Have you ever noticed how often cults—be they religious or reactionary, satanic or satirical—figure into mystery and thriller tales? Writers seem fascinated (and who can blame them?) by what causes some people to fall under the spell of charismatic, passionate and occasionally whacked-out prophets who’ll usher them into the wilderness or to some less remote locale, where they can jointly pursue enlightenment or simply escape the restrictions of modern society. And in most such yarns, cults harbor secretive agendas, and the results of extended contact with them can be, well, dire.

I started pondering all of this recently, as I was reading A Serpent’s Tooth, Craig Johnson’s ninth novel featuring Absaroka County, Wyo., sheriff Walt Longmire.

The story kicks off with the discovery of a teenager, Cord Lynear, who’s been hiding at the home of one of Longmire’s constituents and making repairs to her residence in exchange for food filched from her icebox. As it turns out, Cord is a Mormon “lost boy,” cast off from a tightly controlled polygamous sect in South Dakota: the Apostolic Church of the Lamb of God. He’s now looking for his mother, Sarah Tisdale, who was once also part of the Lamb of God community, but who has recently disappeared. Longmire would dearly like to reunite mother and son. To do so, however, will mean dealing with an eccentric tough who claims to be a 200-year-old Mormon “enforcer,” confronting the alarmingly well-armed religionists and figuring out why they’re so protective of territory that the federal government has deemed worthless—the same tract that, in the early-20th century, was at the center of the Teapot Dome scandal.

Johnson’s tales about Longmire, the protagonist’s short-tempered undersheriff, Victoria Morretti, and his Native American friend/sidekick, Henry Standing Bear, always offer light-hearted elements. Indeed, the polygamists’ lack of acquaintance with contemporary culture is a ripe source of humor here. But there’s nothing funny about the lengths to which that secretive sect will go to keep the outside world out of its business. When I call A Serpent’s Tooth explosive, it’s with good reason.

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One of the earliest incorporations of a cult into mystery fiction came in Dashiell Hammett’s second novel, The Dain Curse (1929). Like its predecessor, Red Harvest, this story features Hammett’s nameless, chubby agency detective, the Continental Op. Whereas Red Harvest is violent and bloody, though, The Dain Curse is compassionate, convoluted and downright weird at times. In it, we find the Op being hired to probe the theft of diamonds from San Francisco chemist Edgar Leggett, who had been experimenting with them. This investigation introduces the Op to Leggett’s daughter, Gabrielle, a morphine addict who’s convinced that she is the victim of a hereditary curse (passed down through her late mother, the former Lily Dain) that leads members of her clan to commit crimes. Sure enough, murder follows, and Gabrielle tries to hide from the curse within a mysterious religious cult. The Continental Op will go on to rescue her, help her kick drugs and eventually figure out what’s really behind the Leggetts’ misfortunes, but only after delivering this sardonic observation:

They brought their cult to California because everybody does, and picked San Francisco because it held less competition than Los Angeles.

No doubt about it, LA has proved to be fertile ground for fictional cults. For instance, in Ross Macdonald’s first private-eye novel, The Moving Target (1949), we find his man Lew Archer working for the wheelchair-bound wife of millionaire Ralph Sampson. It seems Sampson vanished after returning from a business trip to Las Vegas, and his spouse wants him found before he drinks too much and does something stupid. This isn’t an unfounded concern: On a previous bender, Sampson gave valuable mountain property away to a The Poison Skybogus, hirsute cult leader named Claude, who’s since welcomed sun-worshipping disciples to join him there. Archer and Sampson’s shapely but spoiled daughter, Miranda, visit Claude’s Temple in the Clouds to look for her father, but without satisfaction, and Macdonald’s plot soon becomes still more twisted, introducing a has-been actress interested in astrology, a love triangle, potential kidnapping and, of course, homicide. 

The employment of a cult by Macdonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar) evidently inspired imitation. His novelist wife, Margaret Millar, featured a religious cult in her 1962 mystery How Like an Angel. One of Macdonald’s friends, William Campbell Gault, roped a “crazed religious cult” and dubious cultist “deprogrammers” into his 1985 Brock Callahan P.I. tale, The Dead Seed. And in The Poison Sky (2000), John Shannon—another southern California writer who acknowledges Macdonald’s influence on his work—sent his aerospace worker turned finder of lost children, Jack Liffey, after a runaway who’s fallen under the sway of a highly defensive religious cult.

While these cults (along with the one that mixes Egyptology and nudism in Ellery Queen’s The Egyptian Cross Mystery, 1932) seem pretty benign, others are less so. Consider the murderous faction at the heart of Faye Kellerman’s 1999 Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus novel, Jupiter’s Bones. Or the apocalyptic Christian cult in Taylor Stevens’ The Innocent (2011). How about the suspicious and potentially dangerous Russian Orthodox sect in The Boy in the Snow (2012), M.J. McGrath’s second outing for reluctant Inuit sleuth Edie Kiglatuk? Or New York City’s Hanover House, the drug-pushing cult leader of which threatens to take revenge on a former follower who plans to pen a tell-all book, in Stephen Solomita’s Bad to the Bone (1991)?

I can’t fail to mention in this context Robert B. Parker’s Split Image (2010), which tracks parallel criminal inquiries: one that finds small-town Massachusetts police chief Jesse Stone looking into a pair of mob hits; the other of which has Boston shamus Sunny Randall trying to locate a troubled teenage girl, who seems OK with her chosen New Age commune so long as it offers free love, but understandably balks when she’s forced to engage there in sex with strange men.

Nor should I forget George C. Chesbro’s 1985 science-fiction-tinged mystery, The Beasts of Valhalla. His fourth book starring Dr. Robert “Mongo” Frederickson, Beasts has the dwarf criminologist/gumshoe attending the funeral of a computer-savvy nephew, only to soon become involved with a family of quite disturbed geniuses intent on saving mankind by devolving it to its evolutionary roots. With his police detective brother, Garth, Mongo follows a hazardous investigative trail (complete with newly created monsters) from Manhattan to the digs of a nutty Christian cult in California’s Big Sur area.

One of the darker, more bizarre combinations of cults and crime fiction, though, is available in The Diabolist (2013) by Layton Green. This new thriller’s plot turns on the slayings of satanic cult leaders. All of the targets received letters instructing them to renounce their beliefs or perish in defiance. Figures in black robes suddenly appear at these killings, only to subsequently vanish. Viktor Radek, a professor of religious phenomenology and an authority on cult activities, and his assistant, Dominic Grey, are summoned to put a halt to the hostilities. However, as their search for answers takes them from underground Paris to an isolated Sicilian fortress, the reader can hardly help thinking that there’s some cruel, karmic inevitability in spurious mystics who prey on the gullible and lost, being preyed upon themselves.

Where and when will the next cult-based storyline infiltrate crime fiction? C’mon, someone, enlighten me.

J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.