People Put Me Down ‘Cause That’s the Side of Town I Was Born In*

Wrong Side of TownWe may not be entirely comfortable admitting it, but social class plays a role in the way some people treat one another. What’s even less comfortable to discuss is that it can play a role in the way people are treated when they go to the doctor, when they need legal representation or when they need police assistance. This is, I admit, a rather broad topic, so one post won’t be nearly enough to do it justice. Let me if I may just give a few examples from crime fiction where social class plays an important role in people’s interactions. I’m sure you’ll think of many others.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle stands accused of murder. The allegation is that she poisoned Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, the family estate. She had quite a good motive, too: her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman was infatuated with Mary. What’s more, her wealthy Aunt Laura was devoted to Mary and many people thought she would leave most, if not all, of her considerable fortune to her instead of to Elinor. The family physician Dr. Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and begins asking questions. As he does, we learn about the way Mary was viewed because of her social class. More than one person thought she was ‘above herself’ for associating with Roddy Welman. And it’s not necessarily seen as a good thing that Laura Welman took an interest in the girl and had her educated ‘above her station.’

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn is drawn into a case of multiple murder when her daughter Mieka discovers the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a trash bin. At first it looks as though she is the most recent victim in a series of killings that the police have dubbed the ‘Little Flower’ murders. So that’s how the murder is handled. The police don’t ignore her murder, but Bernice was not exactly born into a wealthy and powerful family so they also don’t focus all of their energy on that case. In the meantime, Kilbourn has other concerns. For one thing, her son Peter’s ex-girlfriend Christy Sinclair comes back into the family’s life. She even claims that she and Peter are getting back together. When Christy tragically drowns in what looks like a suicide, Kilbourn starts to wonder whether something more is going on. She is soon proven right. Christy’s death, and some other incidents that happen in the novel, have everything to do with her upbringing on the ‘wrong side of town’ in Blue Heron Point. Social class and background do play roles in this story.

They also play roles in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Jodie Evans has been born and raised on ‘the wrong side of town.’ She doesn’t exactly have a happy life or live in a functional family. But she manages to steer clear of real trouble, work hard and move along in school. Then she meets Angus Garrow, a promising attorney-to-be from a well-to-do family. The two fall in love, marry and have two children, Hannah and Tom. Everything seems to finally be going right for Jodie, until the day that Hannah is involved in an auto accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital. It turns out that this is the same hospital in which years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child she’s never mentioned, even to Angus. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the nurse does some checking and finds out that there are no formal adoption records. Now some ugly questions start to be asked. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, why aren’t there adoption records? If she’s not alive, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie soon becomes a social pariah and her upbringing just makes things worse. In fact, her mother-in-law, who’s always looked down on her, becomes one of Jodie’s loudest critics. I can say without spoiling the story that the truth about the baby isn’t really related to Jodie’s ‘wrong side of town’ background. But social class issues are woven through this novel.

In Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, we meet brothers Vincent and Noel Naylor. They’ve been raised on the ‘wrong side of town’ and Vincent’s been in trouble with the law more than once. In fact, he’s just recently been released from prison. He’s become convinced that he’s not going to get anywhere in life just by working hard; he’s seen too much evidence that that’s not how things work. Instead, he dreams of the perfect crime: a real payoff that’s worth the risk involved and that will set him up financially. So in one plot thread of this novel, he and his brother and some friends plan an armed robbery. The target is Protectica, a company that transports cash among banks. Everything is carefully arranged and the heist is pulled off. But then things fall apart quickly and end tragically. Now Vincent makes other plans, this time for revenge. And it’s interesting to see how social class affects everyone’s perception of this case.

And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. In that novel, Tasmania Police Sergeant John White and probationer Lucy Howard respond to a break-in one afternoon. When White is fatally stabbed, his death hits everyone hard, especially those with whom he worked. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who comes from one of Hobart’s ‘wrong side of town’ districts. He’s been in trouble with the law before, and his family is one of those families about whom people say ‘Well, what could you expect from them?’ For a number of reasons, the police are inclined to handle this matter in their own way, without paying attention to the niceties of policy. But they don’t want to be branded as bullies by the media. What’s more, their suspect is part Aboriginal and there could be all sorts of accusations of racism if the police don’t handle this matter carefully. So the cops are told to do everything strictly ‘by the book.’ This novel addresses all sorts of challenging questions about social class, poverty, its effect on people and its effect on perceptions.

Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark also treats the question of how people from certain social classes are perceived. In one thread of this novel, we follow the story of fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, who comes from a very dysfunctional family on the ‘wrong side’ of Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. She’s determined to do better though, and make something of herself. She works hard in school and shows real academic promise. Then she disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to Alexandra when she learns of Serena’s disappearance, and begins to search for her. As she does, we see how powerful the effect of social class and people’s perceptions are. And when you combine that with dysfunction, the impact is even greater. Lynnie is shocked, for instance, to find that Serena has been missing for three weeks, and almost nobody has done anything about it. And she is well aware that that wouldn’t be the case if the missing girl were from a wealthy family from the ‘right side of town.’

Not all murders, fictional or real, are committed because of social class and a person’s upbringing. But where you live does make a difference, and that’s woven all through crime fiction. Which examples of this plot thread have had an impact on you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe South’s Down in the Boondocks, made popular by Billy Joe Royal.

25 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Gene Kerrigan, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James, Y.A. Erskine

25 responses to “People Put Me Down ‘Cause That’s the Side of Town I Was Born In*

  1. Class is a key issue in PD James’s Cover Her Face – the posh family employs a lower-class unmarried mother as help in the house – but she snaffles up the son of the family, and everyone is horrified. In fact she probably isn’t a nice person, but that’s irrelevant: it’s her social class that is the problem. No good will come of all this of course. I know the Boondocks song from Ry Cooder btw.

    • Moira – I like Ry Cooder’s version; thanks for mentioning it. And you’re quite right of course about Cover Her Face>. It’s a clear illustration of how social class and background affect everyone’s perceptions. And as you say, no good comes of it all in this novel…

  2. I have a real life example of this and it’s to do with crime fiction. I think the story was in the Guardian in the UK. British crime writer David Mark who bases his novels in Hull, which is in Northern England and thought to be a run down are, was in a book shop in London. He couldn’t see his books so asked an assistant about it. The answer was that it was too Northern for their customers…

    • Rebecca – Wow! That’s a perfect example of the kind of thing I had in mind with this post. It’s such a shame too that it happened to Mark. He’s got so much talent. I’m sorry to hear it happened, but it’s exactly what I mean in talking about the perceptions people have based on where one’s from.

  3. kathy d.

    Wow. That’s an intriguing comment about books being “too Northern” for London readers. Does this mean they don’t read books written in Scotland? If so, that would be missing out on some of the best crime fiction writers alive today.
    By the way, speaking of Scotland, has anyone here read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life yet? I’ve read some rave reviews, and am tempted to cross my comfort zone.
    I think this post touches on why I never cottoned to Agatha Christie’s books — I always saw class snobbery in them, including by the Belgian detective.
    “The Mistake” definitely has class issues, and Wendy James portrays these so well. Any book by this author is good, including her newest one, “The Lost Girls.”
    And can’t wait to read Paddy Richardson’s newest book “Swimming in the Dark.” She is such an expert crafter of psychological suspense — as well as a good writer.
    I think social class comes into many books. A major question is if the perpetrators are wealthy, highly connected, celebrities, whatever, does equal justice get meted out to them on a par with what average people deal with, poor people, etc. The jails in the States are filled with poor people.
    Also, Donna Leon tackles this issue constantly. Her culprits are usually , highly connected to the army, government, corporations, church, organized crime or are tied to the wealthy 1% in some way. Few are arrested or tried or sentenced. Leon’s attitude is that very few wealthy, connected people face the justice of average people, and that many get away with their crimes. Her books are always good, and the new one, “By Its Cover” has gotten rave reviews.

    • Kathy – Oh, that’s such an interesting question about Scottish crime fiction! I agree with you too that some truly fine crime fiction has come out of Scotland and continues to do so.
       
      Speaking of Scottish…I’ve heard rave reviews of Life After Life too, and I plan to read it.
       
      Interesting point you make about Agatha Christie. Certainly there are a lot of social class issues addressed in those books. And even Hercule Poirot, ‘though he is happy to accept information and evidence from anyone in any class, admits that he is un peu snob.
       
