Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Working Class Hero is Something to Be*

Most real-life police detectives aren’t super-sleuths. They aren’t wealthy jet-setters, and they don’t have glamorous homes. The same is true of most real-life private investigators. They aren’t from exalted family backgrounds and they may not even have a lot of formal education. Many of them come from working class backgrounds, and have a very “regular” lifestyle. They may not have a lot of money or unusual brilliance (although they certainly have flashes of strong intuition), but they do have a dogged determination to do their jobs and do them well. We see the same kind of sleuth in crime fiction. These “working class heroes” bring a healthy dose of realism to murder mysteries, and very often, their down-to-earth approach to investigation provides a lot of insight into the crime that’s being investigated.

Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp, who appears in several of the Hercule Poirot novels and stories, is an example of the ways in which a “working class hero” can add to a story and help solve mysteries. Japp is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense inspector. He’s by no means stupid; in fact, he’s an intelligent detective. But he loses patience at times with what he calls Hercule Poirot’s “tortuous mind.” Japp likes straightforward solutions to problems. He also prefers a good steak and a pint to what he calls “Frenchified” food. He doesn’t have Poirot’s brilliance, but Poirot depends on him for thorough and accurate police work. Japp is no respecter of class, either, when it comes to suspects, and Poirot respects Japp’s willingness to suspect nearly anyone of a crime. In fact, more than once, Poirot mentions his respect for Japp’s ability to find out important background information that gives Poirot what he needs to solve cases.

We also see a “working class hero” in Colin Dexter’s Detective Sergeant Lewis. Lewis has a working-class background, and not as much formal education as his boss, Inspector Morse. He likes a basic eggs- and -chips dinner and an occasional pint, and he can’t always figure out the crossword puzzles that obsess Morse. But Lewis knows when things make sense and don’t make sense. He’s very good at putting together logical pieces of a puzzle. His mind doesn’t always take the leaps of brilliance that Morse’s does. However, Lewis’ mind is orderly and he’s far better than his boss is at some of the details of police investigation and policy. Very often, he follows up on leads and gets crucial information, and Morse depends a great deal on the background details that Lewis can get. Morse also values Lewis’ down-to-earth perspective, and although he ‘s often short with Lewis, he also realizes how important a partner Lewis is.

Equally down-to-earth and pragmatic is Elizabeth George’s Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers. Havers is passionate about solving cases, and she has a strong will and a short temper. Both have gotten her into a considerable amount of trouble. In fact, she’s been demoted more than once, and she’s known as not easy to work with. She’s as also very sensitive to the gender and class-based differences between her and her boss, Inspector Lynley. Yet, she’s shrewd and smart and has a well-tuned sense of the world around her. She has a lot of personal strength and resilience, and she’s got real-world insights that her superiors, including Lynley, don’t always have. At first, she and Lynley clash quite a bit, but over time, they learn to respect each other’s skills.

Almost as caustic as Havers is Ann Cleeves’ Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope. Stanhope is middle-aged, a frumpy dresser and not particularly attractive. She’s fond of her pint and she has little patience with niceties. Like Havers, she wrestles with her own personal demons. Yet, she’s got a keen, insightful mind and a pragmatic way of investigating. Beneath her seemingly slow and plodding exterior, Stanhope has a thoughtful way of putting the pieces of a puzzle together and getting to the bottom of mysteries.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is also a fascinating “working class hero.” Bosch is the son of a prominent attorney, but he was raised by his mother, who was a prostitute, until she was murdered when he was eleven. Shuttled through a series of foster homes, orphanages and reform schools, Bosch has had a less-than-comfortable life. He’s now a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, and has the reputation of what he calls being “relentless” about solivng cases. He’s determined to do whatever it takes to find answers, even when this brings him in conflict with the “brass” in the department – and it does. His differences with his superiors have gotten him penalized more than once. Harry’s not concerned about the politics of getting promoted to the best jobs, though. In fact, he seems to care far less about his own career than he does about getting to the bottom of the cases he’s assigned.

