And You Said You Had to Get Your Laundry Clean*

LaundryThere comes a time when it just has to be done. You know what I mean: the laundry. You can only let it pile up so much before you run out of things to wear. And most of us don’t have the means to replace our clothes every week or so. Laundry really is an integral part of our lives, so of course, it’s there in fiction, too. Don’t believe me? Check out this terrific post by Moira at Clothes in Books. It’s all about hanging out clothes to dry. And while you’re there, do have a look at the rest of Moira’s excellent blog. It’s the source for great discussions of clothes and culture in books, and what it all has to say about us.

In fact, that post got me thinking about laundry and washing in crime fiction. There are lots of examples of it, so space won’t allow me to mention them all. But here are a few (and you thought you were the only one stuck washing the clothes).

In Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye, wealthy Rex Fortescue is poisoned, and Inspector Neele is assigned to the case. He begins, as is logical, with the family members. And to say the least, there are plenty of motives there, as the family was not a happy one. But those motives don’t explain the pile of rye seeds found in his pocket. Neele is trying to make progress on the case when there’s another murder. This time, it’s the housemaid, Gladys Martin. She goes missing and is later found outdoors with the laundry that’s ready to be brought in. She’s been strangled, and a clothes-peg left on her nose. When Miss Marple learns of this, she’s particularly upset, because Gladys used to work for her. So she takes an interest in the case, and helps Inspector Neele find out who the killer is.

We are introduced to Catriona McPherson’s 1920’s sleuth Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver in Dandy Gilver and The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour is afraid her husband Philip ‘Pip’ is trying to kill her. So she hires Dandy to look into the situation and, of course, try to prevent the murder. In order to allay any suspicion, Dandy takes an undercover job as a housemaid, and gets started with her investigation. Late on Dandy’s first night at the house, Pip is stabbed. His body is found the next morning when one of the maids takes his tea in to him. As Dandy gets to know the various members of the household, she finds that there are several suspects. There’s her client, for one thing. And it comes out that the victim was abusive and cruel to his staff, so more than one of them could be the killer. In one interesting scene, Dandy hears the noise of running water coming from the laundry room. When she goes in, she sees the maid who brought the victim’s tea desperately trying to wash blood out of her clothes. Dandy isn’t sure the maid is the killer, so she takes a very practical approach to the matter:

‘’Apart from anything else, Miss Etheldreda, hot water sets a bloodstain so nothing will ever shift it. A cold water and salt soak is what’s needed.’’

It gives her the chance to really see how much (if any) blood there is.

In Kerry Greenwood’s Unnatural Habits, Phryne Fisher gets involved in a mystery surrounding a laundry. Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, runs the Magdalen laundry. Originally conceived as a place where girls who were seen as needing more support and discipline were taken in, the laundry is not at all a pleasant place to be. Working there is supposed to teach these girls domestic skills and give them a way to earn a living, but there are stories that conditions there are deplorable. Journalist Margaret ‘Polly’ Kettle has learned that three Magdalen girls have disappeared, and is interested in the story. Evidence from the girls’ families suggests they didn’t run away to return home. There’s also the fact that all three of them were pregnant. It’s a strange case, and Phryne decides to see what she can do to help. Then, Polly Kettle herself goes missing. Now the case gets more sinister, and Phryne digs more deeply into what’s going on behind the tightly closed doors of the laundry.

With all of that danger connected with doing laundry, it might be better to send it out. But that’s no guarantee, either. For instance, there’s Ben Hecht’s short story, The Mystery of the Fabulous Laundryman. Journalist Dick McCarey tells a bizarre story to a friend of his – a former reporter himself. The story concerns a Harlem (New York) laundryman named Meyer who did business in the area for ten years. He had his laundry in the basement of the building where he lived, and led a very quiet life. One day he’s found dead in his rented room. He’s been shot, and one of his hands is missing. The odd thing about this case is that the victim had an obsession with security. He always bolted his doors and barred his windows, and they’re found that way when the body is discovered. It’s a ‘locked room’ mystery with a fascinating explanation. To add to the interest here, this is Hecht’s fictional account of a real-life case: the 1929 murder of Isodore Fink. Also a laundryman, Fink was murdered and his body found in his bolted room. That case was never solved, so it’s not surprising that crime writers would find it irresistible.

And then there’s Claire M. Johnson’s Beat Until Stiff. Mary Ryan is the pastry chef at American Fare, a trendy, upmarket San Francisco restaurant. Early one morning, she goes to the restaurant to start preparations for an elaborate party to be held there that evening. When she goes into the laundry room to get a chef’s jacket, she finds a body in one of the laundry bags used by the restaurant’s laundry service. The victim is Carlos Perez, one of Ryan’s assistants. Then, there’s another murder. This time, the body is left at Ryan’s own home. Is someone trying to sabotage the restaurant? Or is this a more personal sort of case – someone trying to frame Ryan? You see? Even when you’re not doing the laundry yourself, there can still be a lot of trouble.

There are lots of other crime novels, too, where clues come from laundry marks, or where characters try to clean off evidence from their clothes. It just goes to show you that doing laundry is a dirty business…

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matthew Wilder’s Break My Stride.  


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ben Hecht, Catriona McPherson, Claire M. Johnson, Kerry Greenwood

40 responses to “And You Said You Had to Get Your Laundry Clean*

  1. Who’d have thought that laundry plays such a central role in so many mysteries? But of course the real, profound bloodstains can never be washed out, as Lady Macbeth discovered… (Or is it because they didn’t have washing machines at the time?)

