers to see what they might know about what happened. As you can imagine, the ‘shadow community’ of sex workers isn’t eager to talk to the police. In order to get their cooperation, Morriss will need the support of their unofficial leader, Big Val. Val’s been in the business longer than the rest, and has a sort of nurturing interest in the others. For their part, they look to her for advice and support – and a place to relax. Once Morriss is able to convince Big Val to work with her, she gets some useful information from the other sex workers in the area.

There are even some sleuths who are unofficial leaders. For example, you could argue that Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple is one such sleuth. Her village of St. Mary Mead isn’t a ‘shadow community;’ it’s an official town. But there’s plenty that goes on there that’s informal. And in that sense, Miss Marple is a leader. She isn’t the mayor or a member of the council. But everyone knows her, most people trust her, and she certainly has her ear to the ground, as the saying goes. And the police who investigate murders in that area know that they ignore Miss Marple to their peril.

And then there’s Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka. One of the many ‘shadow communities’ in London is its Polish community. Members of it look to their own leaders for advice and support, and one of those leaders is Kiszka. He’s known as a ‘fixer’ – someone who can get things done and make things right. So it’s no surprise that DC Natalie Kershaw of the Met finds it to her advantage to work with Kiszka when she investigates murders that involve the Polish community. Kiszka doesn’t have official authority – not even in the area where he lives. But everyone knows he’s the person to go to in order to make things happen.

And that’s the thing about those ‘shadow communities.’ Like more official communities, they have their leaders. The authority of those leaders doesn’t come from a title or an office. But the police know that it’s just as real as a badge is, and that it pays to work with those leaders.


ps. Just in case you’re wondering…no, I don’t smoke. That’s a bit of ‘trick’ photography…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Jerry Herman song. It might not have been used in the original musical Hello, Dolly, but it was a memorable addition to the film version.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arthur Conan Doyle, Maureen Carter, William McIlvanney, William Ryan

40 responses to “Just Leave Everything to Me*

  1. Margot, I have heard a lot about the Baker Street Irregulars, but haven’t read but one of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I look forward to reading more about them. Do you have particular stories or novels to recommend that include them?

    • The Baker Street Irregulars are an interesting group, Tracy. You can ‘meet’ them in A Study in Scarlet, which I recommend. It’s the first of the Holmes stories, so you really get the chance to ‘meet’ him for the first time. And you can read about them in The Sign of the Four, too.

  2. Excellent article. Some favourites of mine in there, too: Laidlaw, Conan Doyle, William Ryan, Anya Lipska.

  3. Alexei Korolev series sounds very interesting. This is outside of crime writing, but I belong to one hockey group (yes je suis canadienne but root for NYR’s) and there is one guy who has emerged as a leader even though he doesn’t run the group. Everyone seems to want a piece of what he has – very difficult to ignore while sometimes equally difficult to digest, but he shines. Thanks again for your knowledge dear Margot. You always manage to get me thinking.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Lesley 🙂 – And your example is excellent. It’s exactly the sort of thing that really does happen in real life, so it’s little wonder, at least to me, that it also happens in fiction, crime and otherwise. And as for hockey? Cheer on whatever team you want. I live in Southern California, but I’m a dedicated Flyers supporter.

  4. Golden Age authors frequently used “shadow communities” of Gypsies or other groups, such as traveling circus performers. One of the best examples of these, I think, is the circus people we meet in Clayton Rawson’s The Headless Lady. They have their own complex slang, their own leaders, their own ethical and moral codes, and investigating a crime among them really can’t be accomplished without the approval of, and help from, that leadership group.

    • You’re quite right about that shadowy Gypsy/Rom community in GA fiction, Les. And it’s interesting how they are portrayed as having their own internal structure, code, and so on. You’re right, too: no sleuth really gets to know that group or solve a crime among them without support and approval from the leader. It’s that way with modern Travellers, too. Thanks, also, for the suggestion of the Rawson. It’s not one I’ve (yet) read, but it’s now on my radar.

  5. Keishon

    I haven’t read many of the writers of today and if I were I’d give Anya Lipska a go. I think I have one of her books already. Shadow communities are interesting to me and I don’t think I’ve read enough of them to notice. I will look up some of these books in your post and The Headless Lady sounds rather intriguing from the previous comment.

    • Les knows his stuff, Keishon. If he recommends The Headless Lady, that’s good enough for me. And as to Anya Lipska’s work, I really do recommend it. She depicts London very effectively, and takes readers into the Polish community there in a very authentic way. And both Kiszka and Natalie Kershaw are solid characters. I think you might like her work. If you do get to it, I recommend starting with Where the Devil Can’t Go. It’s the first in the series and really lays the groundwork.

  6. Margot: In Last of the Independents by Sam Wiebe the Vancouver hard boiled detective pays homage to Sherlock by utilizing the talents of the Hastings Street irregulars. Now the skills are different in the 21st Century. One of the new irregulars is a creator of video games.

