Well Versed in Etiquette*

I don’t have to convince you that society keeps changing. And in many of the most important ways, that’s a good thing. As we go on, we hopefully evolve and transform for the better. One of the consequences of those changes is that the ‘rules’ we’ve lived by need to change, too – well, some of them, anyway.

And that’s where the complexity and sometimes difficulties can come in. The thing about established rules of etiquette is that everyone knows them. There’s a certain security in that, if you think about it. People know who they are, they know what’s expected of them, and so on. And not having those rules can make things awkward. For instance, who pays for a first date? Who asks for the date? When two people approach a door, who opens it? There are some basic answers to those questions (e.g., At least in the US, the person who gets to the door first and/or has hands free opens a door). But things aren’t always as straightforward any more as they were. And that can cause anxiety.

We see these changes in etiquette throughout crime fiction. Among other things, they give us a look at a particular time, place and socioeconomic context. For example, Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead was published in 1952. In it, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to look into the murder of a charwoman. Her lodger, James Bentley, has been convicted of the crime, and is due to be executed. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence thinks he’s innocent. So, Poirot investigates. In the process, he’s re-acquainted with Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, who’s in Broadhinny to work with up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward to adapt one of her books for the stage. She gets out of her car and discovers that she’s been sitting on her hat:

‘‘I never liked it much. But I thought I might have to go to church on Sunday and although the Archbishop has said one needn’t, I still think that the more old-fashioned clergy expect one to wear a hat.’’

Today, there are far fewer ‘rules’ about what to wear to religious services, one’s office, or even occasions such as weddings. It so often depends now on the context, on the people involved, and so on. That means the decision about what to wear can be complicated, even if it is liberating in a lot of ways.

Among other things, Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates gives readers a look at post-World War II Japan. In it, Imanishi and his team investigate the murder of Miki Ken’ichi, whose body is found under a Tokyo train. As Imanishi and his co-workers ask questions and follow up on leads, they interact with several other characters. Through this, we see the rituals of the time regarding going to someone’s home, giving and receiving things, and so on. Life has changed drastically in Japan since that time. And Natsuo Kirino’s Real World shows that. That novel takes place in modern Tokyo, and features four teenagers, who are part of the young culture. It’s interesting to see how many of the older rules of etiquette (e.g. interactions between the sexes) have changed. But at the same time, there are still some elements of old-fashioned etiquette that remain (e.g. bringing a small gift to someone’s home as a way of thanking or making apologies).

Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret brings up another sort of ‘etiquette’ question. In it, Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig is helping her friend, Denise Wolff, put together an alumni reunion to coincide with the University of Alberta’s Homecoming events. The reunion is intended for members of the English Department, so the list of invitees is long, but not so long as to preclude personal invitations. And that raises the question of how the alumni should be invited. On the one hand, a personal, paper invitation is still considered the most appropriate. On the other, that can get costly, and most people do have email accounts. So, why not send the invitations through email? In the end, that decision is voted down in the interest of creating a better impression with an actual paper invitation. But, the response card also includes an email address, so that invitees can respond that way if they wish. It’s an admittedly small part of the plot, but it shows how these etiquette rules aren’t as ‘hard and fast’ as they once were.

And then there’s Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, the first to feature Cardiff Detective Constable (DC) Fiona Griffiths. She gets drawn into the investigation of the murders of an occasional prostitute, Janet Mancini, and her six-year-old daughter, April. One of the other people on the team is Detective Sergeant (DS) David Brydon. He and Griffiths are attracted to each other, and neither is in a current relationship. So, there’s nothing, really, to hold them back from dating. But the problem is, Griffiths doesn’t know how to do ‘the dating thing.’ She doesn’t really know the etiquette for what to wear, how to make the right sort of small talk, and so on. It’s made all the more complicated because the rules aren’t really ‘hard and fast.’ They’re changing as society changes. This isn’t a major plot thread, and it’s certainly not the reason for the murders. But it does give some interesting insight into how confusing dating can be in today’s world.

And that’s the thing about those comfortable rules of etiquette. They can be very limiting, and I think most of us would agree that it’s good riddance to a fair share of them. But some of them are comforting and add a measure of security when we’re interacting. And they certainly show up in crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Killer Queen.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Harry Bingham, Janice MacDonald, Matsumoto Seichō, Natsuo Kirino

20 responses to “Well Versed in Etiquette*

  1. Any time you pick a line from a Queen song, it is fine with me.

    Growing up in the South in the 50’s and 60’s there were lots of rules of etiquette, although I am sure that has changed some since. I don’t mind reading about etiquette in older books as long I don’t have to deal with it in real life.

    • I like Queen’s music very much, too, Tracy.

      I’m sure that there were a lot of those ‘rules’ when you were growing up. I didn’t grow up in the South, but from what I’ve read about, there are certain things that are ‘correct’ and others that just plain are not – or were. And I know just what you mean about reading about etiquette. It’s one thing to read a story where people behave in the ‘correct’ way; it’s another to be expected to live that way yourself.

