It’s not always easy, especially for private investigators, to get started in ‘the business.’ They need to build a reputation and they need a solid financial footing. And that’s where having a benefactor or sponsor can be very handy. Benefactors provide financial support and very often they help spread the word about the sleuth, too and that can build a sleuth’s reputation and client base. There are a lot of examples of benefactors and sponsors in crime fiction, and it’s interesting to see that although they may remain in the background during an investigation, their influence can have a real impact.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot for instance is a highly successful private investigator and through the years, he’s made quite a lot of money. But it wasn’t always that way. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we learn that he came to England as a refugee from Belgium. He and some other Belgians were sponsored by Emily Inglethorp, a wealthy benefactor to whom Poirot feels a debt. So when she is poisoned, he is only too happy to undertake the task of finding out who killed her.
There’s another benefactor in Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. That’s the story of the murder of a seemingly inoffensive charwoman. Her lodger James Bentley has been convicted of the crime, but Superintendent Spence doesn’t think Bentley is guilty. So he asks Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and travels to the village of Broadhinny where the murder occurred. It turns out that Mrs. McGinty found out more than was safe for her to know about one of Broadhinny’s residents and was killed to guarantee her silence. Several of the locals are keeping secrets and have a good motive for murder, so Poirot has his work cut out for him as the saying goes. In the meantime, Poirot’s friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is also in Broadhinny. She’s staying with up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward, who is adapting one of her novels for the stage. Upward is the adopted son of Laura Upward, and we soon learn that she is as much his sponsor and benefactor as she is anything else. It’s an interesting dynamic that runs through the story.
Sometimes a sleuth is also a benefactor. That’s the case with Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey is both wealthy and titled, and he has access to the highest of social circles. He uses that privilege to sponsor a number of people including Miss Katherine Climpson, who owns and runs a temporary agency. Miss Climpson’s employees certainly do their share of typing, filing and other clerical jobs. But unbeknownst to a lot of people, they also assist when Wimsey needs some extra help on one of his cases. For instance, in Strong Poison, Wimsey needs an important clue that can be found in the office of attorney Norman Urquhart. Rather than going to the office himself and asking openly for that clue, Wimsey arranges for Joan Murchison, one of Miss Climpson’s employees, to take a clerking job at the law office. She finds the clue that Wimsey needs and is therefore an important part of solving the case Wimsey’s working on, the poisoning murder of author Phillip Boyes. In this case, there’s a mutually-beneficial relationship between the benefactor and the person he sponsors.
Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe’s benefactor was her beloved father Obed Ramotswe. The two were devoted to each other and it was the sale of her father’s cattle after his death that gave Mma. Ramotswe the ‘seed money’ she needed to start her own detective agency. While her father didn’t play the classic ‘sponsor’ role of referring clients and supporting her business during its early days, he did support his daughter’s education. He also looked after her in the sense of wanting to make sure she could live independently. In this case there’s an admitted fine line between being a caring parent and being a benefactor but I still think Obed Ramotswe’s worth mentioning.
A more traditional example of a benefactor is Jacqueline Winspear’s Lady Rowan Compton. She and her husband Sir Julian are one of London’s wealthy ‘better’ families during the time just before and during World War I. In Maisie Dobbs, when we meet these characters, they take into their home thirteen-year-old Maisie Dobbs as a young maid. With help from Maurice Blanche, a friend of the Comptons, Lady Rowan learns that Maisie is extremely intelligent and has a great deal of potential. So Lady Rowan decides to sponsor Maisie. She arranges for the girl’s education, including university. She also helps Maisie get started as a private investigator after World War I. Blanche serves as Maisie’s mentor and teaches her ‘the business.’ But it’s Lady Rowan who serves as Maisie’s benefactor and as the series continues, Lady Rowan refers clients, spreads the word about Maisie’s business and in other ways supports her business.
Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel is a journalist just before and during World War II. Although she earns a small amount of money for her work, it’s certainly not enough to conduct investigations. But in A Trace of Smoke she meets wealthy banker Boris Krause. Vogel had done an article on a serial rapist who attacked Krause’s daughter Trudi and that’s their first connection. But they soon develop a relationship. Among other things, Krause becomes Vogel’s benefactor when she begins to investigate the murder of her brother Ernst. That search for the truth leads Vogel into some very dangerous places, including the upper echelons of the swiftly-growing Nazi party, so Vogel has to take some serious risks. But Krause has the connections to help to help keep her safe, and he provides financial backing too. In Krause we see an interesting blend of benefactor/sponsor who also develops an intimate relationship with the sleuth.
And then there’s successful men’s clothier Anthony Gatt, who sponsors Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. Gatt also serves as Quant’s personal mentor in a lot of ways, but in a very practical way, he supports Quant’s PI business. Gatt is extremely well connected; he knows everyone who is anyone in Saskatchewan and a lot of other places too. So he refers clients, he makes social connections for Quant, and a few times he provides a place for Quant to stay when he’s ‘on the road.’ Gatt doesn’t directly give money to Quant; his financial support is more subtle. But it’s definitely there.
Benefactors and sponsors don’t always broadcast the support they give. But it’s essential to those who have talent but not a lot of money. I’ve only mentioned a few fictional sponsors, so I’m sure I’ve left out some you like. Who are they?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Friend Like Me.