Secret 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.