The 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.