And Who’s That Deadly Piper Who Leads Them Away*

Charismatic PeopleOne of the books that’s been getting quite a lot of attention this summer is Emma Cline’s The Girls. The book tells the coming-of-age story of Evie Boyd. It’s 1969, and at the age of 14, Evie’s lost and aimless. Then, one summer, she meets a group of girls in a park, and finds herself drawn to them. In particular, she becomes obsessed with a young woman named Suzanne. For Suzanne’s sake, Evie gets involved with a charismatic man named Russell, who seems to have these young women under his spell. As the novel goes on, Evie gets more and more involved with Russell’s cult, and her obsession leads her to some very dark places. If this sounds a lot like the Charles Manson story, there’s a good reason for that. Many comparisons have been made between that real-life tragedy and The Girls.

One thing those stories show clearly is the ability that some people have to lead young people (and sometimes, the not-so-young) away from their own lives and into things they never would have imagined. That’s the charisma some people have, and it gives them a real hold over others. The Girls presents one example of this sort of character; there are many others in crime fiction.

One character with that sort of persuasive power is Michael Garfield, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party. In that novel, detective-story writer Ariadne Oliver is visiting a friend, Judith Butler, in the small, commuter village of Woodleigh Common. During her visit, a young girl, Joyce Reynolds, is murdered at a Hallowe’en party that Mrs. Oliver is attending. She asks Hercule Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common and investigate. Poirot agrees and makes the trip. In the course of Poirot’s investigation, he meets Garfield, who was hired to create a garden for a wealthy widow, Mrs. Llewellyn-Smythe, who has since died. In fact, according to her will, the garden is to be maintained, with Garfield at the helm. As we get to know Garfield, we can see that he has a certain charisma – an ability to get people to do what he wants. And that’s part of why the garden he’s created is so remarkable.

In John D. MacDonald’s The Green Ripper, PI Travis McGee has found happiness with his girlfriend Gretel Howard. Then, tragically, she dies of what looks like a fatal illness. The truth is, though, that she was murdered, and her death was carefully planned. As McGee learns more about what happened to Gretel, he begins to connect her death to a Northern California cult called The Church of the Apocrypha. Under the leadership of the very charismatic Brother Persival, the members of the church believe that everything in society must be destroyed if people are to have better lives. Once McGee makes the connection between Gretel’s death and this cult, he goes undercover in the group to find out who killed Gretel. There, he learns that Brother Persival has attracted people to his group with his vivid portraits of life in the new world he wants to create. He’s got a real hold over the members of the church, and has drawn them away from what most people would consider ‘normal’ lives.

Robert Barnard’s No Place of Safety introduces readers to Ben Marchant, who runs a temporary homeless shelter in Leeds for young people. Usually called the Centre, the shelter offers young people two weeks of food and a place to sleep. Then they need to leave for two weeks before they can return. Police detective Charlie Pearce comes into contact with Marchant when he goes in search of Katy Bourne and Alan Coughlan, two teens who disappeared on the same day. Pearce finds them at the Centre, where for some reason, Marchant has allowed them to stay well beyond the two-week limit. For several reasons, Pearce decides that the best thing for these young people is to stay at the shelter for the moment. But the shelter may not be all it seems. Certainly some of the local residents are not happy with it, or with Marchant. And just who is Ben Marchant? What hold does he have, and what’s really going on there? Pearce finds that the more he learns, the more he sees that this is far from a simple and safe place for young people to stay.

And then there’s Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent. New South Wales D.S. Kate Farrer is faced with an odd death. A young woman, Claire Matthews, disappeared just before taking her final vows to become a nun. Now, a few months later, her body has turned up at the bottom of a cliff, the result of an apparent suicide. But some things about the case don’t add up, and Farrer wants help from her friend, pathologist/forensic physician Anya Crichton. Shortly after agreeing to see what she can do, Crichton gets a new client, who wants her to look into the death of his sister. As it turns out, the two victims have in common that there are strange fibres in their lungs. This leads Crichton to suppose that they might have been at the same place. If so, this could present a real health hazard. There’ve been other deaths, too, all of young women who were otherwise healthy, but who had similar fibres in their lungs. Each from a different angle, Crichton and Farrer try to find out who or what is behind these deaths. It turns out that someone with unusual charisma and the ability to draw people in has played a major role in what happened.

There are other novels, too, in which we see this sort of charisma. Certain people have what it takes to draw others in and lead them to do things they’d never ordinarily do (I know, fans of Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murders). Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hooters’ Where Do the Children Go?


