Thursday, March 11, 2010

Gang-Related Incidents....

Many crime fiction novels focus on murders that are committed by one or a few people. The victim is killed because of his or her connection to the murderer. In other words, these are personal murders committed for what one might call a personal reason. We get caught up in these murders in part because they involve the same human dramas that sometimes sweep us up. Not all murders are like this, though. Plenty of murders, both in real life and in crime fiction, are committed by gangs and organizations. While one person might commit the robbery, pull the trigger or drive the knife home, it’s really an organization or gang that’s behind the killing. Those murders can be exciting and certainly suspenseful. Crime novels like that may not reflect what our daily lives are really like, but they can be engrossing.

We see this kind of crime in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem, in which Holmes goes up against Professor James Moriarty. Moriarty is the leader of a criminal gang which is responsible for a wide variety of thefts and other crimes in London. Holmes is on the verge of putting the gang behind bars when Moriarty finds out, and makes Holmes a target. At that point, Holmes and Watson flee the country, but Moriarty follows. He and Holmes have a climactic fight at the Reichenbach Falls, and Moriarty falls to his death. So, presumably, does Holmes (although of course, we find out otherwise later). The crimes committed by Morarity’s gang aren’t personal crimes; rather, there’s a gang operating behind the scenes, as you might say.

There’s also a gang behind the crimes in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover as a copywriter for Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., an advertising agency. He’s investigating the death of Victor Dean, who fell down the office’s spiral staircase in what was originally labeled an accident. The firm wants to avoid scandal at any cost, so they hire Wimsey to find out what really happened to Dean. Wimsey looks into Dean’s death and finds out that Dean had uncovered a major drugs ring that was using the agency to organize meetings between the gang and local drug dealers. Dean was marked for murder not for any personal reason, but because the gang wanted him “out of the way.” Now, Wimsey has to find out who in the company carried out the gang’s orders before he becomes its next victim.

Gangs don’t generally play a major role in Agatha Christie’s writing, but there are some books where they figure into the plot. In The Big Four, Poirot and Hastings try to stop a group of four super-criminals who’ve banded together for world domination. The gang is responsible for several murders and kidnappings (including the kidnapping of Hastings at one point in the novel), and Poirot and Hastings know that unless all of the gang members are caught and stopped, the killings and other crimes will continue. In the end, Poirot uses several tricks, including disguise, to stop the gang.

A criminal organization plays an important role in Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), too. Hercule Poirot’s secretary, Miss Lemon, asks him to help her sister find out who’s responsible for some odd thefts at a student hostel that she manages. Poirot’s investigation changes dramatically when one of the hostel’s residents, Celia Austin, dies suddenly after she has admitted to some of the thefts. Poirot and the police believe that her death and the other mysterious goings-on are related, and as it turns out, they’re right. Celia Austin knew too much about an organization that’s using the hostel as a “front,” and paid for her knowledge with her life.

Several of the “hardboiled” detectives – both in the early days of that sub-genre and more recently – also run up against criminal gangs and organizations. For instance, in Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill, Mike Hammer investigates the murder of William Decker, a former con man and safecracker who was trying to “go straight” when he was gunned down as he left a bar. Hammer finds out that Decker had been desperate for money and had felt forced to work for an underworld organization as a way to earn it. At first, the police think that Decker was killed because he bungled a job for the organization. Later, though, Hammer finds out that Decker was killed for a very different reason. Along the way, Hammer does battle with the underground gang and its boss, as well as the police and the District Attorney’s office, who don’t want Hammer meddling in their investigation. In the end, Hammer finds out who ordered Decker’s killing and gets his revenge, as only Mike Hammer does.

