Thursday, March 3, 2011

Consider Yourself One Of The Family*

One of our deepest human needs is to belong. Even those of us who aren’t much for large groups or big parties need to feel accepted and as though we are part of a group. That’s arguably why many people join clubs, and why they adapt their dress, behaviour and sometimes even speech patterns to emulate the group they want to join. The feeling of not belonging, on the other hand, can lead to alienation or worse. That need to belong is an important part of our makeup, so it makes sense that it also figures quite a lot in crime fiction, too.

That theme of belongingness is important in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder for Christmas). In that novel, we meet Simeon Lee, wealthy patriarch of the Lee family. Lee invites all of the members of his family to spend Christmas at the family’s home. Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, but no-one in the family refuses the invitation, since Lee is a very wealthy man. On Christmas Eve, Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby with a friend and is persuaded to join the investigation. In the end, he discovers that the kind of person Lee was has everything to do with his murder. Throughout this novel, we meet characters who struggle with the need to belong. For instance, Magdalene Lee, one of Simeon Lee’s daughters-in-law, doesn’t exactly have what one would call “a good background.” She works hard to further her husband’s political career, but she doesn’t really feel a part of the “well-born” Lee family. Neither do a few of the other characters and in fact, that, too, has to do with Lee’s death.

In Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, we meet Guy Carpenter and his wife Eve. They live in the village of Broadhinny where Carpenter is making plans to be the next MP for the area. Eve Carpenter comes under suspicion of murder when Mrs. McGInty, a local charwoman who worked for the carpenters, is murdered. Mrs. McGinty’s lodger is arrested and even convicted for the crime, but Superintendent Spence doesn’t think he’s guilty. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. As Poirot looks into the matter, he uncovers much about the backgrounds of the residents of Broadhinney. One of the things he discovers is that Eve Carpenter does not have really belong, so to speak, as some of the other residents do. She tries to disguise the fact and she works hard to fit in. It’s interesting to see how Eve Carpenter reacts to not being “one of us.”

There’s an interesting look at belonging in Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel. Hilary Bill-Tasman has commissioned well-known painter Agatha Troy to paint his portrait, so she stays at his home over the Christmas holiday. Also invited as houseguests are Bill-Tasman’s fiancée Cressida Tottenham and his aunt and uncle Bedelia “Aunt Bed” and Fleaton “Uncle Flea” Forrester. On Christmas Eve, Bill-Tasman has planned for his uncle to dress up as a Druid and distribute gifts to the local children. However, Uncle Flea becomes ill and isn’t able to play the part. So he enlists his servant Alfred Moult to take his place. Moult agrees and the gifts are duly distributed. Shortly after his performance, Moult disappears. This, along with some unpleasant practical jokes, concerns Troy and more, they concern her husband Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Alleyn’s therefore on hand when Alfred Moult’s body is discovered. Alleyn and the local police investigate the murder, and the first thing they do is look into Moult’s background. He’s an interesting character, actually. He’s not “well-born,” so he doesn’t fit in with Bill-Tassman’s upper-class guests. On the other hand, Moult has nothing but contempt for the Bill-Tasman’s staff. Bill-Tasman has committed himself to a theory that people who’ve committed a crime can be rehabilitated with honest work. So each of the members of Bill-Tasman’s staff is a convicted criminal, and Moult despises them. In fact the mutual dislike between Moult and the staff members turns out to be an important motive for murder. In the end, the need to belong has a lot to do with Moult’s murder.

Not belonging also has tragic consequences in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. That novel begins with the tragic shootings of four members of the well-educated and well-off Coverdale family. The murderer is their housekeeper Eunice Parchman. What’s especially compelling about this novel is the reason for the murders. In very important ways, Eunice Parchman does not belong in the Coverdales’ world. She tries desperately to hide the fact that she doesn’t fit in, and she wants very much to belong. But it’s clear that she isn’t “in the group.” In the end, that sense of belongingness has an awful lot to do with the murders.

