Put Our Service to the Test*

Domestic StaffFor the most part the days are long past when people had households consisting of maids, butlers, valets and so on. And yet, lots of people still hire others to cook or clean, mind children, look after elderly parents and so on. Even if those folks don’t live in, they still have keys and lots of access. If you think about it they are vulnerable too so hiring someone to work in one’s home entails quite a lot of mutual trust. There’s an odd sort of intimacy too between employer and employee. All of those factors mean a rich source of characters and plot lines for crime fiction.

One of the most powerful examples of what I mean is in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. Wealthy and well-educated George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman as their housekeeper. In a tragic lapse, a too-trusting Jacqueline doesn’t check into her new housekeeper’s background carefully enough. Still, all goes well at first. Then little incidents suggest that something about this housekeeper isn’t what it seems. From Eunice Parchman’s perspective, her new employers are getting far, far too close to finding out a secret she’s keeping. Then, George Coverdale’s daughter Melinda discovers what the housekeeper has been so desperate not to reveal. And that seals the family’s fate one awful Valentine’s Day. In this novel, we know what happens right from the beginning of the novel. The real suspense is in the backstory and the buildup to the story’s climax. And one of the themes in the novel is the way the Coverdales and their housekeeper see each other.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, the focus is on the Davies family. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies is a particularly gifted world-class violinist. Then one night he finds that he can’t play at all. He’s terrified by the incident and decides to get psychological help to understand why he’s had this block of his skill. The process of psychotherapy leads Davies to understand that his past has a lot to do with what’s happened. In the meantime Davies’ mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks like a terrible accident – a hit-and-run incident. Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate Eugenie Davies’ death, and that trail leads them to a horrible event in the family’s past. Twenty years earlier, Eugenie Davies’ two-year-old daughter Sonia was drowned in what appeared at first to be a horrible accident. When it began to look as though more was involved their nanny Katja Wolff was arrested and imprisoned. She’s recently been released from prison and as the story unfolds, we see how the drowning and the nanny’s imprisonment and release are all tied in with what’s happened to Gideon Davies and to his mother.

There’s a very appealing relationship between Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran and his housekeeper Iris Cobb. One of the appealing things about it is that the relationship develops over several books in the series. When the two first meet, Qwill is a feature-writer for a large city’s newspaper. When he uncovers corruption and murder in the city’s antiques business, he encounters Cobb, whose husband is an antiques dealer. As it turns out, she is not only quite knowledgeable about antiques, but she is a gifted cook as well. When circumstances leave her alone in life Cobb moves to Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ There she goes into business with a local art/antiques dealer and also becomes Qwill’s housekeeper. She and Qwill really do look out for each other and Braun is to be credited for making their relationship a solid friendship and a case of mutual respect rather than the all-too-easy blossoming romance.

A cleaning lady turns out to be an important source of information in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. In that novel, Göteborg homicide detective Irene Huss and her team investigate the death of Richard von Knecht, who apparently committed suicide by jumping off the balcony of his penthouse. When forensics evidence suggests that von Knecht was murdered, the team pursues the case. One of the people they want to interview is von Knecht’s cleaning lady Pirjo Larsson. The only problem is that she seems to have disappeared. The explanation becomes tragically clear when her body is later discovered in the charred remains of an apartment von Knecht used as a business office. It turns out that Larsson had some key information about the von Knectht case and was killed because of what she knew.

And then there’s Magdalena, whom we meet in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind. Magdalena works as housekeeper and caregiver for Dr. Jennifer White. White is a former surgeon who’s has been diagnosed with dementia and has been forced to retire. Although she has plenty of lucid moments as the novel begins, those moments become fewer and farther between as the novel goes on. Then White’s seventy-eight-year-old neighbour Amanda O’Toole is found murdered. Although there’s no direct proof, there are suggestions that only a surgeon with White’s skill would have been able to leave some of the forensic evidence that was found. What’s more, we learn that White and O’Toole had a long relationship that wasn’t always warm and friendly. In fact they had a terrible argument shortly before she was murdered. The story is told from White’s increasingly scattered and incoherent point of view, so we don’t know for a very long time exactly what happened on the night of the murder, nor whether White really is a murderer. But we get the sense all along that Magdalena knows more than she is saying. We also learn that she has her own secrets to keep. She’s an interesting character and in her interactions with White and White’s children Fiona and Mark, we see the unique relationship that develops between caregivers and family. They aren’t really family but they aren’t really not family either.

