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.