      Thanks too for mentioning Leon’s books. I think she does a very effective job of showing how class matters when it comes to justice in Venice. As you say, many times, those with power and money get away with things that the rest of us wouldn’t.
       
      And about Swimming in the Dark – I try to be objective about what I read but in this case I couldn’t. It’s fantastic in my opinion, and I recommend it heartily.

  4. Margot: The wrong side of town in Canada is often out of town at the reserve. While we generally have little class consciousness we do not do well with the Indian peoples of Canada. With the number of Indian people now becoming urban Indians the “Rez” is now in town as well. The most recent example is in Gail Bowen’s book, The Gifted, in which there is a major redevelopment project for the North Central Regia neighbourhood, known as one of the most dangerous in real life Canada. The book makes clear the different status of the residents within our province. In fact you have inspired me to write a post on the topic in Canadian crime fiction.

    • Bill – I’m honoured. I’ll be interested in reading your post. And thanks for mentioning The Gifted. You’re quite right about that neighbourhood of course – what a good example of what I had in mind with this post. And you’ve made me think of Giles Blunt’s Forty Words for Sorrow which mentions the Ojibwa community in Algonquin Bay. That’s also a case of ‘wrong side of town.’ Thanks for that perspective.

  5. kathy d.

    I can hardly wait to read “Swimming in the Dark,” and your review of “Life after Life.” (sigh) So much to read, so little time. Perhaps I should retire from all and just read.

  6. Col

    I immediately thought of Christie when you talked of class, and I’ve only read some Marple short stories. When I do read a full length novel by her, I’ll be conscious of it, or at least looking out for it.

  7. The Mistake sounds good – iIenjoyed Wendy James’s- the Lost Girls

  8. I think a lot of the class stuff in Golden Age crime was unintentional – reflecting the actual beliefs of the authors, most of whom were of course middle-class or above themselves. Whereas in modern crime, mostly authors are ‘making a point’ when they address issues of class. Oddly, I prefer the former – snobbery with violence might be unrealistic, even occasionally offensive, but it was fun, which is more than can be said for a lot of the 500-page bricks about junkies, gang wars and sleaze that sadly seem to go hand-in-hand with contemporary crime writing. Just my personal opinion, of course… ;)

    • FictionFan – You really make an interesting point about the differences in the way class issues are treated today vs their treatment in other eras. With some exceptions, it wasn’t very common for authors to use the crime fiction they wrote to make sociopolitical statements in past eras. The ‘-isms’ in such novels were the unconscious responses of authors who, as you say, were products of their eras. I think it takes quite a lot of talent to make sociopolitical statements deliberately and still tell a fine story that keeps readers engaged. There are authors who do it well, but it isn’t easy. And it doesn’t take 500 pages.

  9. Very interesting to read about your examples here and the ones in comments. The book I finished recently, Time’s Witness by Michael Malone, has much emphasis on how lower class blacks and whites are treated in the South (published and set in the late 1980’s). Of course, that type of divide is everywhere, as illustrated by your examples.

  10. kathy d.

    I agree that writers are the products of their times. I would say that Christie and other English authors came from a country with a rigid class structure, at least that was true several decades ago. She certainly reflected that. So do all the classic detectives from England: Peter Wimsey, Adam Dagliesh, Inspector Lynley (although this author is from the U.S.) As time passed, more regular people were portrayed as detectives.
    In the U.S., which hasn’t had a class structure quite like that one, there have not been lords who are detectives nor ladies. Most are so-called regular people.
    Sam Spade was a breath of fresh air. Nick and Nora Charles were wealthy but they were exceptions. Nero Wolfe lives well, but has to earn his income, reluctantly, but still.
    Most of the classic detective movies over here feature cops or private eyes who don’t have pedigrees but are people trying to earn a living. In many ways, I think this is why so many of the still-watched mystery/detective movies are still watched.

    • Kathy – You make such an interesting point about cultural differences and how they affect social class. One of the things that’s really In some societies it’s wealth that gives one high status. In others it’s birth. In others there are other factors that put one on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side of town. And I definitely see your point about the way cultural differences affect a country’s crime fiction. Your examples remind me too of cases such as P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh (who is of high social class) and Kate Miskin (who is not). It’s fascinating to see how those things play out in the genre.

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