We may not be entirely comfortable admitting it, but social class plays a role in the way some people treat one another. What’s even less comfortable to discuss is that it can play a role in the way people are treated when they go to the doctor, when they need legal representation or when they need police assistance. This is, I admit, a rather broad topic, so one post won’t be nearly enough to do it justice. Let me if I may just give a few examples from crime fiction where social class plays an important role in people’s interactions. I’m sure you’ll think of many others.
In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle stands accused of murder. The allegation is that she poisoned Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, the family estate. She had quite a good motive, too: her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman was infatuated with Mary. What’s more, her wealthy Aunt Laura was devoted to Mary and many people thought she would leave most, if not all, of her considerable fortune to her instead of to Elinor. The family physician Dr. Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and begins asking questions. As he does, we learn about the way Mary was viewed because of her social class. More than one person thought she was ‘above herself’ for associating with Roddy Welman. And it’s not necessarily seen as a good thing that Laura Welman took an interest in the girl and had her educated ‘above her station.’
In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn is drawn into a case of multiple murder when her daughter Mieka discovers the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a trash bin. At first it looks as though she is the most recent victim in a series of killings that the police have dubbed the ‘Little Flower’ murders. So that’s how the murder is handled. The police don’t ignore her murder, but Bernice was not exactly born into a wealthy and powerful family so they also don’t focus all of their energy on that case. In the meantime, Kilbourn has other concerns. For one thing, her son Peter’s ex-girlfriend Christy Sinclair comes back into the family’s life. She even claims that she and Peter are getting back together. When Christy tragically drowns in what looks like a suicide, Kilbourn starts to wonder whether something more is going on. She is soon proven right. Christy’s death, and some other incidents that happen in the novel, have everything to do with her upbringing on the ‘wrong side of town’ in Blue Heron Point. Social class and background do play roles in this story.
They also play roles in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Jodie Evans has been born and raised on ‘the wrong side of town.’ She doesn’t exactly have a happy life or live in a functional family. But she manages to steer clear of real trouble, work hard and move along in school. Then she meets Angus Garrow, a promising attorney-to-be from a well-to-do family. The two fall in love, marry and have two children, Hannah and Tom. Everything seems to finally be going right for Jodie, until the day that Hannah is involved in an auto accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital. It turns out that this is the same hospital in which years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child she’s never mentioned, even to Angus. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the nurse does some checking and finds out that there are no formal adoption records. Now some ugly questions start to be asked. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, why aren’t there adoption records? If she’s not alive, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie soon becomes a social pariah and her upbringing just makes things worse. In fact, her mother-in-law, who’s always looked down on her, becomes one of Jodie’s loudest critics. I can say without spoiling the story that the truth about the baby isn’t really related to Jodie’s ‘wrong side of town’ background. But social class issues are woven through this novel.
In Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, we meet brothers Vincent and Noel Naylor. They’ve been raised on the ‘wrong side of town’ and Vincent’s been in trouble with the law more than once. In fact, he’s just recently been released from prison. He’s become convinced that he’s not going to get anywhere in life just by working hard; he’s seen too much evidence that that’s not how things work. Instead, he dreams of the perfect crime: a real payoff that’s worth the risk involved and that will set him up financially. So in one plot thread of this novel, he and his brother and some friends plan an armed robbery. The target is Protectica, a company that transports cash among banks. Everything is carefully arranged and the heist is pulled off. But then things fall apart quickly and end tragically. Now Vincent makes other plans, this time for revenge. And it’s interesting to see how social class affects everyone’s perception of this case.
And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. In that novel, Tasmania Police Sergeant John White and probationer Lucy Howard respond to a break-in one afternoon. When White is fatally stabbed, his death hits everyone hard, especially those with whom he worked. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who comes from one of Hobart’s ‘wrong side of town’ districts. He’s been in trouble with the law before, and his family is one of those families about whom people say ‘Well, what could you expect from them?’ For a number of reasons, the police are inclined to handle this matter in their own way, without paying attention to the niceties of policy. But they don’t want to be branded as bullies by the media. What’s more, their suspect is part Aboriginal and there could be all sorts of accusations of racism if the police don’t handle this matter carefully. So the cops are told to do everything strictly ‘by the book.’ This novel addresses all sorts of challenging questions about social class, poverty, its effect on people and its effect on perceptions.
Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark also treats the question of how people from certain social classes are perceived. In one thread of this novel, we follow the story of fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, who comes from a very dysfunctional family on the ‘wrong side’ of Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. She’s determined to do better though, and make something of herself. She works hard in school and shows real academic promise. Then she disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to Alexandra when she learns of Serena’s disappearance, and begins to search for her. As she does, we see how powerful the effect of social class and people’s perceptions are. And when you combine that with dysfunction, the impact is even greater. Lynnie is shocked, for instance, to find that Serena has been missing for three weeks, and almost nobody has done anything about it. And she is well aware that that wouldn’t be the case if the missing girl were from a wealthy family from the ‘right side of town.’
Not all murders, fictional or real, are committed because of social class and a person’s upbringing. But where you live does make a difference, and that’s woven all through crime fiction. Which examples of this plot thread have had an impact on you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe South’s Down in the Boondocks, made popular by Billy Joe Royal.