Monday, December 14, 2009

Networks, Connections, and Degrees of Separation

It’s said that no more than six degrees separates each of us from any one other person. In real life, it’s surprising how many connections there are among people who are complete strangers. Sometimes, those connections are trivial (e.g. we find out we went to the same school as a work colleague), but sometimes, they go deeper. In crime fiction, the network of relationships that ties us all together can make for a fascinating layer of plot in a story, and can add to the suspense. That network can add some plausibility to a story or series, too. It can also be the reason for a murder.

Sometimes, a murder mystery is centered on that network of relationships. For example, Martin Edwards explores this theme frequently. In The Coffin Trail, the first of his Lake District mysteries, he introduces Oxford history don Daniel Kind, and DCI Hannah Scarlett. There seems on the surface to be no reason the two should know one another; yet, they have a connection. Kind’s father, Ben Kind, was Scarlett’s senior partner before his death. Years before, he and Scarlett had investigated the murder of Gabrielle Anders. It was always assumed that a local young man, Barrie Gilpin, had killed her, but Kind and Scarlett weren’t convinced. When Scarlett’s named to lead a local Cold Case Review team, she decides to re-open the case. Daniel Kind also has a connection with Gilpin; he knew Gilpin when they were young, and he doesn’t think Gilpin killed Anders, either. This network of relationships not only plays an important role in the mystery, but it also adds much to the story. The same is true in Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, the second pairing of Kind and Scarlett. In that novel, the two of them investigate the murder of Warren Howe, a landscaper whose wife was the prime suspect in his killing. She had an alibi, though, so the police couldn’t pursue the case. Years later, Scarlett and her team re-open the case when they receive an anonymous tip about it, and Kind gets interested when the solution to his own puzzle – the mysterious shape of the garden at the cottage he’s taken – leads him to the landscaping firm that employed Howe. In this novel, too, the pattern of relationships and the connections among the characters is directly related to Howe’s murder.

Agatha Christie also based several of her mysteries around networks of relationships. For example, in A Holiday For Murder (AKA Murder for Christmas and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas), Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Simeon Lee, whose unpleasant personality has alienated everyone in his family. When he invites the members of his family to spend Christmas with him at the family home, he claims it’s because he wants to renew the ties with his children and their spouses. No-one believes him, but everyone accepts his invitation, for different reasons. On Christmas Eve, Lee is brutally murdered, and Poirot, who’s staying at the home of a friend nearby, is asked to investigate the case. What he finds is that Lee’s murderer had a connection with Lee that no-one suspected. Here is an excellent review of this novel by Dorte at DJs Krimiblog.

There’s also a fascinating connection in Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side), in which Miss Marple investigates the poisoning murder of Heather Badcock. The town of St. Mary Mead gears up for the arrival of Marina Rudd, a famous actress who’s bought Gossington Hall, formerly owned by Col. and Mrs. Bantry (and, by the way, the setting for The Body in the Library). Marina Rudd is Heather Badcock’s favorite actress, so Heather eagerly attends the grand opening of Gossington Hall to see her idol. Moments after they meet, Heather is stricken by an attack that turns out to be poison. At first, everyone thinks that Marina Rudd was the intended victim. She’s famous, and has alienated her share of people. Besides, she gave her own drink to Heather, so it’s assumed that the poisoned drink was meant for Marina. Miss Marple soon learns otherwise, though. As it turns out, there’s a connection between Heather Badcock and Marina Rudd that no-one suspected.

Perhaps Christie’s most famous study of networks of connections is Murder on the Orient Express (AKA Murder in the Calais Coach), in which Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of a wealthy American businessman who’s traveling on the world-famous Orient Express train. The only suspects in the murder are the other people traveling on the same coach. However, they’re all apparently strangers to each other and to the dead man, and there seems to be no motive for any of them to have killed him. Then, Poirot finds a clue that gives him the connection – and the motive for the murder.

In Rita Mae Brown's Rest In Pieces, there's apparantly no connection between a scruffy, eccentric stranger who shows up in tiny Crozet, Virginia, and the people who live there. But when that stranger turns up dead, postmistress Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen believes that there are connections. What she finds out is that the lives of the stranger, her new next-door-neighbor, and one of the older families in town have been intertwined.

