Wednesday, November 11, 2009

People Like Us....

In real life, murders are committed by all kinds of people from every social class. Murder victims, too, come from every social class. So do those who investigate murders, whether they’re in law enforcement or they investigate privately. Interestingly enough, though, it’s only been in the last few decades that it’s been common for crime fiction to acknowledge this fact. And yet, class differences and our attitudes towards members of different social classes have always been an important reality.

In the days of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the serving and working class weren’t often discussed in crime fiction. Holmes, for instance, worked with the wealthy and “well-born” classes almost exclusively. Holmes frequently got information and clues from members of the lower classes; he sometimes even disguised himself as one of them. For the most part, though, Holmes didn’t solve mysteries for members of the “lower” classes, and Conan Doyle didn’t pay a great deal of attention to their daily lives. One could argue that the very act of ignoring those people was a message that they weren’t important.

There was a similar focus on the wealthy and professional classes during the Golden Age of crime fiction. For instance, most of the early cases (e.g. A Man Lay Dying) that Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn investigated involved members of the upper classes. Of course, since Marsh’s first love was the theater, she also focused several of her novels on actors, too, who weren’t always “well-born.” Nevertheless, the inference one can make is that the lives of the wealthy and the gentry were of interest. The lives of “the rest of us” weren’t.

During the 1940’s and 1950’s, crime fiction began to acknowledge more the realities of social class. In fact, Agatha Christie’s novels often commented on social class as early as the late 1930’s. For instance, in Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of wealthy and beautiful socialite Linnet Ridgeway Doyle during her honeymoon cruise up the Nile. One of the other cruise passengers, Mr. Ferguson, is a loud critic of the existing class system, and says that women such as Linnet Doyle are “parasites” on society. In fact, when one of the boat’s engineers turns out to have a motive for the murder, and is questioned in connection with the case, Ferguson jumps to his defense, claiming that he’s being framed because he’s not from the “better” class. In Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle is arrested for the murder of her wealthy Aunt Laura’s protégée, Mary Gerrard. Hercule Poirot is called in by Dr. Peter Lord, Aunt Laura’s doctor, who’s infatuated with Elinor and wants her to be acquitted. Aunt Laura’s housekeeper, Mrs. Bishop, claims that Elinor couldn’t be guilty because she’s a well-bred young lady. Moreover, she makes it clear that that she thinks Mary Gerrard acted “above herself” because Aunt Laura had paid for her to go to finishing school. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Poirot finds the killer of Mrs. McGinty, a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her unpleasant lodger. None of Mrs. McGinty’s employers understands why Poirot would be interested in the case; in fact one of them says that Mrs. McGinty was “only a stupid charwoman.”

In that novel, in The A.B.C Murders, and in Dead Man’s Folly (among several others that came later in Christie’s career) Christie also pays a lot more attention to the non-gentry social classes. They’re important witnesses, they’re sometimes victims, and Christie provides much more detail on their daily lives. Often they’re presented as sympathetic characters. Christie herself seems to have been very much aware of the social class issues of her day, and was sometimes critical of then-current attitudes. For example, in a few of her novels (Sorry – no titles, as I don’t want to give “spoilers”) the murderer “hides behind” the “well-born” class’ tendency to ignore or at least dismiss members of the lower classes. In one case in particular, the murderer admits to resenting that dismissive attitude; in fact, while it’s not the reason for the murder, it certainly plays a role in the events that lead up to the killing. Also, there’s a pervasive assumption in Christie’s novels that “people like us” – “well-born” people – don’t go around committing murder. Of course, in Christie’s novels, they very often do…

The “hardboiled” detective novel that began with fictional sleuths such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer also ushered in an era of interest in working-class major characters. For instance, in Spillane’s My Gun is Quick, Hammer takes the initiative to investigate the case of a murdered prostitute – something that wouldn’t have happened even a few decades earlier. Later sleuths, such as John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee, take a special interest in “down and out” people. In fact, McGee’s specialty seems to be finding justice for those who’ve been cheated.

Today’s crime fiction addresses the issue of social class quite openly. Some novels approach the issue directly. For instance, in Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Comissario Guido Brunetti investigates the apparently accidental death of Ariana Rocich, a young gypsy girl who, it seemed, fell from the room of a house she was robbing into a nearby canal. Brunetti has to confront his own as well as others’ prejudice against people of “that class” as he searches for the real truth behind the girl’s death. He also has to confront the very natural resentment that the Rom people involved in the case feel towards those in higher social classes.

