It goes with saying (although I’m about to say it) that times change and as they do, society changes as well. And since crime fiction mirrors society, crime fiction changes too and that’s one reason for which there are certain kinds of characters and themes one doesn’t see as often in today’s crime fiction as one does in the crime fiction of the past.
For instance, several of Agatha Christie’s novels feature women who are either widows or who never married, who keep house for their brothers. Such a character is Caroline Sheppard, whom we meet in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Miss Sheppard keeps house for her brother James, the local doctor in the village of King’s Abbott. Their next-door neighbour is Hercule Poirot, who’s retired to King’s Abbott (or so he thinks) to grow vegetable marrows. When retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed, Ackroyd’s niece Flora asks Poirot to find the killer. Since this is a small village, the Sheppards know both Flora and her uncle and in different ways each gets involved in solving the mystery.
We also see an example of this kind of character in Christie’s The Clocks. That’s the story of the residents of Wilbraham Crescent, who are all drawn into the murder of an unknown man whose body is found in the home of Miss Millicent Pebmarsh. Miss Pebmarsh claims that she doesn’t know the man, so DI Richard “Dick” Hardcastle asks around in the neighbourhood to find out who may have known the victim. He’s accompanied by Colin Lamb, who has his own reasons for being in the area. One of Miss Pebmarsh’s neighbours is Miss Edith Waterhouse, who keeps house for her accountant brother James. Neither Waterhouse sees anything helpful on the actual day of the murder, but when another character makes a connection that gets too close to the truth, it’s Edith Waterhouse who discovers the fatal result of what that character has put together.
The Clocks also features other characters we don’t see much anymore – people who work in secretarial agencies. With today’s technology, there’s little need to send out one’s work to a typewriting or secretarial agency but it used to be quite common to do so and one of the settings for The Clocks is the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau. Owned by Miss Katherine Martindale, the bureau employs eight typists who work sometimes at the office and sometimes “on location” when people need to engage a secretary for a short-term project. In fact it’s Sheila Webb, one of the typists at the bureau, who discovers the body in Miss Pebmarsh’s home when the agency gets a call for her services.
A secretarial agency also plays a key role in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. In that novel, mystery novelist Harriet Vane stands trial for the murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. There’s evidence against her too and although she claims to be innocent, the case against her seems solid. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and is immediately smitten by the defendant. He’s determined to clear her name so he can marry her and when the jury can’t agree on a verdict, he gets his chance. Wimsey is a friend to Miss Katherine Climpson, who owns a typewriting agency that does work for authors and researchers. Miss Climpson also employs women who work as temporary employees for outside firms and one of them proves very useful in finding out who really killed Boyes. Wimsey comes to suspect that some key evidence may be in the office of one of the suspects so he asks for Miss Climpson’s help in finding that evidence. She dispatches Joan Murchison to that office in the guise of a temporary secretary and Miss Murchison manages to find the evidence that Wimsey hoped would be there.
In Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace, we learn of Cora Binns, who worked for the Smart Girls Secretarial Service agency. Binns was hired to travel to the village of Littlebourne to help Lady Jenny Kenington to arrange her late husband’s papers and estate. Binns never made it to the interview and when villager Ernestine Craigy discovers her body, Inspector Richard Jury is assigned to find out what happened to the victim. It turns out that Binns’ murder is related to a vicious attack on another villager, and to a year-old robbery and sudden death that followed that robbery.
There are still, of course, temporary agencies that arrange employment for all sorts of temporary workers from day laborers to researchers. But the secretarial and typewriting agency where people send work to be typed up is virtually a thing of the past with today’s easy access to word processing.
Another sort of character we don’t see as much any more – or at least not in the same way – is the character of high social position who is at the mercy of a blackmailer. Of course there are examples of high-ranking politicians whose personal lives are vulnerable to public opinion, but in general, what sometimes have been called “youthful indiscretions” just don’t seem to have the kinds of dire consequences that they once did. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia, who is about to be married. He’s worried because his former lover Irene Adler has a compromising picture of the two of them and he is afraid that his fiancée may hear of it and break off the engagement. The king hires Holmes to get the photograph from Adler and he agrees to take the case. Little does Holmes know though that he is up against a very worthy opponent who has no intention of giving up the photograph since she feels that it may provide her protection.
We also don’t see domestic employees in the same way that we used to see. Oh, people still employ house cleaners, nannies and child minders, and sometimes maids. We see those characters in today’s crime fiction too. But the complex set of household servants, presided over by a housekeeper or butler, isn’t nearly as common as it once was. Perhaps that’s why the old saying, “The butler did it” doesn’t apply in crime fiction the way it once might have. For example, in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, we meet the household staff employed by the Verinder family. Rachel Verinder is celebrating her eighteenth birthday; one of her gifts is a necklace containing an extremely valuable diamond. On the night of Rachel’s birthday her necklace is stolen. Sergeant Cuff is sent to the scene to try to find out what happened to the diamond. In the process of his investigation, we meet several members of the Verinder staff. One of them is the butler and head of the household Gabriel Betteredge, from whose point of view some of the story is told. Another is second housemaid Roseanna Spearman. In a sub-plot of this novel, we learn that she has her own troubles; in the course of the story she disappears and is later found to have committed suicide. There are other members of the staff too and in this novel, we see their roles and interactions.
We also see this kind of complex household staff in Emily Brightwell’s Mrs. Jeffries series, which is set in the Victorian Era. Mrs. Jeffries is housekeeper to DI Gerald Witherspoon and she and the household staff assist in his cases – usually without him even being aware of it. In this series, we meet Wiggins, the footman; Mrs. Goodge, the cook; Smythe, the coachman; and Betsy, the housemaid. All of them are under Mrs. Jeffries’ supervision and it’s interesting to see throughout this series how the staff members do their jobs – jobs most people do for themselves in today’s world.
We don’t see telephone operators much any more either, not in real life or in crime fiction. Oh they’re still there and if you need to you can reach an operator. These days though, nearly all telephone calls are direct-dialed. But telephone operators were once a large and very important group. In times past one needed an operator even for local calls. In Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claws for instance, Perry Mason is hired by Eva Belter to stop sleazy tabloid reporter Frank Locke from blackmailing her over an illicit relationship she’s been having. Mason agrees and begins to communicate with Locke. Mason suspects that Locke knows more than he’s telling about why Eva Belter is being set up for blackmail. So he follows Locke to a hotel, where he arranges with the hotel telephone operator to trace a call that Locke makes. That telephone call gives Mason the information he needs to find out who’s behind the smear campaign against his client. But matters get more complicated when Eva Belter’s husband George is shot and she becomes the prime suspect. Now Mason has to find out who really killed George Belter if he’s going to clear his client.
Society has changed, so that people like telephone operators, household staff, and workers at secretarial bureaus don’t play the roles that they once did. We don’t see them much in real life and we don’t in crime fiction either. And now of course there are occupations that there never were before. But that’s what’s interesting about the genre – it changes with the times.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Greg Kihn Band’s The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em).