And of course no crime-fictional post about modern domestic employees would be complete without a mention of Adelina Cirrinciò, housekeeper, cook and cleaning staff for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano. She feels she owes him a debt for the help he’s given her; her son’s been in legal trouble and Montalbano has been not just supportive but also of practical assistance. For Montalbano’s part he is quite dependent on Adelina and he knows it. She is a superb cook and more than efficient at her other tasks too and Montalbano will go very far to keep her happy and mend fences when she gets angry. Adelina feels quite proprietary about her boss too, and is not at all happy with his choice of lover Livia Burlando. And Adelina makes it quite obvious how she feels about Livia. She also is quite forthright in her way when she’s worried about Montalbano, or when she thinks he’s making a mistake. Camilleri has made of her an interesting and shrewd character while at the same time using her character to weave some domesticity and sometimes comic relief through the series.

Today’s house cleaners, child minders, caregivers and other domestic employees play important roles in family life. Their stories are integrated with those of family members so it makes sense that we’d meet them in crime fiction too. Which ones have stuck with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Be Our Guest.


Filed under Alice LaPlante, Andrea Camilleri, Elizabeth George, Helene Tursten, Lilian Jackson Braun, Ruth Rendell

14 responses to “Put Our Service to the Test*

  1. Elizabeth George is interesting as you have Deborah’s father as Lynley’s butler which is a very old fashioned job. I always like the character of Lucy Eyelesbarrow in AC’s 4.50 from Paddington.

    • Sarah – Oh, I’ve always liked Lucy, too! Such a lot of personality and she’s a very strong but sympathetic character. And you’re right about Deborah’s father too. Hadn’t thought as much about that aspect but you’re quite right that it’s a bit unusual these days. Thanks for bringing that up

  2. Margot, I just finished rereading Christie’s “Mrs. McGinty’s Dead,” which revolves around the murder of a woman, Mrs. McGinty, who is a “daily char,” a person who visits several houses to clean (and, in some cases, to cook). It is thought that she was murdered in a petty robbery attempt by a tenant, but it turns out that Mrs. McGinty’s curiosity and observations got her into deep trouble. The book revolves around her, despite the fact that she dies before the book begins. I know you have mentioned this one before. It’s really first-rate Christie, with plenty of twists.

    • Les – I have a special fondness for Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. It was the first Christie that I ever owned and I still have my first battered copy of it. You’re right too that Mrs. M. is a great example of a more modern cleaning woman. She just gets too curious for her own good..

  3. So glad you mentioned Judgement in Stone – I think it’s Rendell’s very best, and is one I have re-read several times. I think her character-drawing is excellent there.

    • Moira – I couldn’t agree more. A Judgement in Stone is a tremendous and in my opinion powerful story. And yes the characters are so well-drawn there. They’re quite multidimensional.

  4. Carter Dickson’s HE WOULDN’T KILL PATIENCE has one of my favourite domestics in it (though it would be unfair to say more) – there must be a domestic detective in the canon somewhere, surely? Fascinating Margot, thanks.

    • Sergio – Ah, good reminder! Thank you for that. Folks do read He wouldn’t kill Patience. It’s well worth it. And yes indeed there are domestic employee detectives out there. There’s Ann Purser’s Lois Meade, who is a cleaning lady in the village of Long Famden and also an amateur sleuth. And there’s Barbara Neely’s Blanche White, a domestic who is also a very gifted sleuth. There are others, too…

      • Thanks for the pointers Margot – I really will try and track some of these down for 2013. I know I keep saying that, but I mean it!

        • Sergio – I hope you’ll enjoy them. And trust me, I know all too well what it’s like to have more books on one’s list than there could ever be time to read them…

  5. kathy d.

    There is a delightful four-book series about Blanche White, a domestic workers, written by Barbara Neely. How I and other reader friends wished that the author would have continued this series about an independent African-American woman who solves murders.

  6. kathy d.

    And then there’s the famous cliche: The butler did it! This isn’t said for no reason. Sometimes the butler actually did it.

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