Humans are by nature social animals. Of course, some of us enjoy the company of other people more than others do. But we all have a need to belong – to be a part of a group. For many people, that group is the family. Plenty of people also belong to other tightly-knit groups such as sports teams, religious groups, or perhaps community service groups.
What happens, though, when people don’t have such a group? I’m not a social psychologist, but from what I do know about the topic, people who don’t have a social group form one or find one. That, say many psychologists, is part of the reason people join gangs, religious cults, and other such groups. And there are plenty of crime novels that involve that sort of group.
There are other crime novels where we see that strong desire to belong, and that can add a solid layer of character development. And readers can connect with that feeling. That need can also add tension and suspense, even poignancy, to a story.
In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, for instance, we are introduced to Gerda Christow. She’s not overly bright, or conventionally beautiful. But she is absolutely devoted to her husband, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. She’s also the loving mother of their children. When the Christows are invited to spend the weekend with Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, Gerda dreads the prospect. The Angkatells are clever, interesting, and just about everything Gerda is not. John fits right in with the family, and is eager to go. And it doesn’t hurt that his mistress, Henrietta Savernake, will be there. For Gerda, the visit is something to endure, and that’s clear right from the start. She doesn’t belong with the Angkatells, although she would like to feel comfortable with them. Then, on the Sunday, John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited for lunch, and he arrives just in time to see the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Inspector Grange and his team are called in, and he and Poirot work to find out who the killer is.
Maureen Carter’s Working Girls introduces Birmingham Detective Sergeant (DS) Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss. When fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found dead, Morriss and her team investigate the murder. It soon comes out that Michelle was a commercial sex worker, so Morriss decides to focus on the victim’s friends and acquaintances who are ‘in the game.’ As she does, we get to know some of those characters. Some of them chose the life because of a bad situation at home. Others are in the business by choice. Either way, they’ve formed a group of their own, and all of ‘the girls’ belong. In fact, they’re protective of each other, and feel a responsibility towards each other. That belongingness isn’t the reason for Michelle’s murder. But it adds an interesting layer to the story.
Peter May’s The Blackhouse is the first of his Lewis trilogy, which features police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod. In the novel, MacLeod is seconded from Edinburgh to the Isle of Lewis when a murder occurs there that resembles one MacLeod is already investigating. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on the island. But it’s not a joyful reunion; he had his own reasons for leaving. As the story goes on, we learn about his history on the island. And we learn about the island’s history. Part of that is an annual trip that a group of men make to An Segir, an outlying rock fifty miles from the Isle of Lewis. They go there to harvest guga, young gannet that nest on An Segir. It’s dangerous and difficult work, and those who do it belong to a special sort of informal club. To be invited to go along is a privilege, and every teen boy and young man wants his chance to belong. Harvesting the guga isn’t really the reason for the murder. But An Segir, and the sense of belonging among the men who go there, do play their role in the story.
In Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?, we meet Yvonne Mulhern. She and her husband, Gerry, have recently moved with their newborn daughter, Róisín, from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of a good job opportunity. Yvonne is exhausted, as new parents are wont to be, and with Gerry at work most of the time, she does much of the child-minding work herself. What’s more, she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and the baby keeps her so busy that there’s little time to meet people. Gerry’s mother and brother are there, but it’s soon clear that Yvonne doesn’t really belong, at least as far as Gerry’s mother is concerned. Then, Yvonne discovers Netmammy, an online forum for new mothers. Immediately she feels comfortable in the group – she belongs. And that’s a good part of Netmammy’s appeal. There’s a scene, for instance, where Yvonne goes with Gerry to a work function. She feels completely out of place there, and no-one makes much of an effort to help her fit in. So, in the middle of the party, she logs onto Netmammy. When Yvonne notices that one of the other members of Netmammy seems to have gone ‘off the grid,’ she gets concerned. She does end up going to the police, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unknown woman is found in an abandoned apartment. Her basic characteristics match what Yvonne knows about her missing Netmammy friend. If it is the same woman, that has all sorts of implications for the forum. And if it’s not, then Boyle and her team will have a lot of work to do to identify the victim and find out who killed her and why.
Belonging is really important in a lot of police forces. And it’s not hard to see why. The police face an awful lot of danger in what they do, and they’re not always exactly popular with the public. So that sense of belonging isn’t just an emotional bond; they depend on each other for their lives. We see that sense of belonging, and what happens when it’s not there, in several novels.
Among them is David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which introduces Perth Superintendent Frank Swann. As we learn in the novel, he became a police officer in large part because of his father-in-law, and because he needed a place to belong. But then, a friend named Ruby Devine is murdered. And all signs point to a connection between her death and a group of corrupt police known as ‘the purple circle.’ Swann’s already a ‘dead man walking’ because he’s called a Royal Commission hearing to investigate the corruption. So, as he investigates his friend’s murder, he has the experience of doing so with none of the belongingness and support that police often have from each other. Fans of Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and of Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series can tell you that those stories, too, explore what it’s like when a police officer doesn’t feel that sense of belonging.
We all need to feel part of a group. Many of us, of course, belong to more than one social group. And that seems to be part of human nature. Little wonder it can be so interesting in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and David Zippel’s Go the Distance.