Make Me Beautiful*

Cosmetic surgery has advanced a great deal over the years, as has its relative, reconstructive surgery. There are new techniques and materials, and new options. It’s no longer the exclusive property of the very rich and Hollywood stars, either.

I got to thinking about the whole topic when I read an interesting post by Moira at Clothes in Books. By the way, if you’re not already following that excellent blog, I recommend it highly. It’s a treasure trove of fine book reviews and discussions of clothes and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.

Moira was discussing Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footmen, but that’s not the only example of a crime novel where cosmetic surgery plays a role. It’s not hard to see why, either. There are all sorts of possibilities for the author. And, whatever you feel about cosmetic surgery, it’s increasingly popular.

In P.D. James’ The Private Patient, we are introduced to journalist Rhoda Gradwyn. She checks into Cheverell Manor, an exclusive private clinic for patients undergoing cosmetic surgery. Her plan is to have a facial scar removed, but that’s not what happens. During her stay at the clinic, Gradwyn is strangled. Met Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team investigate, and there are several possibilities. Certainly, the victim’s surgeon had opportunities to kill her. But, so did several nurses, attendants, and even visitors, among others. Dalgliesh and his team have to go back into Gradwyn’s past to see who would want to murder her.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Hussy, Lochdubh PC Hamish Macbeth investigates the murder of Maggie Baird. Although she hasn’t been a commercial sex worker, she’s certainly traded sex for expensive things, posh places to live, and so on. Now, although she’s still attractive, she’s middle-aged, and, at least in her view, has lost her looks. So, she goes away for several months and undergoes cosmetic surgery. When she returns, with her looks restored, she invites four former lovers to visit, and announces that she’s going to get married. Instead, she dies, ostensibly of a heart attack suffered during a car fire. Macbeth soon learns that there are several people who could have wanted the victim dead. For one thing, her four suiters have all come down in the world, as the saying goes. Any one of them could have killed her for her money. Then there’s her niece, who’s just been cut out of her will. There are other possibilities, too. The story certainly shows the wisdom of the saying, ‘Looks aren’t everything.’

One plot thread of Donna Leon’s About Face concerns a businessman, Maurizio Cataldo. Conte Orazio Falier is considering doing business with Cataldo, but he wants to be sure of the man before he actually signs anything. So, he asks his son-in-law, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to ‘vet’ Cataldo, and see if there’s anything Falier should know. Brunetti agrees to do so. In the process of getting to know Cataldo’s life better, Brunetti also gets to know his wife, Franca Marinello. One of the things we learn about her is that she’s had cosmetic surgery. That surgery isn’t the reason for Falier’s caution. But it plays a role in the novel, and in some of the tragic events that happen.

Carl Hiaasen’s Skin Tight features former police officer Mick Stranahan (yes, fans, he later appears in Skinny Dip).  He learns that an unknown man has been asking where lives. He isn’t sure who the man might be, but it doesn’t take long for them to meet up. In fact, the man breaks into Stranahan’s home. In the course of defending himself, Stranahan kills the home invader, goring him with the stuffed head of a marlin (it is Hiassen…). Then he dumps the body, which is later discovered by a couple of tourists. In the meantime, Stranahan decides to find out who’s trying to kill him. His attacker had no ID and there was no way to connect him with any particular one of Stranahan’s enemies, so it won’t be an easy task. It’s made even harder by the fact that Stranahan’s got plenty of enemies. There’s the sleazy injury lawyer, the annoying TV journalist, the hit man, and an inept plastic surgeon named Rudy Graveline. They’re all good candidates, and Stranahan will have to work through all of them to find out who the killer is.

Leigh Redhead’s Peepshow is the first of her novels to feature Melbourne PI Simone Kirsch. She’s got a background as a stripper, and has now gotten her PI license. When the body of Francesco ‘Frank’ Parisi is discovered in a local bay, Simone’s best friend, Chloe, becomes a suspect. Parisi was the owner of a table-dancing strip club called the Red Room, where Chloe works. She was among several people who had a very good reason to kill the victim, and she’s worried about what to do. Matters get worse when Parisi’s underworld brother, Sal, gets involved. He wants Simone to find out who killed his brother, and he takes Chloe as ‘insurance.’ Since the only way to free Chloe is to find the killer, Simone gets started right away. She goes undercover as a new table dancer at the Red Room, and begins to get to know the people in the dead man’s life. And it’s not long before she discovers that some very dangerous people had very good murder motives. While cosmetic surgery isn’t the reason for the murder in this case, it does have a part in the story. And on a side note, it’s interesting to see how the table dancers use wigs, makeup, and costuming to play their roles.

