We Are the Secret Society*

Secret SocietiesSecret societies have been a part of several cultures for a long time. They take many different forms, too, from criminal societies to religious societies to more esoteric groups. Regardless of the kind of society or its purpose, its membership is usually limited, and there are rituals and secrets to which only initiated members are privy.

There are a lot of examples of such groups in crime fiction. That’s not surprising when you think about all of the possibilities for conflict, tension and worse. And, since some societies are criminal in nature, there’s that aspect as well that makes them a natural fit for the genre. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Five Orange Pips, Sherlock Holmes gets an intriguing case from his new client John Openshaw. Openshaw’s Uncle Elias, with whom he lived, was found dead in a pool on his estate. His death seems to have been the culmination of a bizarre series of events that began when he received a letter containing five orange pips. Now the victim’s brother (and Openshaw’s father) Joseph has also received a letter containing five orange pips. He’s thoroughly frightened, but he won’t go to the police. Holmes investigates, and finds that the strange and tragic events on the Openshaw property are connected with the Ku Klux Klan, which had formed in the US after the Civil War there, and had been thought disbanded.

In Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery, Sir Oswald Coote and his wife have rented out a manor house owned by the Marquess of Caterham so they can host a house party. Everyone duly arrives and all goes well at first. Then, some of the guests decide to play a trick on fellow guest Gerald ‘Gerry’ Wade, who has a bad habit of oversleeping. They buy eight alarm clocks, time them to go off at different intervals, and hide them in Wade’s room. To everyone’s shock, the next morning, Wade is found dead in his bed of what turns out to be poison. One of the alarm clocks is missing, too. Needless to say, the house party ends and Lord Caterham returns to the property. One day, his daughter, Lady Eileen ‘Bundle’ Brent, finds a half-finished letter that turns out to be a clue to the murder. She gets involved in the investigation, which so far, hasn’t gotten very far. In the end, she and Superintendent Battle connect Wade’s death with another death, and with a secret society.

In Tony Hillerman’s Dance Hall of the Dead, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police gets involved in a disturbing case. A young Zuñi teen named Ernesto Cato has been murdered. And his friend, a Navajo named George Bowlegs, has gone missing. That’s where Leaphorn comes in. If George isn’t guilty of murder, he may be in grave danger. At the very least, he may have important information. So it’s imperative to find him. By the time the boy is found, though, it’s too late: he’s been killed, too. Leaphorn and fellow Navajo Tribal Police Officer Jim Chee work to find out what’s behind these murders. They’re not going to find it easy, though, because the information they need about Ernesto’s last days and weeks is related to a kiva, a religious society, he was joining. Only members are privy to the kiva’s secrets, and it will be difficult for Leaphorn and Chee to get anyone in the group to really talk to them. I can say without spoiling this story that the boys’ murders are not ritual killings. The kiva is not to blame, if you will. But it adds a layer of complexity to the case.

There’s a different sort of secret group in Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights. Accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman gets drawn into a strange mystery when she discovers Suze MacDonald, a local junkie, outside on her ventilation grate. The girl has overdosed on heroin, and it takes an emergency crew and some Narcan to revive her. Then, Corinna learns of other cases of junkies who haven’t been so lucky. It’s soon clear that this is a pattern, and that someone may be deliberately targeting junkies. Corinna is reluctant to get involved, but she’s persuaded by her new lover, Daniel Cohen, to help. Together, they learn that the key to these deaths is a Goth club called Blood Lines. One night, they go to the club, and once there, they are invited to the club’s private room. That’s where they put together the pieces of the puzzle, and learn how the club and its secrets are connected to the deaths.

I don’t think it’d be possible to do a post about secret societies in crime fiction without mentioning the Mafia. It’s taken various forms throughout history, and has had different purposes. The one constant, though, is the emphasis on secrecy. And members know the consequences if they betray that secrecy. For instance, in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas, we are introduced to Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children. The Blake family are ex-pat Americans who have recently moved to a small town in Normandy. They have their share of ‘culture clash’ as they learn to fit in there, but as we soon learn, they have other, bigger problems. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzini, a member of the New Jersey Mafia, who joined the Federal Witness Protection Program when he testified against his former colleagues. The family was moved to Normandy for their safety. And the plan works well enough until word of their whereabouts gets back to New Jersey…

And that’s the thing about secret societies. They can be fascinating, and for members, they provide a real support network. But they have their dangers, too…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Todd Rundgren’s Secret Society.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Kerry Greenwood, Tonino Benacquista, Tony Hillerman

34 responses to “We Are the Secret Society*

  1. I’ve read two of these but missed out on Hillerman’s ‘Dance Hall of the Dead’ and Greenwood’s ‘Earthly Delight’. I’ll have to check those out.

    • I really like Tony Hillerman’s work, Anne, so I admit I’m biased. But I think those novels are really worth the read. And I feel the same way about both of Kerry Greenwood’s series, too. Quite different series, but both well written.

  2. Great subject Margot and some great examples. Christie was definitely fond of her secret societies, spies and espionage. i’ve just finished reading The Big Four, which I have to say I rather enjoyed. I also remember watching at episode of Midsommer Murders which involved a school/college ‘Pudding Club’, which was really rather amusing if you get the chance to watch it.

