Because Together We Will Stand*

Plenty of crime fiction explores the impact of some of the deep differences that divide people (e.g., class, religion, politics, culture, race, etc.). And that makes sense, since those differences can cause a lot of conflict that adds suspense to a novel. But every once in a while, people do put their differences aside. Sometimes it’s because they perceive, if you will, a common enemy. Other times it’s a momentous event. It’s interesting from a sociological perspective, and it can add a solid layer to a crime fiction plot.

Many of Agatha Christie’s stories acknowledge class and other differences among people. But sometimes those gaps are bridged. I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I won’t mention the novel or even the sleuth. But there is one Christie novel in which people from several different classes and backgrounds come together and put aside whatever their differences may be. It’s a fascinating look at how a common goal can inspire people to work with others from very different groups.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill takes place in small-town Clanton, Mississippi. There are racial, political, and other differences among the people of the town, but those differences are put aside when ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is raped and left for dead. As you can imagine, her family is devastated, and there is an outpouring of caring and sympathy from everyone, regardless of race. And everyone is glad that the rapists are soon caught and arrested. There’s no urge to protect them, although they are white, and Tonya is Black. Things begin to change when Tonya’s father, Carl Lee, takes matters into his own hands. Overcome with grief, anger, and a feeling of helplessness, he gets a gun and ambushes the two rapists, killing them both and wounding a sheriff’s deputy. There is certainly sympathy for him – more than one character privately says he might do the same thing himself. But at the same time, vigilantism cannot be condoned, and Lee did kill two people. Lee hires Jake Brigance to defend him, and the trial soon gets lots of attention, even becoming a national story. In a way, this brings the town together again, as outside groups like the KKK, the NAACP, and national media outlets descend on Clanton. It’s an interesting example of how ‘outsiders’ can bring people together.

Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books introduces his protagonist Israel Armstrong. In the novel, Armstrong dreams of becoming a prestigious librarian, maybe even for a national collection. But he knows he’ll have to take small steps, so he accepts when he’s offered the position of librarian for Ireland’s Tumdrum and District Library. When he arrives at the library, he is immediately faced with two blows. The first is the news that the library has closed. The second is that his job will be driving the mobile library (in fact, a broken-down old bus) around the district. It’s hardly the job Armstrong had imagined, but he is finally persuaded to start. And his first task will be to find the library’s entire collection, which seems to have disappeared. If he’s going to keep his job, he’ll have to find out what happened to the books. As the story goes on, we see how the people of the area put aside their differences when they have to, and even Armstrong (clearly an outsider from London!) slowly begins the process of being accepted. And that coming together plays an important role in the mystery.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind is the story of the Anderson family. Stephanie Anderson is a newly-minted psychologist based in Dunedin. One day, she gets a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, who has a tragedy in her family’s past. Several years earlier, her younger sister, Gracie, went missing and was never found. That tragedy still impacts Elisabeth; and, when she hears about it, Stephanie, too, is affected. Seventeen years earlier, Stephanie’s own younger sister, Gemma, went missing. She, too, was never found, despite a massive search. Against her better judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her ghosts to rest and find out who abducted the girls. The search takes her back to her home town of Wanaka, where she has to come to terms with her past as she finds out what happened to her sister. The first part of the novel tells the story of Gemma’s disappearance during a school barbecue by the local lake. When she goes missing, everyone comes together and searches for days. It doesn’t matter at that time that people have their differences, or that one person doesn’t like another. Everyone does whatever is possible to try to find the girl, and people try to support the family, too.

Part of Peter May’s Entry Island takes place during the Highland Clearances of 19th Century Scotland. During this time, thousands of people were forcibly removed from land they’d been farming for years, sometimes for generations, so that wealthy landowners could use the land for pasturage and other purposes. In the novel, Sime Mackenzie and his family are among those who are forced to leave. As the process goes on, we see how people put aside differences they may have, and they try to help each other survive as best they can. Some manage to stay in the Highlands, but Sime ends up on a ship to Canada. He travels to Entry Island which is now part of Québec. There, he makes a new life. Many years later, his descendent, a police detective also named Sime Mackenzie, ends up on Entry Island investigating the murder of one of its residents. The two stories are woven together throughout the novel, and it’s interesting to see how one story influences the other.

There’s certainly plenty in this world that divides us. But sometimes, people are able to put those differences aside and work together if there’s a common goal. And that can add an interesting dimension to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lee Hooker’s Let’s Work Together.

 


6 thoughts on “Because Together We Will Stand*

  1. Interesting, Margot! Those divides do frequently turn up in GA crime (which is where I’ve read more) and in the better books can be an interesting motivator. Unfortunately some of the lesser books do lapse into cliche with working class characters, but I’ve noticed that, in particular in some of the recent British Library re-releases, working class lives are being represented a little more. We certainly are far away from a classless society though, so I suspect this is a topic which will keep coming up…

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    1. Thanks, KBR! I think you have a very good point that issues of class will keep cropping up in books. There are still ‘us and them’ feelings, and as long as issues are divisive, they will, I think, be explored.

      It’s interesting, too, that you bring up the way working class characters and their lives are portrayed, especially in GA novels. I certainly agree that there is sometimes a tendency to condescend or worse in some GA books. As you say, you don’t see that in all of them, and I love it that the BL is re-releasing some of the very good stories that people may not have read. I think it sheds a whole new light on that era.

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    1. You know, that’s a good point, Col. Solving the murder finally becomes a common goal, and they see that Tibbs is the guy who can help do that. That’s a good example, for which thanks.

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  2. In Upton Sinclair’s King Coal, the miners despite their similar wretched conditions still carry their racial prejudices, thus the English miners are at the top of the heap while the Japanese are at the bottom. This effectively prevents them from forming a union and thus the mine owners can exploit them at will.

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    1. That’s a really strong example, Neeru, of what happens when people let things like class, race, and so on, divide them. Thanks for bringing it up. Instead of looking for a common goal (better living conditions, etc..), these miners let their differences keep them apart. And that suits the owners…

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