Category Archives: Liane Moriarty

So What’s Your Name, New Kid in School?

Whether it’s for spring term or fall term, millions of children all over the world are getting ready to go to school. New clothes have been bought, schools supplies are ready, and the adventure’s about to begin. It’s especially an adventure if it’s a new school, where you don’t know anyone.

On the one hand, that adventure can be exciting; it’s a whole new chance to start over. On the other hand, it’s nerve-wracking, too. What if the other children don’t like you? What if you don’t make friends? What if you get one of THOSE teachers? The stress of starting in a new school is very, very real for a lot of children (and their families). And it can add an interesting plot thread to a crime novel, even if it’s not the main plot point.

Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons begins on the first day of Summer Term at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. It’s an interesting look at the way a school handles the influx of new pupils. Among those new students this term are Julia Upjohn and Jennifer Sutcliffe. The school is run by Honoria Bulstrode, who cares very much about the pupils. She makes sure the staff gets new students settled, and helps them find their way. And that’s how it works out for Julia and Jennifer, at least at first. Also new this term is Grace Springer, the games mistress. She’s got an abrasive, overly-inquisitive personality, and doesn’t fit in nearly as well as anyone hoped. Shortly after the term begins, Springer is shot late one night. The police are called in and the investigation starts. It hasn’t gotten very far, though, when there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Now it’s clear that something is very, very wrong at Meadowbank. Julia goes to visit Hercule Poirot, who knows her mother’s best friend, Maureen Summerhayes (remember her, fans of Mrs.McGinty’s Dead?). Poirot returns to the school with Julia, and discovers the truth behind the events at the school.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker decides to move his family from the city where they live to a new suburban development, Valley Forest Estates. He believes that his family, especially his two children, Angie and Paul, will be safer in the suburbs. What’s more, he thinks the schools will be better. That, at least, turns out not to be true. Angie and Paul don’t fit in very well in their new schools; here’s how Angie explains it one day:
 

‘‘I go to school with a bunch of losers,’ she said finally.
 I let that one hang out there for a while. ‘What do you mean, losers?’…
‘All I’m saying is just because we moved out of the city doesn’t mean there aren’t still weird people in my school.’’
 

Both young people dislike having to be what Angie calls, ‘borderline normal’ – conformist. And it’s not long before Walker learns firsthand how dangerous the suburbs can be. First, he witnesses an argument. Then, he finds the body of one of the people involved in that argument. Later, there’s another murder. And some strange discoveries about some of the ‘respectable’ people in Valley Forest.

The main focus of Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black is the murder of Catherine Ross, who is found strangled not long after New Year’s Eve. The first suspect is a misfit named Magnus Tait, who lives nearby, and who knows Catherine. There’s talk, too, that he was responsible for the disappearance of a young girl years earlier, although nothing’s ever been proven. Tait, though, claims he’s innocent. And Inspector Jimmy Perez doesn’t want to arrest the wrong person. So, he looks closely into the victim’s background to find out who would have wanted to kill her. He discovers that she and her father (her mother has died) recently moved to the town of Ravenswick, in Shetland. In ways, Catherine doesn’t fit in. She’s from ‘down south,’ and seems much more sophisticated than her classmates. But she also has enough confidence that she doesn’t much care how well she fits in. Catherine’s being new to Shetland isn’t the reason she’s killed. But it adds a dimension to her character, and it contributes to the atmosphere of the novel.

Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is, for the most part, the story of three families, all of whom have children who attend Kindergarten at Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The story begins with a tragedy that happens on Trivia Night. That event is supposed to be a fundraiser for the school, so that Smart Boards can be purchased for the classrooms. As the police investigate, the story goes back in time to the beginning of the school year, and the first day of Kindergarten. And we learn that, right from that first day of school, there’s been tension. The children in Kindergarten are already nervous at starting school, and some of their parents are just as anxious. For example, Jane Chapman’s recently moved to the area, and she doesn’t fit in socially with the other parents. So, she’s quite nervous about how her son, Ziggy, will fare in school. As the novel goes on, we see the tension among the parents build, and we see how it impacts their children.

