Saturday, August 14, 2010

Us and Them*

A sense of belonging is very important for most of us. We want to be an essential part of a group, even if that group is small. Of course, that need is stronger in some of us than in others, but all of us want to belong. That’s one reason why tight social groups and cliques form; people with a common interest, common background or something else that draws them together become a unique social group. Some cliques and social groups are harder to penetrate than others, but even the most fluid, “open” groups serve to unite their members, especially if the group feels threatened. In crime fiction, cliques and social groups can play very important roles. That’s especially true if the sleuth is trying to penetrate the group to find out the truth about a crime. Of course, cliques can be responsible for murder, too…

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels feature such social groups. For instance, in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we meet the Angkatell family. They’re a “well-born” family with deep roots. They do all have slightly different personalities, but they’re all intelligent and intellectual, fond of “brain games,” and all of them are somewhat aloof. It’s a rather odd, small social group. One week-end, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell invite Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda, along with other family members, to their country home for a week-end getaway. As soon as everyone arrives, we see how “cliquish” this small group is, because some of the guests, most notably Gerda Christow and Midge Hardcastle (an Angkatell cousin), are not really members of this group. We see how the group comes together and unites when John Christow is shot and Inspector Grange begins to investigate the case. Hercule Poirot has taken a nearby cottage, and on the day of the murder, he’s invited to lunch. In fact, he comes upon the murder scene almost immediately after it happens. As Poirot and Grange work to penetrate this social group and find out the truth behind Christow’s death, we find out that the members of the group know exactly what happened – but they aren’t telling. In the end, Poirot is able to break through the group’s “code of silence” and he and Grange find out who killed Christow and why.

In Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), we meet the Cloade family, who’s also rather cliquish. They’re deeply rooted in the village of Warmsley Vale, and all of them dependent on wealthy Gordon Cloade, the family patriarch. When Cloade suddenly marries a much-younger widow, the family is shocked. A worse shock comes when Cloade is then killed in a bomb blast before he’s able to change his will. Now, his widow Rosaleen will inherit the Cloade wealth. The family is nearly united against Rosaleen Cloade and her brother David, who’ve come to live in the village. Then one day, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen’s former husband, Robert Underhay, may still be alive. Then, Arden is suddenly killed, and the family wants to know whether or not he really was Rosaleen’s husband. So two of the members of the family visit Hercule Poirot and ask him to find out the truth. In the end, Poirot has to “get inside” the family social circle to find out what happened to Enoch Arden, and what the truth is behind two other deaths that occur in the novel.

Of course, families aren’t the only social groups or cliques. We see another example of a different kind of social group in James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos. In that novel, Dave Robicheaux has just returned to the New Iberia police force. He and his partner, Lester Benoit, are assigned to transport two prisoners, Jamie Lee Boggs and Tee Beau, to the Angola penitentiary. While they’re en route, Boggs and Tee Beau escape after killing Benoit and leaving Robicheaux gravely wounded. After he recovers from his wounds, Robicheaux accepts the chance the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) offers him to go undercover to catch New Orleans mob boss Tony Cardo in a “sting” operation. One reason Robicheaux takes the opportunity is that it will also give him the chance to hunt down Boggs. As Robicheaux penetrates the unusual social group that is the local mob, he comes to know especially Cardo as much more than just a crime box. In fact, the better Robicheaux gets to know the local gangsters, the more conflicted he is about Cardo. At the same time as Robicheaux is trying to work this “sting” operation, he’s also trying to locate Tee Beau, who Robicheaux believes may be innocent of the murder for which he was convicted. His search for Tee Beau leads Robicheaux to the African-American community in New Iberia and later New Orleans. As he tries to find people who will talk to him, we see that that community, too, is a unique social group that feels quite threatened by outsiders.

There’s also a very chilling look at social groups and their effects in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. Eunice Parchman is hired as housekeeper by the well-educated, well-off Coverdale family. What the Coverdales don’t know about Eunice is that she is illiterate. Eunice does everything she can to hide her uneducated and illiterate background from her employers, but her resentment of them, and her feeling of not belonging to what seems to be their clique become strong forces. In fact, that sense of not belonging to the Coverdales’ social group is part of what drives Eunice to murder four members of the family on St. Valentine’s Day. In this crime story, we know who the murderer is right away. What’s absorbing is the set of forces, including the power of social groups, that leads to the murders.

Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture) also offers a disturbing look at social groups and cliques. Samuel Szajkowski is a new teacher of history at an cliquish London School. One hot day, Szajkowksi brings a gun into a crowded school assembly and shoots three students and another teacher before killing himself. DI Lucia May is assigned the case and expected to file a final report very quickly. It’s obviously a case of a psychopath who went on a rampage. As May begins to talk to people at the school, though, she slowly becomes aware that although he was a troubled person, there was much more to Szajkowski’s actions than simply a madman acting out. May uncovers extremely disturbing institutionalized bullying at the school. Both teachers and students had their own social groups, and Szajkowski simply didn’t fit into those cliques; he didn’t have the strong social skills he needed to be “one of the guys,” and the students took cruel advantage of him, too. While May is investigating this case, we also learn that she, too, is having troubling issues with cliques. She’s the only woman in her office at the CID, and her male colleagues belong to an “all-male” club united against her. The more May gets involved with the Szajkowski case, the worse things get at work for her, and she soon sees the eerie parallels between her own work life and that of Szajkowski.