  2. There were so many rules of etiquette in Romania – even in modest farming households (or perhaps even more so there than in the more modern urban environment). I was quite surprised to come to England (after reading so much literature about the class system and etiquette in English literature) and find that there was actually less of it here in some respects.

    • Oh, that’s really interesting, Marina Sofia. It’s especially interesting that there were more in farming households than in urban areas. And isn’t it fascinating how those rules differ from culture to culture. The number and type of them change, and so does their nature. And that’s one of the things that one has to get used to when one moves to a different culture.

  3. This is one of the things I enjoy about reading classic crime or any classic fiction really – getting an insight into the various rules of society. I do think things have improved in some ways, especially for women, but those rules, though they might have been quite restricting, did provide a degree of comfort in everyone knowing what was expected of them. I think today’s youngsters have a tougher task in navigating their way through life…

    • I think so, too, FictionFan. As you say, in ways those rules were very limiting. I honestly wouldn’t want to abide by all of them now. But it does give a sense of the familiar when you know exactly what is expected of you and how you’re supposed to dress, speak and act in different contexts. No guesswork needed. I suppose it’s one of those ‘pros and cons’ things, really. And I agree: one of the interesting things about reading Golden Age and classic crime fiction is the window it gives into those rules of etiquette.

  4. Col

    I wonder if the relaxing of the “rules” has led us to a less polite society? When I was growing up it would have been the norm to give up a seat for a woman, child or elderly person on public transport. I don’t think that happens now. How many drivers makes turns now without indicating their intentions to other road users?

    • Oh, I think you’re probably right, Col. I know I often see drivers make turns with indicating. And it’s common now for young people to stay seated on public transport while older people, pregnant women and so on stand. I think it’s rude (and, in the case of not indicating a turn,k potentially dangerous), but it happens.

    • Brian

      Today’s society, not every individual, but society as a whole is less polite, callous, rude, and more impatient than ever before. Rules have become lax and people don’t care about them. They are more willing to break them because to them “no one can tell me what to do.” Rules may be limiting but limiting for what? To do what you want to do? When rules are thrown to the wind we get a society where selfishness and me, me, me takes center stage. I’m shocked at the things people do and what proceeds from their mouths. I ask myself what’s wrong with a little patience, kindness and consideration for others?

      • I agree with you, Brian, that consideration for others is crucial to the healthy functioning of society. Certain rules may no longer be appropriate for a modern society, but patience, kindness, and consideration are never inappropriate or too old-fashioned. And the attitude of ‘the rules don’t apply to me’ can be not just rude – even hurtful – but dangerous.

  5. Margot: Your mention of Another Margaret prompted me to think of Hang Down Your Head by Janice MacDonald. In that book there were some wonderful scenes involving the etiquette for women shopping, especially in high end clothing boutiques. Having accompanied my wife to a lot of women’s wear stores I was aware of shopping rules but there are so many nuances for the female shopper.

    • Oh, yes, indeed, there are, Bill. And you’re right; it’s especially true in upmarket places. You see that in hair salons as well, actually, and it’s an interesting phenomenon. I’m glad you mentioned Hang Down Your Head, too. Folks, Janice MacDonald’s Randy Craig series is well-written – worth a look!

  6. I’m the type of person who likes to play by the rules and so to a certain extent they are helpful but when I read classic crime fiction I realise how restricting (especially for women) some of those rules were.

    • It’s true, Cleo. Some of them really were. On that score, it’s a good thing for society that those rules aren’t ‘in force’ any more. But there are some of those rules of etiquette that are comfortable, and that help keep the ‘glue’ of society together. Playing by those rules, I think, helps us function better.

  7. I’ve just started reading M J McGrath’s The Boy in the Snow. The second in the Edie Kiglatuk series set in the artic. (We read the first one for crime book club back in the day!) and both books are great at showing the etiquette and rules of those who live in the artic. It’s great to see how others live in this way.

    • Oh, The Boy in the Snow is a good ‘un, Rebecca. I hope you’ll like it . And yes, both books do show how you behave and don’t behave in that part of the Arctic. There is definitely an etiquette for living there, and McGrath shows it. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  8. When I think of crime fiction, etiquette isn’t one thing I would have connect with it but it makes perfect sense now that you’ve pointed it out. Etiquette plays a huge role in a daily life so we want to see the characters we love following the rules too (or not). 🙂 Great post, Margot.

    • Thank you, Mason. And I think you’re right; etiquette is a big part of the way we conduct ourselves. And, even in today’s world, where the rules are less ‘hard and fast,’ it still matters. So, to me, it makes sense that it comes up in the genre.

  9. Great topic, Margot. There is quite a lot of use made in Golden Age fiction of the young woman (usually a woman) who marries above herself and finds that her manners grate on her new family. I am thinking of Christie’s Taken at the Flood for instance.

    • Oh, that’s a fine example, Christine, so thanks. And you’re right; very often there’s a character in a novel like that who doesn’t know ‘the right thing to do (or say),’ and that can certainly add to the tension in a story. I think it can add an interesting layer of character development, too. Thanks for the kind words.

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