There’s also apparently no connection between a group of American tourists visiting Oxford, and Dr. Theodore Kemp, the curator of the Ashmolean museum in Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours. None of the tourists knows Kemp. And yet, first, a famous jewel that one of the tourists was going to donate to the museum is stolen. Then, Kemp is murdered. When Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are put on the case, they find an intriguing network of connections among the tourists and between them and Kemp. That connection led directly to Kemp’s death.

Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain also has as a main focus the unexpected connections and relationships among people. Morse and Lewis are in search of the murderer of former Oxford don Felix McClure. As a part of the investigation, Morse meets Ellie Smith, a prostitute who counted McClure among her “regulars.” In a fascinating twist on the “small world” adage, it turns out that Ellie’s got another connection to the case that becomes apparent when McClure’s former scout, Ted Brooks, goes missing.

Sue Henry’s Degrees of Separation also deals directly with the unexpected connections between people. In that novel, the twelfth of her Jessie Arnold Alaska series, Arnold has recuperated from a knee injury and wants to return to sled dog mushing. She’s practicing one day when her sled hits an unexpected bump in the trail that turns out to be the frozen body of Donny Thompson, the son of a local mechanic. Jessie’s live-in boyfriend, Alaska state trooper Alex Jensen, begins to investigate the case and, despite her better judgment, Jessie gets involved, too. She tries to avoid getting involved, but as it turns out, this death and another murder that occurs later in the novel both hit close to home for Jessie.

Even when an unexpected connection isn’t the cause of a murder, it can still be an interesting plot point. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Death (AKA Hickory Dickory Dock), Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Celia Austin, a young resident of a hostel for students. He finds that her death is directly related to a number of hidden secrets that other hostel residents are keeping. One of the fascinating – and sometimes unexpected – revelations in the story is the connections among the residents. It turns out that several of them work in the same hospital. Three of them have business connections that we don’t know about at first, and there turns out to be a family relationship between two of the characters that also plays a role in the novel.

There’s another example in Christie’s The Clocks, in which Hercule Poirot solves the murder of a mysterious stranger whose body has ended up in the home of Millicent Pebmarsh, a blind schoolteacher. The body’s discovered by Sheila Webb, a typist who was sent there to do some typing for Miss Pebmarsh. When she discovers the body, Sheila runs out of Miss Pebmarsh’s home, screaming – straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, a member of the Secret Service who’s in the neighborhood for quite a different reason. Lamb’s father was a friend of Poirot’s so Lamb takes the case of the dead stranger to Poirot to challenge him to solve the murder. At the end of the novel, we find that Sheila Webb has a surprising connection with the case.

As usual, I’ve only sampled from a few novels in which the networks and connections among people play important roles in crime fiction. I’m sure that you can think of many more. Do you enjoy these networks – the degrees of separation? Or do you think they’re too contrived?


  1. For some reason, I "buy" networks of related people much more easily than I buy coincidences. Hmmm.

  2. Alan - I'm not surprised. The fact that people might have some sort of connection is a lot more believable than some of the coincidences that one reads about in some crime fiction, so I understand what you mean.

  3. I think the "six ways of separation" adds to the mystery. It gives the readers something else to ponder besides just the question of who is the killer. It's a nice bonus to learn that the killer is connected to the victim in ways you didn't know until after the murder.

  4. Mason - That's certainly true. If there are other layers to the plot - like what the connections are between the killer and the victim - this can add to the story's interest. It also keeps the reader guessing : ).

  5. I love connections. I even love the contrived ones. I think that's because I've discovered so many surprising connections in my own life. Or maybe because so many of us in the South are related to each other. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. I too enjoy networks and connections in books, particularly when they relate a series together - a subject of one of your earlier posts, Margot, about how authors "reward" their regular readers.
    In a comment there I think I mentioned Michael Connelly, who brings several protagonists together across many of his books (Harry Bosch is usually a police detective, but we have regular FBI guy, FBI profilers, journalist, lawyer - who turn out to have connections that we didn't at first realise when we met them). Harlan Coben also introduces characters briefly who have appeared in other (unrelated) books, and Peter Temple in his latest book, Truth has his protag go into a bar where Jack Irish (a series character in other novels by the author) is sitting - but that's the only time he appears in the novel.

    Often in crime fiction, as you write, the denouement or solution consists of working out a network or connection that you didn't know previously existed. I think Simon Beckett's Chemistry of Death might have done this (poor memory!) in that the solution depended on a forgotten, previous rejection by one character of another, before the book opened. It was uncovering this network history that provided the answer to the crime. Similarly, Anne Cleeves's The Crow Trap depended on previous networks between the characters who were working together on a scientific project in a remote house, with other characters who lived in the local village. It wasn't until Vera Stanhope uncovered some of these relationships that the true reality of what was happening, and why, was clear.

