Acting Like a Born Aristocrat*

Casual SnobberyMost of us would probably say we don’t care much for snobbery. And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a snub, then you know how alienating that can be. What’s interesting too is that sometimes, the assumptions that underlie snobbery (i.e. I belong to a group that’s inherently better than other groups) is so deeply ingrained that snobs may not even be aware of their own beliefs.

I got to thinking about that kind of snobbery after reading a really interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books. And by the way, if you don’t already follow that excellent blog, I really do recommend it. It’s a fabulous site for daily posts on fictional fashion, culture, and what it all says about us. Snobbery really is woven into a lot of cultures, and it’s certainly a part of crime fiction as well. There are far too many examples for me to list them all in this one post, but here are a few.

Agatha Christie depicts snobbery in several of her novels and stories. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), a group of passengers is en route by air from Paris to London. Towards the end of the flight, one of the passengers, Marie Morisot, dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Hercule Poirot, who is on that flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who is guilty. Among the characters, we find a ‘mixed bag’ of people. Some of them, such as passenger Venetia Kerr, are ‘well born’ and have the assumptions of their class. It’s not that they’re rude or deliberately offensive. But, as one character puts it:

‘She walks about as though she owns the earth; she is not conceited about it: she is just an Englishwoman.’

There’s also Cicely Horbury, who started as ‘just a chorus girl,’ but has married Lord Stephen Horbury. In her case, she has eagerly taken on the lifestyle of the upper classes, but she doesn’t have those unconscious assumptions. She’s quite a different sort of snob. I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile, Lord Edgware Dies, etc.

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer gets a new client: Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida, a school for ‘troubled youth.’ Sponti is worried because one of the students, seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, has gone missing. Tom’s parents are both wealthy and well-connected, so he’s afraid of what will happen if they find out Tom’s gone. Archer is at the school discussing the case with Sponti when Tom’s father Ralph Hillman bursts in with shocking news. It seems that Tom has been kidnapped and his abductors want ransom money. Archer returns to the Hillman home with Ralph and begins to investigate, in the hopes of finding Tom. It’s soon clear to Archer that this is no ordinary kidnapping case. For one thing, the Hillmans are not nearly as forthcoming about Tom and the family dynamics as you’d expect from a couple desperate to get their son back. For another, it’s quite possible that Tom may know the people who took him, and may in fact be with them willingly. Then, one of the people Tom is with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. As Archer finds out the truth in this case, we see how the Hillmans’ money and power have affected their assumptions about themselves and others. They are snobbish in their way, and that’s how they treat Archer- often without really seeming to be aware of it. What’s more, it’s very important for them to keep up their status in the community.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces readers to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. One of the clients with whom he works in this novel is prominent attorney Ajay Kasliwal. A few months ago, one of Kasliwal’s household servants, Mary Murmu, disappeared. Now, evidence has come out that suggests Kasliwal raped and killed her. He claims that he’s innocent and has no idea what happened to her. But the police want to prove to the public that they cannot be ‘bought,’ so they’re making an example of Kasliwal. Puri agrees to look into the matter, and he and his team begin to investigate. As they search for the truth, we see how the Kasliwals’ assumptions about themselves and others are woven into what they say and do. On the one hand, Kasilwal is not a cruel, arrogant person. He’s not even particularly unpleasant. But it doesn’t really occur to either him or his wife to communicate with Mary’s family, members of an entirely different social class. And Mary’s life is not really important to either of the Kasliwals: their concern over her has to do with the possible damage to the family’s reputation, not with any concern for her.

We also see that same kind of casual snobbery in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. Much of the action in this novel takes place at Cascade Heights Country Club, an ultra-exclusive community thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Members are thoroughly ‘vetted’ before they’re allowed to move in, and there are several measures in place to keep the ‘outside world’ away. Club members shop and dine in certain places, and it would never occur to them to mix with ‘other kinds of people.’ Tragedy strikes this supposedly safe haven, and things begin to unravel. But even then, we see how people who live in ‘The Heights’ interact with each other and others. At one point, for instance, some of the women who live in the community decide they want to help ‘the less fortunate.’ It would never occur to them to actually get to know any of those people. Instead, they host a charity sale of their used clothes and some accessories. The scenes in which they plan and hold the sale show how unconscious their snobbery is. They really aren’t nasty, cruel people. But they do assume that some people (including them) matter, and some don’t.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney living in Arding, New South Wales. He comes from a well-off ‘blueblood’ family, and it’s always been assumed he’ll do well in life. He has, too: he’s married to an attractive, intelligent wife, Jodie; he has two healthy children; and his career is on the rise. Then everything changes. His daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child Angus didn’t even know about until it comes out now. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie tells the nurse that she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks the files, there is no record of a formal adoption. Now the question is: what happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? As the Garrows’ lives spin more and more out of control, we see how the casual snobbery of people like Angus’ family of origin impacts how they feel about Jodie, and what they think should be done.

