Today would have been Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday. An interesting factoid, but why bring it up on this crime-fictional blog? There are a few reasons. One is that Dickens arguably could be called a crime writer. Want more on this compelling point? You can check out an interesting post on the topic from Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. The other reason I mention Dickens here is that he was one of the first well-known authors to really explore the lives of people who weren’t rich, titled or “well-born.” Dickens showed readers the lives of those in the working and lower classes – even the slums. In a way, one could argue that it was Dickens’ work that in part made it acceptable for modern crime writers to write about the working class and those who struggle for a living.
We see some exploration of the working and lower classes in some of Agatha Christie’s novels. For instance, in Dead Man’s Folly, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver is commissioned to create a Murder Hunt (akin to a scavenger hunt) for an upcoming fête at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Oliver accepts the commission and travels to Nasse House, but when she arrives, she begins to sense that something is wrong; there’s something more going on here than a simple fête. So she asks Hercule Poirot to join her at Nasse House and investigate. He agrees and goes under the pretext of giving out the prizes for the Murder Hunt. Oliver’s suspicions are justified when on the day of the fête, there’s a murder. Fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who played the part of the “victim” in the Murder Hunt, is actually strangled. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who would have wanted to kill a seemingly harmless girl from a working-class family. It turns out that Marlene had found out more than it was safe for her to know about someone at the fête and that’s why she was killed. In the process of investigating, Poirot gets to know the Tucker family and we get a look at a working-class home.
John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels often show us the lives of the “down-and-out” and the working class. McGee calls himself a “salvage consultant.” He earns a living by helping people recover what’s been taken from them. He keeps a percentage of the proceeds as his fee. In that capacity he meets more than one “down and out” character. For example, in The Deep Blue Goodbye he takes the case of Catherine Kerr, who has something very valuable stolen from her and exploited by a lover. In that novel we meet Kerr and her sister, both members of the working class who are just trying to get by. It’s worth noting that in this novel and several other Travis McGee novels, the lower- and working-class characters we meet are quite often drawn with quite a lot of pride and dignity. Poor they may be; groveling they are not.
Margaret Yorke also explores the lives of working-class and sometimes lower-class people. For instance, in Speak for the Dead, we follow the life of Carrie Foster, who’s been raised in a working-class home. She gets a job in a shop, but she has a taste for adventure and like a lot of people, she wants material things, too. So she takes up life as a call girl. Her “clients” tend to be educated members of the “better” classes, and she’s not doing badly. Then one day she meets Gordon Matthews, whom she doesn’t know has recently been released from prison for murdering his wife Anne Randall. The two get along and before too much time, they’ve married. At first, Carrie thinks she’s “made it,” as Gordon seems to be doing well for himself. Within a few years, though, she realises that Gordon isn’t the man she’d thought she married. Bored, restless, and tired of her husband’s inability to keep a job, Carrie returns to her old occupation without telling Gordon. As the novel evolves, we see how Gordon and Carrie have deceived each other and how this ends up leading to tragedy.
Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, himself a member of the working class, often works with the “down and out” and lower- and working-class people as he solves his cases. In fact some them involve members of those classes. For instance, in Black and Blue, he investigates, among other cases, the murder of Allen Mitchison, an oilman who works for T-Bird Oil out of Aberdeen. Mitchison was left an orphan early in his life and grew up mostly in children’s homes and foster care. He saw a video about North Shore oil rig work and got interested, and that work led to his chance to earn a decent living. It also leads to his murder. As Rebus looks into Mitchison’s life to see why he would have been killed, we meet plenty of other people for whom it’s considered a “step up” to be able to afford a mortgage on a home.
Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy focuses on the lives of working- and lower-class people as well. Beginning with Garnethill, the novels follow the life of ticket-taker and later women’s shelter worker Maureen “Mauri” O’Donnell. In Garnethill, she wakes up one morning after a long night of drinking to find that her former lover Douglas Brody has been murdered in her apartment and his body left behind. She’s the most likely suspect, so detective Joe McEwan is convinced she’s guilty. To clear her name, O’Donnell begins to ask questions and investigate in her own way. With help from her brother Liam and some friends, O’Donnell finds out the truth about Brady’s murder. In Exile, she meets Ann Harris, a client at the women’s shelter where she now works. Unexpectedly, though, Harris disappears and turns up dead two weeks later in London. O’Donnell wants to find out what happened to Harris, why she left and of course, why she died. And in Resolution, she looks into the case of Ella McGee, who sells bootlegged music at a market stall. When McGee is beaten up, she asks O’Donnell, whom she knows from the market, to help her fill out a complaint form – against her own son. In all of these novels, the characters are painted in stark and unflinching, but strong and even dignified ways.
There are also many, many fictional sleuths who are members of the working class and lower class. For instance, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum has working-class roots. So does Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and so does Colin Dexter’s Sergeant Lewis.
The lives of lower- and working-class people are arguably portrayed in much more depth and given much more attention than they have been in the past. Murders in those communities are given attention – at least in crime fiction – that they arguably wouldn’t have been given without the groundbreaking work of Charles Dickens. And for that and much more, crime fiction fans and authors owe him a debt.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Vogues’ Five O’Clock World.