As I post this, it’s the 63rd anniversary of the publication of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It wasn’t a best-seller when it first came out, but since then, it’s established itself as a classic piece of literature.
Lord of the Flies isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel (although crimes are committed in the story). But it touches on some themes and considerations that we see a lot in crime fiction. One of those is groupthink. Groupthink happens when people go along with a group in order to achieve consensus, even if they disagree privately with the group’s decision. Sometimes, consensus has some purpose. It’s hard to get things done otherwise. But groupthink can also stifle creativity; worse, it can stile the individual sense of responsibility. And that can have tragic consequences.
Agatha Christie touches on groupthink in a few of her stories. For instance, in Mrs.McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence pays a visit to Hercule Poirot. He’s concerned because James Bentley is about to be executed for the murder of his landlady, Mrs. McGinty. Although Spence collected the evidence that eventually convicted Bentley, he’s not sure the man is guilty. So he asks Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. To find out the truth, Poirot travels to the small town of Broadhinny where the murder occurred, and begins to get to know the residents. As it turns out, Mrs. McGinty was the kind of person who found out people’s secrets. And one secret wasn’t safe for her to know. What’s interesting about this village is that everyone agrees it’s a ‘nice village,’ with ‘very nice people.’ So the murderer had to have been James Bentley, at least according to this groupthink.
In Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, we are introduced to Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley, a homicide detective in a futuristic New York City. In this world, humankind has been more or less divided into two large groups. One group, Spacers, are descended from those who explored space and returned to Earth. The other, Earthmen, are descended from those who never left the planet. The groups fear and dislike each other to the point that they live in separate places, with the border between them carefully protected. Then, Baley’s boss, Julius Enderby, informs him that a well-known Spacer scientist has been murdered. Spacers suspect an Earthman, so to ensure transparency of the investigation, Enderby wants Baley to investigate. And he wants him to work with a Spacer partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. Working with a Spacer will be difficult enough, but when Baley discovers that Olivaw is a positronic robot, he feels the task may be nearly impossible. If there’s one thing Earthmen hate and fear more than scientists, it’s robots. Throughout the novel, we see all sorts of examples of groupthink about robots, the threat they may pose, and misconceptions about them. We also see groupthink about the Spacers.
Groupthink can definitely play a role in what happens during jury deliberations. If you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. Jurors want to return a verdict, especially if they’re sequestered, and especially if it looks to be a long case. And when the stakes are high, there’s a lot of motive for swaying a jury in one direction or another. That form of groupthink plays a role in John Grisham’s Runaway Jury. In that novel, a very high-profile lawsuit is brought against the tobacco industry. Specifically, Celeste Wood is bringing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Pynex (formerly called Union Tobacco), in the wake of her husband’s death from lung cancer. With so much money at stake, it’s not surprising that it soon seems someone is trying to sway the jury and use groupthink to get a verdict. Even after they’re sequestered, the jury still seems to be behaving strangely. Bit by bit, we learn what’s really going on, and who’s behind this attempt to get the jury to return the ‘right’ verdict. There are plenty of other legal mysteries, too, that involve juries and groupthink.
We see groupthink in several of Qiu Xiaolong’s novels featuring Shanghai police detective Chen Cao. In the Shanghai of the late 1990s, it’s considered very important to maintain social harmony. So independent investigations, ‘watchdog’ groups and so on are highly discouraged (or worse). That reality plays out in several of the stories, including Enigma of China. In one plot thread of that novel, a watchdog group has been using the Internet to expose corruption at high levels. One of this group’s targets is Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The government, of course, is aware of this investigation, and Zhou is arrested. He’s moved to a Shanghai hotel to await trial. One morning, his body is found in his hotel room. The government authorities want Chief Inspector Chen to ‘rubber stamp’ the theory of suicide for a few reasons. But Chen isn’t sure that’s what really happened. As he works to solve the case, he comes into contact with the group that posted the accusations against Zhao. And he finds an odd paradox. At the same time as the government is cracking down on the group (in order to encourage groupthink), they need the information the group gets to stop trouble and to keep social order and harmony. It’s an interesting look at the way groupthink can work at the macro level.
Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road shows how groupthink can work among the police. In that novel, Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen has just been transferred from Adeliade to Tiverton, in rural South Australia. He’s basically a pariah among the Adelaide police because he has a reputation as a ‘whistleblower.’ And he soon finds that his reputation has preceded him. Right from the beginning, his boss, Sergeant Kropp, and the other local police, make life as difficult as possible for Hirsch, sabotaging and humiliating him at every opportunity. But Hirsch still has a job to do. And when the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is discovered by the side of Bitter Wash Road, he investigates. One theory is that she was hitchhiking and was accidentally hit by a passing car. But there are other possibilities, and Hirsch explores them. Despite the groupthink of his peers, he finds out the truth about what really happened to the victim, and we see how groupthink impacts everyone as he does. It’s an interesting plot point in the story.
On the surface, groupthink can seem an efficient way to get a group to reach consensus. But that’s not always a good thing, and groupthink can have terrifying consequences. Right, fans of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blind Melon’s No Rain.