Many societies have one sort of class system or another. Those at the top (whether it’s because of money, birth, or something else) often seem to have ‘it all,’ whether they actually do or don’t. It’s no surprise, then, that others envy them. And sometimes, it’s not even so much about money; rather, it’s the perception that those at the top think they’re better then ‘the likes of us.’ And that perception can cause a lot of resentment. Sometimes that resentment boils up, but even when it doesn’t, it can add a layer of suspense to a story, and even provide a motive for crime.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, we are introduced to wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. She and her new husband Simon are taking a honeymoon cruise of the Nile when she is murdered. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he gets involved in the investigation. One strong possibility is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. She was engaged to Simon before he met Linnet, so she has a very strong motive. But it’s soon proven that she couldn’t have committed the crime, so Poirot has to look elsewhere for the killer. One of the other passengers, Mr. Ferguson, has strong opinions about the rich and privileged. He feels that people like Linnet Ridgeway are useless parasites on society, and they see themselves as superior. As you might guess, his views put him squarely in the picture as a possible killer. There are other Christie characters, too, that have that sort of resentment (I see you, fans of Sad Cypress and of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe).
Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder features Sir Derek O’Callaghan MP, the British Home Secretary. He’s been receiving death threats from communist groups. What’s more, he’s had an argument with his old friend Sir John Phillips, who is his physician. The argument concerns Sir Derek’s short affair with Sir John’s scrub nurse Jane Harden, and his unkind treatment of her. In the midst of all of this, Sir Derek plans a speech in which he will propose controversial anti-anarchy legislation. A lot of people are going to be angry at the proposed law, but Sir Derek believes it necessary. He’s giving his speech when he suddenly collapses from appendicitis. He’s rushed to Sir John’s private hospital and undergoes emergency surgery. Shortly after that surgery, Sir Derek dies of what turns out to be poison. His widow calls in Sir Roderick Alleyn, and Alleyn begins the investigation. As it turns out, more than one of Sir Derek’s enemies could have killed him, and the simmering resentment against his position and power (and his beliefs) plays a part in the murder.
Barbara Neely’s Blanche White is a professional housekeeper. She also supports her sister’s children. Her employers are generally wealthy white people who can afford a staff. Blanche, who is Black, doesn’t really envy her employers their money (although, of course, money’s always welcome). Rather, she resents the assumptions they seem to make about themselves and about her because of their relative positions. Racism does play a role in these novels, and Neely makes it clear that there are sometimes major differences (and inequities) between the races’ experiences. But it’s really a class issue, too. In the world of several of the families Blanche works for, they make the decisions, and the staff goes along with them. And yet, it’s often the staff that has useful knowledge and experience.
In Kalpana Swaminatham’s Greenlight, former Mumbai police detective Lalli works with Inspector Savio to find out who is responsible for the disappearance and murders of several children. All of the victims lived in a local slum called Kandewadi, so the investigation starts there. And from the police and media perspective, that’s the problem – it’s a slum. Few people in authority are very interested in the lives of those who live there. Still, the police team starts its work. Slowly, they link the cases together, and they learn who the killer is. Throughout the novel, we see that many of those with privilege and money are also self-entitled, and those without are quite well aware of that. They resent that imbalance not so much because of the money (although that would be nice), but because of the perception they have that those on the top of the social ladder believe themselves to be superior. And that plays a role in the story.
That perception plays a tragic role in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. In that novel, well-to-do and well-educated George and Jacqueline Coverdale decide to hire a housekeeper. George leaves the search to Jacqueline, who hires Eunice Parchman for the job. At first, all goes well enough, although Eunice seems a little eccentric. But Eunice is keeping a secret, and she is desperate that no one find it out. She has some resentment towards the family, not because of their money, but more because of their privilege. The family isn’t portrayed as unkind, bigoted, or malicious. In fact, they’re what a lot of us would call ‘nice people.’ But they are accustomed to privilege, and that turns out to be tragic.
Perception really is important, and perception around those with wealth and privilege is no exception. If it seems that another group thinks they’re better, it’s no surprise that it causes resentment. And that can lead in all sorts of directions in a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Lovely Ladies.
8 thoughts on “You’re No Grander Than the Rest of Us*”
I was thinking of this from a mainly British perspective… our landed gentry and their sense of privilege but that’s silly because, as you stress, you can get that sense of superiority in ‘any’ society. I like your examples in Indian crime fiction and American. And as you say, siting Agatha Christie, our vintage crime genre is ‘awash’ with examples. And even a modern crime book that I just finished, Murder Before Evensong by Richard Coles, (new but set in 1988) is set in a village with a ‘big house’ and the occupants of said big house play an important role in the book and certainly feel themselves to be ‘in charge’ in the village. Thoughtful post, Margot.
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Thanks, Cath. I find it interesting that those differences in class, and how the privileged classes are perceived, seem to be really common. In a lot of societies, there are those differences and differences in perception. And you’re right; you see an awful lot of examples in vintage crime fiction. Perhaps privileged people were just more often the focus of those novels? At any rate, thanks for mentioning the Coles. It sounds interesting…
Margot: Thanks for an interesting post. It reminded me of the structure of society in the “Communist” China of recent decades in the books of Qiu Xiaolong. His sleuth, Inspector Chen, must move carefully when investigations involve “high cadre children”. There is very much an elite within “Communist” China. Perception they have status and power is reality.
You’re absolutely right, Bill. High Cadre families are very powerful, and running afoul of them can be disastrous. And this is in society where social class and money are not supposed to play roles. But, as you say, they do, and Chen risks a lot when he investigates anything that might involve them.
Interesting post, Margot! Of course, so much of GA crime has the class element built in, particularly when it’s UK based, but it seems that it may be an issue more widely…
Thanks, KBR. You have a well-taken point about the way the class issue is woven into a lot of GA crime fiction. It determines so much of fictional relationships and a lot more besides. But even in other places and modern times, it’s there, as you say.
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Thanks for an interesting post. In a lot of societies, there are those differences and differences in perception. And you’re right; you see an awful lot of examples in vintage crime fiction.
Thanks for the kind words, Max. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And it really is interesting to see how different groups see life and each other. And vintage crime fiction includes plenty of examples!