It is the Music of a People Who Will Not be Slaves Again*

As this is posted, it’s Bastille Day. Among other things, the day commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison, and the start of the French Revolution. The revolution itself was complex and multi-faceted. But one of the major issues at hand was social class and social inequities.

Class differences and class struggles feature in a lot of fiction, including crime fiction. There are far, far too many examples for me to discuss in one post. And that makes sense. For one thing, social class differences, and the resentment around them, are very real; this is something that resonates with readers. For another, the context lends itself well to the sort of conflict and tension that can add much to a story. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of lots more.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, a group of passengers boards a boat for a cruise of the Nile. Among them is a young man, Mr. Ferguson, who claims to be on the cruise to ‘study conditions.’ He’s an outspoken critic of the wealthy and privileged classes, and there’s talk that he’s a communist. He believes strongly in the overthrow of society as it is, and expresses nothing but contempt for those who don’t work with their hands. On the second night of the cruise, another passenger, Linnet Doyle, is shot. The most obvious suspect is her former friend, Jaqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. But soon enough, it’s proven that she couldn’t have committed the crime. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the cruise as well, has to look elsewhere for the killer. And Mr. Ferguson’s feelings about the upper classes are not lost on him. Here, for instance, is a comment Ferguson makes about the victim:

‘‘Hundreds and thousands of wretched workers slaving for a mere pittance to keep her in silk stockings and useless luxuries. One of the richest women in England, so someone told me – and never done a hand’s turn in her life.’’

It turns out that this murder isn’t at all what it seems to be on the surface. And it’s interesting to note how class resentment and the desire for revolution is woven into the story in Ferguson’s character. I see you, fans of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.

In Glen Peter’s 1960’s-era Mrs. D’Silva’s Detective Instinct and the Saitan of Calcutta, we are introduced to Joan D’Silva, who teaches at a Catholic school in Kolkata/Calcutta. One day, her son discovers the body of a former student, Agnes Lal. After the inquest, two other former students visit Mrs. D’Silva, to tell her that Agnes was murdered, and ask for her help in finding the killer. Then, one of those students is arrested for stabbing a factory manager. He says he’s innocent, and that the confession the police produce was forced. Mrs. D’Silva looks into the case more deeply, and finds that all three former students were members of the Workers’ Revolutionary Movement of Bengal. This group is dedicated to overthrowing the current government and stripping Anglo-Indians of their power. As Mrs. D’Silva works to clear her former student’s name, she learns how people’s passion for a better world, and even for revolution, can be used to manipulate them. And it turns out that these murders are more than just a case of young people who are determined to tear down ‘the system’ and build a new one.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising takes place in 1981 Houston, where Jay Porter is a low-rent lawyer who’s trying to make his name. In one plot thread of the novel, Porter’s father-in-law asks for his help. The Brotherhood of Longshoremen (BoL) which is a black union, wants pay and other parity with their white counterparts who belong to the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILU). Both groups want higher living standards, better wages, and better benefits. One of the BoL members has been beaten up by thugs from the ILU; and, unless those thugs are caught, both groups will be at a huge disadvantage during an upcoming strike. Porter happens to know Houston Mayor Cynthia Maddox, and his father-in-law wants him to ask Maddox to use her influence to get justice for the young man who was attacked. Porter has a history, both with Maddox and with the police. He was associated with the student unrest and Black Power movement of the late 1960s, and understands all too well why some people still feel that revolution is needed. At the same time, he has no desire to be on the wrong side of the law again. So, he has to walk a very fine line, as the saying goes, to try to help get a more equal living standard for the longshoremen without risking trouble with the law.

Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope introduces readers to Riel Delorme. He’s a Regina-based Métis activist and a leader of a group called the Warriors. This group is dead-set against any development in the city, claiming that it will only benefit the wealthy. And the Warriors aren’t afraid to get violent if needs be. They believe that if that’s what it takes to protect the disenfranchised people of the city, then it’s worth it. So, when one of the employees of the development company is killed, Delorme is definitely, ‘a person of interest.’ Things get complicated for Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourne Shreve, because her husband, Zack, is an attorney who represents the company. Her daughter, Mieka, becomes romantically involved with Delorme. And she’s caught in the middle. Among other things, while she has sympathy for Delorme’s point of view, she can’t condone violence, and she certainly isn’t sure she wants her daughter in a relationship with Delorme.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place in India during the 1920s – the last decades of the British Raj. At the time, there was quite a lot of agitation for home rule, and that agitation was sometimes violent. There were plenty of people who wanted a full-scale revolution against the British. And Stoddart uses that plot point in A Madras Miasma. In one thread of that novel, there’s a demonstration against the entrenched British establishment. Le Fanu is, of course, part of the police force. He’s sworn to uphold the law, and he doesn’t want trouble. On the other hand, he thinks the revolutionaries have well-taken points, and he can see the advantage of power-sharing. Plenty of those in powerful positions don’t want to give up their privilege, though, and aren’t willing to work with the protestors. The planned demonstration goes forward, and things get very ugly. Twenty-three demonstrators are killed, and eighty-five are injured. And someone uses this unrest to commit a very deliberate killing.

Class has been a bone of contention for a very long time, and it certainly played an important role in the French Revolution. Little wonder that we see it come up in crime fiction, too. These are just a few instances. Over to you.


ps  The ‘photo is, of course, of a print of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. I know, not exactly the same revolution. But it fits…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Do You Hear the People Sing?



Filed under Agatha Christie, Attica Locke, Brian Stoddart, Gail Bowen, Glen Peters

19 responses to “It is the Music of a People Who Will Not be Slaves Again*

  1. Go, Les Miz!!

    I don’t want to get too spoiler-y here, Margot, but Christie makes excellent use of politics in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, both as a plot device and as a theme. Poirot has a big moral dilemma to face at the end of this one!

    • Yes, he does, Brad! That’s a really good example of how revolution, politics, and so on play a role in Christie’s work. I almost mentioned it, but, you know…spoilers. So I’m glad you did. And I agree about Les Misérables, too – what a show!!

  2. It’s interesting that your American fiction example includes race as the distinction. Hmmmm.
    I’ve heard it argued that class is not distinguished in American society (not like it is in UK, Europe, Asia, and elsewhere), but I have my doubts about that argument.

    • I do, too, Tim. Social class, I believe, matters very much in the US, ‘though perhaps not in the same way as it does in other countries. You also raise a well-taken point about race. Race and economic class are so integrally related that it’s hard (‘though not impossible) to tease them apart. And doing so is beyond the scope of what I intended here. It’s an interesting observation, though.

  3. kathy d.

    Class matters a great deal in the U.S. For example, who gets to go to the big, important universitieis? Children of donors and alumni are given priority. Not enough scholarships are given for those with lower incomes to attend. So enormous loans are taken out, saddling some students with huge debt. Often, they have to quit school to pay back the loans.
    And health care, the current issue. Wealthy people can guy their own insurance. But 75 million have to rely on Medicaid and Schip (hcildren), and 55 million of elderly and disabled people get Medicare. The federal programs for health coverage are endangered. This is a huge issue.
    But there are also class issues involved in law firms, corporations, everywhere.
    But sadly, race and racism are a large part of U.S. society. Racial discrimination is still prevalent throughout society, in employment, housing, education, even medical care. And on the streets, too.
    I think in Britain, for instance, class distinctions are more obvious and there aren’t many illusions that poor people can rise to be wealthy as people are taught here when statistics show most people remain in the class into which they were born.
    And a book that deals with the French Revolution in Fred Vargas’ own quirky way is “A Climate of Fear.”

    • You have some good points, Kathy. Both class and race do matter in the US. They matter in all sorts of ways, including employment, access to education, access to medical care, and a lot more. It works differently to the way it works in other countries, but there’s no doubt it’s there. And thanks for mentioning the Vargas. Always an author well worth reading.

