An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about certain kinds of characters we don’t see very often any more in crime fiction. As society has changed, so have our values and the way we see social structure. And it makes sense that those changes would be reflected in crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples of the kinds of characters we used to see a lot in classic/Golden Age crime fiction, but not so much any more.
The Ne’er-Do-Well Son
You know the sort of character, I’m sure. He’s the kind who’s been shipped around to different jobs and places because he just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. He may be a pleasant enough person, but certainly causes plenty of worry to the family. There are a lot of them in crime fiction; I’ll just mention one. In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), we are introduced to the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, but he’s very wealthy. So when he invites the members of his family to gather at the family home Gorston Hall for Christmas, no-one dares refuse. One of his sons is Harry Lee, who’s been all over the world and managed to run out of money wherever he is. He can be charming, but he’s irresponsible. So when word comes that he’ll be at the family gathering, his brother Albert takes real issue with it. But all thoughts of that feud are pushed aside when Simeon Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area spending the Christmas holiday with a friend, so he is persuaded to help in the investigation. It proves to be an interesting case of history catching up with the victim…
The Ward/Protector Dynamic
In the years before women were free to own property and so on, they were often hard-put to survive on their own. But sometimes, a young woman was left orphaned; or, for some reason, her parents were unable to care for her. In these situations, one solution was to be taken in by a well-off family as a ward. The idea was that the young woman’s ‘protector’ would see to her being taken care of until she found a husband. There are lots of instances of wards throughout literature in general and in crime fiction too. One of them is Esther Summerson, whom we meet in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Esther is an orphan who’s been raised thus far by a very unpleasant woman she refers to as her godmother. Wealthy John Jarndyce takes an interest in the girl and wants to help her. So he takes her into his home, nominally to serve as companion to a distant relative Ada Clare. Really, though, she’s his ward. All three are connected to a very old Jarndyce family dispute over a will that’s been going round the Court of Chancery for generations. Even though the feud is a holdover from a very long time ago, it still impacts the family, with murder and intrigue being the result.
The Devoted Factotum
The factotum may have a title such as butler, driver or something similar. But really, that person does all sorts of jobs. He (it usually is a ‘he’) has his employer’s complete trust, and is usually intensely loyal to that employer and the employer’s family. There are dozens of crime-fictional characters like that. One of them is Simon Brandon, who figures in the Charles Todd writing duo’s Bess Crawford series. Crawford is a WWI nurse whose family is well-served by Brandon. Brandon is nominally the family’s driver, but he is much, much more as well. He takes care of business, he travels on behalf of the family, and so on. He served with Crawford’s father in the military, and is devoted the family’s well-being. He takes it upon himself to look after Crawford as best he can, and she trusts him. He’s no toady, but at the same time, he has a strong loyalty to the Crawfords. I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Mervyn Bunter and Kerry Greenwood’s Dot Williams …
The ‘Maiden Aunt’
There are a lot of women who don’t marry and have children – there always have been. They used to be placed in the category of ‘spinster’ or ‘maiden aunt,’ and we see them all throughout crime fiction. Perhaps the most famous is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who has neither husband nor children, but does have plenty of nephews, nieces and other relatives. There are other crime-fictional ‘maiden aunts’ as well. For example, in Earl Der Biggs’ The House Without a Key, we are introduced to Miss Minerva Winterslip, who comes from a ‘blueblood’ Boston family. She travels to Hawai’i for a six-week visit to some cousins, and ten months later, she’s still there. Her nephew John Quincy Winterslip goes to Hawai’i to try to convince his aunt to come back to Boston and pick up her life again there, but instead, he gets drawn into a case of murder. When a family cousin Dan Winterslip is murdered, John Quincy works with the police, including Detective Charlie Chan, to find out who the killer is. Throughout this novel, Minerva Winterslip is portrayed as unusually independent and quite content to chart her own course as the saying goes. She may be just a bit eccentric, but she’s certainly not bizarre.
The Paid Companion
Paid companions are arguably a fixture in classic and Golden Age crime fiction. They’re usually women, and quite often they’re from modest backgrounds, or from ‘good’ birth but modest economic means. They’re hired by wealthy employers to take care of some light tasks (such as correspondence, some errands, light housework and so on). They also accompany their employers to certain events and in general, serve as, well, companions. Sometimes they’re treated well; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re terrific people; sometimes they’re not. But they’re woven into the fabric of that era. One fictional companion is Violet ‘Vi’ Day, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth. As the novel begins, she’s sharing rooms with Kerrie Shawn, who dreams of Hollywood stardom but so far, hasn’t had much success. The two are scraping by when they learn to their shock that Kerrie has inherited a fortune. Elderly shipping/industrial magnate Cadmus Cole has died at sea, and Kerrie is one of only two living relatives. Cole’s will specifies that Kerrie and the other heiress Margo Cole must share Cole’s home on the Hudson for a year before they can inherit. Kerrie insists that Vi share her fortune and become her secretary/companion. Everyone moves into the Cole house, and as you can imagine, there’s discord between Kerrie and Margo. When Margo is shot, Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. Since Ellery Queen and his new PI partner Beau Rummell were the firm Cole hired to find his relatives, they investigate the murder and find out who really killed Margo and why. Vi believes in her friend and employer and stays loyal to her throughout. I know, I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.
There are of course other ‘staple characters’ in classic/Golden Age crime fiction. Which ones have resonated with you?
ps. I took the ‘photo above, but it’s really a ‘photo of a ‘photo. Credit really goes to Alana Newhouse’s beautifully illustrated A Living Lens, where I found the original. It just seemed to fit the topic…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lou Reed’s I Remember You.