Throughout much of history, there’ve been social and professional groups that haven’t conformed to what the rest of society was doing. I’m not talking here of religious groups; to me, that’s a different matter. Rather, I mean groups who have a unique professional or social (sometimes both!) culture that can set them apart from ‘the rest of us.’
Groups like that can become insular; but even when they don’t, they generally have their own sort of culture and unwritten rules. And that can make it a challenge for ‘outsiders,’ who might not understand that culture and those rules. Such groups can make for really interesting additions to a crime story, though. When the story’s done effectively, readers can learn a little about a different sort of lifestyle. And the author can add some tension as members of this sort of group get mixed up in murder cases.
The acting community (stage or screen) has traditionally been thought of in this way. In fact, there was a time when actors were expected to stay to themselves and weren’t welcomed elsewhere. Even today, the acting community has its own culture.
Agatha Christie explored that culture in several of her stories. For instance, we get a peek at it in After the Funeral. In that novel, wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, and his family gathers for the funeral. Afterwards, Abernethie’s sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up. But, when she herself is murdered the next day, it seems that she was right. The family attorney, Mr. Entwhistle, asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. Two of the ‘people of interest’ in the case are Abernethie’s niece, Rosamund Shane, and her husband, Michael ‘Mick.’ They are actors, and, as Mick says, they’ll be able to produce their own play with their share of their uncle’s inheritance. As Entwhistle and Poirot spend time with them, we get a look at the acting world, the way it works, and some of its priorities.
We get an even closer look at the sometimes very unconventional world of film acting in Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters novels. Peters is a Los Angeles- based PI who once worked on the security staff of Warner Brothers’ Hollywood film lot. So, he’s very familiar with the acting and film cultures. And his knowledge gives him insight into the cases he investigates. The series takes place in the 1940’s, during the ‘Golden Age’ of the Hollywood mega-studios like Warner Brother and MGM. And several of the characters with whom he interacts are actual historical figures, such as Errol Flynn and Judy Garland. B.C. Stone’s novels featuring real-life star Kay Francis as the sleuth also shed light on this era.
The culture of other entertainers, such as magicians and carnival artists, is also often non-conformist and quite different to what most of us are accustomed to in our own lives. Elly Griffiths shows us that culture in her Max Mephisto/Edgar Stephens series. This series takes place in the 1950s, and features Stephens, who is a Detective Inspector (DI). His old friend, and wartime (WWII) fellow soldier is a magician named Max Mephisto. Mephisto is a member of the ‘carnival culture,’ and he travels and performs on the seaside resort circuit. As such, he’s a very helpful resource for Stephens, whose lifestyle is a little more conventional. And in the novels, readers get the chance to see what life is like for ‘carneys’ who don’t stay in one place long, and whose friends are mostly others who are in the same life.
In one plot thread of Kate Ellis’ The Merchant House, we get the chance to know a little more about another unique culture: the travellers’ culture. Travellers don’t always conform to the rest of society. Instead, they have their own ways of doing things, and their own expectations. We learn a little about this life when the body of a young woman is discovered at Little Tradmouth Head, Tradmouth. Detective Sergeant (DS) (later Detective Inspector (DI)) Wesley Peterson and the Tradmouth CID team begin to investigate. After a time, the trail leads to a group of travellers that has set up camp in the area. One of these people is Chris Manners, who may have some information on the victim. With him lives a little boy named Daniel. And that means that Social Services takes an interest. When the Social Services representative, Lynne Wychwood, visits, she has to handle the matter carefully. This is a different community, with its own ways of living, that don’t always conform to what others think ‘should’ happen. Her visit to the travellers doesn’t solve the murder. But it does give some insight into the travellers’ lives. You’re absolutely right, fans of Claire McGowan’s The Lost.
And then there’s the surfer community that we meet in Don Winslow’s novels about Boone Daniels, The Dawn Patrol and The Gentleman’s Hour (there’s also Rogue Ride, a short story featuring Daniels). Boone Daniels is a former San Diego police detective who’s become a PI. In reality, though, he’s a dedicated surfer who’d much rather be on his surfboard than on a case. He and his friends, whom he nicknames the Dawn Patrol, spend as much time surfing as they can, and, as we get to know them (and Daniels), we learn about the surfing community. It’s a unique group of people who, quite deliberately, don’t conform to the larger society. And they like it that way. In fact, in The Dawn Patrol, Daniels comments on how much he resents the Beach Boys for calling a lot of attention to surfers and the surfing community:
‘So many people moved to the SoCal coast, it’s surprising it didn’t just tilt into the ocean. Well, it sort of did; the developers threw up quick-and-dirty condo complexes on the bluffs above the ocean, and now they’re sliding into the sea like toboggans.
In a lot of ways, Daniels and his friends would far rather have been left outside of ‘regular’ society.
Not every community conforms to what ‘the rest of us’ might expect. On the one hand, that can make such groups seem unusual at best. On the other, it adds to their distinctiveness, and can make this sort of group an interesting context for a novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Waffle Stompers’ Garage Ska.