I Got Good Connections*

There are plenty of things that don’t get done easily or quickly through official channels. Sometimes it’s because those things are banned or otherwise illegal. Sometimes it’s because the process of getting things done the usual way is too difficult, costly, or time-consuming (or all three). It can also be very risky to try to use conventional channels to get things done. When that’s the case, underground networks can prove very useful. And they can add an interesting layer to a crime novel.

Agatha Christie refers to a few such networks in some of her stories. For instance, in  Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. One day during a family holiday, she is found strangled in a cove not far from the hotel where she’s staying. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he gets involved in the investigation. One sub-plot of this novel has to do with a smuggling operation that makes use of hard-to-find coves and other landing spots. It’s a loose confederation, and the people involved may not even know each other. But if there’s someone at the hotel who’s a part of the operation, it’s possible that that person killed the victim if she found out what was going on.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series takes place mostly in Berlin just before and during the Nazi regime. It’s a time of increasing danger for everyone, especially Jews and their friends and relatives. Against this background, Vogel tries to do her job as an investigative reporter as carefully as she can. She knows that there’s an underground network of people who are helping Jews and other at-risk people to sell their possessions, get what money they can and whatever identity papers they can and leave the country. In fact, in the first novel, she lends her own identity papers and those of her dead brother to a friend and her son, so they can leave. For those who can’t go, there are also networks of people who are willing to hide Jews. Those networks are loose, and most people don’t know each other’s names, because it’s too dangerous for any one person to know too much. But the system can work, and Vogel uses it to find answers to her questions, to trace missing people, and to have herself smuggled in and out of the country.

Roger Smith’s Dust Devils begins in Cape Town. One day, former journalist Robert Dell is taking a drive with his family when they are ambushed, and their car goes over a cliff. Dell’s wife Rosie and their two children are killed; Dell is alive but injured. Not long afterwards, Dell is arrested and tried for his family’s murders.  He’s innocent, but it’s clear that someone is trying to frame him. Just when he begins to believe his fate is sealed, he’s rescued from prison by his estranged father Bobby Goodbread. Dell will have to be hidden, because someone still wants him out of the way. So, Goodbread taps into an informal network of people who’ve been involved in his dubious dealings, and Dell hides with them until the time is right for him and his father to go north to Zululand in search of the man responsible for killing his family. 

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to Gerda Klein and her daughter Ilse. Years before the events in the story, they lived in Leipzig, in then-East Germany. When life got too dangerous there, the family escaped through West Berlin and ended up in New Zealand, where they made new lives. They couldn’t do that on their own, of course. They relied on an informal network of people who could help them. It had to be done very secretly, as anyone might betray them to the Stasi – the East German secret police. With the help of that network, they went to New Zealand, where Ilse eventually became a secondary school teacher. When one of her most promising students, Serena Freeman, starts skipping school and disengaging from her work, Ilse gets concerned. Her involvement ends up drawing her and her mother into much more than they thought.

And then there’s Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series, which mostly takes place in New York’s Chinatown. Yu is a police detective there, and he knows all about the underground networks of the place. Few people in Chinatown trust the police, even those who are Chinese-American, as Yu is. Residents of Chinatown are all too familiar with the racism and other challenges faced by people who go outside the community. So, many of them do as much as they can to avoid the usual channels for getting things done. Instead, they go to people they know (sometimes local tongs, sometimes others) who can help. Things like driver licenses and IDs can be purchased, and those who are victims of crime can seek the recourse they want. I know, fans of Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series, and of S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series – there are similar things in those novels, too.

Underground networks are a part of most communities, and they’re the way things often get done. That’s especially true if the government and/or police aren’t trusted. Those networks may be dangerous, but sometimes, they turn out to be very useful…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man.