New teachers often feel the same sort of ‘will I fit in?’ anxiety. And even when they don’t, they’re certainly subjected to quite a lot of scrutiny. For instance, in Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, we are introduced to Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy. They’re in their last year of school, and at the top of the proverbial social tree. Beth is captain of the school’s cheerleading squad, and Addy is her trusty lieutenant. Together, they rule the school. Then, a new cheerleading coach, Collette French, is hired. Here’s how her arrival is described:
 

‘Her first day. We all look her over with great care, our heads tilted. Some of us, maybe even me, fold our arms across our chests.
The New Coach.
There are so many things to take in, to consider and set on scales, always tilted towards scorn.’
 

There’s a lot of tension as the new coach starts working with the team, but before long, she’s won a lot of the girls over. In fact, she turns the squad into a sort of very elite club. Addy is welcomed as a member, but Beth remains on the outside, looking in. Everything changes when there’s a suicide (or is it?). And we see the role that fitting as a new person plays in the story.

It plays out in other crime fiction, too, and that makes sense. Starting in a new school can be tense. And there’s always the chance that everything will go wrong – especially in a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Donnas’ New Kid in School.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Liane Moriarty, Linwood Barclay, Megan Abbott

We’re Off to the Pub to Play in the Trivia Club*

As this is posted, it’s the birthday of famous quiz show host Alex Trebek. If you think about it, quiz shows such as Jeopardy and Mastermind are interesting examples of how much people like trivia. If you watch those shows, or you’ve ever played Trivial Pursuit or games like it, you know what I mean. And sometimes, knowing trivia can be lucrative.

Even if all you get is bragging rights, trivia can be interesting. Trivia even finds its way into crime fiction. And sometimes, it can end up being important, and not trivial at all.

Take Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance. In that novel, famous American actress Jane Wilkinson comes to Poirot with an unusual (for him) sort of problem. She wants a divorce from her husband, Lord Edgware, so that she can marry again. But she says he won’t consent. Her solution is for Poirot to visit Edgware and ask him to withdraw his objection. It’s a strange request, but Poirot agrees. When he and Captain Hastings visit Edgware, though, their host tells them that he’s already written to his wife to tell her that he consents to the divorce. Confused, Poirot and Hastings leave, only to learn the next day that Edgware’s been stabbed. Jane is the most likely suspect, but there are a dozen people willing to swear that she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time of the murder. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp, who’s assigned to the case, have to look elsewhere for the killer. In the end, a piece of trivia casually mentioned turns out to be part of the murderer’s undoing.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we are introduced to Jonas Hansson. He’s got deep scars from an unhappy childhood and very dysfunctional parents. But he found solace in his fiancée, Anna. Then, Anna nearly died in a fall from a pier at a local boat club. She’s been in a coma since then, and Jonas spends as much time as he can by her side. At first, that attention impresses the staff at the hospital where Anna lives. But soon enough, we see that Jonas isn’t dealing with his life in a very healthy way. One night, he happens to be in a pub where he meets Eva Wirenström-Berg, who’s just found out that her husband, Henrik, has a mistress. Both she and Jonas make some fateful decisions that end up having tragic consequences for everyone. Interestingly enough, Jonas uses a particular set of trivia – distances between different places in Sweden – to cope with stress.
 

‘Alingsås to Arjeplog 1179 kilometres, Arboga to Arlanda 144, Arvidsjaur to Borlänge 787.’
 

He uses the ritual of repeating the distances to himself to calm down.

Trivia turns out to be useful to Saskatoon PI Russell Quant in Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. Successful accountant Daniel Guest is being blackmailed, and he wants Quant to find out who’s responsible, and get that person to stop. He gives Quant the information he has about who the blackmailer might be, and Quant gets started. At one point, the trail leads to a local community theatre, where Quant hopes the secretary might provide him with some photographs he wants to see:
 

‘‘Hello, my name is Rick Astley and I’m the Artistic Director for Theatre Quant in Mission.’ I was betting she wasn’t old enough to be up on her late 1980’s teen idol trivia or informed enough about British Columbia community theatre to catch on to my clever ruse. And actually she looked pretty unimpressed with life in general regardless of the decade. I continued on, hoping my enthusiasm, if not my really bad English accent, would be contagious.”
 