    • Thank you, D.S. 🙂 – And thanks for the reminder of that episode of Midsomer Murders. Some of those plots are really quite fun, aren’t they? And I sometimes think Christie had fun creating those societies. Those stories aren’t always her highest-regarded novels, but they can be fun.

      • I’m not sure why The Big Four gets such a bad rap. It’s a good solid novel and to sew several short stories together into a novel is no mean feat! That’s for sure. Hats off to Christie. Oh, and she delivered that when she must have been at her lowest ebb.

        • You know, you do have a point, D.S. I will admit it’s not my top Christie. But you’re right that she sewed the stories together, and as you say, that’s tough enough. To do that when one’s personal life is a complete mess is even harder.

        • I do agree it’s not her best but then surely that’s the publishers fault? Isn’t that what everyone always says? Publishers are the gatekeepers 😉 Sorry I’m ranting now …

        • No need for apologies. You’re entitled to your view. And you’ve touched on a really important topic. Just what roles should publishers play? It’s not a simple question.

  3. Col

    I still need to get around to reading Badfellas and give Hillerman another spin. I had a recent read of one of Bill Pronzini’s Nameless mysteries where he crosses paths with the Yakuza in San Francisco’s Japantown. I also think of the Freemasons but can’t remember whether I’ve read anything about them. Obviously you wouldn’t class them as a criminal society, but they do have their rituals and elements of secrecy.

  4. The Skulls immediately comes to mind, about a secret society of powerful men who aren’t above committing murder if it suits them.

  5. Margot: My first thoughts on the subject involved the thrillers of Dan Brown including Angels and Demons and The DaVinci Code and The Lost Symbol. The last book is essentially a long exploration of the Free Masons especially in Washington, D.C.

    • Right you are, of course, Bill. Brown’s novels really do explore several kinds of examples of secret groups and societies. The Freemasons, the Knights of the Templar, etc., are all mentioned in his thrillers. There’s another gap that I’d left empty – thanks.

  6. I’ve always wanted to belong to a secret society. Perhaps we should set one up on the blogosphere – the TBR Society, with the aim of gradually bumping off all the people who constantly make our lists grow ever longer. Admittedly, there would be a problem in that most of the society’s members would also become its victims… hmm, I may need to give this plan more thought!

    There is a secret society at the heart of Dwayne Alexander Smith’s ‘Forty Acres’ – much more ruthless than the TBR Society, but also happy to bump off its own members should they break the rules…

    • There is something fun about being in a secret society, isn’t there, FictionFan? And yes, I think you’d get lots of members of the TBR society. That is, until they started noticing a pattern… I’m quite sure that wouldn’t be safe for any members, come to think of it. Hmm…..yes, more thought is definitely in order.

      And thanks for mentioning Forty Acres. I’ve been meaning to put that in the spotlight, and still haven’t! Shame on me! It is a great example, too, of a secret society that isn’t, well, philanthropic.

  7. A.M. Pietroschek

    Jean-Christophe Grangé had one with his French Original of ‘The Blood Red Rivers or Crimson Rivers’. Eugenics, as background, are not everybody’s choice though.

  8. I’m quite horrified at FictionFan’s suggestion, no prizes for guessing why! This is actually one of those aspects of crime fiction which is a turn-off for me – it all seems a little bit silly to me although I know plenty of people enjoy reading about them.

    • Plots with secret societies aren’t everyone’s cuppa, Cleo, that’s for sure. But as you say, plenty of people do enjoy them. And about FictionFan’s idea? I wouldn’t rush to join up, either – same reason…

  9. From Edgar Wallace to Dan Brown it does seem to be a popular trope in fiction and I suppose it just taps into that sense that so many have that they do not control their destiny – but then again, it’s not hard to see that today more than ever – just look at the language of the Trump campaign which manages to to be hostile to both outsiders and those in government at the same time. The incoherence of it should be risible but it is frightening, so much more fun to see an imaginary cabal smashed instead!

    • Agreed wholeheartedly, Sergio – on all counts. And you know, I hadn’t thought about that part of many people that wants to believe that they don’t control their destinies. That puts the whole trope in a new light, and I appreciate the insight.

  10. My mind also went immediately to the Dan Brown books. I was fascinated when reading the background history of the secret societies in those.

    • There is really a lot of fascinating information about those societies in those books, isn’t there, Rebecca? Brown ‘did his homework.’

      • Margot: I think you would find that his wife actually did most of the research. The issue came up in the trial of the lawsuit against him by the authors of the Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

  11. Secret societies do add an extra layer of intrigue to a story. Fascinating post, Margot.

  12. Margot, references have already been made to Dan Brown’s books. I’ll admit that I was fascinated and captivated by his fictionalised accounts of secret societies like the Illuminati. I read in online news articles that the organisation still exists and that its members are the rich and the powerful including heads of western governments. Between them, they divide and rule the world.

    • I’ve heard that, too, Prashant. I don’t know if it’s actually true, but certainly Brown makes those groups absolutely fascinating, doesn’t he? One does wonder…

  13. I like secret societies in books, and I’m going to nominate Enid Blyton’s children’s books about the crime-fighting Secret Seven.

  14. The Seven Dials Mystery is a book I want to read soon. Badfellas sounds good also.

    • I think both are worth the read, Tracy. Christie did several novels that don’t ‘star’ her usual sleuths, and …Seven Dials… is one of them. And Badfellas really is a solid, sometimes-dark/sometimes-funny read, in my opinion.

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