As this is posted, it’s the 167th anniversary of the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter. As you’ll know, it’s the story of Hester Prynne, who has a child out of wedlock and is therefore, punished for adultery. There are many themes in the novel – it’s a complex story, really – and I won’t pretend to touch on them all here. But one of them that’s quite relevant to crime fiction is the trope of the outcast.
Different cultures have different reasons for rejecting people and considering them outcasts. But no matter what the reason, being outcast is traumatic. Humans by nature are social. We have a deep-seated need to be accepted. So, it’s especially distressing not to have a group to accept us. That tension can add much to a story, and can add a fascinating layer of character development.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer is her lodger, James Bentley. In fact, there’s enough evidence against him that he’s been convicted and is set to be executed. But Superintendent Spence doesn’t think he’s guilty. And if he is innocent, Poirot doesn’t want to see him hanged, either. But Poirot soon runs into a problem as he investigates. Bentley has never really been accepted in the village. He doesn’t have much in the way of social skills, and he isn’t the ‘dashingly handsome type.’ So, he’s become a sort of outcast, although people don’t go out of their way to hurt him. Still, he’s an easy mark when the time comes to arrest someone for Mrs. McGinty’s murder. And most people aren’t really interested in standing up for him. But Poirot perseveres, and we learn, in the end, who really killed the victim and why.
In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, we are introduced to Jim Haight. He was engaged to Nora Wright, whose parents, John F. and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright, are the undisputed social leaders of the small town of Wrightsville. Three years ago, though, Haight unexpectedly jilted his bride-to-be, and left town. That’s how matters stand at the beginning of the novel, when Ellery Queen temporarily moves into the Wrights’ guest house so that he can do some writing. Not long after Queen’s arrival, Haight returns to town. He’s not welcome after having treated Nora as he did. But he and Nora rekindle their romance, and even get married. Then, some evidence comes up that suggests that Haight married Nora only for her money, and is planning to kill her. On New Year’s Eve, there is, in fact, a murder. Haight’s sister, Rosemary, drinks a cocktail that was intended for Nora, and dies of poison. Haight is arrested right away, and because he’s already an outcast, gets no support. In fact, the residents have an almost-vigilante attitude towards him. But Queen isn’t convinced of his guilt. So, he and Nora’s sister, Pat, look into the matter more deeply and discover who the real killer is.
Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black takes place mostly in the small Shetland town of Ravenswick. Everyone in town knows everyone else, and just about everyone stays away from Magnus Tait. He’s an eccentric loner, so he’s not much of a ‘mixer’ to begin with. It doesn’t help his case that there are whispers that link him to the disappearance several years earlier of a young girl. For the most part, he’s not overtly bullied, but he’s certainly not welcome in people’s homes, either. One New Year’s Eve, local teenagers Sally Henry and Catherine Ross stop by Tait’s home to wish him a good year. It’s partly a ‘dare you to knock on the door’ moment, and partly a matter of feeling bad for someone left alone on the holiday. Just a few days later, Catherine is found murdered, not far from Tait’s home. Immediately it’s assumed that he is the killer, and people are only too happy to lead Inspector Jimmy Perez in that direction. But Tait claims that he is innocent. Besides, Perez is a good cop who doesn’t want to assume guilt without the evidence to support that assumption. So, he digs deeper, and finds that more than one person might have had a motive for murder.
Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel sees his Amsterdam Police sleuth, Piet Van der Valk, sent from Amsterdam to the small Dutch town of Zwinderen. A number of anonymous, ‘poison pen’ letters have been sent to the residents, and everyone’s shaken up. In fact, one recipient committed suicide; another had a mental breakdown. Matters are not helped by the fact that Zwinderen is a small community, where everyone knows everyone, and where people feel a great need to fit in and be accepted. The local police haven’t made much headway in finding the author of the letters, so Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette, go to Zwinderen. It’s not long before Van der Valk discovers that a lot of people think that a certain M. Besançon is the guilty party. He’s somewhat of an outcast, and no-one in the town really likes him much. He lives alone in a house with a walled garden for privacy (something that makes the townspeople quite suspicious). And, he’s not ‘one of them;’ he’s a French Jew who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to the Netherlands. Van der Valk is soon able to show that M. Besançon didn’t write the letters. But it’s interesting to see how quick the residents of Zwinderen are to blame him.
And then there’s Jodie Evans Garrow, whom we meet in Wendy James’ The Mistake. She has, by most people’s estimation, a perfect life. She’s educated, attractive, and married to a successful attorney. She’s the mother of two healthy children, and seems to have everything going for her. Although she grew up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, Jodie now lives among well-off, well-connected people who’ve accepted her as one of them, for the most part. Then, disaster strikes. It comes out that, long ago, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child she never told anyone about before. Not even her husband knew. Jodie claims that she gave the baby up for adoption, but there are no formal records to support that. So, very soon, questions start to arise. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? It’s not long before Jodie’s social group rejects her, and she becomes a pariah. As we slowly learn what happened to the baby, we also see how difficult it is for Jodie to be shunned or worse by the very people who once accepted her.
And that’s the thing about outcasts. They often have little in the way of a support system, and that can make life miserable. That tension may add to a novel, but in real life, it’s awful.
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’ God Help the Outcasts.