I Would Go Most Anywhere to Feel Like I Belong*

Humans are by nature social animals. Of course, some of us enjoy the company of other people more than others do. But we all have a need to belong – to be a part of a group. For many people, that group is the family. Plenty of people also belong to other tightly-knit groups such as sports teams, religious groups, or perhaps community service groups.

What happens, though, when people don’t have such a group? I’m not a social psychologist, but from what I do know about the topic, people who don’t have a social group form one or find one. That, say many psychologists, is part of the reason people join gangs, religious cults, and other such groups. And there are plenty of crime novels that involve that sort of group.

There are other crime novels where we see that strong desire to belong, and that can add a solid layer of character development. And readers can connect with that feeling. That need can also add tension and suspense, even poignancy, to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, for instance, we are introduced to Gerda Christow. She’s not overly bright, or conventionally beautiful. But she is absolutely devoted to her husband, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. She’s also the loving mother of their children. When the Christows are invited to spend the weekend with Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, Gerda dreads the prospect. The Angkatells are clever, interesting, and just about everything Gerda is not. John fits right in with the family, and is eager to go. And it doesn’t hurt that his mistress, Henrietta Savernake, will be there. For Gerda, the visit is something to endure, and that’s clear right from the start. She doesn’t belong with the Angkatells, although she would like to feel comfortable with them. Then, on the Sunday, John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited for lunch, and he arrives just in time to see the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Inspector Grange and his team are called in, and he and Poirot work to find out who the killer is.

Maureen Carter’s Working Girls introduces Birmingham Detective Sergeant (DS) Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss. When fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found dead, Morriss and her team investigate the murder. It soon comes out that Michelle was a commercial sex worker, so Morriss decides to focus on the victim’s friends and acquaintances who are ‘in the game.’ As she does, we get to know some of those characters. Some of them chose the life because of a bad situation at home. Others are in the business by choice. Either way, they’ve formed a group of their own, and all of ‘the girls’ belong. In fact, they’re protective of each other, and feel a responsibility towards each other. That belongingness isn’t the reason for Michelle’s murder. But it adds an interesting layer to the story.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse is the first of his Lewis trilogy, which features police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod. In the novel, MacLeod is seconded from Edinburgh to the Isle of Lewis when a murder occurs there that resembles one MacLeod is already investigating. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on the island. But it’s not a joyful reunion; he had his own reasons for leaving. As the story goes on, we learn about his history on the island. And we learn about the island’s history. Part of that is an annual trip that a group of men make to An Segir, an outlying rock fifty miles from the Isle of Lewis. They go there to harvest guga, young gannet that nest on An Segir. It’s dangerous and difficult work, and those who do it belong to a special sort of informal club. To be invited to go along is a privilege, and every teen boy and young man wants his chance to belong. Harvesting the guga isn’t really the reason for the murder. But An Segir, and the sense of belonging among the men who go there, do play their role in the story.

In Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?, we meet Yvonne Mulhern. She and her husband, Gerry, have recently moved with their newborn daughter, Róisín, from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of a good job opportunity.  Yvonne is exhausted, as new parents are wont to be, and with Gerry at work most of the time, she does much of the child-minding work herself. What’s more, she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and the baby keeps her so busy that there’s little time to meet people. Gerry’s mother and brother are there, but it’s soon clear that Yvonne doesn’t really belong, at least as far as Gerry’s mother is concerned. Then, Yvonne discovers Netmammy, an online forum for new mothers. Immediately she feels comfortable in the group – she belongs. And that’s a good part of Netmammy’s appeal. There’s a scene, for instance, where Yvonne goes with Gerry to a work function. She feels completely out of place there, and no-one makes much of an effort to help her fit in. So, in the middle of the party, she logs onto Netmammy. When Yvonne notices that one of the other members of Netmammy seems to have gone ‘off the grid,’ she gets concerned. She does end up going to the police, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unknown woman is found in an abandoned apartment. Her basic characteristics match what Yvonne knows about her missing Netmammy friend. If it is the same woman, that has all sorts of implications for the forum. And if it’s not, then Boyle and her team will have a lot of work to do to identify the victim and find out who killed her and why.

Belonging is really important in a lot of police forces. And it’s not hard to see why. The police face an awful lot of danger in what they do, and they’re not always exactly popular with the public. So that sense of belonging isn’t just an emotional bond; they depend on each other for their lives. We see that sense of belonging, and what happens when it’s not there, in several novels.

Among them is David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which introduces Perth Superintendent Frank Swann. As we learn in the novel, he became a police officer in large part because of his father-in-law, and because he needed a place to belong. But then, a friend named Ruby Devine is murdered. And all signs point to a connection between her death and a group of corrupt police known as ‘the purple circle.’ Swann’s already a ‘dead man walking’ because he’s called a Royal Commission hearing to investigate the corruption. So, as he investigates his friend’s murder, he has the experience of doing so with none of the belongingness and support that police often have from each other. Fans of Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and of Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series can tell you that those stories, too, explore what it’s like when a police officer doesn’t feel that sense of belonging.

We all need to feel part of a group. Many of us, of course, belong to more than one social group. And that seems to be part of human nature. Little wonder it can be so interesting in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and David Zippel’s Go the Distance.