  7. Col

    I did enjoy the Laidlaw book when I read it a year or two ago. William Ryan is on the pile!

  8. Margot, you have reviewed the works of some interesting writers who are new to me—William Ryan, William McIlvanney, Maureen Carter, and Anya Lipska. Talking of “shadow communities,” an excellent idea for a post, the Mumbai Police has formed what is known as “Mohalla Committees,” or local committees, which assist the police in maintaining law and order and prevent crime in their respective areas. They are unofficial, of course, and are more like neighbourhood watch. I suppose, police informants would also fall under this category.

    • Thank you, Prashant, for mentioning the Mohalla Committees. It’s a really interesting idea for a liaison between the police and the community. And members of those committees no doubt know a lot of people and have a real sense of what’s going on in the community. You make an interesting point about informants, too. Certainly informants keep their ears to the ground, as the saying goes, and can give the police a lot of information.

  9. Fascinating and now you mention it, the presence of such ‘leaders,’ is obvious, when you really look. Thanks 🙂

  10. I’ve been re-reading the marvellous Blanche books by Barbara Neely: Blanche, a Black American woman doing low-paid jobs, solves crimes partly by tapping into the knowledge and organization of the Black community. They are often in service jobs, and know everything that goes on – and everything about their employers. They use their knowledge and skills to survive in a difficult world.

    • Oh, you’re quite right about that, Moira! And I’m glad you’ve mentioned that excellent series. It’s such a fine example of the way that this community interacts, stays in touch and functions. It all happens under the proverbial radar, too, really. It may be informal, but it’s effective.

  11. I like this idea, Margot. Long a fan of any children sleuths – I loved the Irregulars – such a great handle too. I also love the trope of the nosy woman, the gossiping regulars at the cafe and all those other ‘watchers of the community’ – they aren’t necessarily leaders but they are definitely refined observers. I’m onto writing a new mystery and my shadow protag works for the RCMP as a special constable because she understands youth – especially First Nation youth. What fun it is to write as I dig into the politics that make up this very complicated world.

    • Oh, I’m sure it’s lots of fun, Jan! And she sounds like a really interesting character, too. I look forward to reading your work. You’re right, too, about people such as café regulars, nosy local people and so on. They’re great observers, as you say, and are sometimes more ‘tuned in’ to what’s happening in a community than are the police. I agree with you, too, about the Baker Street Irregulars. It’s a well-drawn cast of characters, and it really works to have children as sleuths in that sense. In that community, they really can look around all they want without attracting any attention.

  12. Patti Abbott

    Michael Frayn’s SPIES makes good use of what happens when children enter into the adult world through things they think they understand.
    Good observers but bad interpreters.
    Great book.

    • It does sound like a great read, Patti. As you say, children can be extremely astute observes, but not good at interpreting what they observe. And therein lies the interest in having them as characters.

  13. You see this a lot in TV crime dramas, too. Often times the “leaders” know more about their streets than the police do. It amazes me that you’re able to come up with such interesting subjects day after day.

    • You’re right, Sue. You do see this sort of character, and ‘shadow communities,’ in crime dramas. And in series, you see those people come in and out sometimes as semi-regulars. I think it adds an extra bit of interest to a well-written series.

  14. Great topic, Margot (and I don’t know how you do it either!). This made me think of Rabbi Small and the Jewish community in Harry Kemelman’s fine series – also Tony Hillerman’s books featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee who often draw on the wisdom of the elders of the Navajo community to solve the mystery.

    • Thank you, Christine 🙂 And you’ve offered excellent examples of the kind of community and leadership I had in mind with this post. In both cases, you have the non-civic community that is very cohesive and led by someone the police will need to work with in order to get answers.

  15. It’s probably a case of first cousin to the crime boss, but in American crime fiction from the classic era there’s the (somewhat shadowy) community of the corrupt rich that more or less run everything in a town, especially the police and politicians. And most of the time it seems these folks are more a hindrance than a help to the sleuth.
    Though Les already mentioned this group, I thought of the shadow community of the circus and sideshow performers who sometimes help the sleuth. I can’t think of an example in crime fiction but it runs through crime and mystery cinema. An example might be the troop of sideshow performers who help the hero in Hitchcock’s Saboteur.

    • You make two really important and interesting points, Bryan. The first is the role that the shadowy, corrupt group of the ultra-rich can play in crime fiction. They, too, have unofficial leaders, and quite often look to those leaders instead of established authority figures. You’re right, too, that they often hinder more than help the sleuth.
      I’m glad you brought up the circus and sideshow communities, too. Members are often rather insular, and they have their own leaders. Penetrating that community isn’t easy, and certainly entails the support of those leanders.

  16. Circuses: I have just read Fredric Brown’s The Dead Ringer, told from the point of view of the young Ed Hunter. He and his uncle Ambrose, who work for a carnival, assist the police in the solving of a crime. The plot is preposterous, but the depiction of the carney and the characters who work there is wonderful.

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