There’s a Place For Us*

If researchers such as Abraham Maslow are right, we all have a certain need to belong. We’re all different, of course, and some of us have a greater need for belongingness than others do. But we all have that need. Some of us find belongingness in a religious community. Others find it in the small-town community where they live. Others find it within an extended family group, or an interest group. Wherever we find it, it’s important. And the feeling of not belonging can take a toll on a person, and even have real consequences. Especially in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell decide to have a weekend house party at their country home. One of the guests is Midge Hardcastle, a cousin through her mother’s side of the family. Unlike the Angkatells, Midge grew up in a working-class family. Although she’s never starved, she does know what it means to have to work for a living and go without luxury. So, when she’s among her Angkatell relatives, she doesn’t always feel as though she quite belongs. It’s not that she begrudges them their wealth; rather, she sees that there’s a great deal that the Angkatells take for granted, because they can. On the Sunday afternoon, one of the other guests is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a cottage nearby, and he works with Inspector Grange to find out who is responsible. Midge’s feeling of ‘otherness’ isn’t the reason for the murder, but it adds an interesting layer to the story.

Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town take place in the small New England town of Wrightsville. Ellery Queen wants some time away to work on his writing, so he stays in a guest house belonging to the town’s social leaders John and Hermione Wright. While Queen is there, a man named Jim Haight returns to town after a three-year absence. He was engaged to the Wrights’ youngest daughter Nora, and everyone thinks she’s better off without him. But against advice, she and Haight re-kindle their romance and get married. Not long afterwards, Haight’s sister Rosemary comes for a visit, and is poisoned on New Year’s Eve. Haight is believed to be guilty, and in fact, is arrested and goes on trial. In the end, the only two people who believe his protestations of innocence are Queen and Pat Wright, the Wrights’ second daughter. Wrightsville is a small, tight-night community, and the Wrights are its undisputed leaders. Haight doesn’t belong (at least, not after he left town), and that’s an important point in this novel. We also see that sense of ‘otherness’ and desire to belong in the Wrights’ oldest daughter Lola. She eloped and left town, then divorced and returned. Although part of her would like to belong, she doesn’t like the way the town judges her, and she won’t fit the town’s image of what she ‘should’ be like.

Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? is the story of Yvonne Mulhern and her husband Gerry, who move from London to Dublin with their newborn daughter Róisín. They’ve moved so that Gerry can take advantage of an irresistible job opportunity, so he’s gone quite a bit. That leaves Yvonne doing the bulk of the job of caring for the baby. She’s exhausted and depressed, and doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin. She doesn’t really feel a sense of belonging with Gerry’s family, either. They’re polite enough to her, but have made it clear she’s not ‘one of them.’ And the other new mothers she’s met all seem to have mastered the art of motherhood, and make it look easy. She doesn’t really feel a sense of belonging with them, as she’s struggling. Then, she finds an online group called Netmammy. She connects with the other women in the group, and finally feels she’s found a place. She feels a bond with these women, and a sense of friendship. When one of the women goes ‘off the grid,’ Yvonne becomes concerned. She even goes to the police, but there’s not much they can do about it. Then, the body of a young woman is found in an abandoned apartment. She fits the general description of Yvonne’s friend, so the police look for a possible link to the group. If they’re right, what does that mean for Netmammy? Is it really the warm, accepting group that Yvonne thought it was?

Susan C. Shea’s Love and Death in Burgundy takes place in the small French town of Reigny-sur-Canne. Three years ago, Katherine Goff and her music star husband moved there from the U.S. to escape the crowds and the press. Katherine would like very much to be accepted in the town – to belong. But so far, that hasn’t happened. With a few exceptions, she and her husband are tolerated, even treated courteously, but not welcomed or made to feel ‘one of us.’ Then, an elderly man who lives nearby, Albert Bellegarde, is found at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Katherine finds herself increasingly drawn into the mystery of his past, the town’s past, and how it all led to his death. In the process, she finds it very hard to balance wanting to find out the truth, and wanting to belong.

And then there’s Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy. That’s the fictional re-telling of the story of Albert Black, who was among the last people to be hanged for murder in New Zealand. In 1955, Black was executed for the murder of a young man at a milk bar. At the time, it seemed like a very clear case. There were witnesses, there was motive, and so on. But there’s more to the case than it might have seemed on the surface, and Kidman tells Black’s story, from his early years in Ireland, to his trip to New Zealand to try to ‘make it big,’ to his execution. Throughout the story, we see how Black’s desire to belong, and his status as an ‘outsider,’ played a role in what happened to him.

We all want to belong, to one extent or another. And sometimes, that need to belong can lead to all kinds of places, including very dark ones. These are just a few examples of how it works in crime fiction. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Somewhere.