People’s reputations sometimes matter a great deal. After all, most people don’t want others gossiping about them. And, of course, reputation has a lot to do with how one’s perceived at work. The wrong reputation can get a person fired, not promoted, or not hired in the first place. It stands to reason, then, that people do a lot to protect their reputations.
Sometimes, people do a lot to protect another person’s reputation too, especially if that someone else is a friend or loved one. And that’s just as true in crime fiction as it is in real life. For instance, there are plenty of crime novels in which a character doesn’t provide an alibi for a crime, because that alibi might compromise someone else. Protecting someone’s reputation can add motive, character development, and even a plot point to a crime novel. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of plenty of others.
We see that sort of gallantry in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In that novel, Captain Hastings visits an old friend, John Cavendish, who lives at his family’s home, Styles Court, with his wife, Mary, his brother, Lawrence, his stepmother, Emily Inglethorp, her husband, Alfred, and her ward, Cynthia Murdoch. Cynthia becomes a ‘person of interest’ when Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. She was present at the time, she worked in a dispensary (and so, had the requisite knowledge), and she’d been told that she would be provided for in the victim’s will. The family doesn’t want a scandal, so they’re reluctant to have any sort of investigation. But Hastings learns that his friend, Hercule Poirot, is in the area. He persuades the family to engage Poirot’s services, and the investigation begins. When Cynthia learns that there is no financial provision for her, she isn’t sure what she’ll do. At that time, and in that place, a respectable young lady doesn’t live on her own. And Cynthia doesn’t feel she can stay on at Styles Court. What’s more, she’s been mixed up in a murder investigation – enough to tarnish any young lady’s reputation. Hastings decides to try to protect her by proposing marriage. It’s not spoiling the story to say that things don’t work out that way, but it’s an interesting example of wanting to protect someone’s reputation. You’re right, fans of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison, that’s a similar sort of situation.
In Stuart Kaminsky’s Bullet For a Star, we are introduced to Los Angeles PI Toby Peters. He is a former security guard at Warner Brothers Studio, so he knows the Hollywood industry. That’s in part why producer Sid Adelman wants his help with a case of blackmail. It seems that famous star Errol Flynn (the book takes place in 1940) was photographed with a very young girl, and someone is threatening to release that photograph to the press and public. That, of course, will ruin Flynn’s reputation, and his bankability. Adelman wants to protect both, so he’d decided to pay the blackmailer. He wants Peters to deliver the money and collect the photograph and the negative. Peters agrees and goes to the appointed meeting place. But while he’s there, someone kills the blackmailer, steals Peters’ gun, and takes the print and the negative. Now, Peters has to get the photograph and negative back. He also has to clear his name, since his gun was used in the murder.
Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are introduces readers to TV presenter Frank Allcroft. He’s doing well at his job, he has a solid marriage, and a good relationship with his eight-year-old daughter. But he’s reached a sort of crossroads in his life, and he doesn’t feel settled. What’s more, he’s dealing with the death of his predecessor, friend, and mentor, Phil Smedway, who was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was out jogging. Allcroft’s restlessness draws him to the scene of Smedway’s death, and he notices some things. The road is straight and wide – plenty of room for even an impaired driver to swerve and avoid a pedestrian. The death happened during daylight, too, so it would have been easy to see Smedway. Now, Allcroft gets curious about what really happened, and starts to ask questions. And he finds that wanting to preserve a reputation plays a role in the story.
Zoë Ferraris’ Finding Nouf takes a different perspective on preserving someone’s reputation. In the novel, Palestinian-born Nayir ash-Sharqui works as a desert guide in the Jeddah area of Saudi Arabia. He gets drawn into a murder investigation when his friend, Othman ash-Shrawi, asks him to find out what happened to his sixteen-year-old sister, Nouf. It seems that Nouf went missing and was later found dead in a wadi. Othman wants to know what happened to her, and Nayir agrees to look into things. In the process of seeking answers, he meets Othman’s fiancée, Katya Hijazi, who is a medical examiner. As the two work to find out the truth, we learn how important reputation is in this culture, especially for women. For instance, women do not go out without a male family member or ‘official’ male escort. And they’re expected to dress and act in accordance with the very traditional Islamic culture of the area. Any whispers that they are doing otherwise can have all sorts of consequences. So, Katya has to be very careful about where she goes, whom she speaks to, and so on. She is less conventional in her thinking than Nayir is, but she understands what the risks are. At one point in the novel, the two of them are walking when they are approached by a man:
‘‘In the name of Allah, and Allah’s peace be upon you, Sir, pardon me, but your wife is not properly veiled.’’
Nayir has to think quickly in order to protect Kaya’s reputation. Here’s his response:
‘Nayir frowned, ‘Are you looking at my wife?’ he asked. The man opened his mouth, but Nayir interrupted. ‘She’s my wife,’ he shouted. ‘You’d better have a good excuse for staring at her!’
The man took a step back. ‘Apologies, brother, but you understand it’s a matter of decency.’
‘That’s no excuse.’ Nayir moved closer with a menacing squint. ‘Don’t you have your own wife to worry about?”
The ruse works, and Katya is spared any humiliation.
Brian Stoddart’s Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu is a police superintendent in Madras (today’s Chennai) during the 1920s – the last years of the British Raj. As the series begins, he is separated from his wife, who lives in England, He shares his home with his housekeeper, an Anglo-Indian named Roisin McPhedren. He’s in love with Roisin, and she with him. But in that place, and at that time, a public relationship is out of the question. If word of it gets out, she won’t be able to find any sort of respectable work. And his career is at risk. One story arc in this series is the way each of them protects the other’s reputation.
The way other people see us, and the reputations we have, do matter. So it’s little wonder we care about those perceptions. And it’s little wonder that we work to protect the reputations of those who matter to us.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer’s My Boyfriend’s Back.