  4. I don’t agree with Mr. Ferguson’s communist views, but I do concerning about those working with their hands, specifically the wealthy. Ferguson seems to hate all of those who are wealthy and privileged. He sees them all as those with money but never lifted a finger in their life to obtain it. I’m not resentful over the wealthy because of their wealth. It’s how they get it — was it by hard work and commitment whether it be acting, directing, modeling, writing, etc. I admire those kinds of rich people. Those who earn it through work, whatever kind it is, legitimately, of course, I have no problem with but I loath it when one earns their wealth merely by it being given to them and they don’t use it to contribute to society or doing anything constructive with it. In other words, being famous for being famous is what turns me off. They don’t seem to know the value of work and are so disconnected with those who do. Maybe that’s why people like Paris Hilton and the Kardashians are the most hated celebrities in America. I guess you can say that Linnet Doyle is the equivalent of a modern day Kardashian, minus all their circus mess. Linnet appears to be well-known just for the heck of it. She obtained her wealth from her mother who’s the daughter of a millionaire. I love that quote from Ferguson which I’ll refer to again but just a few lines up:

    “It’s too hot in here,” snapped Miss Van Schuyler. “Find me a chair on the deck, Miss Bowers. Cornelia, bring my knitting. Don’t be clumsy or drop it. And then I shall want you to wind some wool.”
    The procession passed out.
    Mr. Ferguson sighed, stirred his legs and remarked to the world at large, “Gosh, I’d like to scrag that dame.”
    Poirot asked interestedly, “She is a type you dislike, eh?”
    “Dislike? I should say so. What good has that woman ever been to anyone or anything? She’s never worked or lifted a finger. She’s just battened on other people. She’s a parasite – and a damned unpleasant parasite. There are a lot of people on this boat I’d say the world could do without.”
    “Yes. That girl in here just now, signing share transfers and throwing her weight about. Hundreds and thousands of wretched workers slaving for a mere pittance to keep her in silk stockings and useless luxuries. One of the richest women in England, so someone told me, and never done a hand’s turn in her life.”
    “Who told you she was one of the richest women in England?”
    Mr. Ferguson cast a belligerent eye at him.
    “A man you wouldn’t be seen speaking to! A man who works with his hands and isn’t ashamed of it!”

    What has Linnet done to earn that money? Has she ever worked a day in her life? She’s a woman where everything plopped in her lap: good looks, great health, endless wealth. She even plans on having a “grand coming-of-age party in London” when she reaches twenty-one. She hasn’t a care nor a problem in the world. Everything works out in her favor. No wonder Rosalie Otterborne says rather bitterly, “”It’s unfair. Some people have got everything.” Even though Linnet doesn’t know how it feels to actually struggle, she does have one great quality, unlike her friend Joanna Southwood who drops her friends like a hot potato if they lost all their money. She sticks by her friends no matter what circumstance they’re in. We know what happens with Linnet and Jacqueline as the book proceeds, but it’s a quality that should be noted.

    But back to Ferguson. He says he “studies conditions”. He criticizes those who don’t lift a finger to work, but does he? It’s been awhile since I read the book so I’m not sure if he gets more specific with his work.

    • You make a very interesting point, Brad, about the way rich people acquire their money. There’s a very real distinction between people who become rich because of work they do, an invention they create, or something of their doing, on the one hand; and inherited wealth, on the other. Somehow, people see the former as earned, and the latter as not. And that can make all the difference. Thanks, too, for sharing those quotes that show both what Linnet is like, and what Ferguson thinks. It’s all very telling in terms of the socioeconomic classes of the day, isn’t it? Oh, and as far as I know, we don’t learn, specifically, what Mr. Ferguson’s actual work is, although we do learn some surprising things about him.

