Most people feel a sense of gratitude when someone is especially helpful. As a personal example, when I was doing my Ph.D. program, I stored the data I collected on a disk (yes, this was well before cloud storage). One day, I put the disk into my hard drive to work with the data and…it was blank. The data seemed to be gone. I asked for help from someone in the department who was good with computers, and later that day, the disk was returned to me, all fixed. You can imagine how grateful I was. Without that data, I’d have had to start my whole research project again.
That sense of loyalty and gratitude can play an important part in a crime novel. It can lead characters to do all sorts of things that they might not otherwise do. Sometimes it can even lead to tragedy. Even if it doesn’t, the sense of personal debts of gratitude can add to a novel.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna take a house in the small town of Lymstock so that Jerry can recover from injuries he suffered in a plane crash. All seems well enough at first, but then, a series of vicious anonymous letters begins to circulate. The letters contain false accusations, but they’re still upsetting. In fact, Jerry and Joanna get one that accuses them of being lovers instead of brother and sister. Then, Mona Symington, who’s married to the local solicitor, dies of what seems to be suicide after receiving a letter. Now the police ramp up their efforts to find out who’s responsible for the letters. In the meantime, Jerry and Mona’s daughter, Megan, have met. Megan is awkward and unsophisticated, and she’s not happy at home. Jerry and Joanna take her under their wings, so to speak, and with their help she has a complete makeover and gains a new sense of confidence. Needless to say, she’s very grateful and has a sense of loyalty to them.
In Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, we are introduced to Mason and Gates Hunt, the sons of an abusive, alcoholic father. As children, Gates, who’s a bit older, protected Mason as best he could from their father, so Mason has always had a sense of gratitude and loyalty to his brother. That’s tested, though, when the boys grow up. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity he’s had, and managed to do well in school and get a scholarship to law school. Gates has squandered his considerable athletic talent and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money he gets from his mother. One day, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. The argument is put on hold but sparks up again later that night. It ends with Gates shooting Thompson. Mason’s sense of loyalty drives him to help his brother cover up the crime, and the young men go on with their lives. Then, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and given a long sentence. He asks his brother’s help, but this time, Mason refuses. Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help, he’ll implicate his brother in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Now, Mason has to find a way to stay out of jail and bring out the real truth of the murder.
In Rachel Abbott’s Only the Innocent, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Tom Douglas and his assistant, Sergeant Becky Robinson solve the murder of wealthy philanthropist Hugo Fletcher. As you can imagine, they begin with the victim’s wife, Laura. She was out of the country at the time of the murder, so it’s hard to see how she could have committed the murder. And there are other good possibilities. As the novel goes on, we get to know Laura a bit. She comes from a very modest background, so meeting Hugh seemed like a dream come true. Laura isn’t greedy, but it was hard not to be grateful to Hugh for introducing her to ‘A-list’ people, the best clothes, fine restaurants, and so on. That loyalty and gratitude formed a part of the dynamic between the two.
One of the major elements in Henry Chang’s Chinatown Beat is the Chinese tong. Members of tongs are loyal to their group mates and, especially, to their leaders. They are grateful for being in the group, and often, they benefit from money and other perks of membership. So, they have a strong sense of loyalty to the tong. This means they tend to do as they’re told. It also means they tend to do whatever it takes to protect the tong. That includes avoiding or lying to the police when a crime’s committed. And that’s what Detective Jack Yu is up against in the novel when he investigates a series of child rapes and a murder. Tong members know where their loyalties lie, and it’s not with the police.
And then there’s Lucien Connally, whom we meet in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire stories. He’s the former sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. Now retired, he still knows everyone and follows what goes on in town. The current sheriff, Walt Longmire, is loyal and grateful to Connally, seeing him as a mentor as much as anything else. And that plays a role in Death Without Company. In the novel, Longmire investigates the poisoning death of Mari Baroja, a resident of the Durant Home for Assisted Living. In order to find out who the killer is, Longmire has to look back into her past, and into the county’s past. And it turns out that Lucien Connally plays a part in the solution to the case.
If you’ve ever had someone save you (or so it seemed) just when you needed it, you know that feeling of loyalty and gratitude. It’s an important part of what holds us together, and it can play an important part in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Earth, Wind, and Fire.