  7. Elizabeth - It's funny you'd mention the connections in your own life. I think we all have those unexpected connections, and it's so interesting when we discover new ones. It makes sense that characters would have them, too.

    Maxine - Thank you for remembering that other post of mine. As a matter of fact, I thought about that as I wrote this one. The two are, well, connected : ). Thanks for mentioning Truth. I haven't read it yet, but Jack Irish is a friend of mine, so I'll definitely move it up on my list.

    Thanks, also for mentioning Chemistry of Death . You're absolutely right that the solution to those crimes depended on knowing about that rejection and on knowing the connection between two of the other characters. The sleuth's nicely connected to the mystery, too, there. It's a taut, suspenseful story, folks. So is The Crow Trap, but of course, I like the Vera Stanhope series.

  8. I also like these networks, and I have always been impressed by the way Christie makes us believe the murderer had to kill the victim in The Mirror Cracked. This is one murderer I feel much sympathy for!

    Thank you for linking to my review, by the way (blogging is another way of networking I enjoy very much).

  9. Coldly and logically, without a myriad of connections you can't have a myriad of suspects. A murder mystery with only two people under suspicion would be dreadfully dull! (not to mention dreadfully short!)


  10. Dorte - Oh, I agree with you completely about the way Christie makes us feel sympathy for the murderer in The Mirror Crack'd. It's really quite skilled characterization, in my opinion.... and it's my pleasure to mention your excellent reviews : ). As you say, blogging is a terrific form of networking, and the more people who know about your skill at reviewing, the better.

    Elspeth - You're absolutely right. There have to be several connections (perhaps some even hidden) if a mystery is to be at all engaging, not to mention suspenseful. It's also not at all realistic to imagine that a person (in this case, the victim) would have only one or two connections.

  11. I too love connections, but then when you have as many cousins and second cousins as I do you are bound to have a connection with all and sundry. Mind you I have also been the beneficiary of some stunning coincidences therefore I never quibble when such events occur in crime fiction.
    I worked for 17 years in a Surrey commuter town [really a London suburb] where everyone knew everyone else and was connected to them in some way. The high street with its two huge tower blocks was called the 'village' although it had not been a village since the 1930s.
    A fascinating place ideal for crime fiction stories, if I ever get round to writing one I will set it in a similar town.

  12. Norman - You're right; a small town such as the one you describe really does lend itself beautifully to a murder mystery since, as you say, there are so many connections. Your own family and life experiences are good examples of the way that those connections can pop up unexpectedly in real life and in crime fiction. When they're done well and written authentically, they really can add to a story.

    And I would love to read a crime fiction story you wrote. If your excellent blog is any indication, it would be engrossing and well-written.

  13. And, talking of Norman's (Uriah's) connections - Norman and I "met" on the Internet owing to our shared interests in crime fiction. It was not until I wrote a post about our local fish and chip shop going "upmarket" into a "fish restaurant" that Norman realised that this was the exact place where he had his dentists' surgery! Small world indeed. I just love that Norman and I met online in this way, and yet in reality lived in pretty much the same place - though I moved here just after he moved away.

  14. Maxine - What a fascinating example of "small world!" These things really do happen in real life, don't they? Thanks for sharing it : ).

  15. Connections are good because it is amazing in real life how many people you have an existing connection with. Plus it definitely helps create beleivable character motivations. Thanks for sharing this.

  16. Cassandra - That's a well-taken point. It's much more believable if characters have those connections with each other - even if they're unexpected. As you say, there are any number of connections that we have in real life, so it makes sense that there would be similar connections in fiction. It certainly does open the door to lots of different motivations, too : ).

  17. Connections are one of life's most fascinating topics. There's nothing I love more than meeting someone and chatting for five minutes and finding out that you know several people in common. And in fiction writing, it's really fun, because you don't have to base your characters' connections on any reality. Just a bit of imaginative logic. The sky's the limit!

  18. Bobbi - You are so right on both counts. It really is a lot of fun, isn't it, to find out you have something completely unexpected in common with someone. It might be people one knows, or places one's lived, or almost anything else. And that's what makes it so interesting to write connections into crime fiction; One really can invent any number of connections between characters : ).