Filed under Adrian McKinty, Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wiilson, Garry Disher, Maureen Carter, Peter May, Sinéad Crowley

18 responses to “I Would Go Most Anywhere to Feel Like I Belong*

  1. I can’t help but think of the Manson Family and their brief reign of terror in 1969. Shocking, horrible, unspeakably brutal.

  2. kathy d.

    There are so many socially healthy groups to belong to nowadays. i wonder why those young women were attracted to Manson. But then again I wonder why people are attracted to cults. That’s an analysis in and of itself.
    Gosh, when I was a teenager I went to so many meetings on civil rights, peace, Ethical Culture, etc. There were so many groups meeting, but they were for social justice and ethical living. I’m sure such groups exist today.
    But there is another pull going on toward groups that are on the edge of society, that flout the law.
    Peter May’s Lewis trilogy was among my top reads of last year. But that yearly trip to kill baby birds, young, helpless gannets, was so disturbing. Even Finley MacLeod asked why the guys continue to do it? And the answer is because we’re the only people in the world who do it. Finley thinks that there must be better ways to show their skills and to get recognition.
    In these days of animal rights’ activists, this hunt must be the focus of many petitions and campaigns. I wonder if they will succeed in stopping it.
    And these days with the Internet and Facebook, Twitter and so many other forms of social media, people can belong to groups without leaving their living rooms. That is a great benefit — but it still doesn’t take the place of human interaction face to face.

    • You’re right, Kathy, that it’s easy today to belong to a group without even leaving one’s home. The Internet allows for all sorts of belonging. There are a lot of social activism groups, too, where people can feel not just that they belong, but that they make a difference. You ask a good question, too, about why people join cults. Part of it could very well be that same need to belong. It really is in human nature, I think, to want to belong.

  3. Margot: There are small groups of lawyers devoted to causes that have drawn the lawyers together.

    In The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson we see Regina Mary Robichard, a newly graduated black lawyer in 1946, joining the NACCP Legal Defense Fund to work with Thurgood Marshall in fighting for the civil rights of Black Americans. She wants to make a difference.

    In real life last Friday I was at a conference in Saskatoon on Mental Health and the Law. One session discussed the review process for individuals who have been found unfit to stand trial or were judged not guilty because of their mental health problems. It is a small group of Saskatchewan lawyers willing to act for such individuals. I am not one of them. I admire their willingness to act for members of a very vulnerable group who are feared, if not worse, by society.

    • That sounds like a really interesting group, Bill. Those people are, as you say, extremely vulnerable. It’s good that there’s a group who willing to represent their interests and act for them. That must be a daunting task. I’m glad, too, that you mentioned The Secret of Magic, and the NAACP. That, too, is a group that makes a difference, and Robichard’s desire to belong and make a difference is very human. I like that about her.

  4. davewhishwilson

    Thanks for the mention Margot – it’s hard for whistle-blowers all over, but a cop whistle-blower is put in an especially tough spot.

    • I think so, too, David. That sense of belonging is just so important for coppers that it’s incredibly hard to let it go. And it’s my pleasure to mention your work.

  5. Reading this post made me reflect on all the varied groups book characters belong to – from colleagues, environmental activists, friends to virtual groups have popped up recently – as you say we all need to belong somewhere

    • You’re right, Cleo. And I do think it adds to a character to show that, and perhaps show which groups are most appealing to that character. I agree, too, that there’s been a lot of attention paid to those sorts of groups recently. From quilting to cults, and from fishing to a Laughing Club (I’m not kidding – there really is such a thing). I think that can add to a plot.

  6. The one that springs to mind is Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, where the girls are all members of the cheerleading team. It’s very much a closed group where the girls feel apart from and rather superior to the rest of their classmates, and their social life revolves almost totally around the group. But when a new coach takes charge, the group dynamics are changed and things take a dark turn…

    • Oh, and that’s such a good example, FictionFan! And the two girls who are the focus of the story get such an important sense of belonging from that group, too. To me, anyway, it’s a bit unsettling. And, yes, even more so with that new coach. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  7. Col

    I like the insider/outsider thing with the police, I’ve read from the authors you mentioned – Disher, McKinty and Whish-Wilson. There’s a great TV series in the UK – LINE OF DUTY which has a police anti-corruption unit investigating other cops. They are part of a group but are despised by the larger group.

    • That insider/outsider dynamic really can work well, Col. And thanks for mentioning Line of Duty. At the moment, that one’s not available where I live, but it sounds good. I’ll have to check it out if it ever comes this way.

  8. Liane Moriarty is very good on in-groups and out-groups among women particularly – the whole schoolgate thing, but I think done in a fresh and entertaining (as well as worrying) way. No wonder Big Little Lies (it has various names) was such a huge success as a recent TV series. I didn’t see it, but gather it was very good, with great cast and setting. I did love the book.

    • I liked the book very much, too, Moira. And you’re right; Moriarty does the ‘in group/out group’ dynamic very well there. And she does it in a very realistic way. As you say, it’s entertaining, but with that undertone of unease. I’m glad you mentioned Big Little Lies, as it’s a good example of what I had in mind with this post.

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