The same might be said of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. Rebus is the son of a stage hypnotist. He joined the Army at age fifteen, since he had few other options other than going into coalmining. After a career in the SAS and later the Lothian and Border Police, Rebus is now a hard-drinking Detective Inspector for the Edinburgh police. Like Bosch, Rebus is passionate about his work, and is not afraid to go head-to-head with his superiors in the process of doing his work. Very often, that gets him into trouble, especially if his cases involve corruption at high levels. Also like Bosch, Rebus is a lot more concerned with doing the right thing and “getting his man” than he is with the realities of police and government politics.

Of course, not all fictional “working class heroes” are police officers. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is a solid example of “working class hero” who’s got a different sort of a career. She’s a bounty hunter. The daughter of a postal worker, Stephanie was born and raised and still lives in Trenton, New Jersey. She’s got solidly working-class roots. Plum had a job as a lingerie buyer for a department store until she was laid off. The layoff continued until Plum, desperate for money, had to find a new source of income. So she accepted a job as bounty hunter for her cousin, Vinnie Plum. Stephanie Plum has a steady diet of fast food and soda, along with the occasional beer (sometimes too many beers). Her solidly respectable family would like her to leave her dangerous job; after all, “they’re always hiring at the button factory.” But Plum is drawn to the bounty-hunting life. Besides, there’s Officer Joseph Morelli, Plum’s on-again/off-again lover, himself a working-class detective.

Like Stephanie Plum, Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is a working-class “hero” who’s not really in law enforcement. And, like Plum, Rawlins gets himself into some dangerous situations. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Rawlins is an unlicensed (for most of the series) African-American private detective who lives in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, although he’s from Louisiana originally. Rawlins’ mother died when he was a child, and his father abandoned the family. So Rawlins has been on his own for most of his life. He served in World War II, but lost his postwar job at an aircraft plant. As the series begins, Rawlins has just lost his job and he’s desperate to keep his home. So he accepts a job looking for a missing woman and ends up solving a complicated mystery. That adventure draws him into private detection. Since the books are set in postwar Los Angeles, Rawlins has to face issues such as racial segregation besides the risks of private investigation.

Working class detectives can lend a unique flavor to a series, especially when they’re contrasted with those from different social classes. They may not have been schooled in “the social graces,” and they aren’t “well born,” but they tend to be devoted to their work, pragmatic and intuitive. They also get results. Who are your favorite “working class heroes?”

*The title of this post is from John Lennon's Working Class Hero.


  1. I've been following your blog for about a month, but am pretty sure I have never left a comment. Not because I have not been utterly carried away by what you say, but because you leave nothing left for me to say.
    But since the title of today's post is also one of my favourite songs, I thought I would drop a handkerchief (do they even exist outside mystery stories) to let you know how much I love your insightful essays.

  2. Rayna,
    How kind of you to say such nice things : ). I do appreciate your reading my blog, and I'm glad that you enjoy it. It means a lot to me that you took the time to drop a handkerchief : ). Lennon did some wonderful songs, didn't he? I love this one, too.

  3. I love your approcah and the way you describe most police detectives, I use to think the other way but you are right , they are just regular working class people.I love your article
    mantis tiller

  4. Great post, Margot (I think all my comments start that way!). In particular, it reminded me of how I liked the Barbara Havers character in the first few books in which she appears - I have not watched the TV series but I gather they changed her a lot for that, and I think this is probably reflected in changes in her in the later (more ponderous) books.
    Reflecting on your post, I also have the impression that "working class" has different connotations in the US and the the US you get more of the "working class hero" ethos (eg Bosch) whereas in the UK it is more of a "chip on the shoulder/class war" (eg Rebus).

    An overgeneralisation, I am sure, but not entirely untrue?

  5. Benbes - Thank you for the kind words : ). I think a lot of people do see police detectives as somehow, superhuman - at least very different from the rest of us. The truth is, as you say, many detectives are from the working class, and don't have a "blueblood" background or an expensive car and home. They are "regular" folks.

