Many people have a strong urge to belong – to be a part of the ‘in-group’ – especially if that group has a lot of status and power. That desire to be in the ‘in-group’ is arguably part of the reason that some people become snobs, so that they only associate with ‘the right people’ and look down on others. Snobbery isn’t exactly the most attractive of traits, but it’s part of the human ‘package’ if you like to put it that way. And it’s sometimes an interesting reflection of deep-seated insecurity, and that can add some interesting layers to fictional characters.
Several of Agatha Christie’s novels include characters who are snobs. One of the more memorable is Marie Van Schuyler, whom we meet in Death on the Nile. Miss Van Schuyler is an extremely wealthy American ‘blueblood’ who takes a cruise of the Nile with her cousin Cornelia Robson and her private nurse Miss Bowers. Miss Van Schuyler is so obsessed with her social position that she refuses to speak to almost everyone else on board except her travel companions. Then one night another passenger Linnet Doyle is shot. Hercule Poirot is aboard the same cruise ship and he investigates the murder. Since Linnet Doyle was originally American Poirot asks Miss Van Schuyler whether she might have known her. Here is what she says about the very wealthy and beautiful victim:
‘As a family we have always prided ourselves on being exclusive…My dear mother would never have dreamed of calling upon any of the Hartz family [Linnet Doyle’s mother’s family] who, outside their wealth, were nobodies.’
This snobbery plays a role later in the novel too when Miss Van Schuyler discovers that another passenger is probably hiding a ‘blueblood’ identity.
There’s another interesting portrait of snobbery in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace. When a dog discovers the bone of a human finger in the village of Littlebourne, Inspector Richard Jury has to change his holiday plans and travel there to investigate. Then avid bird-watcher Ernestine Craigie discovers the rest of the body in a nearby wood. The victim turns out to be Cora Binns, who worked for a London temporary services agency and who’d come to Littlebourne for a job interview. Jury’s friend Melrose Plant, who fans will know is a ‘blueblood’ himself by birth, goes to Littlebourne and takes part in the investigation under the pretense of looking for a new house. As he and Jury look into the case, we meet several of the locals, including the local squire Sir Miles Bodenheim and his family. He, his wife and his two children are heartily disliked; in fact mystery novelist Polly Praed likes to amuse herself by inventing all sorts of different deaths for each member of that family. Part of the reason for the Bodenheim family’s unpopularity is the way they look down on the other villagers. Sir Miles in particular is a snob and it’s interesting to see how he interacts with Melrose Plant, who has actually given up his title. In this novel snobbery isn’t the reason for Cora Binns’ murder, but it adds a layer of character development and an interesting thread of tension.
Snobbery plays a part in several of Rita Mae Brown’s novels featuring Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen. Harry lives in the tiny Virginia town of Crozet, where she is postmistress as the series begins. Later she takes up farming full-time and also dabbles in wine-making. Harry is a Virginia ‘blueblood,’ one of the FFV (First Families of Virginia). She doesn’t have a lot of money but because of her status she often gets invited to ‘the best people’s’ homes. One of those people is the Queen of Crozet Marilyn ‘Big Mim’ Sanburne, another ‘blueblood’ who is very careful about whom she associates with and where she goes. Harry is a part of Big Mim’s social circle only because of her birth and it’s interesting to see how that snobbery plays out in the series. It’s also interesting to see the contrast between Big Mim’s view on social position and Harry’s. Harry is just as eligible if you will to be a snob, but she isn’t. Her circle of friends is quite eclectic.
Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher also has a very wide and varied circle of friends despite the fact that she’s a ‘blueblood.’ But snobbery does play a role in this series. In Cocaine Blues, for instance, the first in this series, Fisher is at an exclusive dinner party in London. During the evening, someone steals a valuable necklace from Madame St. Clair. Fisher discovers the thief, and when she first tells her father, he says,
‘What do you mean? Good family, goes back to the Conqueror.’
That snobbery almost, but not quite, protects the thief. When Fisher points out the culprit, she so impresses one guest that he asks her to take on a real challenge. His daughter Lydia has moved to Australia and he and his wife are concerned about her. They believe she may be in danger and they want Fisher to find out whether their fears are justified. Not having anything in particular to keep her in London, and wanting some adventure, Fisher travels back to her Melbourne home and begins to investigate. Her social position gains her entrée into the sort of circles in which Lydia moves and eventually, she finds out the truth about Lydia and along the way uncovers a very sleazy and dangerous criminal racket.
One of the funniest (at least in my opinion) portrayals of social snobbery is in Teresa Solana’s A Not so Perfect Crime. In that novel, Barcelona brothers Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez are hired by powerful politician Lluís Font to find out whether his wife Lídia is having an affair. What starts as a straightforward job turns out to be much more complicated when Lídia is murdered and her husband becomes the main suspect. He begs the Martínez brothers to continue working for him and find out who the real killer is and although they’ve never done a murder investigation, they agree. The novel is a murder mystery but it’s also a satirical portrait of the Barcelona rich and powerful. Here, for instance, is a bit of a description of a lunch date Lídia Font has shortly before she is murdered:
‘..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.’
Snobbery also plays a role in the way especially Borja interacts with clients. He gets expensive haircuts, has a wealthy and generous mistress, wears the best clothes and eats in the ‘right’ places. The brothers’ office has fake inner office doors and a non-existent secretary, so as to keep up this appearance of belonging in the ‘in group.’ Although this pretense is funny, it’s also a piercing look at the extent of snobbery.
Snobbery plays a very important role in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Hickory-Smoked Homicide. In that novel, we are introduced to beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. She’s wealthy, successful and extremely snobbish. So it’s no surprise that she’s made more than one enemy. One night Tristan is hosting an exclusive charity auction at her home. During the event she’s murdered. Local restaurant owner Lulu Taylor discovers the body and gets involved in the investigation when her daughter-in-law Sara is suspected of the murder.
It’s only natural to want to be a part of a group; most of us like that sense of belonging. Sometimes, though, that desire comes out as snobbishness. Not exactly an enviable human trait, but it can add some ‘spice’ to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy and Gene Page’s The In Crowd, made popular by Dobie Gray.