Quant’s knowledge of musical trivia helps get him the photographs he wants, and a tiny piece of the puzzle.

Catriona McPherson’s Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver series begins with Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. In that novel, private detective Dandy Gilver gets a new client, Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour, who believes her husband, Philip ‘Pip,’ is trying to kill her. She doesn’t want Pip to know she’s consulted a detective, so she asks Dandy to visit her in the guise of a maid seeking a job. Dandy agrees, and takes a position under the name of Fanny Rossiter. The idea is that she’ll find out what she can, and try to protect her client. Late on the first night of ‘Fanny’s’ employment, Pip is stabbed. Dandy gets involved in the case as she tries to clear her client’s name. At one point, she comes upon the maid who discovered Pip’s body, desperately trying to get bloodstains out of her clothes. Dandy doesn’t think this maid is the killer, so she tries to be practical about it:
 

‘‘Apart from anything else, Miss Etheldreda, hot water sets a bloodstain so nothing will ever shift it. A cold water and salt soak is what’s needed.’’
 

That little bit of knowledge helps Dandy get some information she wants, and brings down the barrier between her and Etheldreda.

One of the major events in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is a Trivia Night event at Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. It’s intended as a fundraiser to provide the school’s classrooms with Smart Boards. Everyone’s ready for a fun event, but instead of a friendly competition in aid of a good cause, disaster strikes. The hors d’oeuvres don’t arrive, which means that people are drinking too much without anything to eat. The alcohol fuels already-simmering resentments, and the end result is tragedy. Then, the book takes readers back six months to show how the resentments built, and what led to the events of Trivia Night.

You see?  Trivia isn’t just for Jeopardy or for Quiz Night at the pub. And, of course, trivia isn’t always deadly. Just ask Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. He depends on that sort of knowledge, and his knowledge of language, to do his crossword puzzles. And where would he be without those?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Squeeze’s Sunday Street.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Catriona McPherson, Colin Dexter, Karin Alvtegen, Liane Moriarty

And Always You’ll See That You Reflect on Me*

You know the feeling, I’ll bet. A child misbehaves in public, and one of your first thoughts might be, ‘What is that mother/father thinking?’ Or, you cringe when your child’s teacher asks to speak to you, and brings up something that may be going on at school. In many societies, what children do is often seen as a reflection on their parents. When children are ‘well-behaved,’ get high grades, and so on, the parents must be doing something right. When they aren’t, or don’t, that’s largely seen as ‘the parents’ fault.’

We all know, of course, that it’s not as simple as that. Children have their own identities, priorities, and thoughts. And their dreams may very well be different to their parents’. That’s not to mention that even loving, involved parents don’t always know everything their children do. In society’s eyes, that doesn’t always matter, though, and it’s interesting to see how this plays out in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, we are introduced to the Tucker family. They’re a working-class family that stays out of trouble. And the parents are happy that their older children are settled and have ‘respectable’ lives of their own. Then, tragedy strikes. Fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is murdered during a fête at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is at the event, since she designed one of the activities. She asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. He works with Inspector Bland to find out who would want to kill Marlene. Poirot interviews her parents, and gets very little help from them. They saw their daughter as ‘a good girl,’ if not exactly brilliant. And that respectability is important to them. But, as Poirot learns from Marlene’s younger sister Marylin,
 

‘‘Mum don’t know everything.’’
 

