It’s All About an Image to Uphold*

ImageWe all know that image sells. If a company doesn’t look financially sound, or if it seems to engage in shady business practices, it won’t attract investors. If a retirement community isn’t presented as lovely, safe and affordable, with easy-maintenance homes, it’s more difficult to get people to turn over their savings to buy in. And when a company’s image is tarnished, the result can be disastrous. So most companies, whether large or small, care a great deal about their public image. Since the stakes are very high, it’s not surprising that people are willing to go to great lengths to build and preserve an image. Just a quick look at crime fiction should give you the idea.

Company image figures strongly in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. Copywriter Victor Dean dies from what looks like an accidental fall down a flight of stairs at the offices of Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., where he works. He left behind a partially-written letter though in which he alleged that someone at the company has been using company resources for illegal purposes. The company management is extremely concerned for Pym’s reputation, so it’s decided to hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover at the company and investigate. This he does, posing as Dean’s replacement. He soon discovers that Dean was right: a company employee has been using company advertisements to arrange meets between local drug dealers and a dangerous drugs ring. Dean had found out who the guilty person was and was engaging in some blackmail – not a habit very conducive to long life. Now Wimsey is faced with tracking down the killer and going up against some ruthless people who don’t want their trafficking to be stopped.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their two children are lured from their New York City home to the suburban community of Stepford, Connecticut. The town presents itself as a wholesome, friendly place to live, with low taxes and good schools. At first, everything goes well; the children make new friends and settle in at school, and Walter gets used to the commute to his office. Joanna’s content too, and even resumes her interest in photography. Then, slowly little things begin to suggest that Stepford is not what it seems. Together with her friend Bobbi Markowe, Joanna becomes suspicious that something terrible is going on in the town, and the two women are proven all too right…

Emma Lathen’s Murder to Go features a look at the fast-food industry; to be specific, a company called Chicken Tonight. The company’s leadership and franchisees are all excited about the newest Chicken Tonight recipe Chicken Mexicali. It’s launched with great fanfare and quickly becomes popular. The timing works very well too because there is talk that Chicken Tonight may merge with Southeastern Insurance. Anything that makes the company look good boosts its ‘clout’ in this merger, so everyone’s pleased about the successful debut of the new recipe. Then, everything changes. Several people are sickened after eating Chicken Mexicali. One customer even dies. Now the company’s reputation is in jeopardy, so every effort is made to find out what happened. Suspicion falls on former delivery truck driver Clyde Sweeney, who likely poisoned the new recipe before it was shipped out of the warehouse. But when Sweeney disappears and is found dead, it’s clear that someone else is behind the sabotage and murder. Sloan Guaranty Bank is brokering the merger, so vice president John Putnam Thatcher gets involved in the investigation. He finds out that Sweeney was a pawn for someone who wanted to ruin Chicken Tonight’s image.

Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Treachery in Bordeaux is the story of Château Les Moniales Haut-Brion, the last vineyard actually in Bordeaux. To his shock, owner Denis Maissepain finds that four barrels of the estate wine have been contaminated with brettanomyces, which is a yeast-like spore that can ruin wine. It’s also contagious, so Maissepain has a serious problem on his hands. His winery’s image is now at stake; after all, who’s going to promote or recommend bad wine? So he asks renowned oenologist and vintner Benjamin Cooker for help. Cooker knows that Maissepain is both thoroughly knowledgeable and painstaking, so he would have taken every precaution to protect his wine. That means that someone else has likely sabotaged the wine and Cooker determines to find out who it was. He and his new assistant Virgile Lanssien look into the matter. With help from biological testing expert Alexandrine de la Palussière, they find out exactly how the wine was contaminated. That helps them figure out who was responsible.

The reputation of a children’s home is at stake in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she fell (or jumped, or was pushed) from the roof of the building where she lived. There is no obvious reason why Maryanne should have been murdered, but her father is sure she didn’t commit suicide as the police report indicated. So Keeney decides to look a little more deeply into what’s going on at the children’s home since Maryanne’s death could have been connected with her work there. New Life prepares Thai babies who’ve been abandoned or relinquished for new lives with adoptive families. Its reputation is therefore extremely important to director Frank Harding and to the Thai government. So Keeney has to be very careful as she looks into what’s going on there. And it turns out she’s wise to be cautious, as there’s more going on at New Life than most people know…

In Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers, journalist Rebecca Thorne is investigating dubious property developer Denny Graham, who’s cheated several people out of their savings. His scam has been selling them images of ‘dream properties’ and luxurious retirement. He uses so-called testimonials, gorgeous ‘photos and videos and well-catered ‘selling evenings’ to present his clients with the image of the perfect life. And a lot of people have believed him to their detriment. Thorne uncovers stories of people who’ve lost all of their life savings, or who’ve had to scale down their lifestyle dramatically just to get by. She’s in the middle of preparing this exposé when her boss asks her to switch her focus to the upcoming 30th anniversary of the protests against the Springboks’ 1981 rugby tour of New Zealand – ‘The Tour,’ as it’s called. That tour created quite a lot of controversy and had a real impact on New Zealand, so Thorne is asked to find a new angle on the story. Thorne doesn’t want to let the Denny Graham story go, since she’s afraid of losing some of her sources. But she does as her boss asks. That’s when she uncovers an unsolved murder that happened during one of the protests…

Image is everything when you’re selling. So it’s little wonder that many companies will do whatever they have to do to create and sell their image. And that theme can make for an interesting plot point in a novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doobie Brothers’ 45th Floor.