      Finally, fascinating comparison of Linnet Doyle to today’s Kardashians. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it’s certainly an intriguing idea! Thanks

      • The difference between those who earn their wealth versus those who inherit will show in the way they live. Those who earn their wealth knows the value of work and sees the benefits of it. Generally, they don’t spend their money irresponsibly as those who inherit because the latter’s money isn’t truly theirs — it didn’t come from them. Essentially they’re spending someone else’s money for which they former probably earned. When something is fully yours, you take more value in it. Those who inherit wealth seem to rest on someone else’s laurels, rather than on their own. Even those who earned their wealth keep working and reaching the stars. They rest–and enjoy the money–but they keep on.

        Ronald Marsh, from “Lord Edgware Dies”, is another great example of a person who doesn’t become rich until his uncle dies, proceeding to then inherit the Lord Edgware title and the wealth. It’s said that he’s a “bit of a waster.” He’s this poor drunkard who appeals to others for money. He even says after his uncle is dead and the money goes in his hands, “Yesterday, I was rejected by every potential father-in-law. Today I am chased by every investor.” He doesn’t sound the like the type that will spend his money prudently.

        Another example from an Agatha Christie that I’m currently reading, “Sparkling Cyanide”, would be Rosemary Barton who inherits her Uncle Paul’s whole fortune. Her husband’s secretary Ruth Lessing realizes her hateful feelings for Rosemary and she points out how Rosemary never had to work a day in her life because everything has been handed to her on a “golden platter”. And she leads this careless, carefree life, nowhere similar to the efficient, organized, and well-put together Ruth Lessing.

        • You make a really well-taken point, Brian, about the way people live their lives. It’s interesting you would say it that way, as it reminds me of Bill Gates. He didn’t inherit his money, and it shows. From what I’ve read (and mind, this could be wrong), his children are expected to work, too. Your examples from Christie’s novels are excellent, too. I find the contrast between Rosemary Barton and Ruth Lessing especially telling. And, yes, Ronald Marsh is a terrific example of someone who inherited everything, and has no idea what it’s like to work for a living. Very different ways of thinking about life, aren’t they?

  5. kathy d.

    We won’t even get into the current resident of the White House, how he inherited money and makes it, whom he gets it from and how he doesn’t pay many of his laborers or debtors, etc.
    I find reading books about people with inherited wealth usually to be too boring and classist. Give me an average hard-working detective, male or female, in any city and I’m content to read their stories.
    Those about people with inherited wealth — except Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles’ books — don’t interest me.
    Even that eccentric agoraphobe and orchid loving detective who lived in my city and loves opulence, earned it by investigating — although I wish he treated Fritz and Archie, Saul, Fred and other employees a bit better (and women).

    • I wish Wolfe treated his associates better, too, Kathy. As you say, he has money, but it’s because he earned it. And that is different to inherited wealth. Your comment reminds me of Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, which mostly concerns the members of the Angkatell family. While most of the family is wealthy, one of the Angkatell cousins, Midge Hardcastle, isn’t. She has to work for a living, like most of us do. And it’s interesting to see how that impacts her view of the family.

      • Concerning Christie’s “The Hollow”, I don’t remember reading her views of her family concerning their wealth. It’s been a while since I read it though. I’m not sure if Midge was looked down upon by the Angkatells. Does Midge deal with a hard boss at her job?

        • Good memory, Brian! Yes, Midge’s boss is awful. On the one hand, she doesn’t like it that the Angkatells don’t understand what it’s like to have to earn a living. On the other, she loves being there, because she does love those rare opportunities to be pampered.

  6. kathy d.

    Nor does he pay his taxes, forgot that important point.

  7. Col

    I’m only familiar with Stoddart’s Le Fanu books from the examples quoted. Time to read the latest installment!

  8. I was thinking of Christie’s The Hollow too, as in the comments above. A young man (himself privileged) complains to Midge that ‘the workers’ should have the luxury currently reserved for the wealthy. Midge – who works hard in her horrible dress shop – says she totally agrees and the she really IS one of the workers, despite a wealthy background, and would love some more luxury and not to have to worry about money. She silences him quite neatly.

    • I think so, too, Moira. I like the contrast, too, between David Angkatell’s views of what workers are like and want, and Midge’s views. You can clearly see the difference in their backgrounds there, and I think Christie does that quite well.

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