Several of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus novels deal with gangs and organizations, too. In fact, Rebus’ nemesis, Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty is a local gang leader. His organization is involved in several kinds of crime (e.g. drugs, prostitution and smuggling operations). In several novels, Rebus runs up against Cafferty’s gang as he uncovers what’s behind the murders he investigates. But Cafferty’s gang isn’t the only organization that Rebus encounters. In Mortal Causes, for instance, Rebus investigates the brutal torture and murder of Billy Cunningham. As a part of that investigation, Rebus works with the elite Scottish Crime Squad, since it seems that Cunningham’s death is related to a terrorist gang that’s funding the IRA and might be making incursions into Scotland. Rebus’ investigation is complicated by the fact that Cunningham is the son of Ger Cafferty. When Cafferty finds out about the death, he determines to find out who the killers are and handle it in his own way. That means that, as if a terror organization weren’t enough, a gang war could come to Edinburgh. So Rebus has to work fast to find out what really happened to Billy Cunningham before Cafferty and his gang do.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch often runs up against criminal gangs as he investigates cases. For instance, in Trunk Music, Bosch investigates the murder of a shady film-maker, Tony Aliso. Aliso’s body is found stuffed into the trunk of his Rolls Royce, and at first, his death is considered a Mafia “hit.” After all, the killing bears all the hallmarks of a Mob execution, and Aliso had been living a lifestyle that was far in excess of what he earned legally from his mediocre films. The L.A.P.D. doesn’t seem much interested in finding out who really killed Aliso, even though it might give them the opportunity to stop a large criminal organization. So, Bosch himself follows Aliso’s trail to a Las Vegas money-laundering operation he was running for a local mobster, and to a casino with shady connections. In the end, Bosch finds out the real reason for Aliso’s murder, and the criminal organizations he runs up against add tension and suspense, as well as some interesting characters, to the novel.

Bosch also goes up against a criminal organization in The Black Ice, in which he investigates the apparent suicide of L.A.P.D. officer Sergeant Calexico Moore. The L.A.P.D. top brass don’t want him going too deeply into the case, since it might air some departmental “dirty linen.” Moore was under investigation by the Department for possible involvement with a drugs gang. In fact, Bosch’s superiors try to stop him by overloading him with cases belonging to another detective who’s out on stress leave. Bosch connects one of those cases to the Moore case, though, and in inimitable Bosch fashion, takes his own tack as he tries to find out the truth behind Moore’s death. His investigation leads him to the heart of a Mexican drugs ring operation and, although the explanation for Moore’s death isn’t a simple connection to the drugs gang, that organization plays a pivotal role in the novel.

There are, of course, many other “gang-related” crime fiction novels that space doesn’t allow me to mention. Do you enjoy this kind of novel, or do you prefer novels that deal more with “personal” murders?


  1. The gang-related novels can lead the reader in so many directions and that's one thing that makes them appealing. They are especially interesting when the gangs are used as a red herring.

  2. Mason - It's funny you would bring that up about organized crime being used as a "red herring." It is in lots of novels. I think part of the reason may be that it's attention-getting and it's easy to imagine that someone who's mixed up with organized crime might be its victim. But, as you say, that's not always the case...

  3. Rankin makes the whole Cafferty thing work because of the relationship between Cafferty & Rebus, which he builds over the course of the series. He's Rebus' Moriarty, his white whale.
    It really depends on how the writer treats the gang; if he uses it to put the protagonist in a extremely difficult, "can't see the light at the end of the tunnel" kind of predicament, and does so plausibly (and resolves the conflict plausibly), then yes, murders that involve organized crime can work.

    I do have a hard time with street gangs, though. Get enough of it from the news, and from just seeing wannabes on the streets and in the malls -- I don't want to read about these illiterate scumbags in my downtime. George Pelecanos can pull this off, but again -- he writes compelling stories with characters we care about. But I have to be in the right mood to read a Pelecanos novel, to tell the truth.

    So, what do I prefer? The usual: a good, well-written story, with or without gangs.

  4. I actually think the whole Rebus/Cafferty thing petered out after a few novels. I really liked the theme at first, but at some point it "jumped the shark", I think over Cafferty's conning everyone that he was dying or some such - anyway, I found him an unbelievable figure in the last few Rebus novels in which he appeared, certainly compared with the first few.

    On the whole I prefer personal crime fiction to gang. Gang novels tend much more to have lots of violence in them, eg people being shot or held hostage and worse. I think the thriller format suits gangs better than crime fiction, but they can be just a bit daft, eg Simon Kernick's latest which is called something like "The Last Ten Seconds".

