Here in Status Symbol Land*

Status SymbolsEvery culture and even social group has different values. So the things that confer high status on someone vary a great deal. But just about every culture does have some way of conferring higher status on some people than on others. And those status symbols sometimes take on extreme importance. Status symbols are woven throughout culture in real life, so it makes sense that they are also woven throughout crime fiction. Let me just give you a few examples of what I mean.

In some cultures, ‘blue blood’ confers high status on people, even more than money does. Several of Agatha Christie’s novels touch on this sort of status symbol. In Death on the Nile for instance, Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race are aboard the Karnak on a cruise of the Nile. One night, fellow passenger Linnet Doyle is shot and Poirot and Race begin to investigate. The most likely suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Linnet married. But Jackie couldn’t possibly have committed the murder, so Poirot and Race have to look among the other passengers. One of those passengers is Marie Van Schuyler, a ‘blue blood’ American who takes ‘birth status’ very seriously. In fact, she barely speaks to anyone on board the cruise because most don’t have a ‘good enough’ background. When Poirot asks her if she knew Linnet Doyle or anyone in her family, here is Miss Van Schuyler’s response:

 

‘My dear mother would never have dreamed of calling upon any of the Hartz family [Linnet’s mother’s family] who, outside their wealth, were nobodies.’

 

Poirot himself is just a bit of a snob, but even he sees what a status symbol ‘blue blood’ is to Miss Van Schuyler, and in a sub-plot of the novel, he has an interesting way of making use of that.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, status doesn’t come from a particular surname or birth circumstance. It comes from cattle. If you think about it, that makes sense too, as someone who can afford a lot of good cattle is likely to have more means than someone who can’t. And it’s not just amount of cattle either. Even more status is accorded someone whose cattle is healthy, strong and of high quality, as that implies that a person is wise enough to choose cattle well. Such a person is Obed Ramotswe. He isn’t extremely wealthy, but he is very skilled at choosing good cattle, and he’s amassed a herd that gives him high status. When he passes away, he leaves the cattle to his daughter Precious, who understands how important good cattle are. She uses the proceeds from the sale of the cattle to open her own detective agency, and fans of this series know that she credits her father with making her agency possible. There are a few other plots too in this series in which we see how much of a status symbol cattle is in this culture.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri series takes place in Delhi, where an important status symbol is to have a driver. Even if one is perfectly capable of driving oneself, it’s still important to have a driver. And in Delhi traffic conditions it makes a lot of sense to have a driver who is very familiar with the area. Puri isn’t a particularly wealthy man. And he doesn’t have a high-status job such as a diplomat or a famous surgeon might. But he has a driver whom he calls Handbrake. Handbrake knows the roads in and around Delhi intimately and is often able to get Puri where he wants to go much faster than Puri could on his own.

Teresa Solana pokes some fun at Barcelona status symbols in A Not So Perfect Crime. In that novel, powerful politician Lluís Font hires brothers Josep ‘Borja’ and Eduard Martínez to find out if his wife Lídia is having an affair. The brothers take the case and follow her for a week, but see no evidence at all of infidelity. Then one evening Lídia is poisoned. Her husband is, of course, the most likely suspect, and he’s arrested. But he claims to be innocent, and asks the Martínez brothers to continue to work for him and find out who really killed Lídia. Neither brother has any experience on murder cases, but there’s a lot of potential here in terms of money and future clients, so they continue to investigate. At one point early in the novel, we get a clear and witty look at status symbols in the circles in which the Fonts move:

 

‘..when lunching with a lady friend, women from a certain social class first go shopping in order to appear in the restaurant laden with bags and, so much the better if they’re the exclusive designer variety. It’s a matter of quality rather than quantity. This way I’ve learned that a single Loewe or Vuitton bag beats any number from Bulevard Rosa or the Corte Inglés, that Armani and Chanel level peg, and that Zara is a no-no. That is Borja’s Bags’ Law. And it’s not the only unwritten code that reigns in particular zones of Barcelona’s upper reaches.’

 

In this case, it’s the name on a shopping bag that confers status.