    Maxine - Thanks to you, my head is now too swollen to fit into the collars of my blouses and sweaters! Your comment made me think about how being televised can sometimes change a for thought for a future blog post, I think : ). And you have, I think, an interesting point about what "working class" means in the U.S. and U.K. It may be a generalization, but there is some truth there, I believe. The term definitely has different connotations in the two places. Certainly Bosch and Stephanie Plum and their like don't seem to have a chip on their shoulders about their backgrounds. They may about other things, but not that. But the U.K. working-class detectives do have a chip on their shoulder about their backgrounds, and other working-class characters in U.K. crime fiction do, too. That's addressed frequently, for example, in Agatha Christie's work, where many characters resent the way "the likes of us" are treated. That's a really fascinating point, and another thing to ponder for a post topic. What about crime fiction from other countries? What does "working class" connote in other countries? Really interesting "food for thought." No wonder I enjoy your responses so much : ).

  6. Well, Rebus and Havers are great working class heroes, but the most entertaining one is probably Vera Stanhope. She is SO fun.

    And Maxine opens another interesting discussion (not for the first time :D).

    Even though I must be said to come from the Danish working class, it is not something I think about. Partly because class is not something we discuss much, and partly (I think) because so many children of working class parents have taken a university degree during the last decades that it is nothing exceptional. Perhaps also because accent is more of a regional question than a class matter in this country.

  7. 'His mind doesn’t always take the leaps of brilliance that Morse’s does' - I have a quote in my quotes book from Morse that seems to fit here: 'The trouble with my method, Lewis, is it's inspirational, and as a result I sometimes, sometimes get things arse about face.' from the television version of The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn.

    And the opposite of the working class hero is Lewis' new partner, Hathaway. I know, I do go on about this show, but I think they are two of the most interesting ever policemen.

    As always, a wonderful posting, Margot.

  8. Dorte - Oh, I like Vera, too! Isn't she terrific?! And you are quite right about Maxine; her comments are always so thoughtful and interesting. I get some fascinating ideas from her responses - and yours : ).

    Speaking of which...thanks for sharing the Danish perspective on class. It sounds quite similar to the U.S. perspective in that many children from working-class families take degrees and go on to careers in what's called the professional class. It's also fascinating what you mentioned about accent. Accents and ways of speaking are heavily affected by geography here in the U.S., too. There are certain differences between the speaking patterns of those who are really educated and those who aren't, but speech patterns are arguably as much matter of region and cultural group as of class here.

  9. Nan - Oh, thank you for that wonderful quote!! It's a terrific reminder that Morse is, himself, aware of the limits of his way of thinking and going about his cases. It also shows his respect for the way Lewis thinks. The book on which that episode is based is one of my favorite Morse stories, too....

    Also, thanks so much for the kind words : ). They are much appreciated.

  10. Great point, Margot! I'd not realized there were so many working class cops out there in mysteries...but you're absolutely right. I love the fresh perspective they offer to a mystery.

    I'm tweeting this one...


  11. If you understand people, you understand people, regardless of your up-bringing. It is true, that those detectives from privileged backgrounds might be ignorant of some of life's grittier realities, but these individuals entered the police force; not the polo field. Everyone comes with their own set of prejudices, Havers often (especially in the earlier books) has trouble admitting Lynley's instincts might be right. Lewis is wonderful at dragging Morse's head out of the clouds (or out of the pub), but sometimes has trouble following Morse's line of thought.

    Another thought: most people don't live in castles or live lives of immense privilege. Catching glimpses of this type of life through blue-blood detectives is fun and surely, one of the mystery writer's jobs is give their readers an escape from their own realities.

  12. Elizabeth - Thank you : ). How sweet of you to pass it on. There really are a lot of working-class sleuths out there, and I think that's just as true in real ife as it is in crime fiction. I agree with you, too, that they offer an important and interesting perspective.

  13. Elspeth - There's no doubt about it; class matters not at all when it comes to whether or not one has a solid understanding of and insight into people. That's why partnerships like Havers' and Lynley's are so interesting. They both have keen insights, and their partnership doesn't work well until each realizes that. The same is true of Morse and Lewis; different backgrounds and different ways of looking at life, but each is intuitive.

    Also, thanks for the very useful reminder of why people read mystery fiction. In part, it's because we want to escape. We want to think about something different from our daily lives. So it's just as useful to include characters from more privileged backgrounds as from working-class backgrounds. As with everything else in crime fiction, what we're talking about here is balance. A balance between a plot and characters we can believe could exist, and an story that lets us step away from our own lives.