And then there’s Sophie Littlefield’s A Bad Day For Mercy, which features her sleuth, Stella Hardesty. By day, she owns Hardesty Sewing Machine Repair & Sales. But she has a ‘side business,’ too. She pays ‘friendly visits’ to those who’ve committed domestic abuse, and she has very effective ways of reminding them of how to behave, let’s just say. In this novel, Hardesty learns that her step-nephew, Chip, is in serious trouble because of gambling debts. In fact, his life’s been threatened. So, she drives from her home in small-town Missouri to Wisconsin to visit him. When she gets there, she finds Chip and his girlfriend, Natalya, trying to get rid of a dead man’s body. The man turns out to be Natalya’s abusive husband, and it looks very much as though Chip might be responsible. He and Natalya claim that they’re innocent, though, and found the body on their porch. So, if they aren’t the killers, Hardesty is going to have to find out who is. One very good possibility is a medical student named Doug, who has a sideline performing illegal (and not particularly professional) Botox injections. As it turns out, he had dealings with the victim, and a good reason to want him dead. But he’s not the only likely candidate.

Whatever your opinion of cosmetic surgery, there’s no doubt it’s popular. And it really does have a place in crime fiction, Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Engine Room’s A Perfect Lie.


Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Donna Leon, Leigh Redhead, M.C. Beaton, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Sophie Littlefield

17 responses to “Make Me Beautiful*

  1. Great stuff Margot – fascinating ro see all the various plot “wrinkles” 😀 Richard Neely’s THE PLASTIC NIGHTMARE is one that immediately springs to my mind when it comes to this theme, but saying almost anything about it would probably ruin it!

    • Thank you, Sergio. 🙂 And trust you to come up with such a great example of exactly what I had in mind with this post. Thanks for that. The Plastic Nightmare sounds creepily good, just from the title. Must put it on the radar.

  2. This reminds me of Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. Admittedly, I haven’t read it but remember enjoying the TV adaptation way back in the ’80s, which I believe was quite faithful to the book. Having been dumped for another, more physically attractive woman, Ruth sets out to remake herself through cosmetic surgery, but taken to the extremes, and then takes her revenge on her errant husband. It sails wildly over the credibility line, but I think the fantastic cast made it a fun watch anyway…

    • What a great example, FictionFan, for which thanks. I admit, I haven’t read the book, either, but I do like the premise. And I dimly remember there was an adaptation (dimly as in I don’t recall whether I watched the adaptation or just trailers, rushes, and the like). Over-the-top or not, it’s a great instance of what I had in mind with this post.

  3. Pingback: Make Me Beautiful* | picardykatt's Blog

  4. My fave crime story with a plastic surgery plot is probably DARK PASSAGE by David Goodis, made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall. In a nice variation, it’s the male lead who goes under the knife!

  5. Margot: I thought of Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy. For some her extensive tattoos, especially the dragon, may be a form of cosmetic surgery. In a more conventional cosmetic surgery she is the only sleuth, I use the term loosely concerning Lisbeth, to have breast augmentation.

    • That’s quite true, Bill, on both counts. She’s a very interesting character, and I think you make a good point that she’s not at all a conventional sleuth. I’m glad you mentioned her.

  6. Col

    I loved that Hiaasen book, Margot. In one of the early Parker books from Richard Stark, Parker undergoes facial surgery to disguise himself from the mob. I can’t recall which of the books it was though.

    • Hiaasen tells a good story, doesn’t he, Col? And thanks for mentioning the Parker series. Those are well-written novels. I’m wondering if you were thinking of The Man With the Getaway Face? I think Parker goes under the knife in that one, but I could be wrong.

  7. kathy d

    Dark Passage is a great movie. A must-see. Definitely one of Bogie and Bacall’s best films.
    I do remember the Guido Brunetti book About Face and the woman who had plastic surgery.
    A horrible thought, but even friends of mine threaten to do this as they age.
    Real-life horrors do happen especially when non-doctors do it, even when some surgeons do it. The news is full of these botched surgeries, even on celebrities.
    It’s awful that anyone feels compelled to do it unless they are suffering from a birth defect or an awful life event, as women who survive domestic violence. In those cases I sympathize.

    • Dark Passage, and Bogey/Bacall, are terrific, aren’t they, Kathy? And you’re right; there are always risks when it comes to cosmetic surgery, especially if the person doing the surgery isn’t properly qualified to do it. As you say, there are plenty of those real-life stories around.

  8. Thanks for the shoutout Margot – and I knew you could rise to the challenge. You are the only person who could make a list of books with this theme…

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