Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone to manage your household? The cleaning chores would be done, the dry cleaning would be sent out and picked up, the food would be purchased, cooked, and served, and perhaps even your household accounting would be done. That’s the life people live when they have a skilled housekeeper.
A recent comment exchange with Kathy D. and with Tim at Solitary Praxis has got me thinking about the role of housekeepers in crime fiction. And housekeepers are certainly woven through the genre. It makes sense, too, when you consider that housekeepers have been part of the social and economic structure of many societies for a long time.
In days past, of course, people of means (and even plenty of people who weren’t extremely wealthy) had household staffs (cooks, maids, drivers, nannies, and so on). The housekeeper supervised those people – not always an easy job.
We see that sort of household structure in Emily Brightwell’s historical (Victorian Era) Mrs. Jeffries series. Mrs. Jeffries serves as housekeeper to Inspector Gerald Witherspoon. In that role, she supervises his cook, maids, coachman and footman. Witherspoon also finds that Mrs. Jeffries is a very helpful ‘sounding board’ when he’s on a case. What he doesn’t know is how deliberate that is on Mrs. Jeffries’ part. She has a good relationship with her employees, who serve as her ‘eyes and ears.’ So when Witherspoon is conducting an investigation, Mrs. Jeffries gets a lot of information from her staff. After all, who pays attention to a maid? Or a coachman? Those people can hear things and see things without really being noticed.
Several of Agatha Christie’s stories feature housekeepers. And it’s interesting to see how their roles evolved over time as they’re portrayed in her work. For example, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926. In that novel, wealthy manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night. His stepson, Captain Ralph Paton, is the most likely suspect, but he’s gone missing, so the police can’t question him. His fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, believes he’s innocent, though, and asks Hercule Poirot (who has moved to the area) to investigate. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. One of the ‘people of interest’ is Ackroyd’s housekeeper, Miss Russell. She’s certainly very much in charge of the staff. But she is, if you will, a victim of the social mores of the day, and has to be very careful of what she says and does. She’s also very much aware that Ackroyd could fire her at any moment.
Things changed quickly, especially after World War II. So in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) (published in 1957), we see quite a different role for the housekeeper. In that novel, Miss Marple works with her friend, Elspeth McGillicuddy, to find out the truth about a murder Mrs. McGillicuddy witnessed. The body ends up at Rutherford Hall, the property of Luther Crackenthorpe, so Miss Marple needs an ‘in’ to get to know the Crackenthorpe family. For that, she relies on professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Lucy is very good at her job, so she’s in demand, and basically sets her own work schedule and working conditions. The Crackenthorpe family eagerly hires her, and, technically speaking, she is an employee. But there’s no question who really runs the household and is subtly in charge.
We see that also in Barbara Neely’s novels featuring professional housekeeper Blanche White. Like other skilled housekeepers, Blanche is observant and quick-thinking, and is able to multi-task. On the surface, Blanche is an employee who can be dismissed at any time. What’s more, she is black, while many of her employers are white. This in itself puts her and her employers in different social classes in many areas. And yet, fans of this series can tell you that Blanche has her own way of being much more ‘in charge’ than many of her employers may think. They depend on her in ways they’re probably not even aware of, and they go along with her wishes without noticing it.
Sometimes it can be dangerous to be a housekeeper. Just ask Vera Pugsley, whom we meet in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. In that novel, TV personality Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford has decided to give up the pressures and hassles of the media, and open an antiques business with her recently-widowed mother, Iris. Everything changes, though, with one telephone call from Iris. It seems she’s suddenly moved from London to Little Dipperton, Devon, and taken the former carriage house on the grounds of Honeychurch Hall, home of the Honeychurch family. This abrupt change of plans shocks Kat, and she rushes to Devon to see what’s going on. When she gets there, she discovers that her mother has injured one of her hands in a car accident, so Kat makes plans to stay on a bit until Iris is well. It’s not long before a strange series of events starts happening. First, someone seems to be sabotaging Iris’ attempts to get settled in her new home. There’s also the matter of the disappearance of the nanny that the Honeychurch family has hired. Then, there’s a theft from Honeychurch hall – a valuable antique snuff box. Then, the Honeychurch family’s housekeeper, Vera Pugsley, is murdered. Kat gets drawn into this mystery, as well as the history of the Honeychurch family.
Of course, not all housekeepers are sleuths or victims. Some are decidedly not on the side of the angels, as the saying goes. Any fan of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca can tell you that. In that story, we follow the fortunes of Maxim de Winter’s second wife as she tries to adjust to life at Manderley, the de Winter home. One major obstacle is that the place still seems permeated by the presence of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. And the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, does nothing to dispel that presence. In fact, she works as hard as she can to manipulate, frighten, demean, and belittle the new Mrs. de Winter. Matters are made worse by the fact that Rebecca did not die naturally. The psychological tension in the story increases as the second Mrs. de Winter slowly discovers the truth about her husband, Rebecca, and Mrs. Danvers.
And then there’s Eunice Parchman, whom we meet in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family needs a housekeeper. So Jacqueline Coverdale advertises for the position. Eunice applies, and is hired with very little ‘vetting.’ And that proves to be disastrous. It turns out that Eunice has a secret – one she is determined that no-one will discover. When a family member accidently stumbles on that secret, the result is tragedy.
See what I mean? Housekeepers are woven into crime fiction in many different ways. Thanks, Tim and Kathy D., for the inspiration. Which fictional housekeepers have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s The Grass is Always Greener.