Each social group has its own ‘code of conduct.’ The rules may not be written anywhere, or even clearly articulated, but they’re there. If one’s going to belong to a given group, or have anything to do with anyone in that group, one has to follow those rules. And depending on the group, there can be severe consequences for anyone who doesn’t.
When those rules are woven into the plot of a crime novel, the result can be an interesting layer of tension. There are also lots of possible directions the story can take (e.g. a broken rule as the motive for murder). So it shouldn’t be surprising that we see those rules a lot in the genre.
One of the deep-seated traditions among the police is the rule of staying loyal to fellow cops. And that makes sense at one level. Police have to work together and trust each other implicitly if they’re to do their job well. Speaking out against another officer is therefore often seen as disloyal or worse. There are several novels that include that plot point. One is Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police goes to the scene of a home invasion with probationer Lucy Howard. While they’re there, White is stabbed. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of trouble with the law for a long time. The police have to do everything ‘by the book’ in this case; since Rowley is part Aboriginal, the media will be watching closely for anything that may smack of racism. As the novel evolves, we see how the death of one of their own impacts the force. It permeates everything the police characters do.
We also see this rule against speaking out in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. Superintendent Frank Swann returns to Perth after an absence when he learns that a friend, Ruby Devine, has been killed. The police theory is that Ruby’s partner Jacky White is responsible, but there’s no real evidence. Swann believes there’s another explanation: a corrupt group of police known as ‘the purple circle.’ They’re powerful and dangerous enough that no-one has spoken out about them; and their fellow cops obey the ‘loyalty’ rule. Swann has made the dangerous choice to convene a Royal Commission hearing into their activities, so he’s a ‘dead man walking.’ But he is determined to find out who killed Ruby. Throughout the novel, we see how deeply-engrained this rule is, and what the consequences are for breaking it.
In the LGBT community, one of the long-held rules is that you don’t ‘out’ anyone. Coming out is an intensely personal and sometimes very difficult decision, not to be made by anyone else. That rule is touched on in Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. Successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who’s been blackmailing him. He’s been publicly married for several years, but has also had trysts with other men. Someone has apparently found out about those relationships and is threatening to ‘go public.’ One of Quant’s first reactions is that Guest could settle matters in a straightforward way by coming out. But Guest doesn’t want to do that, and Quant respects those wishes. Perhaps a small part of the reason is the fee; the most important reason, though, is that Quant abides by the ‘no outing’ rule. It’s too important not to, and the loss of trust that results from breaking it has serious consequences.
The Mob and other criminal groups have their own rules, like any other social group. Perhaps the most important one is that you don’t discuss the group’s activities with anyone, especially not with law enforcement. Informing on the group usually carries a death sentence. That rule is brought up in a lot of novels; one of them is Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake and their children have recently moved from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. There are a lot of adjustments to be made in order to adapt to the new culture, but everyone makes an effort. They have to. As we soon learn, this is no ordinary family. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mafia. He informed on the group, so he and his family were placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program. At first, it seems that the move to Normandy will be successful. Then, word of the family’s location gets back to New Jersey. Now, the ‘Blakes’ have to face the fact that their lives are in imminent danger.
In many social groups, there’s a rule against marrying or even having strong social bonds outside one’s caste. It’s expected that the different socioeconomic strata will stay separated and people will keep to their places. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. In that novel, we meet Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury. She’s found a patron in wealthy Laura Welman, whose family owns the property. In fact, Mary’s been educated ‘above her station,’ and there are plenty of people who question the wisdom of that. When she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison, local GP Dr. Peter Lord asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. The most likely suspect is Elinor Carlisle, whose fiancé Roddy Welman had fallen in love with Mary. But Lord wants her name cleared. So Poirot looks into the matter more deeply. In the process, he gets to know the local opinion of Mary and of Laura Welman. With few exceptions, it’s believed that it was a mistake to try to move Mary out of her station in life. Here’s what her admirer Ted Bigland says about it:
‘Mean well, people do, but they shouldn’t muck up people’s lives by interfering.’
Mary also comes in for criticism for ‘going after’ Roddy Welman, who is in a very different social group.
There are a lot of variants on that rule about relationships with people in other groups. Malla Nunn explores the issue of relationships among members of different racial groups in South Africa in her Emmanuel Cooper series. And it’s referred to much earlier than that, too, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face. Many other novels also address the social rule against mixing of castes/races/ethnic groups.
In many social groups, there’s also a rule that you don’t turn your back on family, no matter what. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that there are countless novels where people feel compelled to do things (or overlook things) because someone is a sibling/parent/child/cousin/ etc… And in some cultures, that family bond is more important than anything else. For instance, in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, we meet ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. One of the plot threads in this novel concerns his relationship with former bar girl Rose, who’s started her own apartment-cleaning business. The third member of Rafferty’s family is Miaow, a former street child Rafferty is trying to adopt. Rose is Thai, with that culture’s view about family. At one point, they’re discussing getting married, and Rose wants to make sure Rafferty is clear about what he’d be getting. Here’s how she puts it to Rafferty:
‘She [Rose] turns to face him. ‘We have ten dollars left,’ she says. Her voice is so low he has to strain to hear it. ‘Miaow is hungry. My little sister up north is hungry. Who gets the ten dollars? … I would send the money to my sister,’ Rose says. ‘Without a minute’s thought.’
On the one hand, matters would be entirely different if Rose and Rafferty get married. On the other, she wants him to know that in marrying her, he’s marrying her family, as the saying goes.
Those rules by which different social groups live are different for each group. They’re not always codified, but everyone in the group learns them. And they can make for compelling plot points and layers of interest.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Depeche Mode’s Shouldn’t Have Done That.