And Your Loyalties Are Divided*

One very effective way that authors add tension to their stories is to create divided loyalties for their characters. It’s a little harder if the protagonist is a police officer or a judge. For those characters, there are official policies about being involved in cases where one has a personal interest. But it can be done. It can also be done if the sleuth is a PI or an amateur sleuth. And when it’s done well, that plot point can add suspense to a novel. It can also add a layer of character development.

For example, I was recently privileged to read Brian Stoddart’s A Greater God, the fourth in his Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series. It’s just come out, by the way. This novel takes place in India during the 1920s, the last years of the British Raj. In one plot line, Le Fanu returns to his ‘home base’ in Madras (today’s Chennai) to face several severe challenges. One of them is that there is increased bigotry and worse against Muslims. And the Inspector General of the Madras Police, Arthur Jepson, isn’t making things any easier. He’s hardline racist and determined to keep the British firmly in control. All of this creates a major problem for Le Fanu’s colleague, Mohammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah. Habi is a dedicated member of the police force who does his job very well. He is also a friend to Le Fanu. But Habi is Muslim, and it’s his people who are paying a terrible price right now. His loyalties are divided, and several people on the force are not sure he can be trusted. It all makes for real tension in this novel.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France at the request of Paul Renauld. He writes that his life is in danger and begs Poirot to come to his aid. By the time Poirot and Hastings get there, though, it’s too late; Renauld has been murdered. Poirot works with the police to find out who the killer is and what the motive is. In the meantime, Hastings has a personal situation of his own. He’s met a young woman who calls herself Cinderella, and he finds himself quite attracted to her, although he doesn’t acknowledge it at first. That creates a problem for him when he discovers that she may not be telling him everything about herself. In fact, she may even know more about Renauld’s murder than she’s letting on. It all creates tension between Hastings and Poirot as Poirot gets closer to the truth about what really happened.

The ‘Nicci French’ writing team’s Blue Monday introduces London psychologist Frieda Klein. In one plot thread, she is working with a new client, a man named Alan Dekker. Among other things, he’s been having troubling dreams that focus on having his own son – a boy who looks just like him. In real life, Dekker and his wife, Carrie, haven’t had any children, and Dekker doesn’t want to adopt. He and Klein start the difficult work of ‘unpacking’ his views about having children, and of making connections with things from Dekker’s past. Then, four-year-old Matthew Faraday goes missing. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Malcolm Karlsson and his team investigate, but there are no good clues. The only case that bears any resemblance to this one is twenty-two years old, and it may not be related at all. But on the chance it is, Karlsson and his team do look back at it. When Klein learns of Matthew’s disappearance, she is faced with a real ‘divided loyalties’ problem. On the one hand, she is dedicated to her profession, and that means respecting her client’s confidentiality. On the other hand, she believes that what she knows about Dekker may help to find Matthew Faraday, or at least find out what happened to him. She finally opts to contact Karlsson, and, each in a different way, the two find answers. But her decision is not taken at all lightly.

Nicole Watson’s The Boundary begins as Justice Bruce Brosnan is hearing the case of the Corowa people, who have claimed the right to Brisbane’s Merston Park. A development company wants the land, but the Corrowa say that the land is theirs. Brosnan rules against them, and just a few hours later, is killed. Then, there are other deaths, all of people involved in the case. Police officer Jason Matthews is one of the investigating officers, and this puts him in a real situation of divided loyalties. On the one hand, he is a police officer, sworn to uphold the law, and dedicated to doing so. But he is Aboriginal. So, he has strong feelings about the Corrowa people’s claim. He finds it very difficult to investigate people he feels have been greatly wronged – his own people. He does his job, but it’s not without difficulty.

And then there’s Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room. Laurie and Martha have a successful marriage and have raised three children. Everything seems to be going well until Laurie’s past comes back to haunt her. She was raised in a cult in the US, not leaving it permanently until she was a young adult. So, she is still impacted by her experience. Still, she and Martha have built a good life together. Then, Laurie and Martha begin to be concerned about their oldest child, Hope. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, so they expected there’d be a rough patch. But Hope has become obsessed with dance. She’s not eating properly, she’s not getting enough sleep, and she’s dancing and doing other exercise more than is good for her. As if that’s not enough, someone from Laurie’s past has found her. And that’s when she feels, even after all this time, a bit of divided loyalty. She loves her family deeply and will do anything to protect them. But she still feels the ‘pull’ of her old life, and that comes back, in a way.

