Most of us feel more confident about ourselves if we feel ‘put together.’ Even if you aren’t one to make a lot of fuss about your appearance, you probably still feel better and more self-confident if you also feel ‘combed and curried,’ if I can put it that way. That’s part of the reason for the success of the salon/barbershop industry and the cosmetic industry, to say nothing of the clothes industry. There is of course such a thing as being unhealthily obsessed with how well one’s ‘put together,’ but wanting to feel good about the way one looks is a very human urge. So it’s little wonder that it plays a role in crime fiction too. It’s not necessarily at the heart of a lot of murder mysteries, but it’s most definitely there.
For instance, fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he is extremely particular about his appearance, especially his moustaches. It’s not so much that he believes he’s an exceptionally good-looking man as it is that, as he puts it, he likes to look soigné. And we see examples of this all throughout the novels and stories that feature him. Just as one example, in The ABC Murders, Poirot and Hastings join with the police to catch what seems to be a serial killer. The murderer has already killed two women, and in one scene, there’s been a warning that a third murder is in the offing. So Poirot and Hastings rush to pack and catch a train to the scene before the murder is committed. Even in that hurry though, Poirot gets annoyed at Hastings for not packing his suitcase neatly.
‘Is that a way to fold a coat? And regard what you have done to my pyjamas. If the hairwash breaks, what will befall them?’
When Hastings claims that the case is a matter of life and death, and far more important than clothes, Poirot reminds him that the train won’t leave earlier than it leaves, and that ruining one’s clothes will not help to prevent a murder.
Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss is a down-to-earth, practical sort of detective. She doesn’t spend hours looking in a mirror or thousands on clothes. In fact, she doesn’t usually put a high priority on that sort of thing. But even she cares enough about the way she looks to think about it. For instance, in Night Rounds, Huss has decided that it’s time to have her hair cut and touched up. So she makes an appointment with her stylist. Soon, though, she and her team get caught up in a set of murders that takes place at the Löwander Hospital, a private facility. That set of murders begins with a blackout at the hospital and takes the team through a complicated set of interviews, a lot of evidence collection and a search for someone who seems to have disappeared. Through it all, Huss tries to remind herself of her appointment but she ends up forgetting about it and having to pay for the time since she didn’t cancel. Her annoyance at that and at the way she looks because of it is very human.
A beauty salon is at the heart of a murder mystery in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box. Tammy Smith is the proprietor of The Beauty Box, which keeps the women of Bradley, North Carolina feeling good about the way they look. Recently her niece Kat Roberts has returned to Bradley and is now Smith’s assistant at the salon. They disagree on the way the salon should be run and what its emphasis should be, but all goes well enough. Then, Smith begins to act erratically. She ruins hair, she’s more short-tempered than ever and everyone gossips about how much she’s been drinking. One night she’s stabbed in her shop with a pair of shears and then pushed down the staircase into the shop’s basement. One of her customers is retired teacher Myrtle Clover, who can’t resist investigating the murder of her hair stylist. She finds out that the killing has more to do with Smith’s personal life than anything else. What’s interesting here is that Myrtle Clover isn’t really one to take a lot of pains with her appearance. She certainly doesn’t make a fuss about it. But even she wants to feel good about the way her hair looks. That adds to her humanity.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman isn’t one to fuss at all about her appearance either. In fact, she doesn’t care much for such superficiality. But even she has those times when she wants to feel good about the way she looks. In Devil’s Food for instance, she and her lover Daniel Cohen are investigating a case involving poisoned tea that’s been sold as a means of losing weight. In another thread in that novel, she’s decided to have a dress made for herself and arranges it through a friend of hers who has a salon/dress shop. The dress makes Chapman feel beautiful. In fact, she says,
‘Every fat woman ought, once in her life, to wear one.’
In that novel, she also gets a pair of spiked-heel boots and they, too, make her feel good about the way she looks, and confident. That plot thread makes Chapman seem very human.
And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant series. Quant is a Saskatoon-based PI who lives a very busy life and travels a lot. So he doesn’t have a lot of time to fuss much over his appearance. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to feel good about the way he looks. It’s one of the reasons for which he loves his never-fail ‘wonderpants.’ They’re a simple pair of black pants that are easily washable, are appropriate for just about any occasion, and make him look good. Of course, his mentor Anthony Gatt doesn’t agree with him about those pants. But that’s in part because Gatt is a clothing expert. He’s the owner of one of Saskatchewan’s most successful clothing retail businesses, and he caters to the needs of the upmarket clothes shopper. He finds ways of improving Quant’s sartorial status whenever he can. Gatt’s partner is Jared Lowe, a former supermodel who’s had to be concerned about his appearance throughout most of his career for obvious reasons. As the series goes on, he has to change his perspective and his process of change is compelling. I can’t say more without spoilers, but it’s a strong story arc.
Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B-Flat introduces us to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who lives in a small Welsh village in the late 1950’s. Gwenni is a creative thinker and what some would call a dreamer. She certainly doesn’t think much about her appearance, so long as she’s comfortable. Her mother Magda on the other hand is very much concerned about that sort of thing and gets very cross when Gwenni stains her clothes. Everything in Gwenni’s life starts to change when one of the locals Ifan Evans disappears and is later found murdered. For various reasons Gwenni wants to find out what happened to him, so she starts on her own, unusual investigation. In the meantime, the rest of her life is starting to change too. Her best friend Alwenna Thomas, who’s always shared life with her, is starting to get interested in boys. So Alwenna begins to pay very close attention to the way she looks. And more than once she remonstrates with Gwenni about her careless appearance. That changing relationship is an interesting thread in this story, and the awakening interest in appearance is a very effective way of portraying the coming of age.
If you’ve ever had to go to work with a stain on your clothes, or felt exceptionally good after getting your hair trimmed or buying a particular shirt or pair of pants, you know how much we are affected by the way we think we look. It’s fairly natural to want to feel good about the way we look. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must do something with my hair!!
ps. Want to read more about how we’re affected by the way we think we look? Be sure to visit Clothes in Books, which is a terrific resource for fashion in all sorts of literature, including crime fiction. G’head, check it out. You’ll be glad you did.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s When in Rome.