You Know When Everything Runs Smoothly*

If you’ve shopped at a well-run grocery store, you probably didn’t even think about getting through the aisles and finding the products you wanted. You probably didn’t think about the neat displays or courteous staff. Those are things we often don’t notice unless they’re not there. My guess is, you don’t think a lot about your Internet connection unless there’s a problem with it. It takes a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ work to run a successful hotel, or a smoothly-functioning warehouse, for instance. But we don’t really think about the people who make it happen.

The thing is, though, those people deliver our packages, put merchandise on shelves, and fill our prescriptions. They’re vital to the business of everyday living, even if we don’t think about them. And in crime fiction, they can make interesting characters. It can add to a story to get an ‘inside look’ at how those everyday things get done; and sometimes, it can add plot points.

Much of Agatha Christie’s The Hollow takes place at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. When they host a weekend house party, several of their relatives come for a visit. So do Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda, who are friends of the family. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a cottage nearby, and he works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is. As the investigation goes on, we get to know a little about how the household is run. Head of the household is Gudgeon, the butler. He sees to everything, and he insists that everything possible be done to spare the Angkatells any inconvenience. He and the rest of the staff have their moments (there are a few interesting ‘kitchen scenes’), but they keep everything running smoothly. More than once, Lady Lucy acknowledges that she doesn’t know what the family would do without Gudgeon and the rest of the staff.

Under the name of Hugh Pentecost, Judson Philips wrote a mystery series featuring Pierre Chambrun. He’s the manager of the very upmarket Beaumont Hotel, in New York City. It’s the watering hole for the richest and most influential people in the world, and that’s mostly because Chambrun gets to know what each guest requires, and makes sure that it’s provided seamlessly, whether it’s an extra pillow, a particular brand of champagne, or a place to make a statement to the press. Chambrun’s also good at helping guests hide from the media if that’s what they want. He can’t do it without a skilled staff, though, so he has very high expectations. That said, he is also very protective of anyone who works for him. It’s the staff’s business to find out what each guest requires and provide it, and that entails a thousand small details. If there is any breakdown anywhere in the system, it needs to be addressed immediately, so that guests don’t even notice. That can get rather difficult when a guest is murdered or disappears, which happens in more than one novel. But Chambrun and his staff manage to make it all look easy.

Emily Brightwell’s Mrs. Jeffries series takes place in Victorian England, at a time when anyone who could afford it had a household staff. Mrs. Jeffries serves as housekeeper for Detective Inspector (DI) Gerald Witherspoon, and she is assisted by a full household staff. From shopping to laundry to household accounts to menus and more, Mrs. Jeffries and her staff make sure that everything runs smoothly. And, although Witherspoon is by no means stupid or oblivious, he doesn’t really think about those details, because they all get taken care of without his noticing. The household staff helps in another way, too. Witherspoon discusses his cases with Mrs. Jeffries, and she finds subtle ways to help in his investigations. For that, she gets the help of the staff, who can learn all sorts of things in the course of running errands, accepting deliveries, and so on.

In Qiu Xiaolong’s Shanghai Redemption, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police is invited to give a talk about a translation he did of some of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. It’s a needed lift for him, as he’s just been shunted aside from his position as a chief inspector and placed on the Shanghai Legal Reform Committee. It’s a punishment because several of his investigations have ended up embarrassing high-level officials. Chen accepts the speaking invitation, to be held at the Heavenly World, a notorious nightclub. The club caters to only the wealthiest patrons, and everything there is designed for guests’ comfort and enjoyment. Most of the guests don’t really notice the people who work in the background serving drinks, providing food, and managing the music.  It’s all done so professionally and well that no-one pays attention to how it happens. The club also offers other ‘special services,’ and that’s what’s made it notorious. While Chen is there, the police raid the club and he’s almost arrested. It’s not long before he discovers that he was set up to be publicly embarrassed, which would cost him his career. As he investigates, he gets to talk to some of the women who work there, and we learn a bit about what goes on behind the scenes in an upmarket club. It turns out that Chen learns some important information about a case of corruption at the same time as he tries to learn who wanted to frame him.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone shows what happens when people depend too much on someone to make things run seamlessly. In the novel, the wealthy and educated Coverdale family decides to hire a new housekeeper. Without looking deeply into her background, they choose Eunice Parchman. She begins her work, and all goes well enough at first. Then, one or two little things start to go wrong. Nothing serious happens, though, and the family continues to be satisfied with their housekeeper. But Eunice Parchman is hiding a secret. When one of the family members finds out about it accidentally, the Coverdales’ fate is sealed.

We depend on lots of unseen people to send our packages, stock grocery shelves, and keep our WiFi working. As much as we need them, we often don’t think about them unless something is wrong. They help make the world chug along, and they can make for interesting fictional characters.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Craig Adams and Ian Watson’s It’s Been a Year (Reprise).