An interesting post on Patti Abbott’s terrific blog has got me thinking about respectability. Patti’s post focused on respectability in the lower-middle class, but really it’s an interesting question for just about any class. Patti’s blog is a treasure trove of interesting questions, great music and film clips, short stories and more, so please, do yourself a favour and follow it if you aren’t already. What counts as ‘respectable’ has changed a lot over the years, but the question I started thinking about was: Do people care about being respectable? Is the whole concept of respectability still relevant? Of course we can give a lot of examples of people who don’t care what others think of them. But honestly, I think the desire to be considered respectable still matters to some people. Certainly it’s a factor in a lot of crime fiction.
As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell deals with the theme of respectability in A Dark-Adapted Eye. The Longley family has always prided itself on its middle-class respectability, but what a lot of people don’t know is that the family has a dark secret in its past. Years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was arrested, tried and hanged for murder. Since then the Longley family has buried that fact as best they could, mostly because of this desire to be seen as respectable. Then journalist Daniel Stewart digs up the past for a story he’s doing on the Hilliard trial. He approaches Vera’s niece Faith Longley Severn and asks her to help him put together the family’s history. In doing so, she has to face her family’s past and pull away the veneer of respectability that the family valued so much.
Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour takes an interesting look at respectability. In that novel, Sir Clixby Bream, Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford, is preparing to retire. He’s faced with the question of who will succeed him and narrows his choice down to two candidates: Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford. Both men are equally qualified and have good reputations. Both also have the air of respectability that can make a big difference in a choice like this. Then, journalist Geoffrey Owens begins to dig around a bit into the past and discovers that one of the characters in this novel is not quite as respectable as it seems. He decides to confront that character with what he knows and see if he can earn a profit for keeping quiet on the matter. When Owens is murdered, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate to find out whose desire to be thought of as respectable made it worth committing murder.
In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, writer Erica Falck returns from Stockholm to her family’s home in Fjällbacka to sort out her parents’ things after their deaths. She’s not been there long when a neighbour discovers the body of Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner, who appears to have committed suicide. Falck is especially shocked by this death because she and Alex were best friends as children. She and Alex hadn’t really been in touch for twenty-five years and it occurs to her that she didn’t really know her former friend. So she decides to try to get to know the woman Alex became and write a biography of her. As local police officer Patrik Hedström investigates officially, Falck begins to ask more informal questions about the death. Each in a different way, they learn that Alex’s death was murder not suicide. And behind it all is the strong desire for being considered ‘respectable.’
Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit introduces us to successful accountant Daniel Guest, who is ‘respectably’ married and has a good reputation in business. But he’s also had some secret relationships with men. He is shocked when someone who seems to know about his trysts blackmails him. Guest is very concerned about being considered ‘respectable’ so he hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find the blackmailer and get that person to stop. He’s even willing to pay the blackmailer just to make the whole thing go away. Quant suggests that it would all be a lot easier if Guest simply ‘came out,’ but Guest refuses. He is determined to maintain his veneer of ‘respectable married life.’ So Quant begins to investigate the matter. The trail leads to New York, a murder, and eventually right back to Saskatoon. The urge to be considered respectable isn’t the reason for the murder, but it’s a fascinating theme that runs through this novel.
Respectability is a very important theme in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri’s business comes mostly from families who want to ‘vet’ potential spouses for their children. They hire Puri to do background checks and find out anything he can so that they can ensure their children marry respectable people. Puri gets a very different kind of case though when successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal hires him. Kasliwal has been accused of raping and murdering a family servant Mary Murmu who disappeared a few months ago. He swears that he is innocent and wants Puri to find out the truth and clear his name. So Puri and his team start asking questions. They run into obstacles right away because the police are determined to prove that they do not look the other way when wealthy and successful people commit crimes, so they’re making an example of Kasliwal. Still, Puri manages to get the information he needs and together with his team, he finds out the truth about Mary Murmu. It turns out that a lot of what happens is because of wanting to preserve the air of honour and respectability.
In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow. She lives what just about anyone would call a respectable life. She’s married to a successful lawyer, she has two healthy children who more or less stay out of trouble, and she herself behaves circumspectly. Everything starts to unravel though when Jodie’s daughter Hannah has an accident and is taken to hospital. It turns out that it’s the same hospital in which Jodie herself gave birth to a daughter years earlier – a daughter she’s never told anyone about, not even her husband. A nurse who is still working at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption but when the overzealous nurse looks into the matter, she finds that there are no records of the adoption. Soon there are murmurs and then very public questions. What happened to the baby? If the baby died, is Jodie somehow responsible? It’s not long before Jodie becomes a pariah. Even her husband Angus distances himself from her. Not only is it possible that she is not the woman he thought she was, but his name is being mentioned as the next mayor. To win that office, he’s going to need the most respectable reputation he has, and this matter with Jodie isn’t helping. As we learn the truth about what happened to Jodie’s first baby, and as we see what happens to her as this story grows and grows, it’s clear that respectability is still important to a lot of people.
Respectability isn’t important to everyone of course. There’ve always been lots of cases of people who simply don’t care what their reputations are. But I honestly think it’s still a factor. In fact, as I planned this post I kept thinking of other modern novels where the desire to be considered respectable plays a big part. There just wasn’t room for them all. What’s your view on this? Do you think respectability still matters? Which novels have you enjoyed that treat this theme?
Thanks, Patti, for the inspiration.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Blue Collar Man (Long Nights).