There are certain people who become, if you want to put it this way, unofficial leaders in their communities. They don’t have official status (e.g. mayor, department manager, and so on). But they command respect, and they get things done. When the police are investigating a crime, they know that they won’t get nearly as far without the cooperation of these leaders.
That’s especially true in what I’ll call ‘shadow communities.’ By that, I mean communities that aren’t really geopolitical entities such as towns. Rather, these are unofficial groups of people linked by an interest, ethnic background, or some other commonality.
You see this sort of leadership emerge in real life, and it’s there in crime fiction, too. Oh, and before I go any further, you’ll notice that this post won’t really have discussion of crime bosses. Too easy
In several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Sherlock Holmes gets very valuable help from a group of street children he calls the Baker Street Irregulars. These are children who don’t go to school and often don’t have regular homes. In the Victorian world in which Holmes lives, no-one pays very much attention to them, so they can come and go without being noticed. That makes them very useful as Holmes’ ‘eyes and ears.’ They’re an interesting ‘shadow community,’ without an established infrastructure. But they do have a social structure in place, and they work as a group. Their leader is a boy called Wiggins. He obviously doesn’t have official status as any kind of authority. But the others look up to him, and he serves as their liaison with Holmes.
We also see an example of the ‘shadow community’ of street children in William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series. These novels take place mostly in Moscow in the years just before World War II. At that time, often called the Great Purge, there were thousands of arrests of people who were considered ‘enemies of the state.’ If they weren’t killed outright, they were imprisoned or sent away, often to Siberia. Many of them left behind children, who were sometimes considered suspicious simply because of their parents’ arrests. These children were often left to fend for themselves as best they could. In The Holy Thief, the first of this series, Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID meets a group of such children. He’s investigating the death of a woman whose body was found in a former church, as well as another, similar murder. Korolev learns that a group of street children was near the scene when the first murder occurred, and he wants to talk to them. He finally tracks them down and learns that they are led by Kim Goldstein, whose
‘‘…parents got caught up in something or other…’’
and is now managing for himself. Goldstein and Korolev establish a kind of rapport, and his help turns out to be valuable in this novel and in The Twelfth Department.
In William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, we meet Jack Laidlaw of the Glasgow police. He and his team investigate when eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson goes missing and is later discovered raped and murdered. There isn’t much to go on, and there is a great deal of pressure to find the killer. So Laidlaw decides to visit John Rhodes, who holds court in a pub called The Gay Laddie. Laidlaw says this about Rhodes:
‘‘He’s an honourable thug. He won’t like this kind of thing. He might lend us his eyes and ears for a week.’’
This part of Glasgow has a ‘shadow community’ that’s not really run by the civil authorities, except nominally. Things happen when John Rhodes wants them to happen. He’s not a crime boss, really, but he has connections all through the area, and everyone knows better than to cross him. Laidlaw and his assistant, DC Brian Harkness, have a conversation with Rhodes, and after a little staking out of positions, enlist his cooperation. It’s an interesting example of the way these ‘shadow communities’ work.
Maureen Carter’s Working Girl introduces readers to DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss of the Birmingham Police. When fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found murdered, Morriss and her team investigate. It turns out that Michelle was a commercial sex worker, so Morriss wants to talk to other sex workers to see what they might know about what happened. As you can imagine, the ‘shadow community’ of sex workers isn’t eager to talk to the police. In order to get their cooperation, Morriss will need the support of their unofficial leader, Big Val. Val’s been in the business longer than the rest, and has a sort of nurturing interest in the others. For their part, they look to her for advice and support – and a place to relax. Once Morriss is able to convince Big Val to work with her, she gets some useful information from the other sex workers in the area.
There are even some sleuths who are unofficial leaders. For example, you could argue that Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple is one such sleuth. Her village of St. Mary Mead isn’t a ‘shadow community;’ it’s an official town. But there’s plenty that goes on there that’s informal. And in that sense, Miss Marple is a leader. She isn’t the mayor or a member of the council. But everyone knows her, most people trust her, and she certainly has her ear to the ground, as the saying goes. And the police who investigate murders in that area know that they ignore Miss Marple to their peril.
And then there’s Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka. One of the many ‘shadow communities’ in London is its Polish community. Members of it look to their own leaders for advice and support, and one of those leaders is Kiszka. He’s known as a ‘fixer’ – someone who can get things done and make things right. So it’s no surprise that DC Natalie Kershaw of the Met finds it to her advantage to work with Kiszka when she investigates murders that involve the Polish community. Kiszka doesn’t have official authority – not even in the area where he lives. But everyone knows he’s the person to go to in order to make things happen.
And that’s the thing about those ‘shadow communities.’ Like more official communities, they have their leaders. The authority of those leaders doesn’t come from a title or an office. But the police know that it’s just as real as a badge is, and that it pays to work with those leaders.
ps. Just in case you’re wondering…no, I don’t smoke. That’s a bit of ‘trick’ photography…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Jerry Herman song. It might not have been used in the original musical Hello, Dolly, but it was a memorable addition to the film version.