And he learns that Marlene had a habit of finding out people’s secrets – something her parents would not have approved of her doing. And that put her squarely in the sights of a killer.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and (now retired) academician. She is also a mother. And, as is the case with most parents, she wants the very best for her children. She doesn’t expect them to be exactly like her, but they do, in their way, reflect on her. So, when her oldest child, Mieka, decides to withdraw from university and open her own business, it’s hard for Joanne to accept. Part of it is that Mieka’s choice is a very risky one. But part of it is that children’s choices are seen as reflecting on their parents. In the end, entrepreneurship turns out to be right for Mieka, and Joanne is justly proud of her daughter’s success. But it’s not always easy to accept that Mieka will go her own way.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit introduces us to Mason Hunt, commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. He is also the widowed father of fifteen-year-old Grace. The main plot of the novel has to do with a long-ago murder committed by Mason’s brother, Gates. At the time of the murder, Mason helped his brother cover it up out of a sense of loyalty. But that comes back to haunt him later. In the meantime, Grace has problems of her own. She becomes pregnant, and it’s very clear that the father will not be a part of the baby’s life. That’s not at all what Mason had envisioned for his daughter, and in the small town where they live, he has reason to believe Grace’s choices may reflect on him. But, he loves his daughter, and he knows that she has never needed him more than she needs him now. So, he stands by her, and when the baby is born, helps to take care of the child.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner has as its context a full-course dinner at one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive restaurants – the kind where you have to call months in advance to even have a hope of getting a reservation. The two couples at this particular dinner are Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s older brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette. As the dinner moves on through the courses, we learn that this isn’t an ordinary dinner where brothers and their wives get together to catch up. Little by little, we learn that Paul and Claire’s son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, are responsible for a terrible crime. The police are looking into the case, and before they get too far, the two couples have to decide what to do. No matter what happens, what the boys did reflects badly on their parents. And both sets of parents are particularly interested in preserving their veneer of respectability. That’s an important thread woven through the story.

We see this issue from the other side, as it were, in Natsuo Kirino’s Real Life. This novel’s focus is four Tokyo teenagers: Toshiko Yamanaka, Kazuko Terauchi, Kiyomi ‘Yuzan’ Kaibara, and Kirari Higashiyama. One day, the mother of the family who lives next door to Toshiko is murdered. And, as it turns out, her son, Ryo, is suspected of the crime. He acts quite guilty, too, stealing Toshiko’s bicycle and telephone and going on the run. Toshiko and her friends each come into contact with Ryo, and each has a different reaction. But they all decide not to inform the police or their parents about what they know. As the events of the next few days play out, things start to spin out of control for everyone, and it all leads to tragedy. Throughout the novel, we see how clearly these young people understand that they are seen as reflecting on their parents. That sense of responsibility is an important part of the way they think.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. The story features families who send their children to Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. Three families in particular are the focus of the novel; all of them have at least one child in Kindergarten. When one child is accused of bullying another, the parents begin to divide into two ‘camps.’ That resentment is enough of a problem, but there are other resentments, too. Everything boils over one night at a fundraiser, and it ends up in a tragedy. In this story, we see how important it is to some of these families that their children be perceived as ‘good,’ as ‘bright,’ as ‘well-behaved.’ In a small community like this one, the way children behave really is seen as, at least in part, a reflection on their parents.

And that’s the thing about parents and children. We know intellectually that children are not the same as parents, and that the children of excellent parents can still make serious mistakes. But that’s not always how it plays out…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matthias Meissner, Thomas Schwarz-Janen, Frank Peterson and Andrea Silveira’s The Second Element

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, Liane Moriarty, Martin Clark, Natsuo Kirino

I Can’t Do My Homework Anymore*

It’s Sunday as this is posted, a day when young people everywhere are scrambling to finish up those school assignments before they have to be turned in on Monday. It can be a frantic time, especially for students who – ahem – don’t feel the need to rush into things without reflection. It’s all got me thinking about school assignments.

Most school assignments, at any level, are fairly straightforward, if not exactly benign. Students are expected to do activities, write things, create things, and so on. If the assignments are engaging and relevant, they can serve student understanding and growth. If not, they can end up being a major bone of contention at home and at school.

You might not have thought about it (I know I didn’t until I started reflecting on it), but schoolwork does play a role in crime fiction. And that makes sense, if you think about it. After all, you never do know what a student may turn up in the course of doing research.

