In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Samuel Ratchett, who is stabbed during a three-day trip on the world-famous Orient Express. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same carriage, so in that sense, there’s a limited pool of suspects. But it’s a complex case, and it’s not easy for Poirot to solve. At one point, he is having a conversation with Princess Natalia Dragomiroff, who was in the same coach as the victim, and who is therefore possibly the killer. She says this:
‘I believe, Messieurs, in loyalty – to one’s friends and one’s family and one’s caste.’
And loyalty does turn out to be an important aspect of this case.
It’s an important quality, really. Marriages, friendships, business relationships, and a lot more are built on the concept of being loyal. Of course, like anything ese, loyalty can go too far. And some groups demand loyalty at a very high cost. Still, it’s a strong human characteristic, and it’s interesting to explore how it’s used in crime fiction.
For instance, in Christina Hoag’s Skin of Tattoos, we are introduced to Magdaleno ‘Mags’ Argueta. A member of a Los Angeles-based gang, the Cyco Lokos, he’s recently been released from prison where he served time on weapons charges. He was set up by another gang member and he knows that. But he’s done time to prove his loyalty to the gang. For Mags, the Cyco Lokos are family, and he wants to demonstrate his commitment to them. Once out of prison, though, Mags wants to ‘go straight.’ He’s hoping for a legitimate job, a decent place to live, maybe even a family. It’s going to be a challenge, though. For one thing, the gang doesn’t let people go easily. For another, it’s not easy to find an employer willing to take a chance on an ex-convict. Still, Mags is determined to try. Then, a series of events happens that draws Mags back to the gang and forces him to make some very difficult choices.
Another gang – this time a biker gang – features in Colin Conway’s Cozy Up trilogy. Beauregard ‘Beau’ Smith is a former ‘bookkeeper’ for a motorcycle gang, Satan’s Dawgs. His job was to deal with people that the club didn’t like, and he did his job well. When he was caught, he was offered membership in the US Witness Protection Program in exchange for working with the FBI and other police agencies to bring down the gang. Seeing no choice, he accepted, and now lives in hiding. In each of the three novels in this trilogy, he has a new location and a new identity. And in each novel, he gets involved in a murder investigation. But the Satan’s Dawgs group hasn’t forgiven him or forgotten about him. His breach of loyalty means that he will be killed, and very unpleasantly, if the Dawgs find him. This threat runs through the three novels. And it shows just how important unstinting loyalty is to groups like the Dawgs.
Cults and other, similar groups also demand that sort of absolute loyalty. In J.P. Pomare’ In the Clearing, for instance, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Amy Smith-Atkins, who is a member of a cult run by her mother, Adrienne. She is expected to obey the Elders in the cult without question, and to be blindly loyal to the group. In one plot thread of the novel, Amy and other members of the group are sent out to ‘liberate’ another child from the world, and bring her to the cult. The new girl, called Asha, is taught what the group expects of her, but she remembers enough of her life that indoctrination is going to be difficult, and that will have real consequences. As we follow along, we see just how loyal everyone is expected to be, and how that impacts people. In another plot line, we are also introduced to forty-one-year-old Freya Heywood and her son, Billy. They live in an isolated house that’s well-protected, but Freya is still worried about keeping Billy safe. The novel is narrated from both Amy and Freya’s points of view, so we follow both of their lives. And in the end, we see how their stories are related.
Police officers are expected to be loyal to one another and protect one another. And there are any number of novels in which that loyalty is an important theme. For instance, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choir Boys is the story of a group of nine LAPD officers who regularly gather at Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park to vent, to drink, and to enjoy the company of a couple of cocktail waitresses who sometimes join them. One night, there’s a shooting at the park, and an investigation. As the case goes on, we learn more about these cops. They all know each other’s weaknesses and secrets, and they protect each other. They’re willing to lie and more because of that loyalty.
And that’s the thing about loyalty. It can be a very good quality to have, although it has its dark side, too. And it’s interesting how people can be almost blindly loyal to a group, even if it isn’t a group of family members. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Jet Song.