Filed under Agatha Christie, Emma Cline, Gail Bowen, John D. MacDonald, Kathryn Fox, Robert Barnard

18 responses to “And Who’s That Deadly Piper Who Leads Them Away*

  1. A real-life example struck me while reading this: Charles Manson. He certainly had a way of bringing people under his spell.

    The Green Ripper sounds like my kind of read. Thank you, Margot!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Sue. And you’re right about Manson. In fact, that’s the sort of story that Emma Cline’sThe Girls is like. If you read that, or The Green Ripper, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  2. I’ve just read The Girls and thought it was great – one of the books of the year for me, I think. I thought she really got into the mind of the type of young girl who could be attracted into this kind of cult and lose touch with normal moral codes. The book also gives a picture of what it’s like to ‘survive’ a cult and how it can leave a shadow hanging over the rest of a life. Great stuff! Must get my review written…

    • So glad you enjoyed it, FictionFan. It is a really effective look, as you say, at the sort of young person who is vulnerable to that kind of charismatic leader. And you’re right; those sorts of effects last for a very long time. My guess is that anyone who’s survived that experience has serious scars. Looking forward to your review!

  3. Margot, one of my favorites that uses such a character is a 1941 book by Dorothy Bowers called Fear and Miss Betony. Miss Betony is a former teacher who receives an appeal for help from a former student who now runs a school of her own. Her friend wants Miss Betony to discover the person behind a number of troubling events at the school, including a possible poisoning. Miss Betony’s investigations will take her across the path of a charismatic fortune teller, psychic and crystal reader named The Great Ambrosio, who may (or may not) be one of the primary movers in the deeply disturbing and frightening events taking place at the school. He is a remarkably creepy character.

    • Oh, that’s a great example, Les! Trust you to choose a terrific instance of that kind of character from classic crime fiction. I’ve heard of that book, but not (yet) read it. I think I ought to remedy that.

  4. When I was doing my research on cults, I would joke that I had all the information I needed to start a cult of my own. But it’s not really a funny joke. I began to realise that some charisma is innate, but that some can be ‘fabricated’. Vulnerable people of all ages, at difficult points in their life, are susceptible to a certain type of ‘love-bombing’ and manipulation, as con-men know all too well too. Most of us have that craving to belong, to be ‘really seen as we are’, to feel part of something bigger, and it can be used for good and for bad purposes.

    • Your research must have shown all sorts of interesting – and disturbing – things, Marina Sofia. You’re quite right that Charisma can be refined and developed over time, so that it can draw in all sorts of people. And, as you say, there are certainly plenty of people out there who are all too vulnerable to a well-planned campaign of indoctrination.

  5. Col

    Manson was my first thought also!

  6. One of the clever Fr Brown stories by GKChesterton features a sinister religion/cult – a wealthy woman is taken in by it, and intends to leave them her money. It’s called The Eye of Apollo, and the sun is a major feature.

    • Oh, yes, Moira, of course! I’d forgotten about The Eye of Apollo, and it’s a really good example of the way a charismatic leader can draw people in. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Nice theme, Margot, and quite scary when it comes to real life events, I think. Cults, particularly so.

  8. kathyd

    I am so turned off by the Manson “cult” and what they did that I can’t read this book. What is missing within young women that allows them to get involved in the most extreme and violent behaviors, letting go of all human morality and ethics to harm others?
    There are good charismatic figures who inspire people to commit acts to help other people, such as Dr. King, who, among others, let the Civil Rights Movement. There were the Berrigan brothers who led non-violent civil disobedience against war and nuclear weapons. There were abolitionists in the 1800s, Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the Grimke sisters, Thaddeus Stevens, and so many others who opposed slavery. And then a lot more heroic figures who did the right thing.
    Why are some young women led to “cults” that are destructive? And why can’t some of them break off when it becomes apparent that violence against other human beings is involved? Where is their morality?
    And do these young women not get real pro-human ethics at home? Are they from dysfunctional families?
    It’s an intriguing topic, but one that annoys me, as I’d think one would have a line that one will not cross. Or is it brainwashing? So-called Stockholm Syndrome?

    • You raise such an interesting question, Kathy! Why are some people drawn to charismatic leaders that end up being so destructive? And why are others not? Why are some other people resilient to the appeal of those kinds of leaders, so that they don’t get drawn in? It’s really intriguing, and has been the subject of much psycho-sociological research for a long time.

  9. I was thinking I might not like this type of book but I have read the Bowen book and Barnard’s No Place of Safety so I would probably like the others OK.

    • I think a lot of whether one likes a book like that depends a lot on how the topic is handled, Tracy. If you do try some of the others, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

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