He Knows Everyone*

hubsIn 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Craig Johnson, Dorothy Sayers, Friedrich Glauser, Rita Mae Brown

27 responses to “He Knows Everyone*

  1. Anne Hagan

    I love this! I live in a tiny village where my spouse grew up. There are about 450 people here in the village and a smattering in the outlying area that consider the village home base. I run the little part-time post office where everyone comes to get their mail since there’s no ‘to the door’ delivery here. I know everyone and just about everything. I don’t use it for detecting though; I use it for writing about small village/town detecting!

    • Thanks, Anne! And it sounds as though you’re one of the ‘hubs’ of the the village where you live. I’ll bet you’ve gotten to know everyone. And, yes, it sounds like the perfect way to learn about people and use the setting for your writing.

  2. I was going to say the Post Office or local shop is often the centre of things in and then I read Anne’s comment. Miss Marple is an excellent example as she doesn’t have a particular role in village life and yet she knows everything!

    • You’re really quite right about the shop or post office, Cleo. They do tend to be social hubs, don’t they? And now you’ve got me thinking of Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, where the local shop/post office features a few times in the story. The proprietor, Mrs. Sweetiman, certainly knows a lot about what’s going on in town. And, yes, Miss Marple always does, too!

  3. Great to be reminded on NINE TAILORS Margot as I really love that book and that sense of community, and it’s possible threat, is what I think really makes it stand out

    • I think so, too, Sergio. I thought Sayers did that sense of community very well in the novel. And she added more nuances to the characters than I sometimes think she gets credit for doing.

  4. kathy d

    Salvo Montalbano knows everyone in Vigata, Sicily. And Guido Brunetti seems to know many people in Venice, enough to know who could be a criminal or who to ask about various suspects.

    • They certainly do know a lot about people, Kathy. And the people they know, know a lot of people. So, they often can get fairly good ideas as to who’s committed a crime.

  5. You’ve reminded me to seek out Glauser again, it’s been a while and I can’t remember what I’ve read of his or not. But those small towns (and in Switzerland even Geneva or Zurich are small towns) are perfect for knowing everyone’s business.

    • They certainly are, Marina Sofia. And I think Glauser is definitely worth a re-read. He did some good, solid character sketches, and this one evokes that small-town way of life.

  6. Margot, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover and Red, her son and police chief of the sleepy town of Bradley, North Carolina, come to mind. I must read more in this cozy mystery series.

    • It is a terrific series, Prashant. I enjoy it very much, and I’m glad you do, too. Folks, if you haven’t tried Elizabeth Spann Craig’s work, I recommend it.

  7. I am surprised Dorothy Caldwell is not used on the Walt Longmire TV show. She would seem to be an excellent addition.

    • You know, I think so too, Patti. She’s a terrific character. And Johnson gives her a personality and a ‘self,’ even though she’s not one of the stars of the show.

  8. tracybham

    I have read the first book in the Rita Mae Brown series you mentioned, I need to try more of them.

  9. kathy d

    And, if Guido Brunetti does not know someone, his father-in-law or mother-in–law, the wealthy, well-connected Faliers know them.

  10. Col

    There’s a few authors mentioned that I’ve been meaning to try – Anya Lipska and Friedrich Glauser.

  11. What’s that Fred Vargas book where there is a ‘town crier’ figure, who stands up in the square and shouts out the local news to the neighbourhood once a day. I always loved that idea. It might be The Three Evangelists.

    • Oh, yes, of course, Moira!! I’m so glad you brought that up. It might be The Three Evangelists, or it could be Have Mercy on Us All. Either way, it’s a great use of an ancient tradition – thanks for the reminder.

  12. This post reminds me of the true-life hunt for the Long Island Serial Killer. The main “fixer” was a local doctor, who knew everyone. One body actually showed up on his land, and for a while he was considered a suspect. The community rallied around him…everyone except the family of the vic, but they had a difficult problem because he was so beloved. IMO, he still looks sketchy. Then again, we crime writers tend to be overly suspicious anyway. 😉

    • Oh, that’s such a great real-life example, Sue! Thank you! And it’s interesting that he struck you as sketchy, even after this amount of time. Perhaps your instincts are right, even if they are influenced by ‘crime writer syndrome’ 😉

  13. SteveHL

    In Fredric Brown’s NIGHT OF THE JABBERWOCK, Doc Stoeger, the editor of a small-town newspaper, knows everyone in town and most of the town’s secrets. I suspect something like that might really have been the case back in mid-Twentieth Century America.

  14. Pingback: Writing Links…3/13/17 – Where Genres Collide

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