I Remember How Things Used to Be*

Crime Fiction StaplesAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about certain kinds of characters we don’t see very often any more in crime fiction. As society has changed, so have our values and the way we see social structure. And it makes sense that those changes would be reflected in crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples of the kinds of characters we used to see a lot in classic/Golden Age crime fiction, but not so much any more.


The Ne’er-Do-Well Son

You know the sort of character, I’m sure. He’s the kind who’s been shipped around to different jobs and places because he just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. He may be a pleasant enough person, but certainly causes plenty of worry to the family. There are a lot of them in crime fiction; I’ll just mention one. In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), we are introduced to the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, but he’s very wealthy. So when he invites the members of his family to gather at the family home Gorston Hall for Christmas, no-one dares refuse. One of his sons is Harry Lee, who’s been all over the world and managed to run out of money wherever he is. He can be charming, but he’s irresponsible. So when word comes that he’ll be at the family gathering, his brother Albert takes real issue with it. But all thoughts of that feud are pushed aside when Simeon Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area spending the Christmas holiday with a friend, so he is persuaded to help in the investigation. It proves to be an interesting case of history catching up with the victim…


The Ward/Protector Dynamic

In the years before women were free to own property and so on, they were often hard-put to survive on their own. But sometimes, a young woman was left orphaned; or, for some reason, her parents were unable to care for her. In these situations, one solution was to be taken in by a well-off family as a ward. The idea was that the young woman’s ‘protector’ would see to her being taken care of until she found a husband. There are lots of instances of wards throughout literature in general and in crime fiction too. One of them is Esther Summerson, whom we meet in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Esther is an orphan who’s been raised thus far by a very unpleasant woman she refers to as her godmother. Wealthy John Jarndyce takes an interest in the girl and wants to help her. So he takes her into his home, nominally to serve as companion to a distant relative Ada Clare. Really, though, she’s his ward. All three are connected to a very old Jarndyce family dispute over a will that’s been going round the Court of Chancery for generations. Even though the feud is a holdover from a very long time ago, it still impacts the family, with murder and intrigue being the result.


The Devoted Factotum

The factotum may have a title such as butler, driver or something similar. But really, that person does all sorts of jobs. He (it usually is a ‘he’) has his employer’s complete trust, and is usually intensely loyal to that employer and the employer’s family. There are dozens of crime-fictional characters like that. One of them is Simon Brandon, who figures in the Charles Todd writing duo’s Bess Crawford series. Crawford is a WWI nurse whose family is well-served by Brandon. Brandon is nominally the family’s driver, but he is much, much more as well. He takes care of business, he travels on behalf of the family, and so on. He served with Crawford’s father in the military, and is devoted to the family’s well-being. He takes it upon himself to look after Crawford as best he can, and she trusts him. He’s no toady, but at the same time, he has a strong loyalty to the Crawfords. I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Mervyn Bunter and Kerry Greenwood’s Dot Williams …


The ‘Maiden Aunt’

There are a lot of women who don’t marry and have children – there always have been. They used to be placed in the category of ‘spinster’ or ‘maiden aunt,’ and we see them all throughout crime fiction. Perhaps the most famous is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who has neither husband nor children, but does have plenty of nephews, nieces and other relatives. There are other crime-fictional ‘maiden aunts’ as well. For example, in Earl Der Biggs’ The House Without a Key, we are introduced to Miss Minerva Winterslip, who comes from a ‘blueblood’ Boston family. She travels to Hawai’i for a six-week visit to some cousins, and ten months later, she’s still there. Her nephew John Quincy Winterslip goes to Hawai’i to try to convince his aunt to come back to Boston and pick up her life again there, but instead, he gets drawn into a case of murder. When a family cousin Dan Winterslip is murdered, John Quincy works with the police, including Detective Charlie Chan, to find out who the killer is. Throughout this novel, Minerva Winterslip is portrayed as unusually independent and quite content to chart her own course as the saying goes. She may be just a bit eccentric, but she’s certainly not bizarre.


