There 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.