    It certainly can work well, though, in the right hands, for exampleGene Kerrigan.

  5. Jeff - You make an interesting point about the relationship between Rebus and Cafferty. It was built up skillfully over a few novels, and it's interesting to see how it developed over time.

    Your larger point - that it depends on the quality of the storytelling - is an especially well-taken one. Whether or not a crime fiction novel has organized crime and gangs in it, it's got to be well-written, with a solid, believable plot and interesting characters. If mobsters are involved, for instance, they need to be involved logically. And I'm glad you mentioned George Pelecanos; he is skilled at weaving street gangs into his stories, but like you, I'm not a big fan of street gangs in novels.

    Maxine - How funny that you use that term, "jumping the shark!" That describes, better than anything, a shopworn theme. It's a good reminder that authors do best when they introduce fresh characters, and don't rely on the "same old thing." The Rebus/Cafferty dynamic gave some of the stories a really interesting level of tautness. I agree with you, though, that the whole, "Is he or is he not dying?" question can be overdone.

    I haven't read the latest Simon Kernick, but I have to confess, thrillers aren't nearly so much my cuppa as crime fiction is. I've read a few that I really liked. For instance, Daniel Silva's thrillers can be quite good. But as a rule, I prefer crime fiction.

  6. I hadn't thought about gangs as killers in books before. I suppose it is a tough dynamic to tackle. One killer is so much easier (relatively) to delve into. There is only one psychology--though they say a gang acts as one person in terms of psychology as well. Hmmm...You've given me a lot to think about! I can't say I've read any mysteries where the killer is a gang, though I have Sherlock Holmes complete collection ready and waiting.


  7. Michele - You're right; a single killer or a pair of killers is a lot easier to plan and to write about. Also (at least this is my opinion), it's hard to write about the way gangs and organized crime operate if one doesn't either have a background in that area or do some really quality research. I respect authors who can make an organized crime/gang murder novel seem real; I'm not sure I could.

  8. I believe Jumping the Shark is an expression derived from that longrunning tv series featuring Henry Winkler playing a (then cool) character called the Fonz- which I never saw as my parents refused to have a tv. Apprently the series was considered good for a while, then degenerated, until in one episode the Fonz jumped over a shark for some reason. Hence, the expression passed into common usage for whenever some previously good or interesting "piece of culture" got silly or unbelievable. I think the series Dynasty is held to provide the best example, when in one series they sacked the scriptwriters so they got their revenge by having one of the Colbys abducted by aliens at the finale.

  9. Maxine - That's why I just loved your use of that expression! I actually saw that episode of Happy Days, in which "the Fonz" jumped over a shark while wearing water skis. It really is a good example of that moment in a series. I didn't know that bit of history about Dynasty, though - thanks! There was a fad during the '80's for those evening "soap operas," but I must say I was never caught up in it.

  10. I am also for personal crime. (No more tonight as I am off to bed, I just wanted to show you I am still hanging around).

  11. Dorte - Thank you for stopping by! I know what a very busy week you've had. Folks, Dorte has been hsoting the most exciting mystery on her blog ! You can follow along in the investigation and see if you can figure out who committed the murder. I've been thoroughly enjoying it! Start here and work your way forward and see if you can figure out whodunit!

  12. I much prefer 'personal' stories, though I do have a soft spot for some of the Paul Temple cases featuring 'criminal organisations' led by masterminds who are always making mistakes that really no self respecting mastermind should ever make!

  13. Martin - Oh, thank you for that much-needed chuckle! You're right that those cases featured some badly misnamed "masterminds." Stories like those are terrific, aren't they, but like you, I like "personal" murders better. They're somehow so absorbing. At least I think so.

  14. Martin and Margot - that last little exchange reminds me of Jack Reacher - supposedly a mastermind (not of the criminal variety) but actually, somehwat dense. I suppose it is quite sweet, really? ;-)

  15. Maxine - LOL! You're right. I hadn't thought of Reacher, but yes, he's definitely like that. In a way, it is sweet....