You know the type. I’ll bet you knew them in school, and perhaps you’ve encountered one or two at work, too. I mean the Queen Bee. She’s the one who’s socially in charge, and who can inspire jealousy, loyalty, lust, and a lot more. In school, she’s often the most popular (or at least, the one who ‘rules the school’). And on the surface, she’s the one everyone wants, or wants to be. But of course, things aren’t that simple, and often, the Queen Bee is a lot more vulnerable than it seems.
Queen Bee characters can be interesting, even if they are unsympathetic. And the psychological undercurrents can add a lot of tension to a novel. So can the dynamics of relationships between Queen Bees and other characters.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, we meet Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. Beautiful and wealthy, she’s very much a Queen Bee. She’s not deliberately cruel or malicious, but she is accustomed to arranging things exactly the way she wants, and to having people follow her lead. One day, Linnet gets a visit from her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort. It seems that Jackie’s fiancé, Simon Doyle, needs a job, and she asks Linnet to hire him as land agent. Linnet agrees, but before long, she’s become engaged to Simon. The two take a honeymoon trip that includes a cruise of the Nile. To their surprise, Jackie’s also on the trip, and it’s obvious that she’s neither forgotten nor forgiven what happened. On the second night of the voyage, Linnet is shot. Jackie is the first, most obvious suspect, but it’s soon proved that she could not have committed the murder. Hercule Poirot is also on the trip, and he investigates the murder. You might say that Linnet’s Queen Bee status made her unaware of the danger she was in.
Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide features Tristan Pembroke, a Memphis-based wealthy beauty pageant coach and judge. She’s also a social Queen Bee, and everyone’s used to doing things her way. That doesn’t mean she’s well-liked, though. She’s malicious and overbearing, and has made her share of enemies. One evening, Tristan hosts a charity auction. In the course of the evening, she’s murdered. Lulu Taylor, who owns a popular barbecue restaurant, finds the body, so she’s drawn into the investigation. She’s got a special interest in it, too, because her daughter-in-law Sara is one of the main suspects. It seems that Sara had an argument with the victim not long before she was killed, so she is very much a ‘person of interest’ to the police. Lulu wants to clear her daughter-in-law’s name if she can, so she does her own investigation.
Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of competitive cheerleading. Beth Cassidy is the captain of the high school cheerleading squad. She’s also a senior, and the undisputed Queen Bee of the school. Her ‘second in command’ is Addy Hanlon. The two have been friends since childhood, and now, they rule the school, as the saying goes. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French, and everything changes. Suddenly Coach French seems to be drawing the girls to her, and all of them want to be in her elite group. She makes Addy welcome in the group, but Beth is more or less frozen out. Now at a loss, Beth is both jealous and wistful. As time goes on, the tension gets more and more difficult for everyone, especially against the backdrop of the cheer competitions. It all leads to tragedy, and life for Beth and Addy will change forever.
Much of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is focused on Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. Like most schools, it has a group of parents that volunteer and are otherwise involved in school happenings. In this school, that group is led by Renata Klein. She is the Queen Bee of the school parents, and any parent who wants to get along with the group has to earn Renata’s approval. One day, Renata’s Kindergaten-aged daughter Amabella says that she was bullied and hurt by a classmate named Ziggy. The boy says he’s innocent, and his mother Jane believes him. But Amabella sticks with her story, and Ziggy won’t say who else might be responsible. It makes for a great deal of tension between Renata and Jane, and before long, there are two distinct ‘camps:’ Renata and her following on one side, and Jane and two of her friends on the other. It all makes for a difficult school year that culminates in tragedy one night when the school hosts a Trivia Night fundraiser.
And then there’s Clare Cavendish, whom we meet in Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood. Clare’s about to get married, and her friend Flo hosts a ‘hen weekend.’ Two of the invitees are Nora Shaw and Nina de Souza, who knew Clare in school, but haven’t seen her in ten years. Everyone gathers for the weekend, and it’s not long before tension starts to build. We learn that Clare has always been a Queen Bee, both in school and since then. She’s always had that certain ‘something’ that makes people do what she wants, whether they really want to or not. As the first night goes along, some secrets are revealed. It doesn’t help the atmosphere that the group’s beginning to think that someone might be watching them. It’s especially eerie because the house they’re staying is a remote summer home that Flo’s aunt owns. Before the weekend ends, things unravel completely, and there’s a real tragedy.
Queen Bees may be at the top of the social heap, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t vulnerable. And it doesn’t mean they’re really as popular as it seems. Which fictional ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin’s Apex Predator.