As this is written, singer/actress Doris Day would have been 99. Her personal life was very complicated, but on screen, she was well known for her ‘proper,’ even virginal, characters. Those characters represented a difficult balance that women were expected to achieve: be ‘proper,’ but also be interesting enough to be enticing. It’s been a challenge for real-life women for a very long time, and we see that challenge reflected in crime fiction, too.
Several of Agatha Christie’s female characters are portrayed as ‘good girls,’ or ‘nice young women.’ But they’re also appealing enough that it’s easy to see how another character might see them as sexual partners. I’ll just offer one example. In Evil Under the Sun, we are introduced to Rosamund Darnley, a well-known dress designer. She decides to take a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay. Shortly after her arrival, she discovers that another guest is an old friend of hers, Captain Kenneth Marshall, who’s there with his family. She’s delighted to see him, and it’s not hard to work out that she has feelings for him. Still, she behaves completely ‘properly,’ as does Marshall; after all, he is married. Everything changes when Marshall’s wife, Arlena Stuart Marshall, is murdered. Hercule Poirot is also staying at the hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is. As you can imagine, Marshall is a ‘person of interest’ in the case, as is Rosamund Darnley. Other guests, too, have motives for murder. As the story goes on, there’s an interesting contrast between Rosamund and Arlena. Although she is the victim, not a lot of people have a great deal of sympathy for Arlena. She has a notorious reputation, and in fact, was carrying on an affair with another guest at the hotel. On other hand, there’s a lot of respect for Rosamund. Both women are professionals, physically attractive, and not very different in age, and it’s fascinating to see how they are seen in very different ways.
In Charlotte Armstrong’s Lay On, Mac Duff, nineteen-year-old Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Gibbon travels to New York to live with her uncle, Charles Cathcart and his wife, Lina. She’s a little innocent, but she’s smart and capable, and she’s not sure at all that she’ll enjoy her new living situation. Still, she doesn’t see much of an alternative. Uncle Charles doesn’t exactly make a warm and welcoming first impression, but Bessie settles in as best she can. Not long after her arrival, Uncle Charles invites a few of friends to the house for an evening of parcheesi. That night, one of those friends, Hudson Winberry, is murdered, and Uncle Charles becomes a suspect. The story gets to the media, and a reporter named John Joseph ‘J.J.’ Jones covers the investigation. He advises the family to call in former professor-turned PI Macdougal ‘Mac’ Duff, and they agree. Then there’s another murder, of another of Uncle Charles’ parcheesi-playing friends. Suspicion falls squarely on Charles Cathcart, and the tension grows as Bessie wonders whether she’s living with a murderer. With Jones and Duff, Bessie starts asking questions and trying to get to the truth. In several places in the novel, we see that Bessie is very much a ‘good girl,’ and Jones, in particular, likes her that way. On other hand, he is attracted to her, and she to him, and it’s interesting to see how that attraction is balanced with Bessie’s ‘proper’ decorum.
Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy is an Irish immigrant living in New York City at the turn of the 20th Century. She inherited a private investigation business, and although plenty of people question whether a woman should have such a job, Molly is making a success of her agency. Although she’s an independent, professional woman, Molly is still a ‘good girl’ who behaves circumspectly. Propriety is important to her. When she meets New York City police officer Daniel Sullivan, the two develop feelings for each other. Over the course of the novels, we see their relationship evolves. On the one hand, they are attracted to each other, and they’re both consenting adults. On the other hand, Molly doesn’t want a physical relationship until she marries. Certainly she doesn’t want the reputation she’d get if she behaved in an unsuitable way.
K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells is in a similar situation. She a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut) Women’s College at the very end of the 19th Century. She’s intelligent, educated, and independent. And when she meets another teacher, David Bradley, it’s not long before she feels the attraction. But she’s been raised to be a ‘proper young lady,’ and that means avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. That also means finding ways to show Bradley that she’s interested in him without behaving unacceptably.
We see this balance playing out in more recent decades, too. For instance, Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses begins in 1966 in South London. It’s a time of Rockers, Mods, and lots of experimentation. And teenage sisters Madeline ‘Midge’ and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Dolan want to be a part of it. They love the music, and they want to try the fashions, makeup, and so on. One Friday, they persuade their mother to allow them to go dancing at the Palais Royale, on condition that their cousin Jimmy take them and bring them back. Excited at their chance to sample life, the girls agree. They get to the Palais Royale, and before long, things start to fall apart. It all ends up in tragedy, and it haunts everyone even years later. There’s an interesting contrast in this novel. On the one hand, the girls want to go out, meet young men, look attractive, and so on. On the other, they are sheltered ‘good girls’ who want to keep their good reputations.
It wasn’t easy for Doris Day to project both innocence/virginity and attraction at the same time. It’s not easy for fictional characters, either. And to me, it says a lot about how our society has determined the roles that we should play.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Edward Heyman and Victor Young’s When I Fall in Love. Doris Day’s version of this song was one of her signatures.