In many smaller towns and villages, there’s a person who seems to be at the town’s hub. That person isn’t necessarily wealthy, or a law enforcement leader, or a political leader. But everyone knows that person. And, when there’s a crime in the area, that’s the person who’s likely to know the most about what’s going on in town.
In crime fiction, that person may be the sleuth, but doesn’t really have to be. Wise fictional sleuths know that making an ally of the town ‘hub’ is a very good idea, whether or not that person has any authority. And ignoring that person is almost always a mistake.
One of Agatha Christie’s sleuths, Jane Marple, is exactly that sort of person. She’s not a mayor, or in the police, or a church leader. But everyone in her village of St. Mary Mead knows her, and most respect her. She finds out just about everything that’s happening in town, and it’s not always because she’s – ahem – inquisitive. People connect with her. Christie wrote other characters like that, too (I’m thinking, for instance, of Johnnie Summerhayes in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead).
In Friedrich Glauser’s Thumbprint, Sgt. Jacob Studer of the Bern Cantonal Police is faced with a difficult case. Traveling salesman Wendelin Witschi has been shot, and Erwin Schumpf is in prison for the crime. He’s despondent, and in fact, tries to commit suicide. Studer happens to visit him in prison just in time to prevent the suicide, and gets more of an opportunity to talk to him. Although Studer was the arresting officer, he’s got a sort of liking for Schumpf, and starts to wonder whether someone else might have killed the victim. So, he begins to ask questions. He visits the town of Gerzenstein, where the Witschi family lives, and follows up on some leads. This is a small town, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else. And one of the leaders of the town is its mayor, Emil Aeschbacher. It’s not very long before Studer discovers that if he’s going to make any headway in this case, he’s going to have to do so with Aeschbacher’s support. He seems to know everything, and be a part of everything, in town. And as the novel goes on, it’s interesting to see how his influence works.
In Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, we are introduced to Reverend Theodore Venables, vicar at St. Paul’s in the East Anglia town of Fenchurch St. Paul’s. When Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Mervyn Bunter, have a car accident not far from the village, it’s Venables who rescues them, and invites them to stay at the rectory until their car can be repaired. Wimsey and Bunter gratefully agree, and settle in. In exchange, Wimsey offers to take part in the church’s New Year’s Eve change-ringing, to replace one of the ringers who’s fallen ill. Venables is glad for the help, and all goes well. That encounter ends up drawing Wimsey into a complicated mystery involving an extra body in a grave, missing emeralds, and a few deaths. Throughout the novel, we see how important Venables is to the town. The locals know him and trust him, and when the town is threatened by a flood, he’s the one they turn to for guidance. And he’s the one who does everything possible to save his parishioners.
One of Rita Mae Brown’s series features Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Harristeen. As the series begins, she is the postmistress of the small town of Crozet, Virginia. She hears a lot and she knows everyone in town. What’s interesting, too, about Harry is that she comes from an old Virginia family, one that’s been in the area as long as anyone can remember. And she herself has lived in Crozet all her life. So, although she’s not wealthy, and not at all pretentious, Harry is considered one of the area’s elite. She gets invited to the ‘right’ events, and so on. That status makes her a credible amateur sleuth, since she has access to people and information that someone with less status might not have.
And then there’s Craig Johnson’s Dorothy Caldwell, who presides over one of Durant, Wyoming’s social hubs, the Busy Bee Café. She’s not Johnson’s sleuth – that would be Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire. But she does know everyone in town, and she hears just about everything that happens. People like her and trust her because she belongs, if I may put it that way. And Longmire knows that she’s a valuable resource, and not just for eggs and pancakes. Another ‘hub’ in this series is Henry Standing Bear, Longmire’s long-time close friend, and proprietor of the Red Pony Inn. That means he’s gotten to know just about everyone in the Durant area. And people know him, too, and talk to him. He’s also a member of the Cheyenne Nation, so he knows everyone in that community as well. Longmire has learned that Henry Standing Bear isn’t just a good friend; he’s also a really helpful source of insight.
There’s also Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka. He emigrated from Poland to London, and has more or less established himself there. Although he doesn’t have an official leadership position, he has become known as a ‘fixer’ – someone who can get things done. He’s well known in London’s Polish community, and people trust him to help them solve their problems. He knows the other members of the community, too, and is a ‘hub’ within it.
And that’s how it is with many people who are at the hub of social groups. They may not be rich, have a lot of authority, or an important title. But they are integral to their communities. Fictional sleuths do well to pay heed to them.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kaiser Chiefs’ Cousin in the Bronx.