I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You*

I'd  Be Good For YouPeople who live in the limelight often get a lot of scrutiny. The same thing happens when someone is in a high-stakes career (e.g. trying to become a law partner). Every move that person makes may be noticed, and that includes choice of partner. Whether it’s fair or not, people do judge others by the way their partners act, sometimes even by what they wear.  So the right partner can do an awful lot to advance one’s career or social status.

Traditionally (‘though certainly not always!) women have been expected to join the ‘right’ clubs, wear the ‘right’ clothes, visit the ‘right’ people (and avoid certain others) to advance their husbands’ fortunes. It’s not the hard-and-fast rule now that it was, but it’s still there, and in some social circles, it’s still very much culturally expected. It can work the other way too.

We see some interesting cases of this sort of couple in crime fiction, which makes sense when you consider all of the possibilities there are for conflict and other layers of tension. Sometimes such a union turns out very well. Sometimes, it doesn’t…

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia, who’s so concerned that his problem be kept quiet that he comes in disguise. He is soon to marry a rich and powerful princess, and the expectation is that the marriage will advance both of their fortunes. In order for this to happen though, the king is expected to have led a more or less blameless life, with no scandal to embarrass his fiancée or her family. And therein lies his problem. The king had a past relationship with an actress, Irene Adler, and there’s a compromising ‘photo to prove it. He wants Holmes to retrieve that ‘photo so that his indiscretion will stay hidden. Holmes agrees and ends up pitted against a much more worthy opponent than he imagined…

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is the story of beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway. She has no real plans to marry until she meets Simon Doyle, fiancé to her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. Not long after she hires Simon as her land agent, the papers and pubs are full of gossip about their sudden marriage. The newlyweds take a honeymoon cruise of the Nile, which is what Linnet had wanted. For his part, Simon plays the role of properly adoring husband. He wears the ‘right’ clothes, takes Linnet where she wants to go, and in other ways advances her high social status as a very wealthy young bride. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. The first suspect is Jackie, who has an obvious motive and who is also on the cruise. But it’s soon proven that she couldn’t have committed the murder. So Hercule Poirot, who’s also aboard, has to look elsewhere for the killer.

Until the last few forty years or so, men traditionally got the high-status jobs in academia, and their wives played important roles in getting them there. In that community, it was very important to attend the ‘right’ teas, luncheons and charity events; be pleasant to the ‘right’ highly placed people; and in every way support one’s husband’s chances at tenure, an endowed chair, or deanship. That’s what’s at stake in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour. Sir Clixby Bream is planning to retire from his position as Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford, and is getting ready to choose his successor. The two top candidates are Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford. They’re equally qualified and their wives have done their jobs at behaving ‘properly’ and making their husbands look as good as possible. Then, journalist Geoffrey Owens does some digging around and discovers that someone is hiding a dubious past. When he’s shot, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have to dig into several people’s histories to find out what the truth is about these outwardly respectable lives.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to Jodie Evans Garrow. She’s got what seems to be the perfect upwardly-mobile life. Her husband Angus is a successful attorney, and a lot of people think he’ll be the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. Jodie is no ‘clinging vine,’ but she does try to advance his career. She wears the ‘right clothes,’ sends their children to the ‘right’ schools, and so on. In every way, Angus looks poised for a fine future, and Jodie’s played her part in that. Then, everything changes. After an accident, their daughter Hannah is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. Not even Angus knows about this. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption, but when the nurse does some research, she finds that there are no formal records of adoption. Now questions begin to be asked. Where is the child? If she’s alive, can she be found? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie’s social capital plummets, and the notoriety of the whole thing also threatens Angus’ career. Along with the truth about the baby, we also learn what happens when a person loses the social capital that comes with a spouse who does all the ‘right’ things.

In Donna Leon’s About Face, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola Falier are invited to dinner with her parents. Her father, Conte Orazio Falier, has an ulterior motive. He’s invited another couple, Maurizio Cataldo and his wife, Franca Marinello, to the dinner as well. He’s considering doing business with Cataldo, and he wants Brunetti to meet the couple and do a little discreet searching into Cataldo’s background. Brunetti agrees and in one plot thread, he starts learning about the Cataldo/Marinello family. Franca is a loyal wife who does everything she can to advance her husband’s career and make him look as good as possible. She dresses well, is an interesting conversationalist, and even pays a visit to Brunetti at his office try to help her husband. It’s a fascinating look at the way even today, what one spouse says and does can reflect on the other.

There are a lot of other novels, too, in which one spouse behaves or dresses in certain ways, or is nice to certain people, to advance the other’s career. You might even call it part of the bargain the couple strike when they marry.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Wendy James

26 responses to “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You*

  1. It is fascinating to realise how until relatively recently that it was important for the wife to help further her husband’s career. I’m glad to see you included the wonderful Colin Dexter’s, Death is my Neighbour in your post.

    • Isn’t that a great novel, Cleo? I’e always liked it very much – lots of twists to the puzzle, and it’s a good plot. It really is amazing how recently women were expected to act, speak and dress in certain ways to advance their husbands’ careers. In some circles, they were even supposed to be nice to certain people, ignore others, and so on. In some social circles it’s still done, but I know for sure I wouldn’t want to live that way.

  2. Just today I was reading something about 1950s advice to women for dating men: something about their topics of conversation always being more interesting than yours. So not the case in my world (although I’ve made the mistake of being too polite not to feign interest in the past).
    A fascinating post as usual, Margot, with some great examples.

    • Really? Their topics of conversation more interesting than yours? No, sorry, I don’t think so. Not my world either. Your comment reminds me of this bit, which allegedly comes from a 1950s home economics text, about ‘How to Be a Good Wife.’ I can’t verify that it is from an actual book (I’ve not seen the book). But still, it is said that it was printed in in one. Have a laugh… 🙂

      • Sound remarkably like my mother… not that she necessarily followed this advice, you see, but she thinks she did and that it’s correct.

        • It’s the sort of advice my mother followed, too, or at the very least thought was important. It was just what women were expected to do that time. My husband, on the other hand, married a woman who does not believe that a constantly glistening kitchen tap gives meaning to life…

      • Haha! One has to wonder if perhaps that extract might just possibly have been written by a man! Though like you and Marina Sofia, my mother also could have written it. It’s one of the reasons I think every working woman should be given a wife as part of her contract…

        • 😆 I love that,idea, FictionFan! Yes! I’ve never seen it in any description of job benefits anywhere I’ve worked though… As to that list, I wonder if perhaps you’re right – wouldn’t be surprised… 😉

  3. Although this has nothing to do with crime fiction, I recently read Kate Betts’ book on Michele Obama as fashion icon. When asked what was her best accessory Michele Obama replied that it was her husband and that she was also his best accessory.
    Neat post, Margot!

    • Thanks, Carol 🙂 – And thanks very much for sharing that Michele Obama vignette. I love that attitude, and I think it’s a fantastic description of a relationship where each partner really supports the other’s career.

  4. Margot: While Joanne Kilbourn, from the series by Gail Bowen, is certainly a successful independent woman university professor (I think of yourself in the same way) she does work to make her husbands equally successful. For her first husband in provincial politics and her second husband in municipal politics she works hard on the campaigns and joined each husband at many public events. Partly she sees her participation as her duty and partly because she believes in their causes and partly she enjoys the challenge of elections.

    • She does indeed, Bill. On one level, she does, as you say, see it as her duty. But beyond that, she supports their causes because she believes strongly in them. I think for many modern, independent women, that’s essential to furthering their partners’ careers. Their own personal commitment to the cause is an important part of why they support their partners’ particular careers, if that makes sense. And I am flattered by any comparison you make between me and Joanne 🙂

  5. Kathy D.

    I’m so glad there are so many independent women detectives these days, public and private, many single. And those who have families are driven, ambitious, smart, brave, too.
    And despite the woman’s role in About Face, Paola Falier, spouse of Guido Brunetti, speaks her mind and is feisty, no pretense there. She does take care of the household, the children and make spectacular meals, which enable Brunetti to pursue his detection unencumbered by tasks at home.
    But she’s no pushover nor a trophy at all. And she does have a career.
    There was an appalling article in the New York Times on May 16 by Wednesday Martin, “Poor Little Rich Women,” about wealthy couples on NYC’s Upper East Side. The men are millionaires and work. The women do not work, despite excellent higher educations. They deal with the households, children and all that goes with it to enable their spouses’ jobs and they entertain, go to dinners, etc.. They use their skills to do unpaid work, such as newsletters, fundraisers for charities, etc. But their lives are all about enabling their spouses to work and have families.
    But what was a shocker was that they get paid “wife bonuses” if their performances are good — if the children get into good private schools, etc.
    Their husbands cut or withhold bonuses if their spouses don’t do so well — and I’m sure this means a lot of things.
    So, these types of relationships still exist despite women’s progress in many areas.
    I can’t wait for some mysteries to come out about this phenomenon.