The prison culture is unique and has different ways of conferring status on people. There is of course, the custom of tattoos that indicate why the person is in prison, which gang the prisoner belongs to and so on. Those tattoos are important status symbols. So is the prisoner’s reputation. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, for instance, Superintendent Frank Swann returns to Perth when brothel owner Ruby Devine is shot. The investigation hasn’t gotten very far, in part because Ruby wasn’t an ‘important person’ and in part because it’s possible that her killer was a corrupt cop, a member of the so-called ‘purple circle.’ If so, the members of that ‘purple circle’ will do everything they can to prevent the truth about her death from coming out. Swann persists though, and learns that Ray Hergenhan, who’s in prison for armed robbery, may be the murderer, possibly paid by the cops. During one of their conversations, Hergenhan admits that he’s never denied killing Ruby because being considered guilty of murder is a prison status symbol. But he also says that he really isn’t guilty. It’s an interesting example of what ‘counts’ as a status symbol in a given culture.

And then there are retirement communities such as those we encounter in Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are and Mike Befeler’s Retirement Homes Are Murder. The two books are quite different, but each one takes place at least in part in retirement homes. In those social groups, an important status symbol is number of visits, especially from one’s children and grandchildren.

Culture has a lot to do with what becomes a status symbol, but just about every culture has them. Little wonder we see them so often in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Pleasant Valley Sunday.

14 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Catherine O'Flynn, David Whish-Wilson, Mike Befeler, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana

14 responses to “Here in Status Symbol Land*

  1. What a very interesting look at different kinds of status symbols! I return (yet again) to Dorothy L Sayers Gaudy Night, set in a women’s college in Oxford – where there is some doubt (among the students) about whether academic success gives sufficient status, or whether a boyfriend is needed too. One girl is very anxious to tell us that her chap is ‘safe’, I think meaning that he will propose to her. The dons are older and unmarried, and academic learning is the status symbol for them… .and they’re impressed by Lord Peter because of his intellectual achievements – and access to rare documents at the Vatican. It was a mixed-up world, for sure….

    • Moira – Thanks; I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. And you’re right about Gaudy Night. Such an interesting dichotomy of what counts as a status symbol isn’t it? On the one hand, it’s still a culture in which an engagement (or probable engagement) is a status symbol. On the other hand, there is respect for intellectual prowess, and academic credentials are status symbols too. It must have been difficult for women of that time…

  2. Margot: Status can be earned by experience. I think of the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear in which Maisie has a special status in post WW I England because she is a veteran of the war. Recognition, respect and trust come her way because of her war status.

    In legal fiction set in countries with Anglo legal traditions when a lawyer dons court shirt, tabs, waist coat and gown to become a barrister there is a status conferred by the clothing worn that is not present when counsel appears in court in a business suit.

    • Bill – You’re right about the way experience can confer status on a person. And I think that’s particularly true of war experience. Maisie Dobbs is a good example of that too.
       
      And your comment about courtroom wardrobe makes me think about academic regalia. One’s academic credentials determine the kind of markings on the gown and the kind of cap one wears and therefore, one’s status. It’s a very interesting traditions.

  3. This was so interesting, Margot. I hope Prashant chimes in. I’d like to know if he has a driver. I wish I did.

  4. Margot – Following up on Moira’s comment, it occurs to me that the well-heeled clients of the classic hardboiled private detective hire the detective because he has ‘status.’ This status is conferred by his access to a different, much seedier world his tony clients aren’t privy to.

    • Bryan – You have a well-taken point. The detective’s ‘membership’ if you will in that different kind of world does give status. I’d not thought of that when I wrote this post, but it’s true.

  5. Although I didn’t much like the book, Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters had an interesting take on art theft and how those with original works of art often can’t tell them apart from forgeries

    • Sarah – Art really can be a status symbol; good example. And you’ve put me in mind of Aaron Elkins’ Loot, which also has to do with the art world and art theft. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  6. In two books I read fairly recently, the policemen have to deal with rich and powerful families who are involved in a crime. They have to tread lightly when investigating. Square of Revenge by Pieter Aspe set in Bruges. And Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten set in Göteborg, Sweden.

    • Tracy – Those are both great examples of the way that rich and powerful families love their status symbols. And that does not include police ‘interference.’ I really like the Helene Tursten series, too, so I’m very glad you mentioned that one.

  7. Col

    The section on Line of Sight has me moving it further up the TBR pile and closer to the top. I have so far avoided reading too much about it, to go into it open-minded and blind, but now I’m anxiously re-jigging the pile!

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