Even when social groups and cliques don’t result in murder, we can still see the effect of that “us versus them” mentality. Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series, for instance, takes place in Venice, and focuses on the Venice Questura. In many of the novels, there’s a sense of belonging and, if you will, togetherness among the Venetians who appear in the novels, and a sense of being distinct from those who are not Venetian. For example, one of many things that Brunetti, a proud Venetian, doesn’t much care for about his boss Guiseppe Patta is that Patta is not a Venetian. There’s a lot that Patta doesn’t understand about Venice. We also see this sense of unity, if you will, when Brunetti is investigating the murder of what you might call “an outsider.” For instance, in Blood From a Stone, he investigates the murder of a Senegalese man who’s in Venice illegally. There’s not a lot of interest in solving the crime, or even identifying the man, because he’s not “one of us.” He’s not a part of the Venice social group.

Most of us feel, at some level, a need to belong. Because of that, we feel a sense of identity, even kinship, with those in our social groups. Of course, like many other things, social groups and cliques can get out of hand and wreak havoc. Which novels with this theme have you enjoyed?

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Pink Floyd song.


  1. I think where we see a lot of social cliques is in the Inspector Lynley novels. Lynley has his own group of people and Havers is on the other side of the fence. When they walk over the other's line, things get awkward. It's not caused murder in the books but it sure makes solving them interesting.


  2. Ngaio Marsh's Death in a White Tie is a novel that examines the effects of social groups and social standing. Maybe it says something about me, but I struggled with the whole social acceptance aspect of it, it annoyed me!

  3. The "us and them" aspects of Rupture, both in the police force and in the school/local communities, were so chilling. Very well done indeed.

    I have recently read a book called Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang, which is another good illustration of this. There are several social groups here, the new and older-generation immigrants from China and the tight social networks they had created; the police force, making the Chinese-American cop the outsider; and the cop himself being an outsider in his own community who didn't like him being a cop; and among the more Americanised, "liberal" Chinese who adopted the host values and didn't think much of the protag for being a cop, either.

  4. Clarissa - I'm so glad that you brought up Lynley and Havers. I actually had thought of mentioning Havers, but the post would have gotten too long. So I'm very glad that you did : ). You are absolutely right that it's a good examples.

    Vanda - Thanks for reminding me of Death in a White Tie Social acceptance is an important theme in that one, isn't it? You know, I've never been much of a one for cliques, social groups and social acceptance, either, so whatever it says about you, it says about me, too...

    Maxine - Rupture is really very well-done, isn't it? Folks it is not an easy read, but it is very well-written and haunting.

    Thanks for sharing Chinatown Beat. I think there a lot of immigrant communities where the immigrants also have a sense of "us and them." Those who assimilate are outsiders, and certainly those who become police officers are outsiders, too. I look forward to your review of this one.

  5. Margot-in the superb book Truth by Peter Temple, Villani gets instructions from his superior on what suit and shoes to wear for an event where he will meet the glitterati. He is obviously not one of them but has the potential to join the clique if he behaves himself.
    Crime fiction shows us the social divisions we didn't even know were there.
    In Helene Tursten's Inspector Huss the rich Swedes have a Finnish servant!
    Also in Donna Leon's books Brunetti's father-in-law refers to the occupied territories, not meaning anything in Palestine, but as a way of demarcating Venice and the North from the South. Sicily, Naples and Calabria being occupied by Mafia, Camorra and N'Drangheta.

  6. Norman - I confess, I haven't read much of Helen Tursten, but I completely agree with you about Truth. It is an outstanding book and you're right; that example of the way Vilani is told to dress is a fantastic one.

    And thanks, also, for that example from Donna Leon. The Conte's attitude towards those not from the North is a brilliant example of that sense of "us and them" that we see in her books.

  7. British novels, especially earlier ones, are pretty obsessed with class. It can be really off-putting for me sometimes.

  8. Patti - Social class sure does play a major role in some novels (and not just British ones, either, although you've got a strong point about some of them). That focus on "Not One Of Us" can be off-putting, although it can be effective when it comes to a motive for alienation and murder...

  9. In real life I loathe snobbery, but in fiction, perhaps especially British novels, I really enjoy it when the writer describes cliques and haughtiness skillfully - especially when someone is taken down a peg :D

  10. Dorte - Isn't it interesting that we can so enjoy something in fiction that we hate in real life. The whole idea of cliques and snobbery is abhorrent to me in real life, too, but yes, in fiction, that can be really engaging, especially if it's well-drawn.

  11. I would definitely recommend Helene Tursten, Margot. Her first three novels have been translated into English, in American editions (Soho Crime). The first is Detective Inspector Huss.