You’re No Grander Than the Rest of Us*
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.