Sometimes, a shared experience has a way of binding people together. People who serve in the same military unit, or who are in a band together, or go to university together, can sometimes form intense bonds – bonds that are stronger in some ways than other friendships, or even family bonds. No-one quite understands what it was like to go to law school, for instance, the way a fellow law student does. People who serve in the military together understand each other at a level that no-one else can. It doesn’t mean a person can’t have deep and lasting bonds with other people, but there’s something about those friendships formed during those experiences. Even if what forms isn’t exactly friendship, it’s a shared bond.
In crime fiction, that bond can make for a solid plot point, or a layer of character development. Sometimes those bonds can even lead to murder; but whether or not they do, they can add to a story.
In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, for instance, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and local police to find a killer who’s already struck more than once. Each murder is preceded by a cryptic warning sent to Poirot, and there’s an ABC railway guide left near each body. Otherwise, the murders and their victims don’t seem to have anything in common. It’s a complex case, and at one point, the brother of one of the victims makes a suggestion. He says that, if those who were related to, or were friends with, the victims got together – a bit like a committee – they might be able to find some commonality among the murders. And that might be the key to solving them. Poirot agrees, and the group meets several times. It’s interesting, too, that the group’s members come from different social classes and backgrounds. Christie doesn’t go into detail about it, but my guess is, some members of that group stay in contact with each other, even after the case is over.
Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys is the story of a group of nine LAPD officers who are drawn into a case of murder when there’s a shooting in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park. Several of the officers were involved, so there’s going to be an investigation into what exactly happened. As the novel moves along, we learn something about these officers. They belong to a group informally called the ‘choir boys.’ The name comes from the habit these officers have of meeting at the park after their shifts to drink, to vent, and sometimes to enjoy the company of a couple of cocktail waitresses who occasionally join them. They call these meetings ‘choir practice.’ These officers have a very tight bond, and a lot of it’s because of the intensity of their jobs, and what they see. No-one else really understands what it’s like to be a Los Angeles police officer, and there’s comfort in the camaraderie that comes from their bond. It becomes problematic, though, during the investigation. These men don’t want to talk, as that might implicate someone who’s closer than a close friend in a lot of ways. It takes a lot to get at the truth of what happened because of that.
Military experience can also create that sort of intense bond. There are several crime novels where people who served together in the military are still drawn together, even after a lot of time. One of them is Spencer Quinn’s The Right Side. As the novel begins, US Army Sergeant LeAnn Hogan is at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She’s being treated for injuries she received in a bombing incident during her service in Afghanistan. The right side of her face is badly scarred, and she’s lost her right eye. In the hospital, she forms a friendship with her roommate, Marci Cummings. They might not have been in the same unit, but each understands at a deep level what the other has experienced. When Marci unexpectedly dies, LeAnn leaves the hospital and embarks on a road trip that takes her all the way to Bellevue, Washington, where Marci lived. By the time she arrives, she’s too late to attend Marci’s funeral, but she does want to pay her respects to Marci’s mother. That’s when she discovers that Marci’s eight-year-old daughter, Mia, has gone missing. Feeling a sense of personal obligation, LeAnn joins in the search for the girl, and in the process, finds that there are several dark secrets that people in town are keeping. Throughout the novel, Quinn depicts the deep bonds that member of the military often feel. Those bonds form a solid layer to LeAnn’s character, and they are realistic.
Alonso Cueto’s The Blue Hour introduces Lima attorney Adrián Ormache. He has what seems like the perfect life: a good career; a loving, intelligent, beautiful wife; and two healthy, loving daughters. Then, unexpectedly, his mother dies. That’s when he discovers some shocking revelations about her ex-husband, and his father. If what he finds is true, then his father might have been responsible for atrocities, including the rape of a young girl, committed during the government’s late-1980s/early-1990’s war against Peru’s Shining Path/Sendero Luminoso guerillas. This tallies with an odd request his father made right before he died. He asked Ormache to try to find a girl who lived in the Peruvian village of Huanta. Could it be the same girl? Ormache starts his search for the truth by finding two of his father’s war comrades. They show him a side of his father than he never knew, and they explain that things may not be what they seem. Those men still feel the military bond, and they have a sense of obligation to a comrade’s son. And what they tell Ormache leads him on a journey that will change his whole perception of life.
And then there’s Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore. In it, Vigo police inspector Leo Caldas investigates the death of a fisherman named Justo Castelo. On the surface of it, his death looks like suicide. But there are a few things that aren’t consistent with that, so Caldas looks deeper into the case. He finds that this death may be related to a tragic incident involving Castelo and two other fishermen, José Arias and Marcos Valverde. It seems that years earlier, they’d been out fishing on a bot captained by seasoned fisherman Antonio Sousa. A sudden storm came up and Sousa lost his life. The other three survived, but the incident left scars. The three had a bond as a result of what happened, and it plays a role in Castelo’s death.
Intense experiences, such as the university experience, or military service, or surviving a tragedy, can foster strong bonds among people who share them. That bond can last a lifetime, too. And in fiction, it can make for a solid layer of character and plot development.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon.
8 thoughts on “We Met as Soulmates*”
Interesting angle, Margot! There’s definitely something about shared experiences which lingers, when you feel that you speak from the same language and come from the same place. And also a group of people who’ve taken part in something significant can definitely end up as a target, a trope which has served crime writers well!
Thanks, KBR! You put it very well that shared experiences have a way of lingering, even years later. And people who’ve shared them speak a language and have an understanding that others don’t. As you say, that can make them quite vulnerable in crime fiction! It’s an interesting bond, and I’m not surprised it’s explored in the genre.
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I agree with this so much. I’ve got friends that I have run with for just a few hours but we went through so much pain together I now consider them my close friends even though I only see them on Facebook now.
That’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind with this post, Rachel! When you go through an experience like that, it has such a bonding effect that you do end up staying in contact, even if you can’t meet in person.
Thanks for the reminder of The Choirboys. I really should dig my copy out.
It’s a potent novel, Col, and well worth the (re)read, I think.
Margot: I found your examples interesting. For a close bond to develop in a group I think more than time together is needed. The group must be challenged in a major way. The bond comes from a shared experience in a difficult situation. For law students the demands of reading masses of cases, enduring probing questions and writing exams which constitute 100% of the mark in a class bind students together. For most it takes a greater effort and commitment than anything they have done to date in their life. There is good reason to say students survive first year law. Accomplished legal mystery writer, Scott Turow, in his book One-L provides a slightly fictionalized version of his first year at the Harvard Law School. Both myself and my son, Michael, found it an excellent book with a portrayal of law school with which we could identify.
Thanks, Bill, for sharing what happens during law school. I think you’re quite right about the power of adversity to bind people together. Whether it’s exams, a military conflict, or something else, people do form intense bonds when they face adversity. I know that happened to me when I was in graduate school. And thanks for mentioning One L, too. Scott Turow is certainly a highly talented writer, and he knows what he’s talking about in this case.