The Paid Companion

Paid companions are arguably a fixture in classic and Golden Age crime fiction. They’re usually women, and quite often they’re from modest backgrounds, or from ‘good’ birth but modest economic means. They’re hired by wealthy employers to take care of some light tasks (such as correspondence, some errands, light housework and so on). They also accompany their employers to certain events and in general, serve as, well, companions. Sometimes they’re treated well; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re terrific people; sometimes they’re not. But they’re woven into the fabric of that era. One fictional companion is Violet ‘Vi’ Day, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth. As the novel begins, she’s sharing rooms with Kerrie Shawn, who dreams of Hollywood stardom but so far, hasn’t had much success. The two are scraping by when they learn to their shock that Kerrie has inherited a fortune. Elderly shipping/industrial magnate Cadmus Cole has died at sea, and Kerrie is one of only two living relatives. Cole’s will specifies that Kerrie and the other heiress Margo Cole must share Cole’s home on the Hudson for a year before they can inherit. Kerrie insists that Vi share her fortune and become her secretary/companion. Everyone moves into the Cole house, and as you can imagine, there’s discord between Kerrie and Margo. When Margo is shot, Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. Since Ellery Queen and his new PI partner Beau Rummell were the firm Cole hired to find his relatives, they investigate the murder and find out who really killed Margo and why. Vi believes in her friend and employer and stays loyal to her throughout. I know, I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.

There are of course other ‘staple characters’ in classic/Golden Age crime fiction. Which ones have resonated with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration! Folks, do go visit Moira’s excellent blog on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in literature. You’ll be inspired too.

ps.  I took the ‘photo above, but it’s really a ‘photo of a ‘photo. Credit really goes to Alana Newhouse’s beautifully illustrated A Living Lens, where I found the original. It just seemed to fit the topic…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lou Reed’s I Remember You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Charles Todd, Dorothy Sayers, Earl Der Biggs, Ellery Queen, Kerry Greenwood

30 responses to “I Remember How Things Used to Be*

  1. Great post, Margot, I am proud to be associated with it, but you really made it your own, I love the idea and your exposition of it. I remember that in Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery there is a character who is a ‘valet/masseur’ to a wealthy gentleman. There’s a career opportunity we don’t see these days….

    • Moira – Thanks for the kind words and the inspiration. I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. I’m also really glad you mentioned A Caribbean Mystery, too. That ‘valet/masseur’ is definitely not something you see these days is it? And the hotel itself is so delightfully ‘old style seaside resort.’ You don’t see that much these days either…

  2. An interesting post, Margot. I was just looking into one of Ann Granger’s more recent series, which starts with THE COMPANION. The protagonist, Lizzie Martin, is a companion to a wealthy widow in 1860s London, England. I haven’t read any of the books yet, but I do have that one to try.

    • Tracy – Thanks for the kind words. I’ve heard of that Granger series, but I’ve not (yet) tried it either. I hope you’ll like it; it certainly does sound really interesting. I’ll have to see what you think of it, and whether I should add it to the TBR.

  3. Col

    I don’t think my reading visits GA very often, so I don’t think that I have come across the character types mentioned….and if I’m being honest I’m not compelled to go seek them out either. I think I’ll stick closer to what I like best!

  4. Nannies don’t figure in crime fiction in the way that they did in Golden Age fiction either. I’m thinking of the kind who’ve been in the family forever and remember things about the childhoods of the characters which give insight into them (and their murderous propensities). I am sure Christie had that sort of character, but I can’t think where.
    The private nurse crops up again and again, often suspected of murdering the invalid wife because she is in love with the husband.

    • Chrissie – You’re right that nannies in modern crime fiction don’t have that sort of longevity with families that they used to have. And your comment (for which thanks) is making me think of Christie’s Five Little Pigs, where a former governess is one of the main characters in a sixteen-year-old murder. Interesting point too about private nurses. A lot of people don’t have them any more, do they? Certainly not the live-in kind that there used to be. Interesting…

  5. Clarissa Draper

    When I read paid companion, it actually made me laugh. I know people who have apid companions. Just like the character in the book Rebecca. I agree, we should bring some of those characters back. Awesome post.

    • Clarissa – Thank you. And you’re right; some of those traditional kinds of characters really were rich and interesting. And honestly, I didn’t even know there were paid companions any more. Just goes to show you how much I still have to learn…

  6. Great post. Most of these character archetypes don’t make much sense in this day and age. Or they have been transformed somehow.

    • Thank you, Sonia. It is true that our society has changed so much that a lot of those archetypes wouldn’t fit in so well. Still, it’s fun to read about them.

  7. Margot, interesting post. It made me think of the Jessica Fletcher character when you mentioned ‘Maiden Aunt.’ While she was married (or widowed) she had no children but had nieces and nephews that always seemed to get into trouble or be where trouble was.

    • Mason – Oh, that’s a good point. Jessica Fletcher doesn’t have children, but she does indeed have a lot of nieces, nephews and so on that always seemed to draw her into mysteries. Thanks – and thanks for the kind words.

  8. The maiden aunt nowadays is a lot more glamorous, independent and well-travelled than the frazzled mum or hard-done-by wife, isn’t she? As for the nanny – she has become more of an evil character – the dodgy au pair, the babysitter with deep dark secrets, perhaps relating to our fear and guilt about leaving our children with strangers (rather than a nanny who has been in the family for generations).

