Many people, particularly business executives (but certainly not only those people) have personal assistants, secretaries, or other ‘gatekeepers.’ When they’re at their best, such people make their bosses’ lives much smoother and easier by keeping track of appointments and other obligations, ‘weeding out’ people who will only be distractions, and taking care of administrative work. ‘Gatekeepers’ be very formidable people, and any detective knows how important it can be to win those people over.
There are plenty of ‘gatekeepers’ in crime fiction, which isn’t surprising when you consider how many people and companies employ them. One of the best-known of such characters is Agatha Christie’s Felicity Lemon. She serves as secretary/PA to Hercule Poirot, and as such, makes his appointments, takes his letters, and so on. She has a strong personality (even Poirot doesn’t usually question her), and devotes her time and energy to making Poirot’s life easier, when she’s not planning her new filing system. For those who watch TV adaptations of the Poirot stories, Pauline Moran gave what I think was a very effective portrayal of the capable Miss Lemon.
Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti works at the Venice questura. He and his colleagues answer to Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta, an ambitious social climber who does not like to upset anyone in power. This sometimes puts Patta in the role of a toady, instead of someone who’s really looking out for the city’s citizens. Fortunately for the city, his assistant is Signorina Elettra Zorzi, who really wields all of the power at the questura. Everyone who works at the questura knows that nothing happens there unless she wants it to happen, and when she does want something to happen, it does. She is socially conscious, extremely competent, and well-connected, so she’s in a good position to get things done. She’s not easily intimidated, even by her boss, and she knows what to do to support an investigation, no matter how powerful the subject of that investigation may be.
Of course, not all PAs and other ‘gatekeepers’ are as competent and hardworking as Miss Lemon and Signorina Elettra. For example, in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s series featuring attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, we meet Thóra’s secretary Bella. As the series begins, Bella is lazy, forgetful, and not good at relaying messages. She’s also a smoker in a building that’s supposed to be smoke-free, and she can be very rude, both to clients and to her employers. But Thóra can’t fire Bella, because she is related to the building’s landlord, who has stipulated that she must be employed there. Gradually, as the series goes on, Bella becomes a little less obnoxious and a little more competent at her job. She even helps out on a few cases. But she certainly doesn’t have a perception of herself as someone who’s supposed to look out for her boss.
In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant has been hired to find and stop whoever’s been blackmailing successful accountant Daniel Guest. It seems that someone knows that Guest, a married man, has been having trysts with men, and wants money to keep that fact a secret. Guest isn’t overly interested in an arrest or in revenge; he simply wants the blackmailer to leave him alone. That’s where Quant comes in. Once he gets some background information, Quant starts to follow the blackmailer’s trail. In this case, it leads to a local theatre, where he comes up against a sullen secretary/receptionist who has absolutely no interest in being helpful. Quant knows that if he doesn’t enlist her help, he’s not going to find out what he needs to know. So, he spins a story which, although it’s not true, is enough to persuade the young lady to show him the ‘photos he’s asked to see. In the end, they provide him with a bit of the puzzle, and it’s interesting to see how he gets past this particular ‘gatekeeper.’
Rachel Abbott’s Only the Innocent is the story of the murder of famous and wealthy philanthropist Hugo Fletcher. When he is found dead in one of his homes, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Tom Douglas takes the case, his first for the Met. It’ll be a very delicate case, though. For one thing, Fletcher was beloved by the media and public because of his charity work. For another, he was found in a sexually compromising position, and that fact won’t be lost on any tabloid that happens to find out what happened. Still, Douglas and his team get started. One of the people they work with is Fletcher’s PA Jessica Armstrong. She’s the gateway through which anyone must pass who wants to meet with Fletcher or even communicate with him. As such, she has a lot of information about him. She is fiercely protective of her boss, though, and Douglas is sure she’s not telling everything she knows. It’s not spoiling the story to say that she is a formidable person who was essential to Fletcher’s success.
There are other characters, too, of course, who act as ‘gatekeepers,’ whether official or unofficial. They’re the ones who screen people, arrange things for their bosses, and are often quite strong in their own rights (right, fans of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin?). Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s (The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs.