Category Archives: Brian Stoddart

I Feel Like I’m On the Cusp*

Recently, Sarah, who blogs at The Old Shelter, did a very interesting review of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. That novel was first published in 1920, at the cusp of some major social, political, and other changes. And Christie captures that ‘borderline’ time quite effectively. On the one hand, clothes are still conservative, especially for women, and so are social expectations. The ‘Jazz Age’ we often think of when we think of the 1920s (you know – bobbed hair, short skirts, rolled-down stockings, late-night crazy parties, and women smoking) is still a few years off. On the other, things are changing – quickly. Some women are actually wearing trousers, and they’re getting (or have recently gotten) the right to vote (I know, Kiwi and Aussie friends; it happened a bit earlier in your countries). Political movements such as socialism are gaining strength, too. And there are other major changes.

If you’ve watched the ITV production of The Mysterious Affair at Styles on Agatha Christie’s Poirot, you see that cusp even more clearly. To give just one example, there are horse-drawn carriages and automobiles. It’s as if the world is drawing a breath as one era ends and a whole new social order begins. Sarah’s done a fine review, by the way, and you’ll want to stop by her blog and read it.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which Hercule Poirot is introduced, concerns the poisoning murder of his benefactor, Emily Inglethorp. He’s drawn into the case because he happens to encounter Captain Hastings, who’s a friend of the victim’s stepson, John Cavendish. Hastings is staying at the Inglethorp/Cavendish household for a visit, and it’s he who recommends that the family consult Poirot. It’s an interesting story in its own right, but it’s by no means the only novel that depicts that cusp between the last years of the 19th Century/early 20th Century, and what we think of as the more modern age.

For instance, Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness takes place just a few years after the end of WW I, mostly in and near the small village of Highfield. Scotland Yard, in the forms of Inspector John Madden and Detective Constable (DC) Billy Styles, has been called in to assist with a particularly brutal murder. Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes, have all been killed. Only four-year-old Sophy Fletcher has survived, and that’s because she hid under a bed during the attack. But she’s had a severe shock, and can’t help much. At first, the murders look like a robbery gone horribly wrong. But it soon becomes clear that this family was targeted. Now, Madden and Styles have to find out why and by whom. It’s a very difficult case, but, with the help of the local GP, Dr. Helen Blackwell, the team finds out the truth. In this novel, we see a society on the brink of the modern age. Blackwell, for instance, is an independent professional. She has modern views of psychology, of women’s roles, and so on. There are some modern conveniences, too, such as cars, motorcycles, and some telephones. At the same time, the local mores are still very conventional, and the Jazz Age hasn’t come to the country, if I can put it that way.

Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests takes place at about the same time. In it, we are introduced to Frances Wray and her mother, Emily. The war has meant hard times for the Wrays, and they’ve decided they’ll have to open their home to lodgers, who are euphemistically called ‘paying guests.’  Len and Lilian Barber soon respond to the Wrays’ discreet advertisement, and move in. It’s all awkward, especially at first, but it goes well enough. Then, things slowly begin to spin out of control. The end result is a tragedy that changes everything. Throughout the novel, we see a society caught between two worlds, if I may put it that way. On the one hand, Emily Wray has very clear ideas about how ‘ladies’ are ‘supposed to’ behave. The family still has an outhouse, and the kitchen isn’t really modern. On the other, there’s definitely movement afoot. Some ‘regular people’ are getting telephones (although plenty go to a local shop to make calls). And one of Frances’ friends is a busy professional woman who drinks, smokes, and goes out when and where she pleases. That tug-of-war between the old century and the modern world plays its role in the tragedies that happen in the novel, too.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place in the early 1920s in India, mostly in and near what is now Chennai. The British Raj is in its last decades, and there’s a real push among many people for some sort of Home Rule. Women, especially English and other European women, are more independent, and don’t always go directly home, shall we say, after a party. There are some modern conveniences, and so on. But at the same time, there are still very strict rules about who may belong to which clubs. The white English are still very much in charge, and the races simply do not mix socially. There are plenty of people, too, who want to keep it that way, and don’t want any talk of Home Rule. Women may be getting more independent, but they are still expected to make it a major priority to find themselves husbands, preferably husbands who are in at least a respectable social class, and who earn a respectable salary. This series is, among other things, a look at a society that’s just on the cusp of the modern, post-colonial, age.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Through the Lonesome Dark. This one’s not, strictly speaking, a crime novel, although there are crimes in it. Rather, it’s the story of three children: Pansy Williams, Clem Bright, and Otto Brader, who grow up in the small New Zealand town of Blackball, just before WW I. It’s a working-class (mostly mining) community, with a rising tide of socialist sentiment. Still, in many ways it’s a very traditional place. Pansy, for example, learns the hard way that, if you’re a girl, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you’ll get the chance to prepare for university. Getting ahead, so to speak, will not be an option for her. And the boys are expected to follow their fathers and grandfathers into the mines, whatever their own ambitions might have been. The three children are all best friends, though, and determined to stay together always. Then, everything changes when the war comes. Lives are upended, and the three friends are wrenched apart. In the end, and after several tragedies, the characters have to start all over again. And now, the world is metamorphosing. So, as the characters put their lives back together, they will also have to move from the traditional world they knew to something different.