Janet Pete is a very interesting character whom we meet in several of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee novels. She’s half-Navajo/half-White, but doesn’t really feel she belongs in either world. On one hand, she’s not entirely comfortable living in the “White world.” In fact, that’s part of the reason she ends the relationship she is in right before she gets involved with Chee. She’s attracted to Chee in part because he is a traditional Navajo who’s steeped in the Navajo Way. On the other hand, Pete doesn’t feel entirely Navajo, either. She’s accustomed to living in the “White world” and she’s not certain she would be happy on the Reservation. She loves Chee, but she wants Chee to consider moving off the Reservation and starting their lives elsewhere. This conflict that Pete has about where she belongs is an interesting “story across story” in the novels in which she appears. In the end, she and Chee end their relationship despite their feelings for each other. In part it’s because Janet Pete doesn’t really feel that she belongs in Chee’s world, and for his part, Chee concludes that he could never really belong off the Reservation.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we meet Trevor Sharp. He’s a bright enough boy, but he doesn’t fit in at his school, nor does he really belong among the other residents of Eastvalle, where he lives. With little guidance or support at home, he’s drawn to a friend of his, Mick Webster. Trevor‘s father disapproves of the relationship, but this friendship is the first sense that Trevor has ever had of really belonging. The two boys form a group with Mick’s older brother Lenny. Unfortunately, because they don’t really feel like they belong, the group begins to steal from local people of means whom they think can easily spare what they take. As their crimes escalate, it’s easy to see how the sense of belonging leads the members of the group to protect each other, even after DI Inspector Alan Banks and his team begin to investigate the thefts and other criminal activity that involve the boys. In fact, it’s not until Banks realises what drives these boys together that he’s able to get to the truth about the crimes.

We all feel a strong need to belong – so strong at times that it can drive the way we act, dress and sometimes speak and think. I’ve just given a few examples of how the need to belong plays out in crime fiction. Which novels have you enjoyed that feature this?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart and Ron Moody’s Consider Yourself.


  1. I think that in many mystery novels, the reason killers kill is because they either have the need to belong or they find out they don't belong where they thought they should. I remember reading Stephen Booth's novel (can't remember the title but it happened in a cave) where the killer's motive had to do with belonging and so did the main antagonist's. Great post, Margot!

  2. I love these posts. They take me back to classics I've read and introduce some I've missed.

    You're right that so many of these plots revolve around belonging. And in the classics--it's all about what class people belong to. Great post!

  3. Clarissa - Why, thank you :-). Are you talking about One Last Breath? If so, I agree completely that that one focuses on belonging as much as anything else. And creeeepy cave, too!

    You've got an excellent point, too. There really is a lot of crime and mystery fiction where the killer strikes as a reaction to not belonging, or being made to feel that s/he doesn't belong.

    Anne - Awww, thanks! How nice of you :-). You're so right, too, that in a lot of crime fiction, especially from earlier days, belonging has a lot to do with the social class to which one belongs. Class membership plays such an important role in lots of those novels, doesn't it?

  4. Not uncommon to find criminals who don't feel they belong. This outsider-ness is often what pushes them into the fringe--and gives them the silence and the isolation in which to kill.

    You are right about this need being strong. Even in socially normal people like us (at least, I like to consider myself so!) it is strong and can easily be injured.

    Thanks for sticking with me, Margot!

    Love your post, as usual!


  5. Michele - Awww...thanks :-). And you put it so well that not belonging - not feeling like a part of any group - can really push a person to the point where murder is an option. I think it's true of all us, whether or not we do well socially, that we want to be accepted and to belong. In fact, there are lots of theories (Abraham Maslow's and Lev Vygotsky's for instance) that suggest that our social needs are so powerful that we don't learn as well and certainly suffer on many levels if we do not connect with and belong.

    And of course I'll stick with you - I've a lot to learn from you :-).

  6. One of the motivations for wanting to belong or being part of a group (be it family or no) is the desire for a feeling of approval. Of course, this need is greater in some than others, some may get it by receiving a smile, others aren't satisfied until they have the adulation of millions. I think it all comes down to one's own self-esteem; if you don't enjoy it, you need to get it from others.

  7. Elspeth - Oh, how well you put that! It is, indeed, all about self-esteem and self-worth. Approval is part of that, and that includes, I think, a sense of belonging. And you're right, too: some of us get that sense just from a smile. For others it's the need for adoration. I like it!