Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Keeping Up Appearances

Most of us want to be well-regarded. We may not mind being unconventional, but we usually want others to have good opinions of us. If researchers such as Abraham Maslow are right, then our need to be accepted and approved of by others is extremely strong, and certainly affects our behavior. In fact, people sometimes take great pains to keep up appearances and preserve what’s sometimes called “a veneer of respectability” because the alternative – being rejected by others – isn’t a viable option. It’s interesting to see how our need to fit in and sometimes keep up appearances is woven through real life – and through crime fiction. Sometimes, the desire to keep up appearances even leads to murder. Even when it doesn’t, though, it can certainly play a role in a crime fiction novel; after all, many people will hide any trace of being less-than-acceptable, and when you’re a sleuth, the thought that people might be hiding something immediately makes you suspicious…

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face is focused very much on keeping up appearances. Grant Munro asks Sherlock Holmes’ help because he’s concerned about his wife, Effie. They’ve had a happy marriage, but lately, a secret seems to have come between them. Effie won’t confide in her husband, but he thinks her odd behavior and secretiveness might be connected to another recent event. A strange family has moved into the Munro’s neighborhood, and although Grant Munro doesn’t know much about the family, he thinks Effie may know more than she’s saying. Holmes agrees to investigate the case. As he and Watson find out about the new arrivals, they learn what the connection is between those people and Effie Munro. As it turns out, the entire mystery revolves around Effie’s need to keep up appearances and maintain her respectability.

Agatha Christie’s novels sometimes also treat this theme. For instance, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot retires (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbott, where everyone knows everyone else. Shortly after his arrival, Roger Ackroyd, a retired manufacturing tycoon, is stabbed one night while he’s in his study. There is no lack of suspects, as Ackroyd had a large fortune and financially strapped relations. Ackroyd’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton, is the most logical suspect, since he’d quarreled with his stepfather about money, and since he disappeared right after the murder. There’s other evidence against him, too. Paton’s fiancée, Flora, doesn’t believe he’s guilty and begs Poirot to investigate. What Poirot finds is that nearly everyone in Ackroyd’s circle is hiding something, and in two cases, those secrets have to do with keeping up appearances. In fact, when Poirot finds out what the secret is that Miss Russell, the housekeeper, has been keeping, she even says:

“I have always been considered so – so very respectable. If anyone got an inkling – it would have been all up with my post as housekeeper.”

Keeping up appearances isn’t the reason for Ackroyd’s murder, but it does play an important role in many of the characters’ behavior.

That veneer of respectability is an important reason for the murder in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. In that novel, Superintendent Spence asks Poirot to re-open the case of James Bentley, who’s been convicted of murdering his landlady, Mrs. McGinty. Spence has begun to think that Bentley was innocent, and doesn’t want to see him executed for a crime he didn’t commit. Poirot agrees and visits the village of Broadhinny, a village with a lot of “very nice people.” As Poirot learns more about Mrs. McGinty, he also learns that she had a habit of finding out people’s secrets. In one particular case, the secret she discovered threatened someone’s solid, respectable and well-supported lifestyle, and that signed Mrs. McGinty’s proverbial death warrant. It’s not just the murderer, either, who’s determined to be respectable in this novel. Nearly all of the characters want to preserve their veneer of respectability and be well-regarded.

We also see that desire to fit in and be respected in the character of Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane. When we meet her in Strong Poison, she’s on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. She quarreled with Boyes because after having insisted on living together without marriage, he proposed marriage, and Harriet was furious at having given up her public respectability for what turned out to be no reason. Miss Amanda Climpson, who’s on the jury, isn’t convinced of Harriet’s guilt. Her unwillingness to convict leads to a new trial for Harriet, and gives Lord Peter Wimsey the time he needs to clear her name. It also brings the two of them together.