And that’s the thing that Sarah’s post reminded me of – and I’m glad. The early 1920’s were ‘cusp’ years. You might say they were neither here nor there, neither traditional nor thoroughly modern. Little wonder there was so much anxiety at the time. Thanks for the inspiration, Sarah!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Goldspot’s Cusp.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Paddy Richardson, Rennie Airth, Sarah Waters

And It’ll be All Right in the Heat of the Night*

As this is posted, it’s fifty years since the release of Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (an adaptation of John Ball’s 1955 novel). As you’ll know, its focus is Virgil Tibbs, a black Philadelphia police detective who ends up getting involved in investigating a murder in Sparta, Mississippi. Among other things, the film explores the issue of the integration of police forces.

But it’s certainly not the only crime story that takes up this topic. Many police departments have had to evolve as qualified non-white officers joined them. In some cases, it has been, and continues to be, a difficult transition. But even in cases where it’s gone relatively smoothly, it can still make for an interesting layer of character development. It’s realistic, too, as more and more police forces diversify.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place in Madras (today’s Chennai) in the early 1920’s – the last years of the British Raj. Le Fanu’s assistant is Sergeant Mohammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah. Habi is the first Indian member of the Madras Crime Unit, which doesn’t please everyone:
 

‘Indianisation was a dirty word, Habi’s appointment an unwanted symbol of change.’
 

But Le Fanu has learned that his sergeant has a good education and is good at his job. He’s got a fine future; and although that upsets plenty of people, it doesn’t Le Fanu. He’s happy to have a man of Habi’s skills on the team. Still, Habi knows that he has to be twice as good to get half as far, as the saying goes.

Fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte will know that he’s half white/half Aborigine. He’s very good at what he does, and he knows the bush very well. So, the fact that he’s not white doesn’t prevent him from having a successful police career. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t raise eyebrows at times, and get the occasional comment. Bony’s accustomed to coping with that sort of thing, though, and finds ways to get people to feel comfortable with him.

Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town takes place in 1974 Atlanta, and features Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy, two detectives who have a very difficult time fitting in in what is still very much a man’s world. When a fellow officer, Don Wesley, is shot, Lawson and Murphy join the investigation team. Although their contributions are not taken very seriously, they are determined to find out the truth. Sexism in the police force is certainly a main topic in this novel. But it’s also set within the context of the racism that still permeates the police at the time the book takes place. There are black police officers (of both sexes). But they definitely have second-class status at the station. They rarely interact with their white counterparts unless they need to; even changing rooms are not occupied by whites and blacks at the same time.

Times have changed in the last decades, and we see this evolution in the genre. For instance, Kate Ellis’ The Merchant House introduces Detective Sergeant (DS) (later Detective Inspector (DI)) Wesley Peterson. In this novel, he and his wife, Pam, have recently moved from London to Tradmouth, in Devon, where Peterson is to take up his duties with the local CID. He’s no sooner settled in when he and the team get involved in the investigation of the murder of a young woman whose body is found at Little Tradmouth Head. In one plot thread of this novel, the team works to find out who the dead woman was and who would have wanted to kill her. At first, Peterson’s a little concerned about how well he’ll fit in in Tradmouth. For one thing, he’s from London. For another, he’s black, and his colleagues are all white. While it’s true that he does get the odd joke about being from London, his race doesn’t really matter to his colleagues. In fact, he learns that his predecessor was terminated because of racist and sexist comments and actions. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Peterson’s race never figures into the stories. It is a part of his identity. But, for the most part, he’s a good detective who happens to be black, and his white colleagues care much more about the former than about the latter.

