At the Watering Holes of the Well-to-Do*

Exclusive ClubsAgatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…) begins at the Coronation Club during a World War II air raid. Major Porter is reading a newspaper item which he discusses with Hercule Poirot. The item concerns the death of wealthy Gordon Cloade, who’s been killed in a bomb blast. Cloade leaves behind a young widow Rosaleen, as well as several relatives. And therein lies the problem. He’d always made it clear to his family that he would take care of them financially, so they’ve never gone without. But he died without making a will. Now Rosaleen is entitled to everything, and that fact leads to acrimony and worse. Major Porter plays a role later in the novel, and at one point Poirot has a conversation with him:

‘Poirot guessed that for Major Porter, retired Army officer, life was lived very near the bone. Taxation and increased cost of living struck hardest at the old war-horses.
Some things, he guessed, Major Porter would cling to until the end. His club subscription, for instance.’ 

Major Porter’s attitude towards his club isn’t uncommon. There’s something about belonging to an exclusive club that makes members feel special – even superior. Little wonder there are so many of them.

Exclusive clubs can also serve as effective contexts for crime fiction. Who knows what might go on among members, and clubs offer all sorts of options for the author. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates a death that occurs at his own Bellona Club. Old General Fentiman has passed away while sitting in his customary chair at the club. His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, has also passed away. What’s important in this instance is the timing of the deaths. If Lady Dormer dies first, the family fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If Fentiman dies first, the money goes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin Ann Dorland. When it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned, Wimsey looks into the matter. And with so much money involved, there’s a lot at stake. Here’s Fentiman’s grandson’s amusing commentary on the club:

‘Place always reminds me of that old thing in Punch, you know—‘Waiter, take away Lord Whatsisname, he’s been dead two days.’ Look at Old Ormsby there, snoring like a hippopotamus. Look at my revered grandpa — dodders in here at ten every morning, collects the Morning Post and the armchair by the fire, and becomes part of the furniture till the evening. Poor old devil. Suppose I’ll be like that one of these days.’

Still, neither Fentiman would give up his club subscription

Several of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories feature exclusive clubs. For instance, in Gambit, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate when Paul Jerin is poisoned. It seems that he did magic stunts and other party tricks, and was also quite skilled at chess. Matthew Blount, a member of the exclusive Gambit Chess Club, had played against Jerin a few times and the idea was born of a kind of competition at the club. Jerin would sit in one room, blindfolded, and play twelve simultaneous chess matches against other members of the club, who would sit in other rooms. Moves would be communicated by messenger. At first everything went well enough. But then Jerin suddenly died from what has turned out to be poisoned hot chocolate. Since it was Blount who brought Jerin the chocolate, he’s the most likely suspect. But his daughter Sally is convinced he’s innocent. So she hires Wolfe and Goodwin to find out the truth.

In H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case, Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay Police has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector. He’s delighted with that, and with the prospect of becoming a father (his wife Protima is due to give birth very soon). Then his boss Sir Rustom Engineer assigns him to a delicate case. Iris Dawkins has apparently committed suicide; her widower wants to know why. Since Engineer is an old friend of Dawkins’, he’s promised to have someone look into the matter. So Ghote goes to Mahableshwar, where Dawkins lives. Ghote begins by tracing the victim’s last days and weeks, and it’s not long before he comes to believe that she was murdered. Part of the trail leads to the Mahableshwar Club, so Ghote pays more than one visit there:

‘Smoking Room. Inside, at once evident, the aroma from many past years of cigars, pipes and cigarettes lingering unmistakably. But yes, in the far corner a human being. Must be, even if he is holding up the broad pages of the Times of India.’

The story has a clear depiction of the Anglo-Indian club.

Of course, there are plenty of modern clubs too, as we see in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which takes place mostly in the late 1990’s. The setting for most of the novel is the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Potential members/residents are thoroughly vetted before being admitted, and everything that happens within the community is monitored and managed by its Commission. From the physical design of the area to the ID cards that are provided to members, it’s all specially designed to keep the outside world at bay. And those who live there are desperate to maintain their status as accepted members in good standing. So when the financial troubles of late-1990s Argentina find their way into the club, residents begin to worry about keeping up their privileged lives. As those problems worsen, it gets harder and harder to do that. The desperation to remain a part of this exclusive club ultimately leads to tragedy.

But that’s how important being a part of a very exclusive club is to some people. That feeling of being ‘set apart,’ superior and privileged can be intoxicating. And the club setting can make for a very solid crime setting.

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Peron’s Latest Flame.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Dorothy Sayers, H.R.F Keating, Rex Stout

18 responses to “At the Watering Holes of the Well-to-Do*

  1. I do look forward to reading Thursday Night Widows, which I bought on your recommendation.

  2. I always quite fancied the idea of Mycroft Holmes’ Diogenes Club, where no member was ever allowed to notice another on pain of expulsion – great for those anti-social days! And then If I was feeling a bit more sociable, I could pop along the street and join Bertie Wooster in the Drones Club for a bit of riotous bread-roll throwing…

    • Oh, FictionFan, I was so remiss in not including those clubs! I am very glad you mentioned them. Both are terrific examples of the kind of exclusive club I had in mind with this post. And yes, there are times when it would be a delight to have a ‘cloak of invisibility,’ however contrived. And why not throw a few bread-roll throwing 😆

  3. I tend to side with Groucho Marx when ti comes to clubs but there are some great ones in crime literature. Carr’s HE WHO WHISPERS has a wonderful opening at ‘The Murder Club’ in London’s Soho

    • I love that Groucho Marx reference, Sergio! 😆 And you (and he!) do have a good point. Thanks too for mentioning the Carr. It fits right in with what I had in mind with this post – I appreciate your filling in that gap.

  4. Margot – your knowledge of crime fiction writing is phenomenal 🙂

  5. I am constantly amazed at the way you manage not only to come up with the ideas for these posts but have brilliant examples to back them up!

  6. Margot: Do you think the crime writers who are members of the Detection Club in London have the “feeling of being ‘set apart,’ superior and privileged can be intoxicating” or are they the egalitarian people I know who write crime fiction in North America ………

    • Oh, that’s a really interesting question, Bill. At the risk of being indirect, I think that the answer to it varies by member. I think it has a tradition of being extremely exclusive and selective and, perhaps, set apart. I couldn’t say whether that’s as true now, although it still sets a standard. And I do think a lot of people, including highly-regarded authors, tend to be more egalitarian than in the past. As I said, not a direct answer to your question, but a truthful one.

  7. Okay, here’s something to make you laugh (at my expense). I thought “acrimony” was a new kind of alimony. Had to look it up. Now, I feel stupid. LOL

  8. Col

    Like other commenters above – your knowledge is encylopaedic!

  9. When I was a teenager reading crime fiction I was always fascinated by the important clubs posh male detectives frequented – wasn’t Albert Campion a member of the splendidly-named Puffins? It bore so little relation to my life and the male members of my family did not frequent such clubs….

    • Those clubs really are fascinating, aren’t they, Moira? I’ve never known anyone who belonged to that kind of club, either; that culture is so different from my own life and experience. And you’re absolutely right: one of Campion’s clubs is Puffins (I like that name too!)

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