Filed under Angela Savage, Dorothy Sayers, Emma Lathen, Ira Levin, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Nöel Balen, Paddy Richardson

12 responses to “It’s All About an Image to Uphold*

  1. Ah, yes, protecting one’s reputation: this always brings to mind the crime novels set in Oxford or Cambridge colleges, where academic reputation and prestige are all-important. Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes and many of the Inspector Morse novels deal with college politics and rivalries, the strain of presenting an impeccable facade to outsiders. Interestingly enough, Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen novels seem to deliberately avoid the college setting, as Fen is always travelling to other locations or getting involved with other professions.
    The epitome of the college intrigue novel (can you tell how many of them I’ve devoured in the past?) remains C. P. Snow’s ‘The Masters’ – not strictly speaking a crime novel, although tempers run high and conspiracies abound.

    • Marina Sofia – I’m so glad you brought up academic reputations. As you say, they are so important. So is institutional reputation, as just about every university wants to preserve its reputation. And you’ve mentioned some wonderful ones, too. I agree that the Innes really explores both the personal academic reputations of the characters and the institution’s reputation – brilliantly too in my opinion. You’re right about Crispin, too. Interesting isn’t it. Even in the novels that take place at Oxford, the major plots feature other (non-campus) settings. Really interesting…

  2. So glad you mentioned Murder Must Advertise, one of my favourites and I love the office setting. Marina Sofia makes a good point about academic reputations – like her and you I love an academic mystery. More of a school story is Christie’s Cat Among The Pigeons – murder at a girls’ boarding school, the parents are taking the girls away, and if Hercule Poirot cannot solve the crime, then the school will have to close…

    • Moira – I love the office setting of Murder Must Advertise too. It’s very effectively done I think. And yes, I do love academic settings. I’m glad you mentioned Cat Among the Pigeons as well. I love that thread of suspense about whether or not the school’s reputation is permanently ruined. There’s an interesting conversation between one of the pupil’s parents about the school’s safety, and I well imagine many families having a similar one. And I love the Honoria Bulstrode manages that threat to the school’s reputation. So brilliantly done in my opinion.

  3. Murder Must Advertise is also one of my favorite books and I need to reread it. I also love Emma Lathen’s John Thatcher books. Great examples.

    • Tracy – Thank you. And I agree; Murder Must Advertise is always nice to re-read. And about the writing duo of Emma Lathen…I think they did such an effective job of making banking and finance really interesting to those of us not in the field. And of course the mysteries are well done too

  4. Margot: Your post prompted me to think of the image women in business present to the world. In the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, as an example, Maisie is so conscious of appearing professional – in dress, language, demeanour, office – that she is reluctant to show emotion as it would be unprofessional.

    In real life I think of a discussion of senior lawyers at which I was present. A woman lawyer of my era described the women lawyers of our time as “men in skirts”. Because of your post I am going to put together a post based on that phrase involving female fictional lawyers.

    • Bill – You make a very well-taken point about Maisie Dobbs. It’s so important to her to have an image of competence and professionalism, and she does everything she can to support that image. And even in this era there are professions in which it’s still a proverbial uphill battle for women to be perceived as competent professionals. I very much look forward to your post about female fictional lawyers. That phrase really has me thinking now..

  5. Col

    Struggling for any examples to be honest, I’ll be reading the Levin book at some point.

    • Col – I recommend The Stepford Wives. A lot of people think that some of Levin’s other work (e.g. A Kiss Before Dying or Rosemary’s Baby) is better, and his other work really is well done, But this one is quite good.

  6. Margot – Marina Sofia beat me to the punch with academic mysteries and the need for the institution to uphold a certain image. One of my favorites is Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, though I don’t recall enough particulars of plot to say that it’s about academic image. It also occurs to me that a recurring theme in the classic hard boiled mystery novel is that of the well-heeled clients hiring the detective to avoid embarrassment to the family or business, or both, and thus restore or preserve their respectable public front.

    • Bryan – Funny you’d mention Gaudy Night. The whole reason Harriet Vane is asked to investigate the vandalism and other goings-on at the college in that novel is that there’s a strong desire to preserve the institution’s image in the public eye. A police investigation would mean that very public questions would be raised. It’s a terrific example of what I had in mind when I wrote this post. And I agree with you about the hard boiled mystery novels too. Preserving family image matters a lot in those stories, no matter what’s going on under that surface. A few of Christie’s novels bring that theme up too, with Poirot being called in because the family’s image is at stake. Thanks for adding that dimension to my post.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s