One of the books that’s been getting quite a lot of attention this summer is Emma Cline’s The Girls. The book tells the coming-of-age story of Evie Boyd. It’s 1969, and at the age of 14, Evie’s lost and aimless. Then, one summer, she meets a group of girls in a park, and finds herself drawn to them. In particular, she becomes obsessed with a young woman named Suzanne. For Suzanne’s sake, Evie gets involved with a charismatic man named Russell, who seems to have these young women under his spell. As the novel goes on, Evie gets more and more involved with Russell’s cult, and her obsession leads her to some very dark places. If this sounds a lot like the Charles Manson story, there’s a good reason for that. Many comparisons have been made between that real-life tragedy and The Girls.
One thing those stories show clearly is the ability that some people have to lead young people (and sometimes, the not-so-young) away from their own lives and into things they never would have imagined. That’s the charisma some people have, and it gives them a real hold over others. The Girls presents one example of this sort of character; there are many others in crime fiction.
One character with that sort of persuasive power is Michael Garfield, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party. In that novel, detective-story writer Ariadne Oliver is visiting a friend, Judith Butler, in the small, commuter village of Woodleigh Common. During her visit, a young girl, Joyce Reynolds, is murdered at a Hallowe’en party that Mrs. Oliver is attending. She asks Hercule Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common and investigate. Poirot agrees and makes the trip. In the course of Poirot’s investigation, he meets Garfield, who was hired to create a garden for a wealthy widow, Mrs. Llewellyn-Smythe, who has since died. In fact, according to her will, the garden is to be maintained, with Garfield at the helm. As we get to know Garfield, we can see that he has a certain charisma – an ability to get people to do what he wants. And that’s part of why the garden he’s created is so remarkable.
In John D. MacDonald’s The Green Ripper, PI Travis McGee has found happiness with his girlfriend Gretel Howard. Then, tragically, she dies of what looks like a fatal illness. The truth is, though, that she was murdered, and her death was carefully planned. As McGee learns more about what happened to Gretel, he begins to connect her death to a Northern California cult called The Church of the Apocrypha. Under the leadership of the very charismatic Brother Persival, the members of the church believe that everything in society must be destroyed if people are to have better lives. Once McGee makes the connection between Gretel’s death and this cult, he goes undercover in the group to find out who killed Gretel. There, he learns that Brother Persival has attracted people to his group with his vivid portraits of life in the new world he wants to create. He’s got a real hold over the members of the church, and has drawn them away from what most people would consider ‘normal’ lives.
Robert Barnard’s No Place of Safety introduces readers to Ben Marchant, who runs a temporary homeless shelter in Leeds for young people. Usually called the Centre, the shelter offers young people two weeks of food and a place to sleep. Then they need to leave for two weeks before they can return. Police detective Charlie Pearce comes into contact with Marchant when he goes in search of Katy Bourne and Alan Coughlan, two teens who disappeared on the same day. Pearce finds them at the Centre, where for some reason, Marchant has allowed them to stay well beyond the two-week limit. For several reasons, Pearce decides that the best thing for these young people is to stay at the shelter for the moment. But the shelter may not be all it seems. Certainly some of the local residents are not happy with it, or with Marchant. And just who is Ben Marchant? What hold does he have, and what’s really going on there? Pearce finds that the more he learns, the more he sees that this is far from a simple and safe place for young people to stay.
And then there’s Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent. New South Wales D.S. Kate Farrer is faced with an odd death. A young woman, Claire Matthews, disappeared just before taking her final vows to become a nun. Now, a few months later, her body has turned up at the bottom of a cliff, the result of an apparent suicide. But some things about the case don’t add up, and Farrer wants help from her friend, pathologist/forensic physician Anya Crichton. Shortly after agreeing to see what she can do, Crichton gets a new client, who wants her to look into the death of his sister. As it turns out, the two victims have in common that there are strange fibres in their lungs. This leads Crichton to suppose that they might have been at the same place. If so, this could present a real health hazard. There’ve been other deaths, too, all of young women who were otherwise healthy, but who had similar fibres in their lungs. Each from a different angle, Crichton and Farrer try to find out who or what is behind these deaths. It turns out that someone with unusual charisma and the ability to draw people in has played a major role in what happened.
There are other novels, too, in which we see this sort of charisma. Certain people have what it takes to draw others in and lead them to do things they’d never ordinarily do (I know, fans of Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murders). Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hooters’ Where Do the Children Go?