One very effective way that authors add tension to their stories is to create divided loyalties for their characters. It’s a little harder if the protagonist is a police officer or a judge. For those characters, there are official policies about being involved in cases where one has a personal interest. But it can be done. It can also be done if the sleuth is a PI or an amateur sleuth. And when it’s done well, that plot point can add suspense to a novel. It can also add a layer of character development.
For example, I was recently privileged to read Brian Stoddart’s A Greater God, the fourth in his Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series. It’s just come out, by the way. This novel takes place in India during the 1920s, the last years of the British Raj. In one plot line, Le Fanu returns to his ‘home base’ in Madras (today’s Chennai) to face several severe challenges. One of them is that there is increased bigotry and worse against Muslims. And the Inspector General of the Madras Police, Arthur Jepson, isn’t making things any easier. He’s hardline racist and determined to keep the British firmly in control. All of this creates a major problem for Le Fanu’s colleague, Mohammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah. Habi is a dedicated member of the police force who does his job very well. He is also a friend to Le Fanu. But Habi is Muslim, and it’s his people who are paying a terrible price right now. His loyalties are divided, and several people on the force are not sure he can be trusted. It all makes for real tension in this novel.
In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France at the request of Paul Renauld. He writes that his life is in danger and begs Poirot to come to his aid. By the time Poirot and Hastings get there, though, it’s too late; Renauld has been murdered. Poirot works with the police to find out who the killer is and what the motive is. In the meantime, Hastings has a personal situation of his own. He’s met a young woman who calls herself Cinderella, and he finds himself quite attracted to her, although he doesn’t acknowledge it at first. That creates a problem for him when he discovers that she may not be telling him everything about herself. In fact, she may even know more about Renauld’s murder than she’s letting on. It all creates tension between Hastings and Poirot as Poirot gets closer to the truth about what really happened.
The ‘Nicci French’ writing team’s Blue Monday introduces London psychologist Frieda Klein. In one plot thread, she is working with a new client, a man named Alan Dekker. Among other things, he’s been having troubling dreams that focus on having his own son – a boy who looks just like him. In real life, Dekker and his wife, Carrie, haven’t had any children, and Dekker doesn’t want to adopt. He and Klein start the difficult work of ‘unpacking’ his views about having children, and of making connections with things from Dekker’s past. Then, four-year-old Matthew Faraday goes missing. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Malcolm Karlsson and his team investigate, but there are no good clues. The only case that bears any resemblance to this one is twenty-two years old, and it may not be related at all. But on the chance it is, Karlsson and his team do look back at it. When Klein learns of Matthew’s disappearance, she is faced with a real ‘divided loyalties’ problem. On the one hand, she is dedicated to her profession, and that means respecting her client’s confidentiality. On the other hand, she believes that what she knows about Dekker may help to find Matthew Faraday, or at least find out what happened to him. She finally opts to contact Karlsson, and, each in a different way, the two find answers. But her decision is not taken at all lightly.
Nicole Watson’s The Boundary begins as Justice Bruce Brosnan is hearing the case of the Corowa people, who have claimed the right to Brisbane’s Merston Park. A development company wants the land, but the Corrowa say that the land is theirs. Brosnan rules against them, and just a few hours later, is killed. Then, there are other deaths, all of people involved in the case. Police officer Jason Matthews is one of the investigating officers, and this puts him in a real situation of divided loyalties. On the one hand, he is a police officer, sworn to uphold the law, and dedicated to doing so. But he is Aboriginal. So, he has strong feelings about the Corrowa people’s claim. He finds it very difficult to investigate people he feels have been greatly wronged – his own people. He does his job, but it’s not without difficulty.
And then there’s Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room. Laurie and Martha have a successful marriage and have raised three children. Everything seems to be going well until Laurie’s past comes back to haunt her. She was raised in a cult in the US, not leaving it permanently until she was a young adult. So, she is still impacted by her experience. Still, she and Martha have built a good life together. Then, Laurie and Martha begin to be concerned about their oldest child, Hope. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, so they expected there’d be a rough patch. But Hope has become obsessed with dance. She’s not eating properly, she’s not getting enough sleep, and she’s dancing and doing other exercise more than is good for her. As if that’s not enough, someone from Laurie’s past has found her. And that’s when she feels, even after all this time, a bit of divided loyalty. She loves her family deeply and will do anything to protect them. But she still feels the ‘pull’ of her old life, and that comes back, in a way.
And that’s the thing about divided loyalties. They impact one’s perspective, and they can make for very difficult decisions. But, in fiction, they can also make for interesting plot points and layers of character development.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Lucksmiths’ The Cassingle Revival.