    • Marina Sofia – That’s quite true. Both the ‘maiden aunt’ and the nanny are quite different characters today. They’re depicted in very different ways. I’m especially interested in your point about the relationship between the modern conception of the nanny/au pair who’s got dark secrets and our own fears and guilt about leaving our children with strangers. That’s really fascinating psychologically and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s true, at least at some level.

  9. What an interesting post, Margot! So many examples of these kinds of characters, and I think Marina Sofia’s point about the change in the way we view childcare is intriguing. I can only add the little parlourmaid, beloved especially of our Ms Christie, usually as someone to bump off as the second or third murder. A bit like the guys in the red uniforms in Star Trek, whenever you see a parlourmaid you have to fear for her continued existence…

    • Thank you, FictionFan 🙂 – Glad you enjoyed the post. I agree with you too that it is fascinating to see how our attitudes towards childcare have changed over time. And yes, Marina Sofia has an excellent point about the way that’s reflected in the kinds of nanny/au pair characters we see in today’s crime fiction. An interesting psychosocial development. And as for parlourmaids? Yes, they definitely take their lives in their hands, don’t they? Your comment’s put me in mind, for instance, of Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye, among other stories. You know, I may have to do a post about housemaids and kitchenmaids. They really do figure quite a lot in classic/GA crime fiction and historical crime fiction that’s being written today. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’ Oh, and I wouldn’t wear a red blouse or jumper…just saying… 😉

      • Col

        Not so sure that all people feel guilty regarding strangers minding their children. My wife is in childcare and you get the impression some parents would be happy for the facility to be open on public holidays! Christmas Day, New Year’s Day etc. I wonder why some people bother having kids

        • That’s a well-taken point, Col. I hear that a lot from the teachers with whom I work as well. There are definitely some parents who’d rather the teacher raised their children. Parents come in all shapes, sizes and types, and that includes those who don’t want (or at least don’t seem to want) to spend time with their own kids. I think most parents do love their children, but as you say, you also get those who don’t seem to mind never seeing them.

  10. I guess a spin on the valet/masseur is the amanuensis, a 50 cent word for a type of transcribing secretary, and usually always a male in the Golden Age of mystery fiction. That would be the secretary employed full time in a household to manage finances and routine correspondence not a secretary in an office, of course. Another type that I come across an awful lot — especially in WW2 era mysteries — is the locum tenens doctor. Some physician was always filling in for a doctor on vacation or who took off to serve in the war in India or Australia. While there are still locum tenens employment agencies in the US I have never come across that type of character in a contemporary book. Not even a mainstream novel.

    • John – I haven’t either. And that’s an interesting example of the way occupations have changed. You no longer have the household secretary as a rule, but there are a lot of examples of the amanuensis in GA crime fiction. Thanks for that. And you’re right about the locum tenens doctor. I’ve seen that in some GA/classic crime fiction, but as you say, not in contemporary crime fiction.

  11. A really interesting post, I do love the selection of staple characters and examples of their appearances, but I’m sure the butler should be there somewhere and, as others have suggested, the other servants in the house, particularly the housemaid.

    • Cleo – Thank you. And there certainly are household servants (like butlers, kitchnmaids and the like) that we don’t see very often any more. And yet they often figure heavily in classic/GA novels. Interesting societal shift…

  12. Margot – Love those characters! Clarissa scooped me: I thought of the paid companion in Rebecca. Also, I very much enjoy the ne’er-do-well son, who’s all over the place in the Golden Age, and even today in stories set in that era.
    Invoking Rebecca again, would the impossibly glamorous deceased wife who haunts the memory of the husband qualify as one of these character types?

    • Bryan – Interesting question! Certainly that sort of character shows up in more than one classic/GA story (and in stories set during those eras). And although we still see dead loved ones who haunt the living (figuratively speaking) in modern crime fiction, there’s something about those characters from an earlier time that stay in the mind…
      And I agree about the ne’er-do-well son – a great archetype.

  13. Let’s not forget the family solicitor or lawyer, who plays a key role in so many Golden Age (and beyond!) mysteries as the Keeper of the Will. Sometimes, those characters turn out to be the villains of the piece, having squandered a client’s fortune and then forced to murder the client before being found out. I don’t think today’s fictional lawyers come close!

    • That’s quite true, Les. That archetype is an important character in classic/GA crime fiction. I can think of novels where it’s the solicitor/lawyer who suspects the crime, and novels where, as you say, that person is the criminal. Either way it can work really well.

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