And that’s the thing about divided loyalties. They impact one’s perspective, and they can make for very difficult decisions. But, in fiction, they can also make for interesting plot points and layers of character development.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Lucksmiths’ The Cassingle Revival.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Nicci French, Nicole Watson, Stella Duffy

19 responses to “And Your Loyalties Are Divided*

  1. I think it’s a particular feature of television cop shows. We have what young people would call a drinking game in our house – always listening out for the boss saying to the young cop ‘I am going to have to take you off the case – you are too personally involved this time’. And the young cop begs, but is removed, and then s/he keeps investigating against the rules, and gets caught, and and and. It comes up all the time, and we don’t quite have a drink, but we would be drinking plenty if we did. Divided loyalties are a great plot strand!

    • Ha! I love that idea for a drinking game, Moira! How fun! And yes, that plot point really is a staple of TV cop shows and films, isn’t it? It happens a lot in crime stories, too. Sometimes it works very well, and it can make for an excellent and engaging plot.

  2. Col

    I’m reminded of Sean Duffy in Adrian McKinty’s books. I wouldn’t say he has divided loyalties as such, but there’s a perception of him that he might, initially at least – I haven’t read too many of them.

    • That’s a well-taken point, Col. Duffy is a Catholic in a very Protestant place and police force. And, as you say, there are plenty who think that means divided loyalties. I hadn’t thought about that, so thanks. It makes sense.

  3. Well slap my hand….Blue Monday has been in my pile of to-read books beside my bed for a year now…….must read it before the pages turn brown!
    Love that you always include lyrics at the beginning of your posts. Music & books are my joys. Are you obsessed with music also? How do you find some of these bands? I’ve never heard of the Lucksmiths.

    • What can I say, Anne? Music is a big thing for me. I just can’t help it with the lyrics, and I’m glad you enjoy that. As for Blue Monday, I think it’s a taut psychological novel, and a solid series. When you get to it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  4. The Brian Stoddart book reminds me of Abir Mukherjee’s Raj-based series, where Surrender-Not Banerjee has a similar kind of divided loyalty between his work with the Raj police and his family and friends who are becoming involved in the Independence movement.

    • There is definitely that similarity, FictionFan. Both series take place at roughly the same time period in India, although in very different places. I do think you’d like Stoddart’s work. It’s got a fine sense of place and context, and some very well-developed characters, in my opinion. And there are some solid mysteries, too. Just sayin’

  5. Bill Selnes

    Moira: In Lisa Scottoline’s book, Exposed, private lawyer Mary DiNunzio takes on a case for a family friend only to find the defendant is a client of her friend and partner, Bennie Rosato. What I would have thought a clear conflict of interest proves less certain. Popular crime fiction has a tendency to ignore the consequences of conflict of interest for lawyers.

    • Thanks, Bill, for mentioning the Scottoline. I’ve had that on my wish list, although I’ve not yet read it. And that does sound like an case of conflict of interest. I’ll be interesting to see how that’s resolved. You’re right about most popular crime fiction, too. There really are consequences for lawyers of conflict of interest, and that’s not always properly addressed.

  6. Spade & Dagger

    Philip Kerr has Berlin detective Bernie Gunther working within the dangerous & unpredictable system of war time Germany whilst trying to solve mysteries arising from the system. Similarly in Deon Meyers Benny Griessel series set in post-apartheid South Africa, Benny’s team of detectives contains young up & coming South Africans who balance loyalties to their own communities with their job.

    • Thanks, Spade & Dagger. Those are the sorts of examples I had in mind with this post, and I’m glad you mentioned them. In both cases, you have detectives who have to negotiate a political system as they try to solve crimes. It reminds me a bit of William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series (Korolev lives and works in Moscow during the Stalin years right before World War II).

  7. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on the topic of characters with divided loyalties in crime fiction.

  8. I always get irritated at police procedural series where conflict of interests is ignored. But it happens so often (in fiction) that you can hardly avoid it.

    • That’s the thing, Tracy. It really does happen, so it’s not easy to ignore it. I can see, though, why it irritates you. In real life, there are serious consequences when it comes to conflict of interest. Ignoring that makes a story less credible.

  9. An informative post with great examples. Thanks, Margot.

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