We see Harriet Vane’s sense of wanting to be well-thought-of in Gaudy Night, too. She’s invited back to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, to participate in its annual Gaudy dinner. Harriet’s at first unwilling to attend, because she thinks that the reputation she’s gotten after her murder trial might have unpleasant consequences. She’s happily surprised when she’s quite well-received and made welcome. A few months later, the Warden of Shrewsbury College writes to Harriet, asking her to return and help find out who’s behind some troubling incidents of vandalism and other occurrences. Harriet agrees and goes back to Shrewsbury, ostensibly to do some research for a book. The incidents continue and actually become more and more serious; in fact, Harriet herself is nearly killed. Lord Peter Wimsey comes to help Harriet, and together, they discover that the reason for those incidents also has to do with respectability and reputation.

In A Dark-Adapted Eye, Ruth Rendell’s first novel under the name of Barbara Vine, there’s a major focus on the theme of keeping up appearances. In this case, we learn about the oh-so-respectable Longley family. A solid, middle-class, well-respected family, the Longleys have always shrunk from public scandal. Then, Faith Longley Severn is approached by investigative journalist Daniel Stewart, who wants to do a story on a dark truth that the family has for years refused to acknowledge. Years ago, Faith’s aunt, Vera Longley Hilliard, was tried, convicted and hung for murder. As Faith begins to work with Daniel on the story, she also has to face the stark differences between the veneer her family had always tried to keep, and the ugly reality beneath it.

Donna Leon’s About Face also takes up the theme of preserving appearances. One night at a dinner party, Commssario Guido Brunetti meets Franca Marinello, whose knowledge of Cicero and Virgil fascinate him. He notices, though, that her appearance is somewhat odd, as though she’d had too much plastic surgery. At the same time, Brunetti and his team are investigating the sudden death of a trucking company manager. The Caribinieri, in the form of Maggiore Filippo Guarini, are investigating this death as murder, because they think the trucking company has been involved in illegal transportation of toxic waste. Then, Guarini is murdered, and Brunetti and his team end up investigating a complex web of illegal activity to find out who’s responsible for the two deaths. In the end, after a rather dramatic climax, Brunetti discovers how those deaths are connected with Franca Marinello. We also find out the important role that appearances and honor play in this novel as Brunetti uncovers the truth about Franca Marinello, her past, and her activities.

One of the most interesting (and actually chilling) stories about appearances and respectability is Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal. Horace Croyden comes from an utterly respectable long and well-established line of people. No scandal of any kind has ever touched the family. Croyden himself is fastidiously respectable, too. He begins his career as a bookkeeper at a well-established bank and as the years go by, lives a quiet and peaceful, scandal-free life. Then one day, he meets Althea, his employer’s cousin. She impresses him at first as demure and ladylike and on the strength of that, he proposes marriage. The minute she accepts, he begins to regret his proposal, as she all of a sudden becomes oddly animated and

“…a bit too vivacious for good taste."

But breaking off the engagement isn’t an option, because that would cause too much talk and scandal. So the two marry and before long, Horace Croyden’s life has become for him a nightmare. Althea doesn’t have the same fastidious habits he does, and worse, she begins to redecorate their apartment. The worst moment comes when Horace comes home from work one day to find that Althea has gotten rid of his beloved ciphers, a hobby he’s had for years. The story ends dramatically, and we see how Horace Croyden obsession with respectability plays a critical role in it.

Most of us want to avoid scandal, actually. We’d rather be well-regarded. Sometimes, that desire to preserve a respectable exterior can go too far, though. Which novels have you enjoyed that focus on that theme?


  1. Fascinating post, as ever, Margot! I do love your blog and it was one of the things I missed most while I was away on holiday recently.
    This post is a very good topic. It is fascinating, the difference between conduct and actual personality, and how so many people confuse the two, mistaking someone who behaves well to what that person is really like. I've just read an excellent book, Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai, that shows this dilemma perfectly.

  2. Maxine - How very, very kind of you : ). I have to say, I truly missed your informative and thoughtful comments on my blog very much, too.

