In Loyalty to Our Kind*

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot solves the stabbing murder of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. The victim is killed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express, and the only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car. One of those passengers is Princess Natalia Dragomiroff, a formidable elderly lady whose strength is in her personality. At one point in the story, she has this to say:

‘‘I believe…in loyalty – to one’s friends and one’s family and one’s caste.’’

She’s not alone. Being loyal to the members of one’s group is a highly-valued trait, and that makes sense if you think about it. People depend on other group members for a lot, including, at times, survival. So, it’s important that groups stick together, as the saying goes. And there are sometimes very severe penalties for breaking that rule. Loyalty matters, but it can sometimes go too far, and that can make for an interesting layer of character development in a crime novel. It can also allow for plot points.

For example, one of the cardinal rules of the Mafia and of other criminal groups is what the Mafia has called omerta – silence. Every member is expected to keep quiet about the group’s activities, or about anyone else who might be involved. That’s how one proves loyalty to the group. We see that, for instance, in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. In that novel, Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move from the US to a small town in Normandy. The four settle in and begin the process of getting used to an entirely new culture.  But all is not as it seems. ‘Fred Blake’ is really Giovanni Manzini, a former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against his fellow mobsters in court. Now, he and his family are in the US Witness Protection Program, and have been resettled in Normandy for their own protection. The plan is successful enough, until word of the Manzini family’s whereabouts accidentally gets back to New Jersey. Now, Manzini could very well pay a terrible price for his disloyalty.

Police officers depend on each other, sometimes for their lives. That’s one reason why there’s such a premium placed on loyalty to other officers. In many cases, that’s part of the ‘glue’ that holds the force together. But this loyalty, too, can be taken too far. In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, for instance, we are introduced to Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police. One afternoon, he is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him, he takes probationer Lucy Howard. They’re investigating at the house when White is stabbed to death. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who already has a history with local law enforcement. The other officers are loyal to White, and want to mete out their own kind of justice. But the media is paying very close attention to this case, and everyone knows that if they don’t do everything exactly ‘by the book,’ there’ll be a lot of trouble. It’s all complicated by the fact that Rowley is part Aboriginal. All of the police know that the least misstep on their part will lead to accusations of racism. It’s clear throughout the novel, though, that loyalty to each other and to White impacts all of their choices. There are many other crime novels, too, where loyalty to other police officers comes into play (I’m thinking, for instance, of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight). This is part of the reason for which so many police officers are biased against Internal Affairs and other internal investigation groups.

There’s also the tendency for people in elite groups to protect themselves and one another. We see this, for instance, in the work of Qiu Xiaolong. His Chief Inspector Chen Cao lives and works in Shanghai at the end of the 1990’s/beginning of the 21st Century. Chen is respected, and has an important position within his police department. However, he isn’t at the very top of the proverbial tree. That place is reserved for the elite of the Party – the High Cadre people. Those individuals make all of the important decisions, and displeasing them can lead to the end of a career, or sometimes worse. High Cadre families are loyal to each other and protect one another, and would far rather police themselves than have independent investigators look into their business. Chen is very well aware of the power the High Cadre people have, and their tendency to be loyal to their sociopolitical group. So, when his investigations lead to high places, as they often do, Chen has to move very carefully.

And then there’s family loyalty. Most of us would agree that being loyal to one’s family is a highly valued trait. In crime series such as Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels, we see this loyalty in action. Rafferty is a ‘rough travel’ writer who lives and works in Bangkok. He also happens to be very good at finding people who don’t want to be found. That’s why he’s in demand when people are looking for someone in hiding. Rafferty’s married to Rose, a former bar girl who now owns an apartment cleaning company. Rose loves her husband and adopted daughter, Miaow. But she is very loyal to her family of origin. Here’s what she says about it to Rafferty:

‘She [Rose] turns to face him. ‘We have ten dollars left,’ she says. Her voice is so low he has to strain to hear it. ‘Miaow is hungry. My little sister up north is hungry. Who gets the ten dollars? … I would send the money to my sister,’ Rose says. ‘Without a minute’s thought.’’