The same might be said about Peter James’ Glenn Branson. He serves as second-in-command to Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove Police. It’s made clear throughout the series that Branson is black. But that fact doesn’t matter to Grace and the other team members. The members of the team tease each other, as happens when people work closely together. But there aren’t any racially-charged remarks – even as ‘just a joke.’ He’s a valued colleague who just happens to be black.

That doesn’t mean there are never any challenges faced by non-white police offers. Just ask Jamal Hamad, whom we meet in Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House. He’s lived most of his life in Sweden, but is originally from Lebanon. Now, he’s one of a team of police detectives who work under the supervision of Stockholm Detective Inspector (DI) Conny Sjöberg. In this novel, the team is investigating a set of murders that seem on the surface not to be linked. They are, though, of course, and the team has to put the pieces of the puzzle together to find the event from the past that links them. In the meantime, one of the team members, Petra Westman, is ‘date-raped’ one night, and decides to find out who’s responsible. At one point, she has an interesting conversation with Hamad. Here’s what he has to say about being a non-white person on a white police team:
 

‘‘But it’s ‘Ramadan’ this and ‘Mohammad’ that, one thing after another. Just little things, but it all adds up…’’
 

In this case, it’s not that Hamad’s colleagues refuse to work with him, or sabotage his work because he’s not white. In fact, he says that he knows Westman likes and respects him. And she does. But he’s still made to feel different – ‘other’ – whenever anyone makes a remark.

In The Heat of the Night offers an exploration of what happens when a police force diversifies, and not everyone’s comfortable with that. There are several other crime novels, too, that take up the same topic. These are just a few: your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Quincy Jones, Marilyn Bergman and Alan Bergman’s In the Heat of the Night, with Ray Charles’ unforgettable vocals.

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Filed under Arthur Upfield, Brian Stoddart, Carin Gerhardsen, John Ball, Karin Slaughter, Kate Ellis, Norman Jewison, Peter James

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?

 

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

Gotta Get Down To It*

One of the more challenging jobs that police do is manage crowds of people. On the one hand, safety is the most important consideration. So, the police have to ensure that people aren’t looting, hurting each other, or worse. On the other hand, most of us agree that people have the right to go about their business, even in large crowds, without being stopped by the police. In many countries, too, it’s been determined that people have the right to protest peacefully, and protests and marches can draw large crowds.

The balance between protecting people’s rights, and ensuring public order and safety isn’t an easy one. And the vast majority of police strike that balance. If you think about it, a large number of crowd events, whether for fun, for protest, or something else, go off quite smoothly. But even so, they can be tense, and some spill over into conflict, or worse.

That’s certainly true in real life, and it’s true in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot, Chief Inspector Japp, and several local police officers, are looking for an elusive killer. Their target has already killed three people, and has warned that there’ll be more deaths. Before each murder, the killer sends a cryptic warning to Poirot, so he’s told in advance that this next murder will take place at Doncaster. At first, preventing that murder seems straightforward. But, the police haven’t considered the fact that the St. Leger is to be run in Doncaster on the day the killer has specified. Now, the police have to manage the crowds, look for a killer, and try to keep potential victims safe. In the end, we learn who the murderer is, and what the motive is. But the large crowds on St. Leger day don’t make things any easier.

There’s a very tense set of scenes featuring large crowds and police in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman. In one plot thread of that novel, the Swedish government is preparing for a visit from a US senator. Many, many people are upset at the US’ involvement in Vietnam, and a large protest is staged outside the US Embassy in Stockholm. The police are already stretched rather thin, as the saying goes, and the demonstrators are determined. With the police force pushed to its limit, a gunman boards a bus, killing eight passengers, including Åke Stenström, a police officer. And it turns out that this murderer ‘hid’ that death among the others on the bus.

In Peter Robinson’s A Necessary End, the town of Eastvale gears up for an anti-nuclear demonstration. Several groups have come into town for the occasion, and DCI Alan Banks and his team know that things could turn ugly. So, they prepare as best they can for the crowds. The day of the demonstration arrives, and the police do their best to manage everything. Then, tragedy strikes. Someone takes advantage of the large crowd to murder P.C. Edwin Gill. Banks’ superior officer, Superintendent Richard ‘Dirty Dick’ Burgess, is convinced that one of the demonstrators is responsible for Gill’s murder, and wants Banks to make a quick arrest. But Banks isn’t so sure that the demonstrators had anything to do with the killing. And, as he digs more deeply into the case, he finds that Gill had a reputation as a thug, who abused his authority more than once. So, there are plenty of people in town who could have a very good motive for murder.