    You're right, too, that so many people develop an outside "persona" that others believe is real. In fact, it covers up an entirely different kind of person inside. The killer in Sjöwall and Wahlöö's Roseanna is rather like that. I've actually heard that Witness the Night is quite good, so I look forward to your review of that one.

  3. Excellent, as always. Where do you get your ideas?! I had an aunt named Effie, who was born in 1900. I don't expect the name will ever come back as some of the old ones have because of it being a sort of nickname, only with an ing, for a particular swear. :<)

  4. Nan - Why, thank you for the kind words; that's awfully nice of you : ). It is interesting, isn't it, how some names do come back in (or at least are accepted), and others don't. I agree, Effie is, sadly, one of those names that has become associated with swearing. A difficult job for parents, isn't it, choosing names.

  5. Intriguing topic. As usual, I can't think of any book titles but you have definitely peaked my interest in "To Avoid A Scandal." I can see where the deserve to be 'respectable' could lead to some very interesting plots for books.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - That's what I've always thought; the desire to be respectable and avoid gossip and scandal are, I think for some people, quite strong. So it makes sense that that desire would play an important role in crime fiction, too. I think you'll like To Avoid a Scandal. It's not all that easy to unearth, but if you do, it's worth the read.

  7. I haven't heard of the short story you mentioned but it sounds like a fascinating read. I know there are many books where people kill to preserve the same status they had before. Your title reminds me of the British Comedy with the same title - a funny, funny series set in the seventies?


  8. Clarissa - You're right; there are several books out there that feature murder for the purpose of maintaining a status, a lifestyle, etc., that they have. Interesting how much appearances can mean to people... You know, I hadn't thought of that television series when I chose the title, but it's fitting isn't it? I've only watched a few episodes, but yes, it's quite funny, I think.

  9. Interesting examination.

    The need to "keep one's face" has been a theme in so many books I have read. One that came immediately to mind are the Raffles stories. It always seemed to me that he became a thief more to keep face than to avoid poverty.

  10. Bibliophile - You've a very good point. "Keeping face," so to speak, is a really important theme in quite a lot of novels. And the Raffles stories are certainly good examples of the way someone might go very far - even turn to crime - to avoid losing that public image.

  11. I can;t think of a specific example of this theme in a book...except for Poirot himself! Think how he takes such delicate care of his "moustaches." That is his vanity. And there are plenty of other dandy detectives...I just can't grasp any at the moment!


  12. Michele - How right you are about Poirot! It's extremely important for him to keep up appearances, isn't it? No matter where he is and what the circumstances, he's dandified. Thanks for that example : ).

  13. The example that comes to mind are the old Columbo series from the 1970s and 1980s. I can't think of any books or authors at them moment though. I guess you could put Murder She Wrote with Amgela Lansbury there too.

    Stephen Tremp

  14. Stephen - Thanks for the reminder of the great Columbo. I always liked those shows and yes, many of the culprits in those episodes did try to keep up appearances. Good point! Several Murder, She Wrote episodes do, too...

  15. While blackmail is not a very likely murder motive today, I think keeping up appearances is still quite credible. I like your Harriet Vane examples, and I remember her pleasure at approaching the university in a car, not on her humble bicycle :D

  16. Oooh, Maslow's Heirarchy of needs is much ingrained in me as I did it for my psych degree. And what you say is so true!

    I love Barbara Vine's novels with a passion. In fact I feel that many of hers have an 'image' issue.

    Re Clarissa's point - Keeping up Appearances (with Hyacinth Bucket as the lead character) was on our screens (UK TV) in the early 90s... feels like MANY decades ago though!)

  17. Dorte - I think you are psychic; that was one of the scenes I was thinking of when I mentioned Harriet : ). And I agree; blackmail may not be the murder motive that it used to be, but people still want to be accepted and "save face."

  18. Kit - Ah yes, a psych. background; no wonder you are so familiar with Maslow : ). And it really does ring true, doesn't it? Even after all these years.

    You know, I hadn't thought about Barbara Vine novels as having image as general theme, but come to think about it, they do. Thanks very much for that insight : ).