In Crisis, Robin Cook addresses the topic of concierge medicine, a controversial approach to medical care in which the very wealthy pay what amounts to a retainer. In exchange for that fee, they are entitled to “V.I.P” treatment that includes home visits. In the novel, Dr. Craig Bowman, a Boston “concierge doctor,” is sued for malpractice when one of his very wealthy patients dies because, so it’s alleged, he didn’t get her to the hospital soon enough. Bowman’s wife calls her brother, Dr. Jack Stapleton, asking him to come to Boston to help prove that Bowman did not act negligently. As Stapleton looks into the case, he finds that there’s much more to it than simply a patient dying of a heart condition. The novel itself isn’t considered one of Cook’s best. However, there are some fascinating discussions of class-and-wealth issues. One of them is the whole question of whether “concierge medicine” widens the gap between the social classes. At the end of the book, in fact, Cook makes the argument that it does, and suggests that the whole structure of American medical care needs to be more egalitarian. The character of Craig Bowman is also an interesting study in class issues. He’s got a working-class background, but he’s put himself through medical school and worked extra hard to make it “to the top.” Now that he’s there, he makes every effort to “act the part,” and that serves to work against him. Many of the jurors in the malpractice case resent what they see as his arrogance. Again, it’s an interesting portrait of social class in the world of medicine.

Some crime fiction addresses the class issue more subtly, but still in a clear, realistic way. For example, while a great deal of crime fiction in years past featured “gentleman detectives” (e.g. Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn), many of today’s sleuths don’t come from privileged backgrounds; this adds an interesting dimension to today’s crime fiction. For instance, in Elizabeth George’s Inspector Thomas Lynley series, we often see the tension between Lynley, who’s “well-born” (in fact, he’s a peer of the realm) and his partner, Barbara Havers, who has a working-class background. They see their cases from very different perspectives, and sometimes clash. Colin Dexter addresses the social class issue, too, in his Inspector Morse novels. Underlying the mystery plots is an ongoing tension between the educated, upper class at the university in Oxford, and the less educated, lower-class residents of the town itself. There are also some interesting differences between Morse, who’s from the upper middle class, and Detective Sergeant Lewis, who’s from the working class. They, too, see their cases from different perspectives, and it’s interesting to see how each of them deals with the different witnesses and suspects they encounter.

How do your favorite authors deal with the issue of social class?


  1. I love Elizabeth George's books, which you've mentioned here. I think that sometimes Lynley's background and his accent are almost portrayed as an impediment in his job. I like that twist!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Issues between classes have been around forever and will probably always be around. In the UK it's all about your accent and where you grew up. Over here it's about education; how much and where. The mistrust that both Elizabeth George and Colin Dexter explore grew weaker as the characters learn about each other as people and not as products of their births.

    The only thing about this that drives me truly a little nutty is when the writer decides poor = good, and rich = bad. It just ain't necessarily so.


  3. Elizabeth - I hadn't thought of it that way - that an upper-class background can be almost a hindrance. But in Lynley's case, you're absolutely right. That's why Havers can be so helpful : ). Thanks for that perspective. It's a good example of how far crime fiction has come in dealing with the issue of social class.

    Elspeth - You hit on something really important! Once the writer equates one group with "good" and another with "bad," this can take away from the story. Not all wealthy/"well born" people are money-hungry, position-happy oppressors. Not all poor or lower-class people are hard-working, noble victims. To imply otherwise is no more accurate than it is to imply that "well-born" people are somehow "better" than those from lower socioeconomic classes. That's a really well-made point!!

    You're also right that the more characters learn about each other, the less important those class boundaries become. That's true of life, too...

  4. Wow. The thought didn't cross my mind before, but stereotypes and cultural sensibilities are infused all through that evolution of crime fiction. You would think that violence and murder would be egalitarian.

  5. Jason - Thanks for visiting! I appreciate your commenting. You're right that it would be much more realistic if crime fiction had reflected (as it does much more now) the fact that violence cuts across social groups. My thought is this: crime fiction is written by people; people are products of their generation/historical period. As society has changed, so has crime fiction. Murder is certainly egalitarian in real life; it's just that it's only been in the last few decades that society has been willing to talk about it, both in real life and in crime fiction.

  6. A very interesting discussion. I entirely agree that Christie's approach was more subtle than some of her critics appreciate.

  7. Martin - Thanks. You put that quite well: Christie's approach to dealing with the social class issue was dead-on, but subtle. Not easy to achieve...