If You Look the Part You’ll Get the Job*

20151126_092844-1The conference name badge and backpack you see in this ‘photo serve a couple of important purposes. The backpack is, of course, handy for carrying notes, a pen, the conference handbook, and the many other little things conference delegates need when they go to different sessions. And the name badge makes it easy for people to introduce themselves or discreetly check if they really do remember that person from the last conference.

But name badges, backpacks and the like serve another purpose too. They identify a person as belonging to a group. If you walk into a conference venue with your name badge, you’re immediately accepted (and forgiven for any  ‘I’m a foreigner – sorry!’ blunders you may make).  No-one questions your presence. It’s quite different if you walk in without the name badge, backpack or both.

Those sorts of identifiers show up a in crime fiction, too, and they can mark a person as ‘belonging’ or ‘not belonging.’ They don’t always take the form of a name badge, but they can play a role. To give you one very general example, medical mysteries and thrillers (e.g. Michael Palmer’s work, Robin Cook’s, and so on) often have a plot point that includes a character who ducks into a hospital changing room and dons a lab coat. No-one really takes notice of a person in a lab coat in that environment. It’s a symbol that identifies someone as belonging there. There are more specific examples, too, of the way this works in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna move to the village of Lymestock so that Jerry can recover from a wartime injury. On the surface, Lymestock seems to be an idyllic small town, peaceful and just right for recuperation. It doesn’t turn out to be that way, though. One day, Joanna and Jerry receive a vicious anonymous note that suggests they are not siblings, but lovers. Then, they learn that other villagers, too, are getting such notes. When one of those letters results in a suicide, and another death follows that, the police investigate. But, as the local vicar’s wife knows, Miss Marple is far better suited than are the police to find out the truth in a small, closed-mouth village like Lymestock. One of the interesting side issues in this novel is the local perception of Joanna. She’s a very smart dresser who wears makeup. This identifies her immediately as not belonging. And there are plenty of people who think that she shouldn’t wear makeup and should dress more ‘village.’

Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights introduces readers to Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman. In one plot thread, a local drug user nearly dies right near Chapman’s bakery, and she finds herself slowly getting drawn into the mystery of how it happened. There’ve been several overdoses in the area, some of which have led to death. The trail leads Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen to a Goth club called Blood Lines. A person can’t just walk into the club, so Chapman and Cohen are going to have to look as though they belong. Chapman gets some help from her friend Pat, who goes by the professional name of Mistress Dread. The dress she wears, and the boots, make her look exactly right for the club, so that no-one questions her presence there. This allows her and Cohen to find out the truth about the drug deaths.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham DS Beverly Morriss and the team she works with investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. A search into the victim’s background reveals that she was a commercial sex worker, so Morriss wants to talk to anyone else in that profession who might have known her. When one of Morriss’ contacts disappears, and another is badly beaten, it’s clear that Morriss will have to dig deeper. She wants to talk to other sex workers, but of course, they wouldn’t be exactly open to talking to a police officer. But she finally persuades one of her contacts to let her join a group of ‘the girls.’ Morriss knows she’s going to have to fit in, and that includes thinking about how she identifies herself. Her final choice of clothes isn’t perfect, but,

‘…at least it wasn’t blue and no one would ask her to read the meter.’

In this case, wearing anything like a badge or other identifier would immediately have marked Morriss as ‘not belonging.’

Betty Web’s PI Lena Jones needs to find a way to look as though she belongs in Desert Wives. She and her PI partner Jimmy Siswan have a difficult case. Esther Corbett has hired them to rescue her thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca from a secretive polygamous religious group called Purity. They succeed, only to learn that the cult’s leader, Solomon Royal, was shot and killed on the same night that they got Rebecca. What’s worse, Esther is implicated. If she’s going to rescue her client, Jones will have to find out who really shot the victim. But she won’t be able to enter the community without seeming to belong. So she borrows a

‘…long-sleeved, high-necked, ankle-length calico…’

that serves as an identifier for the women who live at Purity. Suffice it to say, the clothes Jones wears during this assignment are not at all like her usual choices.

Barbara Neely’s sleuth, Blanche White, works as a domestic. She’s a Black woman in a world where the rich and powerful are very much White. But nobody questions her presence if she wears a uniform. It’s a badge that marks her as an employee; in that sense, it makes her invisible. She’s part of ‘the help,’ so very few people pay any attention to what she does as she investigates.

And that’s the thing about name badges, lab coats, uniforms and so on. They give a person a certain kind of group membership (e.g. conference delegate, ‘the help,’ hospital employee, and so on). And that means that people don’t always think to question what that person is really doing.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Bragg’s To Have and Have Not.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Betty Webb, Kerry Greenwood, Maureen Carter, Robin Cook

12 responses to “If You Look the Part You’ll Get the Job*

  1. Funnily enough, I was just discussing this propensity for believing in uniforms, badges etc. as symbols of belonging and authority just yesterday during my training course (we also discussed the notorious Milgram experiment). I am sure I’ve seen it used in crime fiction with lab coats – and people inveigling their way in, who had no business being in the morgue or CSI labs… but I can’t remember any titles off the top of my head.

    • I’m glad you mentioned the Milgram experiment, Marina Sofia. It shows clearly how people identify others by their symbols and badges. We don’t question people’s presence, or instructions, if they have a uniform or a badge. And that offers a great ‘cover’ for fictional criminals…

  2. Great read, Margot! There are so many wonderful examples of uniforms or other marks of identification (i.e. make-up) figuring prominently in a case. I’m thinking of the uniform in Christie’s Death in the Clouds, the bodies tanning “like slabs of meat” in Evil Under the Sun, or the errant butler in Three Act Tragedy. And then there’s Christianna Brand’s Tour de Force – the less spilled about that, the better!!

    • Oh, those are such great examples, BK, of the way Christie used badges, clothes, and so on, to identify people (and to mislead the reader). It’s so natural, too, to react to others based on their clothes and other identifiers… Thanks for the kind words.

  3. In Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers, Harriet Vane – a practical, no-nonsense woman in real life – dresses up in a frilly frock and big hat to do some sleuthing. She knows this outfit, along with some simpering and acting silly, will appeal to the man she is trying to catch out…

    • That is a great scene, Moira. And it’s made all the more effective when you think of the kind of person Harriet generally is. She’s not the frilly frock kind at all. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  4. Just watched Jessica Jones pilfer a uniform to give her access to various hospital labs, etc.

  5. Col

    Just recently over here, the Metropolitan Police settled financially with some women who had been duped by undercover officers on an operation which ran for years to infiltrate a group of political activists. They ditched the uniform and got sneaky – in more than one case forming relationships with some of the women involved. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/nov/20/met-police-apologise-women-had-relationships-with-undercover-officers

    • What a story, Col! Life and art and all that. And I do feel just awful for the women who were manipulated in this way. It’s good to know that the Met has faced what happened and is dealing with it openly. Folks, check this article out (thanks for sharing it, Col).

  6. Margot, badges, IDs, backpacks, and uniforms can be such a deceptive front in crime fiction. Authors pull it off cleverly and quite convincingly, I think.

    • I think so, too, Prashant. Most people don’t even look twice if they see a badge or uniform. They just make their judgement from that ID, and that can be dangerous…

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