One is the Loneliest Number*

Humans are social by nature. I don’t mean we’re all extroverts (well, I’m not, at any rate). But our connections with each other are an important part of our success, both personally and as a species. It’s little wonder, then, that we’ve all been missing the company of others during this time of social distancing and self-isolation. Even if you’re an introvert by nature, I’ll bet there are at least a few people you miss right now.

We see this need for the company of others in crime fiction, too. There are, for instance, many espionage/spy novels in which the main character has to be distanced from, even cut off from, others. I won’t list them here – there are too many – but it’s a regular feature in these books.

There are other examples, too, that aren’t from espionage fiction. For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, one plot thread concerns the murder of an unidentified man, whose body is discovered in the home of Miss Millicent Pebmarsh. It’s highly unlikely that she killed the victim, as she didn’t know him, and in any case, is blind. Special agent Colin Lamb (who was present when the body was discovered) takes the unusual case to his father’s friend, Hercule Poirot. Lamb points out that Poirot has often said he could solve a case by just sitting in his chair and thinking. In this case, though, Poirot makes the journey to the small town of Crowdean, where the murder occurred. Why? He claims it’s curiosity, and it is. But Poirot also enjoys interacting with others; it’s an important part of his work as a detective. And it’s interesting to see how that plays out here.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we are introduced to Trevor Sharp, a teenager who lives with his father in the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He has trouble fitting in and making friends at school. Then, he meets Mick Webster, who has quite a ‘track record’ of getting into trouble. The two begin spending most of their time together, much to the dismay of Trevor’s father. Mick’s not good at getting along socially, either, so he and Trevor are drawn to each other. Then, there’s a series of break-ins, one of which leads to a murder. Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, who’s recently moved to Eastvale, looks into the case. He finds that Trevor and Mick may know more about the break-ins than they’re admitting, so he has more than one conversation with the boys. In the end, he finds out the truth, and we see how much the need for another’s company has impacted both Trevor and Mick.

There’s a similar sort of bond in Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle. That’s the story of Andreas Winthur and Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, two young Oslo men who are constant companions. In fact, neither has any other real friends. When Andreas goes missing, his mother Runi gets worried about him. She goes to Inspector Konrad Sejer for help, but his first reaction is that a young man might easily take off for a short time without telling his mother where he’s going or what he’s doing. But when time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, Sejer decides the case is worth investigating, and he goes first to Zipp to see what he knows. It turns out that Zipp’s friendship with Andreas has had some terrible consequences (and no, Zipp didn’t kill his friend). As Sejer gets to the truth of the matter, we see how the young men’s need for companionship has affected them.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is the fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people to executed for murder in Iceland. The murder took place in 1828, but the execution took place in 1830. As the story begins, Agnes and two other people have been convicted of killing Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. It’s believed that it will be better for Agnus’ soul if she spends the last months of her life with a ‘good Christian family.’ So she is sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. The understanding is that the family will benefit from her work, and she will benefit from spending time with ‘moral,’ ‘upright’ people. It’s all very uncomfortable for everyone, but the family and Agnes try to work things out. Throughout the novel, we see how the need for company plays a role in the way the characters interact. They are suspicious of each other, but at the same time, they want to connect. It’s an interesting dynamic, and certainly plays a role in the story.

And then there’s J.P. Pomare’s Call Me Evie. This is the story of Kate Bennet, who’s been living in a remote New Zealand beach town with a man she calls Bill (and no, it’s not a sexual liaison). They left Melbourne, where she grew up, after she did something terrible, although she doesn’t quite remember what, at least at the beginning of the novel. Bill is protecting her, even going so far as to give her a new name, Evie. Kate doesn’t remember exactly what happened, so she depends on Bill to help her fill in the proverbial blanks. But is Bill telling the truth? Why does his story about that night turn out to be so different from what Kate/Evie remembers? As she tries to piece together what happened, Kate also has to avoid as much contact as possible with the locals. That part of living in hiding is very difficult for her, as it’s a small town, and she’d like to be able to fit in and be a part of it. But she’s afraid to get to know anyone, because of the secrets she’s hiding.

There are a lot of other novels, too, where characters stay mostly apart from others. That can cause real loneliness and other struggles, because as humans, we’re meant to connect. And it’s interesting to see how crime fiction explores that theme. These are just a few examples. Over to you.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Nilsson’s One.

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

7 thoughts on “One is the Loneliest Number*

    1. You know what, Col? I think the Grinch could count. He does avoid people, and, at the end, we see that he needs them, too…

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  1. Margot: One of the loneliest places in the world is a jail cell. Some great writing has been done by prisoners. I think less of crime fiction here and more of such individuals as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Martin Luther King Jr.

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    1. That’s really true, Bill, about prison. And both of your examples really show how people are impacted by being alone. Both Solzhenitsyn and King, Jr. used their time in prison to reflect on the larger world and share their ideas; in that sense they reached out. But there is a deep sense of loneliness in prison.

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  2. It is very lonely going undercover – something my character, Katie Flanagan, does in my latest novel. You can’t be your real self, and there are dangers too . . .

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    1. Thanks, Christine, for mentioning Katie (I should have). Folks, you really want to read the Katie Flanagan series – it’s excellent. And in An Air That Kills, she does indeed go undercover. It’s lonely, scary, and can be very dangerous…

      Liked by 1 person

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