    • Oh, that is the classic example of stains that don’t come out, isn’t it, Marina Sofia? Of course, with her mindset, even if there had been washing machines in those days, she wouldn’t have felt ‘clean.’ And you’re right, laundry doesn’t clean out the really deep bloodstains, even if you do use hydrogen peroxide.

  2. I know about blood stains and cold/salted water and rubbing salt in. Works well. I love the examples you mentioned bringing the domestic into a story, and giving it some realism. Though thankfully I’ve not found anything suspicious or dead in a machine yet. I do have to investigate the case of the missing socks quite often however. LOL

    • 😆 Yes, indeed, Jane! Socks do have a way of making a run for it, don’t they? I’ve always wondered how they can get away with that without me knowing. Hard to admit a sock has be bested… And you’re right about bringing the domestic into a crime story. I think very often that’s one of the benefits of having something like laundry be a part of a story. It keeps a story realistic.

  3. I wonder is such routine “domestic” matters appear more or less often in stories/novels written by men or women? And I wonder if I am committing a gender-bias faux pas by even pondering such a question. Feminists, do not beat up on me too badly, please.

    • That’s an interesting question, Tim. And (I can’t speak for others) I didn’t take it as having gender bias. It’s a reasonable question to ask what male and female authors focus on when they write. I believe that varies by author, to be honest. What do the rest of you think?

  4. You’ve gotta stop doing this Margot, I woke up this morning and had to wear my best jeans – time to do the washing me thinks lol

  5. ‘The Mystery of the Fabulous Laundryman’ sounds great, but I can’t seem to track it down anywhere. Do you know of an anthology that it’s in, by any chance?

  6. It is absolutely mind-boggling that you can take a small detail like doing laundry and remember where it played a role in crime novels. You amaze me, Margot.

  7. I love the title of that Dandy Gilver book. It sounds so interesting.

  8. How nice to have such a domestic chore as the springboard to these books – I must admit I’m drawn to Unnatural Habits, it is hard to believe that places like the Magdalen Laundry’s were still operating until relatively recently.

    • I know just what you mean, Cleo. I would rather think those places were long gone by the end of the Victorian Era. Sadly, they weren’t. It’s horrible to think of it, to be honest. I do recommend Unnatural Habits, by the way. It’s got a terrific plot (in my opinion); and I happen to be a fan of Phryne Fisher.

  9. I have a little laundry story in my book too. Love it.

  10. The inventiveness of your topics never ceases to amaze me, Margot. And Unnatural Habits is probably my favourite Phryne Fisher novel.

  11. PS I grew up visiting a great-aunt who was a nun at the Abbotsford convent where Unnatural Habits is set, and got to know some of the ‘Magdalens’, by then women in their fifties and sixties. They were still doing the nuns’ laundry in the 1970s and ’80s, thought I trust by then they were receiving a wage for their labour.

    • What an experience that must have been, Angela. To hear their stories and learn that part of history must have been moving. I truly hope, too, that they were being paid…

  12. Howard

    Jack Reacher doesn’t have this problem.

  13. Margot: And then there is the little black dress of Kinsey Milhone and the black wonder pants of Russell Quant. These fictional clothes have the amazing ability to come out of the wash and do not need to be ironed or pressed to look great upon their respective sleuths. Neither author has yet to reveal where we could buy them.

    • That’s quite true, Bill. And with as busy as those sleuths are, I can see why they’d be most interested in clothes like that, that need so little care. I would love to know where one could buy such things, too.

  14. Thanks for making me feel like a muse! And what great additions you thought of, fantastic selectoin. I do love the way everyone adores this topic….

  15. Some interesting laundry-related books there, Margot. I agree, Moira writes a terrific blog, as you do too. Frankly, I’m at a loss for words in comments. But I enjoy reading both your perspectives in crime and other fiction.

  16. Col

    Margot I think the only laundering I come across in my reading is trying to clean dirty money!

  17. Kathy D.

    I haven’t come across laundry as a major element in a mystery, except, as a household chore by (women) detectives. Kinsey Millhone does laundry in her house frequently. Yet V.I. Warshawski always seems to have clothes at hand without doing laundry.
    But when do male detectives do laundry? Guido Brunetti lives with his spouse, Paola Falier and their children, but no one seems to do laundry.
    Salvo Montalbano: the issue never arises.
    Maybe authors just don’t think it’s necessary to detail the mundane tasks of everyday life for most detectives.
    Speaking of the Magdalen laundries, the film Philomena tells of Philomena Lee, who was sent to a convent in Ireland in 1952. Unmarried and pregnant, she was forced to work in the convent’s laundry for four years, unpaid, of course, and her child was sold to people in the U.S. She was never told where he was, and he was not told who his mother was nor her contact information even though he traveled there three times to inquire.
    It’s a sad and maddening movie. It is terrific with Judy Dench and Steve Coogan, as the outraged journalist who helps her find her son’s history.

    • Thanks for sharing about Philomena, Kathy. It sounds like a powerful film. You make an interesting point about the Brunetti/Falier family, too; not much laundry done there, although they do wear clean clothes. And you’re right; the same thing is true of V.I. Warshawski. Some authors just don’t focus on those household chores, while others do.

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