Ian Rankin’s Mortal Causes takes place during the Edinburgh Festival, which is always a very difficult time for police. It’s a major tourist draw, there are parties, plenty of drinking, and big events. So, it’s very hard to keep the peace and ensure that everyone is safe. That background is tense enough. Matters get worse when the body of Billy Cunningham is discovered at Mary King’s Close, one of Edinburgh’s busiest streets. It turns out that Cunningham may have had ties to the IRA and to some Scottish ultra-nationalist groups. What’s worse, it turns out that he was the son of Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, a local crime boss, and Inspector John Rebus’ nemesis. Cafferty, as you can imagine, is all for dealing with his son’s killers in his own way. But Rebus knows that this could lead to a bloodbath. So, he’ll have to find Cunningham’s killer, find a way to manage Cafferty, and deal with the festival crowds.

And then there’s Felicity Young’s The Anatomy of Death (AKA A Dissection of Murder).  In that novel, which takes place in 1910, Dr. Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland returns to London from Edinburgh. She’s just finished qualifying in forensic pathology, and is hoping to work with the noted Dr. Bernard Spilsbury in the Home Office. As she’s waiting for that opportunity, she takes a job at a women’s hospital. She’s no sooner arrived and gotten settled when she learns that a women’s suffrage march in Whitechapel turned very ugly. Several of the protesters were beaten, and many were arrested. There were three deaths, too, and McCleland performs the autopsies. It turns out that one of the deaths, that of Lady Catherine Cartwright, might not have been accidental. And it turns out that this killer used the large crowd as a ‘cover’ for a very deliberate murder.

That happens, too, in Brian Stoddart’s A Madras Miasma, which takes place in 1920 Madras (today’s Chennai). This story takes place during the last years of the British Raj, and there’s a lot of talk of social and political reform. In fact, in one plot thread of the novel, there’s a demonstration against the entrenched British establishment. Stoddart’s protagonist, Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu, understands both the need to keep order and the benefits of some sort of power-sharing. He’d like the ‘powers that be’ to at least hear out the other side’s arguments. There are plenty of people in the upper levels who don’t want to give up power, though, so the protest takes place.  Le Fanu is sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, but, he is a police officer, and is sworn to uphold the law. The demonstration turns ugly, and Madras Commissioner of Police Arthur Jepson insists that his men use their weapons. At the end of it all, there are twenty-three deaths, and eighty-five people with injuries. One of the dead is a key source of information for another case that Le Fanu is investigating, and he learns that that person was killed by someone who used the large crowd and the unrest to ‘cover up’ the murder.

It’s not easy to be a police officer under the best of circumstances. Add in a large crowd, no matter how peaceful, and things can get very dangerous, very quickly. That’s part of what makes such scenes so suspenseful, and potentially so effective in a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Ohio.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Felicity Young, Ian Rankin, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Peter Robinson

Why These Victorian Views?*

The Victorian Era ended more than 100 years ago. But, if you think about it, that era’s customs, culture, and so on still exert influence, especially in the West. Just as one example, consider the tradition of the white wedding dress. That wasn’t a custom until Queen Victoria chose to wear a white dress for her own wedding. And that’s not to mention the many other beliefs, ‘rules,’ and so on that became a part of that era. One post isn’t nearly enough to do justice to the topic, but it’s interesting to take a glance at it.

We see the influence of this era in a lot of ways in crime fiction. And, as you’ll see, I’m not really talking of the crime fiction (such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s) that was written during the Victorian years. Even novels written after those years ended show the era’s influence.

One of the very important characteristics of the era was an emphasis on doing one’s duty. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was suspected of the murder, and with good reason. In fact, she was arrested and convicted, and died in prison a year later. Carla insists her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear her name. In order to find out the truth, Poirot interviews the five people who were present at the time. He also gets their written accounts of the murder and the days leading up to it. One of those people is Cecilia Williams, who acted as governess to Carla’s aunt, Angela Warren. Here’s what we learn about Miss Williams:
 

‘She had that enormous mental and moral advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing…she had done her duty in that station in life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret.’
 