For instance, in Ellery Queen’s The Adventure of the African Traveler, Queen has agreed to teach a master’s degree course in applied criminology. Of the many who applied to take the course, only two have been selected. A third is the daughter of the professor who persuaded Queen to teach the class, so she’s been admitted, too. Queen takes seriously the term ‘applied,’ and takes the group to the scene of a murder. The victim, Oliver Spargo, was a representative for a large exporting company. After a year in Africa, he’d recently returned, and was staying at the Fenwick Hotel when he was bludgeoned to death. Queen makes the case a sort of laboratory for the students, and each of them tries to use the clues to work out who the killer is. This one may not be regarded as Queen’s best, but it’s certainly an interesting take on coursework…

In Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone, we are introduced to Melinda Coverdale. A university student, she is the daughter of wealthy and successful George Coverdale, and step-daughter to his wife, Jacqueline. When the Coverdales decide to hire a new housekeeper, Melinda doesn’t think too much about it; she’s quite busy, as university students are, with her own life. But Eunice Parchman isn’t like other housekeepers. She has a secret – one she is terrified will get out. Unbeknownst to Eunice, Melinda’s done some work in school that allows her to find out more than she should know. And when she comes home for a visit, the result is tragic.

In one plot thread of Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo, Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham learns that an unidentified body has been pulled from a bog not far from her home village in the Lake District. There is evidence that the body could very well be that of Fletcher Christian. If it is, it means that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island, as had always been assumed. And, if he made it back to the Lake District, what would be more natural than that he should contact his close friend, Wordsworth? And if that happened, it would only make sense that Wordsworth would have written something about Christian’s adventures. This logic tallies with the stories Gresham’s heard about an unpublished manuscript. Finding such a treasure would make her academic career, so Gresham immediately travels to her home town and starts trying to track down the manuscript, if it exists. Oddly enough, she gets some very valuable assistance from an assignment that her schoolteacher brother, Matthew, has given to his class, and one student’s response to it. Jane follows all of the leads, but the closer she gets to the truth about the manuscript, the more danger there is. And a strange series of deaths seems to follow along…

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring concerns the murder of Reed Gallagher, whose body is discovered in a seedy hotel room. Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, is a university colleague of Gallagher’s, and acquainted with his widow. So, it’s not long before she’s involved in the murder investigation. Not long after Gallagher’s murder, journalism student Kellee Savage goes missing after an argument at a bar. Kellee is a also student in one of Kilbourn’s classes, so this deepens her involvement in the case. It turns out that Gallagher’s death and Kellee Savage’s disappearance are related. And part of it has to do with Kellee’s work as a journalism student.

A school assignment turns out to have major implications for three families in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. This story’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on the Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney, where a tragedy occurs on a much-anticipated Trivia Night, which is supposed to be a fundraiser. The novel follows the lives of three families, all of whom have children enrolled in the school. One family consists of Madeline Mackenzie, her second husband Ed, and their children Fred and Chloe. There’s also Madeline’s daughter, Abigail, whose father, Nathan, has recently remarried. Another family is the White family: Perry, his wife Celeste, and their twin sons Max and Josh. The third is Jane Chapman and her son, Ziggy. As the story unfolds, we learn how these families interconnect when Ziggy is accused of bullying – an accusation he denies, but doesn’t protest. That accusation, and some other conflicts, touch off a series of incidents that lead to the tragedy. In one plot thread, the Kindergarten teacher assigns her students to create a family tree. It seems a simple enough assignment, but it isn’t. Ziggy doesn’t know who his father is, and his mother says she doesn’t, either. In Madeline’s family’s case, the assignment is complicated by the fact that Abigail has a different father to Fred and Chloe, and that creates difficulties for Madeline. And Celeste has her own issues with the assignment. It’s not the reason for the tragedy, but it shows how complex even a simple school project can be.

And that’s the thing about schoolwork. One never knows where it’ll lead. Perhaps it’s little wonder so many people leave it to the last moment to complete their homework.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Homework.

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Filed under Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen, Liane Moriarty, Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid

She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

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Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Liane Moriarty, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Reginald Hill, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow