Why, We Only Live to Serve*

Service StaffAn interesting comment exchange with Bryan, who blogs at The Vagrant Mood, has reminded me of how much fictional (and real) sleuths can learn from those service people we don’t always notice. People such as receptionists, secretaries, delivery people and so on can be extremely helpful when the police are trying to establish someone’s whereabouts or the course of events. And wise detectives know not to ignore those folks.

Agatha Christie’s stories frequently include clues, or at least information, from such people. For instance, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot goes to see his dentist, Henry Morley. Later Chief Inspector Japp visits Poirot, and tells him that Morley has been shot. Poirot and Japp begin the investigation, with their focus on those who were in the surgery at the time of the murder. For that information, they turn to Morley’s houseboy Alfred Biggs. One of his duties is to escort patients and other visitors from the reception area to the dentist, so he knows who’s arrived and who wasn’t there. He may not be able to pronounce the names correctly, but Alfred has more information about this case than anyone really knows at first.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad, Lochdubh constable Hamish Macbeth investigates the shooting death of Captain Peter Bartlett.  He was one of several houseguests staying with Colonel Haliburton-Smythe and his wife for a weekend party. Early one morning, he went out hunting for grouse, but was murdered instead. Macbeth happens to be on the scene when Bartlett’s body is discovered, because he wanted to speak to the Haliburton-Smythe’s daughter Priscilla, with whom he has an on-again/off-again romance. He starts asking questions, and, despite interference from DCI Blair, he’s able to prove that Bartlett’s death was no accident. As he tries to find out who was responsible, Macbeth relies on help from the Haliburton-Smythes’ maid Jessie, who has a particular liking for him. And in one funny scene, she proves resourceful, too. Macbeth doesn’t want Blair to know that he’s still at the Haliburton-Smythes after being more or less dismissed.
 

‘Hamish had not left. He had had no lunch and wanted to see if he could manage to get some tea and scones. He had slid quietly down behind a large sofa by the window and was sitting on a small stool.
Jessie, the maid, had a soft spot for Hamish. She quietly handed him down a plate of scones and tea when Jenkins [the butler] wasn’t looking.’
 

Jessie may be a little ‘dizzy,’ but she can be very helpful.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow introduces readers to Smilla Jaspersen, a half Inuit/half Danish Greenlander who’s now living in Copenhagen. As the novel begins, she’s attending a funeral for Isaiah Christiensen, a boy who lived in the same building, and who had what looks like a tragic fall from its roof. Jaspersen feels a bond with Isaiah, since he too is a Greenlander. So she’s drawn to the roof where the accident took place. While she’s there, she sees signs in the snow that suggest this was no accident. So she starts asking questions. The trail leads to the Cryolite Corporation of Denmark, and to a bookkeeper, Elsa Lübing, who worked there. When she discovers that Lübing was promoted directly from bookkeeper to head accountant, she knows that the woman probably has very useful information. And so it turns out to be. In the end, Jaspersen links Isaiah Christiansen’s death with some events in her own land.

Emily Brightwell’s long-running Victorian-era series features Mrs. Jeffries, who serves as housekeeper for Inspector Gerald Witherspoon. As housekeeper, she’s not officially entitled to give her opinion on the cases that Witherspoon investigates. But he often finds himself discussing them with her; and, in her own way, she offers insight that proves very helpful. She doesn’t do it alone, though. She in turn relies on her staff (cook, housemaids, footman, driver, and so on). These staff members are the ones who deal with delivery people, shopkeepers and others who see and know things that their ‘betters’ might not. And most of them would rather not talk to the police. So Mrs. Jeffries’ staff is tailor-made to find out information.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in 1970’s Argentina, a very dangerous time to live in Buenos Aires. Through it all, Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano does his job as a police officer the best he can. One morning, he’s called out to a riverbank, where he’s been told two bodies were dumped. When he gets there, though, there are actually three. Two of them bear the hallmarks of an Army-style execution, and in the times in which he lives, Lescano knows better than to ask questions about them. The third body, though, is a little different. The victim is successful pawnbroker Elías Biterman, who doesn’t seem to have been killed in the ‘regular’ way. So Lescano begins what turns out to be an extremely dangerous investigation. Most people don’t want to help, since it could get them killed. But a few people do. One of them is Marcelo, who works as a court office boy. He finds some important, incriminating information, and manages to get it to Lescano. It’s a dangerous and brave thing to do, and it makes a major difference in this case.

