Group dynamics are fascinating (or perhaps it’s just me). I’m not talking here about mobs, really (although they’re an example of how groups impact individuals). Mobs aside, I’m really talking of the way we sometimes look to other people in a group to decide how we’ll behave.
For instance, the ‘photo you see was taken at a rock concert I attended (no, not Billy Joel this time – I do occasionally listen to other artists… 😉 ). The way people act at concerts is often affected by the way other people at the same concert act. Do some people get up and dance? Others are likely to do the same. Does everyone stay seated? Then it’s less likely you’ll be the one to get up and dance.
Think about what happens when you’re in a group, and you’ll see that that tendency to behave as the group does is common in a lot of settings. And we certainly see it in crime fiction. In fact, that phenomenon can add a really interesting dimension to a story.
For example, in Marjorie Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, a group of people is staying at the home of academician Wyatt Petrie. The house party includes Dr. George Abbershaw, who’s chiefly there because he’s found out that Margaret ‘Maggie’ Oliphant will be there, and he’s infatuated with her. After dinner on the first night, the guests move to the drawing room, where their host tells them the story behind a dagger displayed above the fireplace. Originally, the legend was that the dagger would glow red if it was touched by anyone who’d committed a murder. Later, the legend gave way to a sort of game, in which the lights are turned out, and the dagger is passed around among the guests. The object is to avoid being caught with the dagger when the lights go back on. One of the guests suggests playing the game, and a few others agree. That reaction is echoed by the others, and before Petrie knows what’s happening, he’s persuaded to go along with the group. Later that night, Petrie’s uncle, and the former owner of the house, Colonel Gordon Coombe, is murdered, and the entire house party is drawn into the murder investigation. Interestingly, although Allingham’s protagonist, Albert Campion makes an appearance here, the story is really told from Abbershaw’s point of view.
In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), we are introduced to Miss Emily Arundell. She’s got a large fortune to leave, and several relatives who are desperate for their shares. When she has a dangerous fall down some stairs, she begins to believe that someone’s trying to kill her. So, she writes to Hercule Poirot to ask his help. By the time he and Captain Hastings get the letter, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. When it’s established that she died of poison, Poirot has a whole list of likely suspects. One of them is the victim’s niece, Theresa Arundell. Poirot visits her under the guise of helping her get a share of her aunt’s fortune. He claims that if he’s to help her, he’s going to have to ask her some questions, and she agrees to answer them:
‘‘Do you drug?’
‘Quite heavily – but not for the love of it. My crowd drinks and I drink with them, but I could give it up tomorrow.’’
It’s an interesting example of how things people choose to do are impacted by the group they’re with, even if there’s no overt peer pressure.
Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is the story of the Thornhill family. In 1806, William Thornhill is sentenced to transportation to the colony of Sydney for the crime of stealing a load of wood. He, his wife, Sal, and their children make the long journey, and do their best to prepare for a new life. When they arrive, William gets work making boat deliveries, and Sal opens a makeshift pub. Then, William gets a steadier job delivering goods for a man named Thomas Blackwell. His main route is the Hawkesbury River, where he one day discovers the perfect piece of land for a home. Of course, there’ve been people in the area for many thousands of years, so it’s no surprise that conflicts arise between the two groups. Some terrible crimes are committed, and William wants no part of that ugly bloodshed. But he also learns that if he’s going to hold on to his piece of land, he may have to behave as his fellow newer arrivals do.
In Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, we meet Police Constable (PC) Fiona Griffiths of the Cardiff Police. When she was a teenager, Griffiths had a bout with severe mental illness. She got the help she needed, and she’s (mostly) functional. But she struggles with things that a lot of us take for granted (e.g. meeting new people, interacting appropriately, and emotional responses). She knows that she doesn’t react as others do at times, and she would like to be a little closer to what she calls Planet Normal. So, she does pay attention and try to behave in ways that are closer to the ways others behave. Her efforts to feel more human, and fit in, form an interesting story arc.
And then there’s Dwayne Alexander Smith’s Forty Acres. Attorney Martin Grey is befriended by highly successful lawyer Damon Darrell. Both men and black, and, before long, Darrell introduces his new friend to an elite group of wealthy black men and their wives, something that could further Grey’s career. When Grey is invited to join the group for a weekend of whitewater rafting, he’s a bit reluctant. He’s not the outdoors type, and he knows nothing about rafting. But, he doesn’t feel that he can turn down the invitation. So, he agrees to go, and does his best to behave the way the rest of the group members do. Then, everyone arrives at the destination, Grey learns what’s really going on. The group is almost cult-like, run by the very enigmatic Dr. Kasim, who wants to avenge the terrible cruelties done to blacks during slavery. When Grey learns of Kasim’s plan for revenge, he faces some wrenching moral decisions. And, he learns that he’ll be expected to behave the way the rest of the group does. Soon enough, Grey discovers that his very life may depend on that.
Many people pay attention to other people in a group to see how they behave, and how they react. And they take their cues from what they observe. It can be a very useful strategy for fitting in, and it can serve an author’s purpose well.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark.