Saturday, March 19, 2011

How Does it Feel to Be One of the Beautiful People?*

It’s interesting to see how crime fiction has evolved over the years, and how its focus has also evolved. For instance, in early crime fiction and, to a great extent, Golden Age crime fiction, the stories focus on wealthy people – the elegant upper class. There are characters from less-wealthy backgrounds. But their lives are not really the focus of the stories. That may be because only the wealthy were deemed worthy of notice. Or it could be that, especially during dismal economic times, it was a form of escape to dream about having that kind of wealth. In the last seventy-five years, though, we see quite a lot of crime fiction that doesn’t focus on the wealthy and that shows us the lives of those who don’t at all live elegantly. Of course, there are characters in today’s crime fiction who are wealthy and elegant. That life of money and privilege still has a strong appeal, and elegant atmospheres for stories can hold a real fascination. But those characters and their lives are no longer the only focus of today’s crime fiction.

In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, “the beautiful people” are very much the main focus of the story. Rachel Verinder has been given a rare and very valuable yellow diamond called the Moonstone by her Uncle John Herncastle. The stone is said to be cursed, though, since it was stolen from its rightful place in India, and the curse soon seems to be real. On the night Rachel Verinder receives it, it disappears. Then, second housemaid Roseanna Spearman disappears too, and is later found to have committed suicide. Sergeant Cuff is assigned to get to the bottom of both mysteries and he unravels the story of what happened to the diamond and why Roseanna Spearman committed suicide. Throughout the novel, it’s very clear that the people who “matter” are the “beautiful people.” The Verinder family and their relations are important. The other characters, even when parts of the story are told from their points of view, are not.

We see the same focus on “the beautiful people” in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the small village of Kings Abbott. He’s drawn out of retirement when Flora Ackroyd begs him to find out who stabbed her uncle, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. As Poirot investigates, he discovers that many of the members of Ackroyd’s household had motives for wanting him dead. One of the interesting things about this novel is that quite a lot of focus is placed on Fernly Park, the Ackroyd home. In fact Poirot’s neighbour Dr. Sheppard, from whose point of view the story is told, says that,

“There are only two houses of any importance in King’s Abbott. One is King’s Paddock…The other, owned by Roger Ackroyd, is Fernly Park.

There are, of course, other people who live in King’s Abbott, and we meet several of them in the course of the novel. But the doings of the wealthy Ackroyd family are far more important and interesting. In the end, Poirot gets to know the characters concerned in the case and finds out who really murdered Ackroyd and what the motive was.

I’m sure you could think of lots of other examples of early and Golden Age crime fiction that focuses on “the beautiful people – probably lots more than I could. Today’s crime fiction is much more diverse in terms of the kind of people portrayed in the novels. There are as many poor people depicted as wealthy people, and there are murderers and crimes among all of the socioeconomic classes. And yet, you could say that there is still a certain fascination with those who are wealthy, even if that fascination is more a sense of schadenfreude when they are proven to be as vulnerable as anyone else – perhaps more so.

For example, in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death, a new special investigation team is assembled to handle cases that are expected to attract a lot of media attention. That team, headed by Commander Adam Dalgliesh, is called into action when Crown Minister Paul Berowne and a local tramp named Harry Mack are both murdered in a church one night. The Berowne family is a wealthy and powerful one, and there is immediately a lot of public attention given to the killing. Dalgliesh and his team, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin, begin to search for the truth behind the murders. Throughout the novel, there’s a very interesting contrast between the Berowne investigation, which entails quite a lot of time and effort (not to mention the public scrutiny) and the Mack investigation. The press is patently not interested in the murder of a tramp, and if you read the novel carefully, you notice that there’s not a lot of focus in the book on Mack’s murder. It’s a fascinating example of the way being one of the “beautiful people” affects people’s interest.

In Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace, Chief Inspector Richard Jury is called to the village of Littlebourne when a human bone is discovered. Then, the body of its owner is discovered in the woods nearby. It turns out that the victim, Cora Binns, had come to the village from London on a job interview and Jury and his friend Melrose Plant look into the lives of the villagers to try to find out why she never made it to the interview. In the end, the two sleuths find the connections between Cora Binns, a theft from one of the local peers, and a tragic attack on another villager. One of the interesting things about this novel is the way the villagers view the Bodenheims, a wealthy and titled local family. In one sense, they’re most heartily disliked, and with good reason. They’re each unpleasant in a different way. On the other hand, they’re also the object of a lot of local fascination.

And then there’s the wealthy and powerful Vanger family, whom we meet in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Industrialist Henrik Vanger’s great-niece Harriet disappeared almost forty years ago. And yet, he’s been receiving birthday gifts that seem to be from her. So he hires Millennium magazine’s publisher Mikael Blonqvist to find out what happened to Harriet Vanger. Blonqvist and his researcher Lisbeth Salander travel to the Vanger home to look into history of events there and get to the truth about Harriet’s disappearance As they do so, we can see clearly that the wealthy seem to live by different rules, so to speak. We also see that people seem to be fascinated by them, even if that fascination takes the form of real resentment.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant also takes up this topic of people’s fascination with those who have money. In that novel, private investigator Vishwas “Vish” Puri and his team are hired by wealthy attorney Ajay Kasliwal to clear his name of charges that he raped and murdered Mary Murmu, a servant in his home. Puri agrees to take the case and begins his investigation. Then, Kasliwal is arrested with a great deal of media fanfare. Television and radio stations from all over India carry the story. To a great extent, it’s because the Kasliwal family is wealthy and privileged. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons the police are so bent on convicting Kasliwal of rape and murder. They want to prove that they are not swayed by the family’s money.

What about you? Do you see a change in the way crime fiction depicts our fascination with the “beautiful people?” If you’re a writer, how do you depict that kind of character?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles' Baby You're a Rich Man.


  1. A Taste for Death is a fine example because success and being noticed plays such an important role throughout the story.

    Without spoiling anything I think I can say there is a scene near the ending that reminds me of the housekeeper in Cover Her Face (another P.D. James story full of ´beautiful people´).

    When I write myself, it seems more natural to conjure up ordinary people for some reason, but in British cosies a lord of the manor may come in handy.

  2. Dorte - Oh, you are right, I think about that scene near the end of A Taste for Death. It is indeed similar to Cover Her Face, and yes, there are definitely "beautiful people" in both novels. I like the way you put that, too; the passionate desire to be noticed really does play an essential part in A Taste For Death...

    It's funny; I tend to create ordinary kinds of people, myself, when I write. I haven't (yet) written about truly wealthy "beautiful people". But II can certainly see how a wealthy, titled character can be very useful for a British cosy.

  3. One thought that came to mind as I read this - when the 'beautiful people' are featured as both the victim and the killer it goes to show that wealth doesn't stop murder, it sometimes draws it in. Maybe one reason the 'beautiful people' are featured is so the 'average' person can say not all good things happen to the rich.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - You know, I think you have a good point there. When the "beautiful people" get mixed up in murder, it does show that wealth and privilege doesn't protect a person from all of life's sorrows. That's a really interesting idea, and I think you're right; it's even clearer when the victim and the perpetrator are "beautiful people."

  5. Interesting thoughts... I am pondering your question... but I don't have an answer right now!

  6. Michelle - Thanks :-). And no worries if you don't have an immediate answer. I don't think there is just one answer :-)

  7. I think there has been a change towards all sorts of books being about 'ordinary' people - in the same way that the study of history has changed to just being about Kings and Queens to being about the history of 'everyman' too. Partly I suspect this is because we have more access to information about ordinary people than there once would have been - and also because more ordinary people are doing the creating. In the times when Golden Age crime fiction was being written I doubt there's have been too many criminals or people with criminal connections penning mysteries - whereas now this is routine. For example lots of the 'darker' crime writers talk about their research which involves interviewing ex-cons, doing ride-alongs with police etc - to get the realistic flavour into the writing.

    As far as my crime fiction goes I am more interested in the ordinary people I think - situations that I can relate to or imagine - as I am not one of the beautiful people and never will be I find books that deal solely with those people to be hard to get my head around. Of course I have read and enjoyed some books that do deal focus on the beautiful people but they're not my "go to" books.

  8. Bernadette - You make several really well-taken points here. One of them is that we want to read about people with whom we can identify. We want to relate to the characters in our books, and most of us are not part of "the beautiful people." So it makes sense that we identify most strongly with ordinary types, even if we read about "the beautiful people, too."

    And it's quite true that history as well as crime fiction has become increasingly about "the rest of us." It's a fascinating parallel. There is more information than there ever was about how ordinary people lived at various times in history, so we know more. And as we've both been saying, we can identify more with ordinary people.

    Interesting point as well about who writes stories. It's only relatively recently that criminals have been writing memoirs and assisting (if that's the term) people who write crime fiction. So we no longer have just the viewpoint of "the beautiful people." I think it makes for a much more interesting and diverse genre, really.

  9. This is a sort of jaded comment I guess. I think of how my mother wanted to believe anything bad about the Kennedy family and this was mostly based on her jealousy of a family who seemed to have tons of money and everything else Mom wanted but couldn't have. Whenever someone rich and/or famous has a tragedy or gets caught in a crime, a disgustingly large number of people are not only fascinated but even almost amused by the event. How the mighty are fallen . . . Does this make sense as to why crime novels are often about wealthy people?

  10. I think one of the appeals of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series is that Lynley is an Earl. We get glimpses into the life of the wealthy and titled--something many long for. Then we have Havers, she's the opposite end, poor and scraggly. And here we root for the underdog. And in the back of our minds, we all hope George brings Havers and Lynley together.

    As a writer, I'm poor but I love to have a rich character or two in some of my novels. I think to, in some way, imagine that life.

    Great post.

  11. Barbara - Oh, it certainly does make sense! There are, I am sure, many, many people who are jealous of the success that wealthy people have. I think that may be especially true for people who have not had a lot of success themselves. Some people do react to that jealousy with bitterness, no doubt about it.

    Clarissa - Thank you :-). And a really interesting point about Lynley and Havers. We see, if you will, both sides of life with those two characters. We can be fascinated by the life of the titled, and at the same time cheer for the underdog. I hadn't thought of it that way, but I like it. Thanks.