Of course, family loyalty can create all sorts of obstacles to criminal investigation, too. In many crime novels, people don’t want to talk to the police about their siblings/parents/cousins/etc., because those people are family members.

But that’s the thing about loyalty. Like most other human traits, it’s a proverbial double-edged sword. It’s valuable to an extent, and in many situations. On the other hand, it can also be tragic.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation.  


Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, James Ellroy, Qiu Xiaolong, Timothy Hallinan, Tonino Benacquista, Y.A. Erskine

12 responses to “In Loyalty to Our Kind*

  1. Col

    I do like the internal police conflict portrayed in novels, where IA are viewed as the enemy. I think Harry Bosch has a few run ins with them during the series by Michael Connelly. I do like the Ellroy and Whish-Wilson books mentioned and as yet I’ve still only seen the film based on Badfellas. I’ve not yet got to the book.

    • I hope you’ll like Badfellas, Col, if you get to it. I liked the film, but I honestly think the book’s better. But then, I’m a purist about such things. And you’re right about the Barry Bosch novels. He does run into IA more than once, and I think Connelly handles that plot line quite well. But then, I quite like his work.

  2. A good opportunity to give a shout-out to blogging buddy Lucy Brazier. In her Portergirl series of humorous crime, it’s an Old College tradition that any problems should be kept in the college. So the staff do their best to keep the police from knowing about some of the nefarious events that go on inside these ancient walls. Of course, being humorous means this aspect is exaggerated beyond what would be credible in a more realistic novel, but it’s fun seeing how the college staff develop their own code and their own methods of dealing with things…

    • Oh, I’m so very glad you mentioned Brazier’s work, FictionFan. Not only is she talented, but she’s delightful, too. And your example is really an apt one. It’s interesting, too, how colleges and universities really do want to ‘police their own’ and keep their own secrets. That still goes on today, and I’m glad you mentioned how that works.

  3. Your post made me think of J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas. She’s one that is loyal to her family and friends. Great post, Margot.

  4. Margot, I have read about extreme loyalties in the police force the world over. I believe police officers will do everything in their capacity, even go covert, to hunt down the perpetrators who shoot one of their own and bring them to justice — dead or alive. I have read similar stories in the Indian press. I can see how it’d make an intense and suspenseful element in crime fiction.

    • I think it does, too, Prashant. And there are stories like that – of police doing everything to bring down who kills one of their own – from all over the world. I would suspect that sort of loyalty comes from having to depend on other police for one’s life.

  5. Spade & Dagger

    I’ve never heard of Timothy Hallinan, but I’ve downloaded (to read when??) his satirical take on his Simeon Grist character who acts when he realises the books he is in have all been pulped. Sounds interesting & a bit like Jasper Fforde !!

    • You know, I hadn’t thought of that comparison with Fforde, Spade & Dagger, but I can see it. Hallinan really is interesting, and has written a few series. Each is a different, too, which I respect. It’s hard enough to write one series well, let alone two or three quite different ones!

  6. Kathy D.

    Loyalty is prized at jobs, among the police, firefighters, government agencies,military, etc. However, it’s a problem when someone, for example, a police officer, is corrupt or is covering up a violent crime. This is a major theme in many books, including by Tana French. When do police break the blue code of silence? In crime fiction and in life?
    And in real-life situations, too.
    So when a serious crime is involved, loyalty often has to be cast aside.
    The question is when people cross the line.
    How far will parents go to protect horrible crimes by children? Will they protect them if they commit sexual assault or murder? And how much denial can parents live with? Read “Defending Jacob,” to see.

    • You’re right, Kathy. Loyalty is valuable; and, as you say, it’s highly prized. There is a point, though, at which loyalties have to be laid aside. That’s not always easy to do, but there are times when it’s important.

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