Most causes, movements, etc. have leaders, however informally they’re chosen. Whether it’s environmentalists, student activists, unions/workers’ groups, or something else, people know that they’re not going to be heard, so to speak, without some leadership.
As long as that leadership is responsive to the group members, and really represents their interests, it can be a very productive relationship. Everybody gets something, especially if the cause becomes popular and successful. But what if the leadership doesn’t have the group’s best interests at heart? That conflict can result in a lot of damage to a cause. And it can be an interesting plot line to explore in a crime novel.
For instance, in Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, Superintendent Andy Dalziel, and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are sent to the campus of Holm Coultram College. The school is undergoing renovations that include relocating a large bronze statue. When that statue is moved, everyone is shocked to discover a woman’s body underneath its base. The dead woman turns out to be Alison Girling, former President of the College. She disappeared five years earlier, and everyone thought she died in a freak avalanche during a ski holiday. But it’s now clear that she never left the school. As Dalziel and Pascoe trace the victim’s last days and weeks, they meet several people, including student activist leaders Franny Roote and his right-hand man, Stuart Cockshut. The novel was published in 1971, a time of student radicals and a great number of student-led movements. As the novel goes on, we get to know these particular student activists, and we see the relationship that the leaders have with their members. And it’s very interesting to speculate about whose interests Roote and Cockshut actually have in mind.
One focus of Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage is a planned road that will pass through Framingham Great Wood, near the town of Kingsmarkham. Plenty of people do not want the road, fearing its impact on the environment. Certainly, Inspector Reg Wexford is no fan of the idea. His wife, Dora, is even a member of a citizens’ group that’s trying to stop the road. Then, a group of environmental activists come to town, seemingly to support the locals in their efforts. That’s when the real trouble starts. One of the groups takes hostages, including Dora Wexford. And then there’s a death. Now, Wexford and his team have to find a way to free the hostages and solve the murder, before anyone else is put it risk. And as the story goes on, we see how group leadership doesn’t always have the group members’ interests as a priority.
In John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, Clanton, Mississippi attorney Jake Brigance gets a case that soon draws national attention. Carl Lee Hailey has been arrested for shooting Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. There’s no doubt that he is the killer, but this isn’t the ‘open and shut’ case that it seems on the surface. Cobb and Willard are responsible for beating and raping Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, and there’s a lot of sympathy for him. At the same time, vigilantism cannot be condoned. To complicate matters further, Hailey is black, while Cobb and Willard were white. Hailey asks Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. And several different national groups have an interest in the outcome of Hailey’s trial. Their background manipulation raises important questions of whose interests they really represent.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, we are introduced to Mma Holonga, who is the very successful owner of a chain of hair salons. She’s ready to choose a husband, and, since she is both attractive and successful, she has plenty of suitors. After narrowing down the list to just a few eligible men, Mma Holonga visits Mma Precious Ramotswe. She wants Mma Ramotswe to ‘vet’ the men on the list and help her choose the best match. Mma Ramotswe agrees and starts to find out about the men. One of them is Mr. Bobologo, a teacher who also runs House of Hope, a home for troubled girls. He is highly respected and is dedicated both to his students and to the residents of House of Hope. But, as Mma Ramotswe does a little digging, she finds that he is a very ambitious person, who may only want to marry Mma Holonga for her money. And there’s a real question of whose interests he really has in mind. It’s especially interesting to see what Mma Holonga says when Mma Romatswe reveals what she’s discovered.
And then there’s Jonothan Cullinane’s Red Herring, which takes place in 1951 Auckland. The dock workers – the wharfies – are planning a strike, and the government wants to do everything possible to stop that happening. There’s no love lost, either, between the government and the union leaders in this era of anti-communist hysteria. Against this backdrop, PI Johnny Malloy is hired for a possible insurance fraud case. It seems that Francis ‘Frank’ O’Phelan, AKA Frank O’Flynn, was reported dead when he went overboard in the Bering Sea. But now, it’s come out that O’Flynn may still be alive. In fact, there’s a photograph of him with several people involved in the upcoming strike. The insurance company that carried O’Flynn’s life insurance policy hires Malloy to find the man in the photograph and establish whether it’s O’Flynn. Malloy takes the case, but soon finds that some powerful people are protecting O’Flynn, and don’t want Malloy to find him. And the closer Malloy gets to the truth, the more he sees who, exactly, has an interest in the upcoming strike. Things are not what they seem, and there’s a real question of whose interests are really being served.
And that’s the thing about the sociology of some groups. Leadership is important if the group’s agenda is going to be furthered. But that doesn’t mean that the leadership always has the members’ best interests as a priority. Not in crime fiction, at any rate…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.