I’m In the Mood to Help You, Dude, You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me*

benefactorsIt’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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Dorothy Sayers, Jacqueline Winspear, Rebecca Cantrell

12 responses to “I’m In the Mood to Help You, Dude, You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me*

  1. Margot; Three femal sleuths with benefactors come to mind.

    V.I. Warshawski (Sara Paretsky) is fiercely independent but she still benefits from the work sent her way by long time client, Darraugh Graham, a Chicago businessman.

    Kinsey Milhone (Sue Grafton) benefited significantly during her career with the work provided by California Fidelity Insurance and office space. It can be expensive establishing an office.

    Less conventionally, Sasha Jackson (Jill Edmondson) has differnt forms of benefactors in her father and brother. Her father provides her with a free home and her brother gives her meals from his restaurant. It would be much more difficult for the fledgingly sleuth without their help.

    • Bill – I’m so glad you mentioned Jill Edmondson’s Sasha Jackson! I actually drafted a paragraph about her, but in the end I didn’t include it mostly because it’s a little less of a conventional benefactor relationship. Still, it most definitely counts, so thanks for filling in that gap. And yes indeed, both Warshawski and Millhone have benefited from relationships they’ve built up with clients and with the insurance company. Good examples, for which thanks.

  2. None come to mind but I don’t read that many series detective books where I would imagine they would be more common.

  3. I really like reading Shirley Well’s Dylan Thomas series. Dylan is a PI and often struggling to make money. However, because he searches for missing people, often the ones that are searching are often willing to pay a lot of money to find their loved ones.

    • Clarissa – You know, I hadn’t thought about that but you’ve got a well-taken point. Very often, people who are searching for loved ones become benefactors. It happens in Well’s series and a lot of other PI series, too. In fact, that’s a whole theme in itself…

  4. Agatha Christie seems to have been fascinated by the benefactor relationship (Cards on the Table, A Murder is Announced etc). The paid companion is also a theme she mines well eg. Miss Gilchrist in ‘After the Funeral’. Thank goodness the role of a paid companion no longer exists.

    • Sarah – I couldn’t agree more about the role of paid companion. And yes, indeed, Christie created some memorable paid companions, including Miss Gilchrest, Katherine Grey (Mystery of the Blue Train) and others. In fact, that’s another theme to explore. You and Clarissa have both inspired me, for which thanks. You’ve a good piont too about the numver of examples of benefactors in Christie’s work. I mentioned a few but as you say, there are a lot more. Fascinating thread through her stories…

  5. kathy d.

    Interesting. Not a topic I’ve thought much about, although years ago when I read more mysteries from earlier periods, benefactors were more common than today. A question that comes to mind is how Sherlock Holmes earned a living. And Miss Marple?
    One day I’ll be able to read A Trace of Smoke. I’m getting there.

    • Kathy – You raise an interesting question about both Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple. I know that Miss Marple’s successful nephew Raymond West often helps her. For instance, I believe it’s he who pays for her trip to the Caribbean in A Caribbean Mystery. And Miss Marple went away to school in Florence when she was young, so her family must have had at least some money. But still, we don’t clearly learn.

  6. I’m glad you mentioned Peter Wimsey’s ‘lady helpers’ – I always really enjoyed their activities, I remembere the office snooping very well. And was it Unnatural Death where Katherine Climpson goes off to chase down a will in an old lady’s house – she befriends a nurse/companion and then sets up a fake seance that enables them to look for the will? I thought that whole sequence was a tour de force, so well done, so funny, and so tense – it would make a fabulous film or TV prog… Miss Climpson and her associates were almost more fun than Lord Peter and Harriet.

    • Moira – Oh, good memory! I believe you’re right that it’s in An Unnatural Death where there’s that terrific scene with the will. It really is well-written. I do like Katherine Climpson and her employees. They’re smart and resourceful, so they add to the stories in ways that show (at least to me) that Sayers was not afraid to portray positive and strong female characters in an era when that wasn’t always done. And they are funny, too.

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