    • I read that article, Kathy. In fact, it was part of what inspired this post. Folks, here is a link if you’d like to read it. And I’m glad that you mentioned people like Paola Falier. She does support her husband; but as you say, she is no pushover, and has quite an independent and successful life of her own. In fact, in Fatal Remedies she follows her own conscience even though her actions aren’t at all helpful to Brunetti. She’s an interesting character and I like her very much.

  6. Margot, this is uncharted territory for me. I don’t recall reading crime fiction with couples as lead or even secondary characters though I have wondered how it’d have been if Perry Mason and Della Street were married, at least towards the end of the series. We know they have something going. I think authors back then probably thought couples in fiction might not be a good idea, from a sales point of view. Now crime fiction abounds with couples, married or otherwise; a case in point being the on-off relationship between Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware and his girlfriend Robin Castagna. I hope I’m not off the mark.

    • I don’t think you’re off the mark at all, Prashant. There’ve certainly been ‘detection duos’ (such as Tommy and Tuppence Beresford) in crime fiction for a long time. But I think until recent decades, there were fewer cases of unmarried couples (like Kellerman and Castagna). I wonder as I think about that whether it was because of the perception of people who lived together without marrying. It’s a really interesting question, and I’m glad you raised it.

  7. This post reminds me of something I recently heard on the news. You know those millionaire wives reality shows? Like, Housewives of New Jersey, Hockey Wives, etc. One of them confessed that it’s normal in their circle to receive an end-of-year “performance bonus” from their husband. Can you imagine? I have to wonder if it comes with a written report of where they excelled or failed.

    • I’m not surprised, Sue. Those ‘bonuses’ are just part of what really makes me wonder about that circle. I try – I really do try – not to judge groups, especially if I’m not a member. But that just seems ‘over the line’ to me.

  8. Kathy D.

    Those bonuses are over the top to me. I can just imagine the critiques by the husbands if the apartment doesn’t look perfect, if the decor isn’t right, if the children aren’t doing well in school, if the food isn’t perfectly made (that is assuming they don’t have servants), if the wife doesn’t “entertain” business acquaintances of the husband, if the clothes don’t come back from the cleaners perfectly altered or clean. So, then the wives are “punished” by lower or no bonuses!
    I do like it that Irene Huss’s spouse, Krister, is a chef and cooks at home and seems to run the household while she’s working as a police detective, but they do co-parent and consult each other on important matters.
    Sharon McCone on the West Coast was an independent operative for many books, but then got married to Hy Ripinsky and they seem to collaborate.
    V.I. Warshawski is happily independent although she finds good relationships for awhile.
    And Thora, Yrsa Sigurdadottir’s lawyer, is divorced and highly independent, although she is in a relationship which seems to be equal.
    So, the question is are there married women detectives, other than Huss, who work yet are equal at home in every way, respected, or where the husband pitches in a lot to enable their wives’ demanding jobs as detectives?

    • I think those bonuses are over the top too, Kathy. Seriously. And you’ve given some great examples of female sleuths who certainly don’t fall into that trap. I’d also include Åsa Larsson’s Anna-Maria Mella. Her husband Robert certainly understands that she’s not likely to be ‘good little wifey.’ He may not do all he could around the house, but he does support her and he feels an equal responsibility for their children, I think.

  9. Kathy D.

    Yes, true, but I do wonder how many women detectives there are who have families other than those we have cited. So many are single and without children or with partners/spouses and without children.
    The terrific social worker in Kishwar Desai’s mysteries set in India has adopted a child she met in the first book and is a single parent.

    • That’s a good question, Kathy. You do see that setup, but not very often, that’s true. I’m glad you mentioned Simran Singh, too. She’s an interesting character to start with, and the stories are, I think, well written.

  10. Col

    I must read a Colin Dexter and Donna Leon book at some point, thanks for the reminder.

  11. I’m liking the recent Evita theme in the title quotes, Margot, one of my all-time favourite musicals! And particularly appropriate in this case: Evita and Peron were very much a power couple, and this fabulous song spells it out beautifully. (You wouldn’t want to hear me sing it, but I know every word…)

    • Ah, so you’ve picked up that thread, Moira. It really is an excellent musical, with a lot to it (I mean beyond the terrific music). You’re right that the Duarte- Perón union was a very powerful one, where each very much advanced the other. This song just seemed a perfect fit to the theme…

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