And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. In that novel, successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to catch and stop a blackmailer. Guest is married and ‘settled,’ but he’s had a few secret trysts with men; apparently someone’s found out about them and is now prepared to go public. The trail leads to the Persephone Theatre, so Quant visits the place, hoping to get some information on the actors who work there. He encounters a receptionist, Rebecca, whom he has to persuade to part with some information. When he finally does,
 

‘She lethargically opened a drawer that must have weighed several tonnes given the effort she expended to do so and pulled out just the documents I was looking for.’
 

Then, he has to convince her to let him have a look at the actors’ résumés. It’s not easy, but he finally manages to get Rebecca to collect the information he wants. It’s a funny scene, but it also shows that receptionists can be both help and hindrance for the sleuth.

And it’s not just receptionists. Secretaries, delivery drivers, domestic staff, hotel chambermaids, and other service staff can all be extremely useful resources. Sleuths ignore them at their peril.

Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be The Vagrant Mood? It’s a great resource for reviews, and you can also treat yourself to Bryan’s historical mystery series. One features actress Kay Francis; the other ‘stars’ 1940’s British Secret Service agent Peter Warlock.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Be Our Guest.

16 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Emily Brightwell, Ernesto Mallo, M.C. Beaton, Peter Høeg

16 responses to “Why, We Only Live to Serve*

  1. Yes, the demise of the maid from murder scenes must have made the life of the detective so much harder! Mind you, it’s understandable why people don’t want to be maids any more – half the time the authorities won’t listen to them but the murderer bumps them off anyway, just to be on the safe side. Part of Miss Marple’s success was down to her being able to question the domestics in a way that didn’t frighten them into silence – though even then, like poor Gladys in ‘A Pocket Full of Rye’, they still didn’t escape the fate of the maid…

    • You’re quite right, FictionFan! You really take your life in your hands when you become someone’s maid. But as you say, maids provide so much valuable information, too, that sleuths really depend on them. And Miss Marple certainly does know how to communicate with maids so that they’re not intimidated. Doesn’t help Gladys, of course, poor thing. But it shows that wise sleuths do pay attention to what maids have to say.

  2. Thanks for the link to Bryan’s blog, Margot! I didn’t know about his mystery series, and that’s exactly one of the reasons I always read your posts (making my TBR list grow longer and longer). 😀

  3. Hi Margot. Great post on those gatekeeper folks who can be so helpful to the sleuth.
    And much thanks for the mention of my blog and the mystery series!

    • A true pleasure, Bryan. And thank you for the inspiration. You’re right, too, that those gatekeeper folks can be invaluable. It’s never a good idea to ignore them…

  4. Col

    Looking forward to the Mallo book when I get there…..whenever that might be! 🙂

  5. The ubiquitous butler is missed by this lover of mysteries – lift attendants were also useful for keeping track of suspects!

    • Oh, they are, indeed, Cleo! In fact, there’s an Agatha Christie short story (featuring Hercule Poirot) in which a lift attendant’s information proves quite useful. And yes, the butler is a great, classic character in crime fiction!

  6. One of the (many) great things about Barbara Neely’s Blanche series is that the detection is done by someone who is the housekeeper, waitress or maid – she sees what goes on, has access to the info of other service people, and can count on not really being noticed…

    • So true, Moira! And I like that about the series very much. Only other service people really pay attention to Blanche, and that leaves her free to investigate. She has some very sharp observations about her employers, too.

  7. Margot, a butler can swing either way, I think — for the law or against it. I hope I remember to read Anthony Bidulka next year.

  8. Bidulka’s book is on my TBR piles and I need to get to it. I would also like to read Mallo, but not adding too many new authors to the piles for a while.

    • Oh, I know just what you mean, Tracy! There’s never enough time to read everything we want to read. I hope you’ll enjoy Bidulka’s work; I think he’s quite talented. And Mallo’s work is powerful, if unsettling.

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