ferent sort of snobbery – but just as real – in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, which introduces Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. The body of national model worker Guan Hongying is discovered in the Baili Canal near Shanghai. It’s a politically-charged case, since the victim was somewhat of a celebrity and had several friends among the elite of the Party – the High Cadre. At first, the official theory is that she was raped and murdered by a taxi driver. But other evidence suggests strongly that that’s not what happened. Now Chen and his assistant Yu Guangming have to search elsewhere. Slowly, they trace Guan’s last days and weeks, and find out that way who killed her and why. Throughout this novel, we see clearly how High Cadre people and their families see themselves and others. It’s not that all of them are horrible, cruel people; some are, but some are not. But they do see themselves as entitled, and certainly not in the same class as ‘other people.’

And that’s the thing about that unconscious, casual snobbery. It’s so unconscious that people who have those assumptions may not even be aware of their own skewed thinking. Which examples of this have stayed with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Herman’s Elegance.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Qiu Xiaolong, Ross Macdonald, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

18 responses to “Acting Like a Born Aristocrat*

  1. Kay

    DEATH IN THE CLOUDS is one of my favorite Christie books. I need to re-read it soon. 🙂

    I was thinking of Daisy Dalrymple and un-snobbish she is. She’s been raised in a world quite different than the one she chooses to live in and marry into. Love those books. Such a cheerful character.

    And there are all kinds of snobbery. Some, dare I say, are what I would call snobbish about books and certain genres. Probably a whole other topic. But don’t get me started. LOL

    • Kay – I know what you mean about that sort of elitism. That is indeed a whole other topic… Thanks for mentioning Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple, too. She certainly does mix among the cream of society doesn’t she? But at the same time, she herself is quite different. I like her character as well…

  2. Great post Margot, you did a great job on this theme and I am so happy to be given credit for inspiration! In the Dorothy L Sayers books, some people think Harriet D Vane is too low-class for Lord Peter to marry (his sister-in-law). Sayers herself can be accused of intellectual snobbery – which is a whole other topic, and maybe could provide another post….

    • Oh, believe me, Moira, I’m grateful for the inspiration 🙂 – And you’re quite right about Harriet Vane. She herself wonders whether she’s ‘good enough’ for the ‘well born’ Wimsey, and if I recall correctly, she even discusses that with his mother. Of course, the Dowager Duchess can hardly complain, as her daughter Mary is married to a police inspector…

  3. Some terrifically varied examples there Margot, thanks. I really must get Death of a Red Heroine, sounds great – ta!

  4. Interesting, Margot. It’s often the case that a policeman has to investigate someone from a higher social class and is uncomfortable in that milieu and with the sense of entitlement of those in it. This happens to Maigret quite a lot. Columbo, I recall, uses it to his advantage.

    • He does indeed, Christine. And you’re quite right about other cops in that similar situation. Raymond Chandler has an interesting perspective on that in his Marlowe novels (‘though he certainly doesn’t depict the higher social classes in a very positive way…). And Christie hints at it too with the various cops who play roles in her novels.

  5. I think Inspector Dagliesh created by PD James had to deal with his fair share of snobbishness particularly in Cover Her Face which touches on this when a young man becomes engaged to a parlour maid to his mother’s consternation.

    • Oh, absolutely, Cleo! I’m glad you brought that up, actually, as I think James deals with that sense of casual snobbery in several of her novels. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  6. I’ll throw The Great Gatsby into the mix, Margot – it’s a crime novel, isn’t it?! One of the best written examples of that casual cruelty that snobbery brings about, both in the way Daisy behaves towards Gatsby, and even more in the way Tom treats his mistress and her husband… and, of course, it’s at the root of the crime.

    • Oh, FictionFan, I couldn’t think of a better example. Thank you! And yes of course The Great Gatsby counts as a crime novel. I think that was one of Fitzgerald’s strongest points in this novel: the assumptions that lead to that sort of cruelty and snobbery, and the consequences of them.

  7. Anne Perry’s Thomas Pitt series does a great job of showing how the aristocracy in Victorian times thought of policemen as ‘tradesmen’ – I believe he is often sent to use the tradesmen’s entrance. Of course, he does have his well-born wife Charlotte to help him gain access to the higher echelons of society, which helps in his crime-solving.

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. I’m not as familiar with that series as you are, and it’s a perfect example of the kind of snobbery that I had in mind with this post. It’s also a good reminder that I should get more familiar with those novels.

  8. Col

    More espionage themed than crime but Brian Freemantle’s Charlie Muffin character doesn’t fit with his bosses because of his lack of breeding and public school education. In the early books, they are looking to make him the scapegoat and out him from the service

    • That’s exactly the kind of social snobbery I had in mind with this post. I’m glad you mentioned Charlie Muffin, as it’s also a reminder that I need to get to know him better than I do.

  9. tracybham

    Two books you mention here are ones I look forward to reading: Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine and Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows.

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