You Can Run a Household*

HousekeepersWouldn’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.

31 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Daphne du Maurier, Emily Brightwell, Hannah Dennison, Ruth Rendell

31 responses to “You Can Run a Household*

  1. You had me at wouldn’t wouldn’t it be lovely if you had someone to manage… I shall leisurely enjoy reading your wonderful post.👍👍👍👍

  2. How fascinating! I’m assuming (though I could be wrong) that housekeepers are much less prevalent in modern-day crime novels with modern settings, because of the way society has changed over the last hundred years or so…

    • Thank you, Tess. I think they are, too, to be honest. Certainly no-one in my personal circles has one. As you say, society has certainly changed dramatically in the last hundred years or so…

  3. In spite of all the dangers associated with housekeepers (or their nosiness), I have to admit there are many, many times when I would love to have one!

    • Oh, me, too, Marina Sofia! It would be so wonderful to just have those chores done, wouldn’t it? Especially when it’s a very busy time at work, or one’s not feeling well, or…or…

  4. tracybham

    Another interesting topic, Margot. One of the things I love about county house mysteries is that they often feature servants (including housekeepers) who can feature strongly in the plot. Or as confidants to some of the main characters.

    • I like that aspect of the ‘country house’ story, too, Tracy. And when the author is doing her or his job well, you get to know the household-staff characters well, so that they seem more real. And it is interesting, isn’t it, when they figure strongly into a plot. Thanks for the kind words.

  5. And let’s not forget the “male” side of the coin. John Hillerman’s classic “Higgins” of Magnum PI. I simply loved his character. What a great show that was, even if some (snobbish) types consider it “juvenile.” It was entertaining, and never boring, especially with the opening scenes as the credits rolled! 🙂

    • You know, Michael, John Hillerman did a great character there, and a fine one, too, as Simon Brimmer in >Ellery Queen. He’s underrated, I sometimes think. And something can be enjoyable, even great, without having to be highbrow.

  6. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Read Margot Kinberg’s delightful post on the importance of secondary characters in mystery fiction!

  7. Col

    Can’t recall the housekeeper element in my reading, but when I get to the Neely books that box will be ticked!

  8. kathyd

    So glad Blanche White is mentioned here. She is smarter than any other character in Barbara Neely’s books.
    On housekeepers, the earliest memory I have is of Nancy Drew’s household composed of her, her father and a housekeeper, Hannah Gruen.
    And there is Lily Bart who really is a domestic worker in Charlaine Harris’ books.
    And one series which I should read more of is the one featuring Helen Hawthorne who does all types of dead-end jobs in funny books by Elaine Viets. She is a hotel housekeeper in a few of them. And murder and hijinks occur.

    • Oh, yes, I’d forgotten about the Viets series, Kathy! I’m very glad you filled in that gap. And you’re right, too, about the Drew family’s housekeeper. I think Hannah Gruen is a nice addition to the series.

  9. Judgment in Stone is a terrific book. Will miss Rendell.

  10. Now that I have working days starting at 5:30 am again I understand ‘the longing for household help’. Even better the potential still in it. Though I agree, taken literally it SEEMS a bit antiquated, but does not have to be.

    I remember being an amateur housekeeper during flat-share in university years (Bochum, no Tilton prank), too.

    A temporal housekeeper while we recover from injury or disease already offers pretty paranoid crime fiction.

    The ‘personnel’ hired due a protagonists job being so important, and intense, that no other option would suffice offers many scenarios, too.

    The constellation, each time, a person we can trust ‘to a degree’ placed precisely, where we other-wisely should be able to feel relaxed and intimate…

    • That’s an interesting point, Andrè, about extra help when someone’s ill, or extra help for someone who has a very busy full-time job. In both cases, one has to allow someone into one’s home. And that can make one vulnerable.

      • You just helped me to realize that it would need a minimum of effort to replace the term ‘vampire’ with the term ‘murderer or killer’, and the stories would mostly work the same way…

        Right now our city struggles versus two invisible killers, a fungus spreading into air & water supply plus the heat.

        My best wishes, Margot.

        • I often don’t think people consider basics such as breathing air and drinking water – unless those supplies are affected by something. I hope it is cleaned up soon, Àndre. And that it cools off.

        • Wise words, and yes, ‘blessed be’ or ‘in unconditional love’ I could add to my thanks, Margot.

          Wednesday is my free day, so I have that one night with some sleep (1d8 or 2d6 hours i could note for D&D). Still I agree that most people, who did not learn to handle their fears & shortcomings, consider ‘the supernatural’ a kinda power-trip indeed. Weird, how many go tyrannic abuser once they feel immune to consequences… So, indeed, the vampire isn’t literally equal to the murderer.

        • That’s quite true, Andrè. People certainly can become warped by power if they feel there are no consequences.

  11. A real round-up of the classic housekeepers there! I recently read one of the older Ngaio Marsh books, and became convinced that the housekeeper was the guilty party, but turned out to be completely wrong.

    • Marsh could do that, Moira – lead the reader down the garden path. I like that about her work, actually; there are times when she’s very, very good at misleading.

  12. Margot, from your post it’s clear that housekeepers and butlers are some of the most important characters in crime fiction. They could be your friend or foe, mostly the latter, I suspect. Most Indian homes, middle class and above, have housekeepers, known here as maidservants, who mainly sweep and mop the house, wash and dry utensils, and put up clothes, as well as cooks. Sometimes, they also serve as babysitters. Working women often go into a tizzy when the maid suddenly calls in sick. It upsets routine. She is as important as a family member. We have a maid, now with us for over thirty years, and a cook and we collectively pay them $60 per month.

    • You are fortunate, Prashant, to have a trusted maid and cook, and to have had such a long relationship with them. And it’s interesting, too, how much a part of a family the maid or cook becomes. Thanks for sharing the way housekeepers/cooks work with their employers in India.

  13. Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely to have a housekeeper, especially for writers. Although we may start envisioning different ways for them to “accidentally” die if they don’t do a good job. LOL

  14. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…7/26/16 – Where Worlds Collide

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