She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.


Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Liane Moriarty, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Reginald Hill, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow

29 responses to “She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

  1. What fabulous examples you have chosen, I don’t think I can add anything to them! Of course, there is also the danger of ‘groupthink’ and groups can also be used to make others feel like outsiders. I am thinking of Donna Tartt’s Secret History – and achingly hip, aspirational qualities of the group.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Marina Sofia. Coming from someone with your background that means a lot. And you’re right about ‘groupthink,’ too (and the Tartt’s a great example). Sometimes the group works very deliberately to exclude others; sometimes it’s less deliberate, but no less clear and painful.

  2. Tim

    Regarding law firms in fiction, I would like to make a motion on behalf of John Mortimer’s Rumpole; although Rumpole must contend with courts and criminals, the dynamics within chambers are half the fun of the stories (with “She Who Must Be Obeyed” also being indispensable).

  3. Anxious to see what HBO does with BIG LITTLE LIES.

  4. tracybham

    Group dynamics are always interesting. I went from a very small technical group (2-3 people) at my old job to a larger department (10 – 12) in a larger organization in my new job and that was a real adjustment. Plus the different dynamics as some people leave and new ones join us.

    I am eager to read Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which I acquired after seeing it first here. On the other hand, the more I hear about Big Little Lies, the less I think I would like it.

    • Well, no book’s for everyone, Tracy. I do hope you’ll like Thursday Night Widows, though. I think it’s very well-written. And it certainly explores the group dynamics of that community.

      And it’s interesting, isn’t it, how those dynamics change depending on how large a group is. And, as you say, there’s also the impact of the sorts of people in the group. I think that’s always an adjustment, too.

  5. Margot, you must have been listening in on a recent conversation I had about group behaviour, both in real life and crime fiction! I used the example The Secret Place by Tana French which is set in a boarding school (possibly the setting of my first fictional insight into group behaviour via good old Enid Blyton)

    • Great minds, Cleo! 😉 – Actually, The Secret Place is a terrific example of how groupthink can work, so I’m very glad you brought it up. And I think Enid Blyton is responsible for a lot of people’s love of crime fiction. I give her a lot of credit for hooking young people on reading.

  6. Thanks Margot for these illustrations of hierarchies that fall somewhere in that long distance between a standard work team and the pack mentality of a lynch mob!

  7. Always an interesting theme as you’ve shown with your examples! I’d add Emma Cline’s The Girls as a fairly extreme example of group dynamics – the cult. I thought she did an excellent job of showing how the hierarchy worked in the cult, and of how people were influenced by the group…

    • I thought so, too, FictionFan. That’s a great example, so thanks. And I agree that the whole topic of the way people behave in groups, and how they sort themselves out, is fascinating. Sometimes that ‘group effect’ is quite powerful.

  8. The Secret History obviously springs to mind – as does Lord of The Flies.

  9. Great post, Margot. When an author creates characters and a setting that we could see ourselves in, then that story will hold our attention until the very end. It seems it’s human nature to want to be a part of the group.

    • Exactly, Mason. People have a deep need to belong. So, they join groups, however casually. When that happens in books, as you say, we can identify. And that means we are more likely to get drawn into the story.

  10. Margot, I can’t recall any examples of “group dynamics” in crime fiction but John Grisham is a fine example, as are spy and law enforcement agencies like the CIA and the FBI. One never knows who’s plotting and scheming against whom — there are rogue elements in nearly every thriller I have read.

    • You have a well-taken point, Prashant. Spy novels that offer a look at MI5/6, the CIA, etc. often include moles or others who can’t be trusted. That can add real suspense to the plot, too. I hadn’t thought about that when I was preparing this post, so thanks.

  11. The academic world offers lots of opportunities for studying the relationship between individuals and groups.Tilton University, Tilton University, where have I heard that name before?

  12. kathy d

    I recently read Irene Huss’s latest story in “Who Watcheth?” It’s good and das a dog lover, I was glad to see that Huss was adopted by a dachshund. She was missing her dog who had died. But the team effort works well in the book, although there are some stresses.
    Also, in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series, the team of Brunetti, Vianello, Elettra Zorzi and a few others work well. But they feign allegiance to the head of their questura, Patta, and they ignore the hated officer Scarpa.
    Law firms are always interesting; there is team work and there is competition, too.
    Having worked for a nonprofit law office, I’ve seen the dynamics.
    But reading legal mysteries often works for me; it’s a favorite genre and has been since the days of Perry Mason.

    • There really are some excellent legal mysteries out there, Kathy, no doubt about that. And I’m sure you’ve seen your share of the dynamics of working in a law office. It’s good to know that Who Watcheth? is a solid entry into the Irene Huss series. I like that team, and I like the character of Huss very much. Nice to know she’s got a new ‘canine overlord,’ too.

  13. kathy d

    Yes, an adorable dachshund puppy named Ergo. Irene Huss and Krister are thrilled. And since this is the first anniversary of my neighbor’s adopting her dachshund after her older dog had died, it’s a good dog day all around.
    This dog could be petted 24/7, although she gets me doing my cardio exercises when I have to “fetch” when I throw a toy for her to get.

    • That’s what dachshunds do, Kathy, as you know. They definitely rule the roost. I can just picture it… And Ergo sounds fantastic – I’ll bet Irene and Krister are delighted.

  14. The fascination of the way communities think is one of the reasons I love crime novels set in schools and colleges – I know you feel the same, and of course have included a couple in your post. I’d add Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes – it’s a nice friendly college (isn’t it?) but there are rules and in-groups…

    • Oh, yes there are, Moira! And I’m glad you added that one, as I’d left a gap there. I agree with you, too, that academic settings can be really effective for crime novels, and it’s partly for exactly that reason. The way that groups form, operate and so on, really is fascinating. And you certainly see it in that context.

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