As this is posted, it’s 38 years since the tragic deaths of over 900 members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple group. Most people agree that that was a dangerous cult, but the line between spiritual group and cult is sometimes quite blurred. Whatever you call those non-conformist spiritual groups, they do attract plenty of people. And there are reasons for that. Some people are searching for a place to be accepted and to belong. Others want to make sense out of life, when it doesn’t always make sense at all. Others have other reasons for joining such a group.
And there’s no shortage of such groups in crime fiction. They can add a real layer of atmosphere, suspense and interest, too. There’s often a charismatic leader, a group of disparate people, plenty of secretiveness, and so on. All of those can combine to make for an effective context for a crime story.
For example, in G.K. Chesterton’s The Eye of Apollo, private investigator Hercule Flambeau gets a new resident in his building. The man calls himself Kalon, and claims he is the new Priest of Apollo. He’s quite charismatic in his way, and gets a following. One tragic day, Pauline Stacey, an heiress who lives two floors down from Kalon, dies from a tragic fall down an elevator shaft. Father Brown happens to be visiting Flambeau at the time, so he gets involved in investigating the death. And it turns out that this death was no accident, but a carefully planned murder.
Agatha Christie’s short story The Flock of Geryon also takes up the topic of cults and cult leaders. In that story, an acquaintance of Hercule Poirot’s, Miss Carnaby, is concerned about a friend of hers, Emmeline Clegg. It seems that Emmeline has gotten involved in new religious group, The Flock of the Shepherd, led by the charismatic and shadowy Dr. Anderson. Miss Carnaby is worried that her friend might be at risk, and Poirot agrees to help her look into the matter. He, Miss Carnaby, and Chief Inspector Japp and his team make a plan for investigating the group. They find that there’s much more at stake than spiritual well-being.
The focus of Ngaio Marsh’s Death in Ecstasy is a religious group called the House of the Sacred Flame. One night, Nigel Bathgate visits the group’s worship place on impulse, and witnesses one of their ceremonies. During the ritual, one of the group members, Cara Quayne, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Bathgate calls in his friend, Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, and the official investigation begins. In finding out who killed the victim and why, Alleyn and Bathgate look into the inner workings of the group, its leadership, and the interactions of its members. I agree, fans of Spinsters in Jeopardy.
John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee goes undercover in a cult group in The Green Ripper. In that novel, McGee’s girlfriend, Gretel Howard, dies of what looks like a fatal illness. But it turns out that she was murdered, and her death carefully planned. As he searches for answers, McGee finds a connection to a Northern California cult called the Church of the Apocrypha. Under the leadership of the charismatic Brother Persivel, the group is committed to the destruction of everything in society, so that everything can then be re-built. McGee joins the group to find out more information, and he discovers what the group’s plans are, and how they are linked to Gretel’s death.
Betty Webb’s Desert Wives takes readers into a sect/cult called Purity, which has a compound straddling the Arizona/Utah border. PI Lena Jones has been hired to help rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from the cult, and that particular goal is accomplished. But then, she discovers that on the same night, the cult’s leader, Solomon Royal, was shot. And there’s evidence against Rebecca’s mother, Esther (who, incidentally, hired Jones in the first place). If she’s going to clear her client’s name, Jones will have to find out who killed the victim. For that, she goes undercover in the group, and finds that there is much more going on than just attention to the spiritual. Some of the things she discovers are frightening and very dangerous.
And then there’s Åsa Larson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). The novel begins with the murder of Viktor Stråndgard, whose body is found in a Kiruna church called The Church of the Source of All Our Strength. He was one of the leaders of the church, and had developed quite a cult-like following. The police, in the form of Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Eric Stålnacke, investigate the killing. It’s not long before they learn that the victim’s sister, Sanna, is a very likely suspect. She found the body (which could very easily be because she’s the reason it’s there). And there are any number of possible motives. Sanna claims she is innocent, and asks for help from her former friend, Rebecka Martinsson. Rebecka’s reluctant, as she had her own reasons for moving from Kiruna to Stockholm. But she agrees, mostly for the sake of Sanna’s two children. She finds that the solution to this mystery is connected with her own past.
There are plenty of other crime novels that explore life in groups that we might call cults (right, fans of Emma Cline’s The Girls?). They are fascinating, if frightening, and they can form interesting contexts for murder mysteries. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Welcome.