>I’ve very recently read a truly vitriolic exchange between an author and someone who reviewed one of that author’s books. Among the many things that struck me about that exchange was (especially towards the end of the exchange) the blatant disrespect in it. What “counts” as etiquette and “good manners” has changed over time and of course it’s also deeply affected by culture. But underlying manners, “social graces” and so on is the basic assumption that we all deserve to be treated with respect. As a matter of fact, the desire to be respected (I don’t mean cheered on by crowds, but simple basic personal respect) is a very important part of our human makeup. It’s almost as important as our basic “survival needs” and our need to be loved. We certainly see it in real life, and it runs all through crime fiction, too, in large and small ways.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), we meet young Oliver Manders, who works in a law office. He affects a world-weary, blasé manner and enjoys saying very irreverent things, especially about established religion. One evening he’s invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Also invited are the Reverend Stephen Babbington and his wife, as well as Lady Mary Lytton Gore and her daughter Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore. During the party, Reverend Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be nicotine poisoning. Egg is convinced that Babbington was poisoned, and asks Sir Charles to help find out the truth. Hercule Poirot has also been invited to the party and he gets involved in the investigation as well. Not much progress is made, but then, there’s another, very similar murder. Manders happens to be “on the scene” at that death, too, and comes under suspicion. As Poirot gets to know Manders (and the other suspects), we find that beneath that jaded exterior, Manders is really desperate for respect. He’s illegitimate (which at that time was a scandal), and has other social marks against him. He’s also young and immature, so he’s somewhat ill-at-ease. All of this makes him more than usually eager for others’ respect. When Poirot solves the murders, he’s able to give Manders some guidance about the important role he can play in life, and it’s interesting to see how just that measure of respect makes a big difference to Manders.
In Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw), respect is an important issue for Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy. Mrs. McGillicuddy is traveling by train to visit her friend when another train passes her going in the same direction. Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look out of her own window and into the window of the other train. What she sees shocks her: a man is strangling a woman. Mrs. McGillicuddy tries to get someone in authority to do something about what she’s seen, but no-one does very much. To be fair, there is no dead body on the train, and no-one has reported a missing woman. But the conductor’s view and later, that of the police, are coloured by their basic lack of respect for Mrs. McGillicuddy’s ability to remember and report accurately what she saw. More than once the point is brought up that as an elderly lady who’s likely to have all sorts of fanciful thoughts, Mrs. McGillicuddy is hardly to be respected as a reliable witness. The only person who does believe Elspeth McGillicuddy is Miss Marple. Once she hears her friend’s story, Miss Marple makes her own plans to find the body and track down the murderer.
There’s an eerie picture of how important respect is in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Mystery Novelist Harriet Vane has been invited back to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College Oxford, for its annual Gaudy Dinner and festivities. Vane is at first quite reluctant to go, but she decides to attend, mostly for the sake of an old friend. She’s received warmly, and is glad she’s “gone home.” Then, two months later, Vane receives a letter from the Dean of the College, asking her to help solve a disturbing mystery. Someone’s been writing anonymous threatening letters and committing vandalism at the college. The Dean doesn’t want to have the police called in, so she asks Vane to investigate. Vane agrees and goes back to Shrewsbury under the guise of doing research for a novel. With help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Vane discovers that the vandalism and other frightening events at the school have been committed out of a desperate need for respect.
That’s also true of the terrible murders in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. That’s the story of Eunice Parchman, who works for the well-off and well-educated Coverdale family. One tragic Valentine’s Day, Eunice Parchman kills four members of the family. We know who the murderer is from the first sentence of the novel (in my personal opinion, one of the finer first lines in crime fiction!):
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.
We also see as the novel evolves how Eunice Parchman’s need for basic human respect motivates her assumptions, her views and the murders.
And then there’s Evelyn Matlock, whom we meet in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. She’s what you might call housekeeper to the wealthy and well-connected Berowne family. The family took her in when her father was convicted of murder and sent to prison, and now she acts as nurse to Lady Ursula, the elderly family matriarch, and as housekeeper. While the family does not physically abuse her, it’s clear throughout the novel that they have very little respect at all for her. They don’t even refer to her by her name; instead, they call her “Mattie,” a name she dislikes intensely. The Berowne family gets mixed up in murder when Lady Ursula’s son, Crown Minister Sir Paul Berowne, is brutally killed. Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team investigate the murder and get to know the members of the Berowne family as they look into the death. In the end, the team finds out who killed Berowne and why, and when all is revealed, Evelyn Matlock has this to say:
“This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.”
The need for respect actually runs throughout this novel. It’s an important motive for the murder. It’s also important to DI Kate Miskin, who’s new to Dalgliesh’s team and anxious to gain that respect
We can see what the terrible consequences are of lack of respect in Simon Lelic’s Rupture (AKA A Thousand Cuts). In that novel, DI Lucia May is called in for what’s supposed to be a very routine investigation. Newly-hired history teacher Samuel Szajkowski has walked into a crowded auditorium at the London school where he teaches and has shot three students and a teacher, then turned the gun on himself. As May begins to learn about Szajkowski and about the people at the school, she discovers that this was not a case of an unbalanced person who suddenly “snapped.” Rather, the school’s culture of bullying endorses a basic disrespect for anyone who’s not in the “right group.” The more May investigates, the more of a resemblance she sees between the school’s culture and the culture of the police station where she works. We see in that workplace, too, a clear and troubling lack of respect for May and the work she’s trying to do.
There are also, of course, dozens of novels, some good, some not, that feature serial killers who murder in order to gain respect or because they felt they never got respect. I’m sure you could think of as many as I could.
Every society and era is different. Because of that we have different ways of showing respect and being what many people call civil. But whether it’s letting someone ahead of one in traffic, graciously granting a point in an argument, or being humble about success, basic respect is an important part of the “glue” that holds us together. Forgetting about that respect can have devastating consequences.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Aretha Franklin’s Respect.