In other ways, too, Miss Williams reflects Victorian attitudes. For example, one of the ‘people of interest’ in the novel is Elsa Greer Dittisham, who was Crale’s lover at the time of his murder, and who was staying at the house while he painted her portrait. Miss Williams describes her as ‘thoroughly unprincipled.’ Later she says:
 

‘‘Whatever our feelings, we can keep them in decent control. And we can certainly control our actions. That girl had absolutely no morals of any kind. It meant nothing to her that Mr. Crale was a married man. She was absolutely shameless about it all – cool and determined. Possibly she may have been badly brought up, but that’s the only excuse I can find for her.”
 

Miss Williams is as much upset at what she sees as the lack of propriety and ‘proper conduct’ as she is about anything else.

We also see the Victorian emphasis on propriety in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Strong Poison. In the novel, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is tried for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and immediately becomes smitten with Vane. In fact, he determines to clear her name, so that he can marry her. And, with help of some friends, as well as his valet/assistant, Mervyn Bunter, that’s exactly what he does. As the story goes on, we learn that Vane and Boyes lived together before their relationship ended. Since they never married, that’s very much held against her. In keeping with the Victorian view of what was ‘proper,’ it’s considered inappropriate to cohabit. The fact of their relationship is almost less important than the fact that Vane behaved in an ‘unseemly’ way.

We also see that attitude in Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series, which takes place in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai). In one story arc, we learn about the relationship between Le Fanu and his housekeeper, Roisin McPhedren. The two care very much about each other, but their relationship is doomed. For one thing, Le Fanu is, at least in name, married. His wife, who now lives in England, wants a divorce, but that’s somewhat scandalous. For another, Le Fanu and McPhedren live in the same house, and are not married. If any whispers got around that they had more than a professional relationship, that would mean the end of La Fanu’s career. Such impropriety isn’t in keeping with the ideals he’s supposed to be upholding. And that’s to say nothing of what would happen to Roisin McPhedren’s reputation. There would be no way she could get any kind of ‘respectable’ employment. This series offers a look at Victorian attitudes towards class and race, as well, and how they impacted the British Raj.

There’s an interesting example of the Victorian perspective in Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die. In it, poet and private investigator Nigel Strangeways looks into the poisoning death of George Rattery. The most obvious suspect is crime writer Frank Cairnes, who holds Rattery responsible for the death of his son, Martin ‘Martie.’ But Cairnes says that he’s innocent, and there are solid reasons to believe him. What’s more, as Strangeways discovers, Cairnes is not the only possible suspect. For one thing, it turns out that Rattery was having an affair with a woman named Rhoda Carfax. Rattery’s mother, Ethel, is
 

‘…crazy about family honour, and being a Victorian she looks upon sexual scandal as the arch-disgrace.’ 
 

That passion for ‘respectability’ could have been part of a motive for murder. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at that need to be ‘respectable.’

There’s also an interesting look at the impact of the Victorian-Era perspective in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. This novel is James’ fictional retelling of the 1900 Melbourne arrest and conviction of Maggie Heffernan for the murder of her infant son. In the novel, Maggie meets and is wooed by Jack Hardy. He asks her to marry him, but says they need to keep their engagement secret until he can support them. Maggie agrees, and he soon leaves to look for work in New South Wales. In the meantime, Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, and writes to Jack. Even after several letters, she doesn’t hear from him. Maggie knows her family won’t accept her (what ‘proper’ family would?), so she gets work in a Melbourne Guest House. When baby Jacky arrives, Maggie moves briefly to a home for unwed mothers. Then, she discovers that Jack Hardy has moved to Melbourne, and goes in search of him. When she finally tracks him down, he utterly rejects her. With nowhere else to go, Maggie goes from lodging house to lodging house, and is turned down by six places.  That’s when the tragedy with Jacky occurs. This story takes place in the last year or two of the Victorian Era, and really shows how that perspective influences everything that happens to Maggie, including her own point of view.

There are also other historical series, such as K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells novels, and Felicity Young’s Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland series, that depict Victorian-Era perspectives, world views and mores. Owen’s series takes place at the very end of those years, and Young’s takes place in the Edwardian Era that followed it.

Even today, we can see how the Victorian Era has left its mark. It has on Western society, and it certainly has in crime fiction. Which examples have stayed with you?

ps The ‘photo is of a group of Victorian-era schoolgirls in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian Stoddart, Dorothy L. Sayers, Felicity Young, K.B. Owen, Nicholas Blake, Wendy James