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?