A national government can only do so much, especially in a country with a large, or a scattered, population. So, many of the day-to-day decision making is done by smaller groups like city or town councils. There are also housing communities and club governing boards that have their own councils to run things within those communities. And they can wield quite a lot of control over what people do.
Those small groups determine where you may park your car, what sort of trees you can plant on your property, how and when your trash can be put out for collection, and much more. And governing boards determine who can join a group, what members are allowed and not allowed to do, and more. Such groups have a lot of influence in real life, so it’s not surprising that they show up in crime fiction, too.
For instance, it’s the town council of Paradise, Massachusetts, that hires Jesse Stone as chief of police in Robert B Parker’s Night Passage. The council, led by selectman Hastings ‘Hasty’ Hathaway, wants to hire a police chief who can be manipulated easily, and Stone seems to be the right choice. He left the LAPD in disgrace because of drinking (which is still a major problem for him), and the town council thinks he’ll be a useful ‘puppet.’ But things turn out quite differently. Stone isn’t as gullible or as weak-willed as it may seem, and it’s not long before he begins to show more initiative than anyone on the council really wants. He begins to unearth some ugly things the town is hiding, which is problematic enough. Then, there’s a murder that’s connected to those secrets. Little by little, Stone finds out the truth, and the town council learns that he is no patsy.
M.J. McGrath’s White Heat takes place mostly on Ellesmere Island, where Edie Kiglatuk is
‘…the best damned hunting guide in the High Arctic.’
Tragedy mars one of her expeditions, though. Kiglatuk takes Felix Wagner and Andy Taylor on a hunting trip, and finds that neither of them is a particularly good shot. They’re not very pleasant people, either. Still, they’ve paid plenty of money for the trip, and it’s her job to ensure their safety and provide them with a good experience. Tragically, Wagner is shot. Taylor claims he’s not responsible, and the evidence supports him. So, at first, the death looks like a tragic accident. But that in itself is a major problem for Kiglatuk. Wagner was killed on her watch, and the council of Elders may rescind her guide license because of it. There are some council members who don’t like the idea of a woman hunting guide as it is, and who would gladly use this as an excuse to remove her. And one of them, Simeonie Inukpuk, resents her privately because of her breakup with his brother, Sammy. The council decides not to revoke Kiglatuk’s license, but that plot thread shows just how much authority the members have.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies takes place in the fictional small town of Bradley, North Carolina. In the novel, retired English teacher Myrtle Clover finds the body of real estate developer Parke Stoddard in a local church. She may be in her eighties, but Myrtle is not ready to be ‘put out to pasture.’ So, she decides to investigate. And she soon learns that there are plenty of suspects. One of them is City Councilman Benton Chambers. It turns out that he is not at all the ‘family man’ and ‘man of the people’ that he wants his constituents to believe he is. The victim knew that, and was blackmailing Chambers. So, one very good possible motive for this murder is political.
A local council features in Angela Savage’s short story, The Teardrop Tattoos. In it, we are introduced to a woman (the narrator of the story) who’s recently been released from prison, where she was serving time for murder. She’s given housing not far from a local child care facility, and settles in there with her only compassion, a Pit Bull called Sully. All goes well enough until one of the parents associated with the child care facility lodges a complaint about the dog. Before long, the narrator gets a letter from the council, informing her that she’ll have to get rid of Sully, because he’s a restricted breed. This is devastating, and the woman decides to take her own sort of revenge.
And then there’s Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. That novel takes place in the late 1990s, mostly at the Cascade Heights Country Club, an ultra-exclusive gated community about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Usually known as The Heights, it’s the sort of place where only the very, very rich can afford to live. And even they are carefully ‘vetted’ before they’re allowed to move in. The community isn’t really subject to local laws. Instead, it’s governed by a Commission, composed of certain residents. It’s believed that disputes and other such matters are best handled ‘in house,’ rather than involving other authorities. Members of the Commission decide who will move in, who must leave, and so on. They make decisions, too, about what the houses will be like, which activities and events are acceptable, and more. All is well in this luxurious, protected community until the economic problems of 1990s Argentina find their way in. Little by little, that safe, secure stronghold weakens for some of the residents, and it all ultimately leads to tragedy.
In Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake, it’s the Board of Directors of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course who turn out to be important. They’re the ones who determine what happens in the park, who’s allowed to work there, and what improvements, changes and events will happen in the park. When Nick Taylor, Head Greenskeeper, is fired, he blames Board member Harvey Kristoff, who’s never liked him and who would like nothing better than to see him gone. So, when Kristoff’s bludgeoned body is discovered on the golf course, Taylor becomes a very likely suspect. He says he’s innocent, though, and asks his friend, John ‘Bart’ Bartowski to help him. Bart isn’t sure what he can do. He’s not a police officer (he actually owns a fishing lodge), and he’s not an attorney. But he is a longtime resident of Crooked Lake, and he knows everyone. So, he agrees to find out what he can. And it turns out that plenty of other people might have wanted Kristoff dead.
There are lots of other examples of novels where local councils, governing boards, and so on. They wield a lot more authority than it might seem on the surface, and people elected to such groups are much more powerful than you might think.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Hornsby’s Talk of the Town.