In many communities, there’s a social leader – the one to whom everyone seems to defer. If you’re going to fit in in that sort of community, you need to get that social leader’s approval. And not having it (or worse, being disapproved of) can be enough to make you a pariah.
Those sorts of people aren’t necessarily rich. And they don’t always have official authority. But their opinions are essential all the same. And they can make very interesting characters in crime fiction.
Sometimes, social leaders can be benign, even sympathetic, as characters. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, we are introduced to Amy Folliat. For many generations, her family owned Nasse House, in the village of Nassecomb. Now, the house and grounds are the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, and Mrs. Folliat lives in the lodge on the grounds of Nasse House. But she is still the undisputed social leader. Her opinion carries a lot of weight locally. That said, though, she isn’t really intimidating, nor is she overbearing. People naturally defer to her, and her praise and approval mean an awful lot. In fact, when a fête is held at Nasse House, it’s she who greets the visitors, and to whom they mostly speak. On the day of the big event, there’s a murder. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, who’s visiting Nasse House, has invited Hercule Poirot to the event (and to do some investigating), so he is on hand when the body is discovered. And he finds what Amy Folliat has to say to be very useful as he looks into the case.
Maureen Carter’s Working Girls introduces Detective Sergeant (DS) Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss, who lives and works in Birmingham. When fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found murdered, Morris and her team investigate. The victim was a sex worker, so one possibility is that she was killed by her pimp, Charlie Hawes. Another possibility is that one of her clients murdered her. Either way, Morriss is going to have to get to know some of the other sex workers who knew Michelle. And that’s not going to happen without the approval of their unofficial leader, Big Val. At first, Val is reluctant to have much to do with Morriss, as you can imagine. But little by little, they get to know each other. And, when Big Val approves of Morriss, this opens up the chance to talk to some of the sex workers who knew Michelle. And that gives Morriss insight into the case (and into the private lives of some highly-placed local people).
Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is the story of a group of families whose children all attend Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. Many of the parents are heavily involved in school doings, and they’ve formed a social group of their own. The undisputed leader of this group is Renata Klein, whose daughter, Amabella, attends the school’s Kindergarten. Anyone who wants to be truly accepted among the parents must get Renata’s approval, and be on her ‘good side.’ And that becomes a problem for new arrival Jane Chapman, when Renata accuses her son, Ziggy, of bullying Amabella. Ziggy says he’s innocent, but a lot of people defer to Renata, so it’s not long before there’s a real conflict between Renata’s ‘followers,’ and Jane and some new friends she’s made. That’s just one of several conflicts and secrets brewing among the school’s families, and it all ends in tragedy one night at a school fundraiser. As the police look into what happens, we slowly learn the secrets that these people have been keeping.
Susan C. Shea’s Love and Death in Burgundy takes place in the small French town of Reigny-sur-Canne. American ex-pats Michael Goff (a famous musician) and his artist wife Katherine have moved to Reigny to get away from the fast-paced life that fame has brought. They’ve been there three years, but they’re still not really accepted among the locals. And that’s mostly because they have not been accepted by Reigny’s undisputed social leader, Mme. Pomfort. She is, at best, chillingly polite, and Katherine knows that she’ll have to gain Mme. Pomfort’s approval if she and Michael are ever to fit in. Then, late one night, longtime resident Albert Bellegarde dies after a fall down some stairs at his home. At first, the death is put down to a tragic accident. After all, Bellegarde was elderly, the stairs are not easy to negotiate, and it was late. But soon enough, it begins to look as though he might have been murdered. Katherine gets involved in the investigation because she knew the victim and his wife, Adele; and, as she starts to ask questions, she learns that more than one person might have wanted Bellegarde dead.
And then there’s Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man. In that novel, which takes place in 1919, Captain Sam Wyndham arrives in Calcutta/Kolkata to take up his duties with the local police. He’s not there long when the body of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal, is discovered in an alley behind a brothel. This is going to be a delicate case for a few reasons. One is that MacAuley was a very influential person, both socially and politically. His opinion counted for a lot, and he had an ‘in’ with some of the most important authorities in the region. So, the trail leads to some high places. There are political aspects to the murder as well, which might mean that this death has to do with the ongoing conflict between the British authorities and those who want Indian independence. It’s a difficult case, and matters aren’t helped by the fact that MacAuley wielded a lot of power.
And that’s the thing about such characters. They have a great deal of social influence, even if they do not have a position of high authority. That’s part of what makes them interesting, and it can mean they are both dangerous and vulnerable.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Richmond and Neil Benjamin‘s Meet the Plastics.