If You Want to be Like the Folks on the Hill*

Just about every society has some sort of class system. It may be by birth, by money, by ethnic background, by geographic location, or by race (often it’s a combination of factors); whatever it is, societies often have a way of sorting people into groups. Those groups may be more or less permeable, depending on the society, but they’re there. And it’s fascinating to see how they impact crime fiction. There are many, many examples of this; I know I won’t come anywhere close to mentioning them all. But here are just a few examples.

Class is an issue in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. Wealthy Laura Welman has always taken an interest in her lodgekeeper’s daughter, Mary Gerrard. She’s paid for Mary’s education, and made it possible for her to travel, too. There are plenty of people in the village of Maidensford who think Mary’s been educated ‘above her station.’ In fact, Ted Bigland, who has a romantic interest in Mary, thinks that educating her was a mistake: 

“Mean well, people do, but they shouldn’t muck up people’s lives by interfering. All this schooling and going abroad! It changed Mary. I don’t mean it spoiled her, or that she was stuck-up – she wasn’t. But it – oh, it bewildered her! She didn’t know where she was any more. She was well, put it crudely – she was too good for me, but she still wasn’t good enough for a real gentleman like Mr. Welman.”

When Mary is poisoned, Laura Welman’s niece, Elinor Carlisle, is the most likely suspect. Not only was there a question of inheritance (since Mary had become a protégeé), but also, Elinor’s fiancé Roderick Welman was besotted with Mary. The local GP, Peter Lord, doesn’t think Elinor is guilty, and he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and finds that more than one person has a reason for wanting Mary dead.

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs started life as a domestic servant, and in the pre-World War I society she lived in, that limited her in many ways. But her employer, Lady Rowan Compton, saw that Maisie was bright, very quick to learn, and enjoyed reading. So, she sponsored Maisie, made sure she was educated, and paid for her to go to university. The war changed a lot of people’s notions about social class; since both ‘well born’ people and people from other classes went to fight (and often died), there were far fewer difference in class than there had been. When the war ended, Maisie (who’d been serving as a nurse) returned to England and became a private investigator. It’s interesting to see how both Lady Rowan’s sponsorship and the war served to make it easier for Maisie to move from ‘the serving class’ to more or less middle class.

Several of Peter May’s novels explore the impact of class on people’s lives. For instance, Entry Island tells two stories. One is the story of Sime Mackenzie, a police detective with the Sûreté du Québec. He is sent to Entry Island, which is a part of the province, when the body of successful businessman James Cowell is discovered. Mackenzie can’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu, although he’s never been to the island before. And as the novel goes on, we see that this Sime’s story is linked to that of another Sime Mackenzie, who emigrated from the Hebrides during the Highland Clearances of the 19th Century. That Sime was the son of a crofter whose family was forced off their land. As May tells that part of the story, we see how class impacted families. Those who were of the ‘better’ classes (and had the money) ended up with the land. Those who weren’t (and didn’t) were forced to go elsewhere if they could. Many emigrated, and we learn that Sime Mackenzie was among them. As the modern-day Mackenzie learns more about the past, he also sees how it connects with the present-day crime. Fans of May’s Lewis trilogy will know that there are some interesting class issues there, too, especially in the relations between the English and those who’ve always lived on the Isle of Lewis.

We see a different sort of class system (but no less influential) in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, the first in his series featuring Shanghai police detective Chen Cao. When the body of Guan Hongying, a national model worker (and therefore, somewhat of a celebrity) is discovered, Chen and his assistant, Yu Guangming, investigate. At first, the official theory is that the victim was raped and murdered by a taxicab driver. But as Chen and Yu soon discover, that’s not the only possible explanation. And as they keep looking for answers, they discover that Guan Hongying kept her own counsel, and that there were things about her that people didn’t know. The trail leads in part to those who are high on the Party’s ‘ladder’ – the High Cadres – and this could mean trouble for the two detectives, as those people are very powerful. As the police follow the leads, we get to see some of the life of privilege that this class enjoys. We also see the lifestyles that most people, including Yu and Chen, live, and they’re very different.

In some places (certainly in the US), class and race interact with each other, so that class is more complicated. And that’s explored in Attica Locke’s novels about Texas Ranger Darren Matthews and her novels about attorney Jay Porter. It’s also explored in Barbara Neely’s series featuring professional housekeeper Blanche White. In all of those novels, we see how money, position, and race intersect to create a system of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ It’s a complex mix of factors, and it impacts just about everyone’s life.

And that’s the thing about class. Whether or not we acknowledge it, class plays a role in many lives. Of course, it’s less of a factor in some places than others, and it involves different elements, depending on where you go. But it’s often got a lot of influence.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Working Class Hero.

8 thoughts on “If You Want to be Like the Folks on the Hill*

  1. Class has kind of reversed in how its portrayed in UK crime fiction, I think. The Golden Agers found their protagonists in the middle and upper classes, and the working classes were portrayed either as stupid but worthy, or as comedy characters. In modern crime fiction, generally speaking, the protagonist will have started out in the working class, often from a deprived and difficult background, while middle and upper class characters will almost inevitably be the baddies or obnoxious or figures of fun. It’s an interesting insight into our changing attitudes, I think, and into the kind of reverse snobbery that is now nearly as prevalent as normal snobbery. We are having one of those moments with our leadership contest at the moment – is this one too rich to be PM, should that one be disqualified because of her elite education, is that one really too aristocratic to understand what working people go through, is that one too uneducated and uncouth to represent us on the world stage, etc., etc. Objectively, it’s fascinating to see how class prejudice still affects our political choices.


    1. That really is an interesting point, FictionFan! The question of who’s in the best position to be PM is even impacted by the classes/backgrounds of the candidates, and I hadn’t really thought of that before – thanks. As I think about contemporary crime fiction, I do see your point about the change in the way people from different classes are treated. You do have some cases (like Dalziel and Pascoe) where education level, etc., doesn’t stop them from being strong characters. But there’s plain-spoken Dalziel who doesn’t have an elite education or a lot of money, and he’s the lead, and has a lot of fans. You see Barbara Havers in Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers series, too. She’s a sympathetic character who has a difficult background. And the list goes on. I’ve even read crime fiction where one or another character is careful not to sound too posh, for fear of being mocked. I wonder whether that’s going to be a continuing trend?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I find post-war novels (written right at the time) interesting because the class-divisions that the war had to a great extent obliterated now rear their head again and many people do not know how to adjust to post-war realities after the camaraderie seen during the war-years.


    1. That’s a well-taken point, Neeru. People made the adjustment to the wartime social structure where, as you say, there was camaraderie. Social lines were more blurred, that’s true. After the war, it was hard to back to the old social structure, and we do see that in the then-contemporary post-war novels. It’s one of the many changes people had to adjust to after the war.


  3. It’s funny how class and status can allow people to avoid the consequences of their behaviour, not just in fiction. Actually, it’s not funny. I loved the Xiaolong book when I read it.


    1. You’re right, Col – it’s not funny at all. And it’s true that belonging to a certain class and status really can shield people from consequences. I wish it weren’t like that. I’m glad you enjoyed Death of a Red Heroine; I thought it was very well done, and the start to a fine series.


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