Agatha Christie shows how thin that veneer is in And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel (which Christie herself was said to have liked very much), ten people receive invitations to Indian Island off the Devon coast. Each letter is a little different, so for different reasons, each person accepts. Everyone arrives on the island and gets settled in, but after dinner, everyone is shocked when each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one person. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. And then another. It’s soon clear that there’s a murderer on the island, and as a storm cuts the island off, the survivors try to find out who the murderer is and stay alive themselves. As the novel goes on, we see the social structure that the guests are all accustomed to slowly erode, and that adds a very chilling layer to the novel.
We also see a bit of what lies beneath that veneer in Christie’s Ordeal By Innocence (also said to one of Christie’s personal favourites). Jacko Argyle was tried and convicted for the murder of his stepmother Rachel Argyle. Although he claimed innocence, Argyle was imprisoned and died there. Two years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary recovers from a bout of amnesia and remembers that he can corroborate Jacko Argyle’s claim of innocence. Calgary travels to Sunny Point, the family home, and shares the fact that Jacko Argyle didn’t kill his stepmother. Now, the surviving members of the Argyle family realise that if Jacko Argyle was innocent, one of them must be guilty. As Calgary and Rachel Argyle’s son-in-law Philip Durrant slowly discover what really happened, we see the social structure of this family slowly fray.
Alex Scarrow’s Afterlight also shows us what happens when social structure breaks down. The global supply of oil has crashed and led to the end of the life most of us take for granted. Among the survivors of the crash is a group of people living on an oil rig off the coast of Norfolk. This group, led by Jenny Sutherland, has managed to become self-sufficient and is functioning fairly well. Another group of survivors, this one led by Alan Maxwell, is living in the Millennium Dome in London. That group’s rules, and Maxwell’s authority, are enforced by a brutal group of young soldiers. The delicate social structure on the oil rig is threatened when the group rescues Valerie Latoc, a Belgian who was found badly wounded in a nearby town. As he recovers, he begins to threaten the social fabric of the group by taking advantage of the small disagreements and conflicts that inevitably arise in groups of people. Then, when Jenny Sutherland’s son Jacob and his friend Nathan find out that the people living in the Dome may have electricity, they can’t resist the urge to travel to London and find out for themselves. This decision proves to be a very dangerous one, and we see as the novel goes on how easily social structure can wear down.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a visit from Andrea Curtin, an American widow who lived in Africa for several years before returning to the United States. Curtin wants to know the truth behind the disappearance of her son Michael. Ten years earlier, Michael Curtin had joined a commune dedicated to eco-friendly living and agriculture. Then, one of the members of the group reported him missing. A search was made but neither Michael Curtin nor his body was found. Now, his mother asks Mma. Ramotswe to see if she can find out what really happened. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and travels to the commune where Michael Curtin was last known to have lived. She slowly gets to the truth of the matter and as we learn what happened to him, we also get a look at what happens when there is a very delicate social structure that breaks down.
Sometimes, of course, the social structure itself rewards or at least condones what most of us would agree is brutality. So people act in violent ways because they see it as the price of survival. For example, in Simon Lelic’s Rupture (AKA A Thousand Cuts), DI Lucia May is called in to investigate the shooting deaths of three students and a teacher at an exclusive London school. The shooter, Samuel Szajkowski, turned the gun on himself, so he can’t explain what happened. May is expected to simply “rubber stamp” the explanation that Szajkowski simply “snapped,” and that the shootings were the work of one deranged person. As she begins to interview students and staff, though, May becomes aware that this is more than just a case of one person with mental illness. Instead, we find that the school’s culture and social structure had a great deal to do with what happened. This structure is eerily mirrored in the structure of May’s own work environment, which has a similar brutal culture.
In Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight, Harry Bosch investigates the murder of Elias Howard, a prominent Los Angeles attorney who’s made his name prosecuting charges of brutality and racism against the L.A.P.D. Howard was just about to begin litigating a case on behalf of Michael Harris, who was convicted of the rape and murder of twelve-year-old Stacey Kincaid. Harris claims that he was innocent and that the L.A.P.D. tortured him in order to force him to confess. Because of Howard’s history of targeting the L.A.P.D., the very police who are supposed to protect our social structure are the most likely suspects. As Bosch investigates Harris’ claims, he finds that in fact, Harris was right. Evidence was tampered with and there are other real problems with the case against him. So not only is Bosch faced with finding Howard’s murderer, he’s also trying to find out who really killed Stacey Kincaid. As he investigates both cases, Bosch goes up against a social structure in the L.A.P.D. that protects its own, quietly condones corruption and seems to reward brutality.
That’s also the case in Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors. L.A.P.D homicide detective Shane Scully gets a frantic call from Barbara Molar, the wife of Scully’s former partner Ray Molar. She’s being abused by her husband and is afraid he’s going to kill her. Scully arrives in time to save Barbara’s life but when Molar shoots at him, Scully kills Molar in self-defense. Before he knows it, though, Scully’s the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation. He also becomes the target of most of the L.A.P.D, for whom Ray Molar was a hero – a “cop’s cop.” The truth is that Molar was a brutal person who was frequently unfaithful to his wife and who abused her physically more than once. But the L.A.P.D. culture has protected him. So when Scully starts asking too many questions, he becomes a pariah. He also finds that he’s being set up in order to hide some very high-level corruption. As much as anything else, this novel shows what happens to people when a social structure condones certain behaviour.
The good news is that in nearly all of these novels, we also see tremendous courage and the inner strength to maintain what most of us would call humanity. Humans are capable of that, too. But what do you think? Just how deep is that “veneer of civilisation?” Which novels have you enjoyed that explore this question?