Category Archives: Claudia Piñeiro

She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

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Filed under John Grisham, Megan Abbott, Scott Turow, Reginald Hill, Helene Tursten, Fred Vargas, Katherine Howell, Qiu Xiaolong, Claudia Piñeiro, Robert Rotenberg, Liane Moriarty

Garage Sale Sunday*

Garage and Yard SalesSometimes they’re called jumble sales. They also go by names such as yard sales, tag sales, boot sales, and garage sales. They have other names, too. Whatever you call them, they’re opportunities for people who are getting rid of things to sell them to people who may want those things. Sometimes the proceeds go to a charity; other times, they’re private sales, with the seller keeping any proceeds.

You never know what you’ll find at such sales, really. Sometimes it’s nothing worth much. But there are times when you find something really special. And sales like that can be great places to find things like vintage clothes and jewelry, collectibles and so on. And they can be fun, too. So it’s little wonder that so many people make a weekend hobby of going the rounds of whatever sales there are in the area.

This kind of sale can make a useful context for a crime novel, too. There are all sorts of possibilities for clues and ‘red herrings,’ and motives for murder as well. And with a group of disparate people, you never know what conflicts might arise.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny at the request of Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. One of the residents, James Bentley, has been convicted of murdering his landlady, and on good evidence. But Spence isn’t convinced of Bentley’s guilt, so he asks Poirot to look into the matter. As he settles into Broadhinny, Poirot is told about the village’s Bring and Buy sales that are held at the village hall. He also learns that Mrs. McGinty was murdered in November, after the autumn Bring and Buy, but before the Christmas event. That fact turns out to be significant as Poirot works to find out who would have been in a position to commit the crime.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Wasn’t There takes place in the fictional town of Pickax, ‘four hundred miles north of nowhere.’ In one plot thread of the novel, we learn that beloved local GP Dr. Hal Goodwinter has died, and that his daughter, Melinda, has inherited his house and its effects. She doesn’t plan to live in the house, so she puts the contents up for sale. Later, she’ll sell the property itself. The event draws thousands of people, and the town has all it can do to manage the logistics and safety issues. So it’s not until later that anyone learns that some professional thieves used to sale as a cover and distraction for their own plans.

Hallie Ephron’s Never Tell a Lie takes a darker look at yard sales. David and Ivy Rose have purchased a Victorian home, where they plan to start their own family. As a matter of fact, Ivy is eight months pregnant with their first child. To make more room, and clear things out, they decide to host a yard sale one November day. As anyone who’s ever held such a sale can attest, people arrive early and the place is soon crowded. One of those people is Melinda ‘Mindy’ White, whom the Roses knew in school, and who is heavily pregnant herself. Mindy never really fit in in high school, and she’s still a bit of an ‘oddball.’ When the sale is over, everyone leaves, but Mindy never makes it home. In fact, no-one can remember seeing her after the sale. When she’s officially reported missing, the police investigate, and one of their first stops is the Rose’s home. David and Ivy claim to know nothing about her disappearance, but there’s evidence to suggest they may know much more than they’re saying. The truth about Mindy’s disappearance turns out to go a lot deeper than a case of someone who wandered off during a yard sale.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at an ultra-exclusive, gated community outside Buenos Aires. Called Cascade Heights Country Club, it’s usually called The Heights. Every potential resident is thoroughly ‘vetted,’ and only the very wealthy can afford to live there. They all have domestic staff, shop only in exclusive stores, and send their children to the ‘right schools.’ It’s that kind of place. Everything changes when Argentina goes through an economic crisis (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of the 2000s). People are losing jobs, and no-one’s lifestyle is secure any more. One night, there’s a tragedy, and we see as the book develops what has led to it. One of the ‘things people do’ in this community is to give to the ‘right’ charities and do the ‘right things’ to help the needy. To accomplish this, some of the residents create a charitable group called ‘The Ladies of the Heights.’ This group decides to hold a jumble sale in aid of a local children’s free meal centre. The sale is duly held and the money donated. Admittedly, the jumble sale and the preparations for it aren’t the cause of the tragedy. But they do highlight the social divisions that play a key role in the story, and they show the attitudes that also play an important role.

And then there’s David Houswright’s Unidentified Woman #15. Former Minneapolis police officer-turned-occasional-PI Rushmore McKenzie is witness one night to the attempted murder of a young woman. McKenzie rescues her, but she is badly injured and is rushed to the nearest hospital. Her physical wounds heal, but she’s lost her memory. St. Paul Police Commissioner Bobby Dunstan believes she may be in danger, so he asks McKenzie (who’s a former colleague and friend) to take her in for a short time. This McKenzie agrees to do. All goes well enough for a short time, but then, the young woman disappears. Now, McKenzie and the police have to find the woman (whose name they still do not know) and try to find out who was targeting her. As it turns out, this case is connected to another case, which involves stolen merchandise being sold at a series of garage sales. It’s an interesting way to weave the garage sale tradition into the larger plot.

Of course, not all jumble, yard, garage or tag sales are dangerous. Sometimes you can find fantastic bargains, and who knows? You may find something priceless if you keep your eyes open. But perhaps it’s just as well to keep your wits about you…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Granddaddy’s Where I’m Anymore.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, David Housewright, Hallie Ephron, Lilian Jackson Braun

The Pursuit of Happiness Just Seems a Bore*

Privileged Lives and LimitationsPlenty of people dream about what it might be like to have a lot of money and be a member of the upper class. After all, many of us can’t afford to travel whenever we want, buy what we want on a whim, or send our children to the ‘best’ schools. But if you think about it, the lives of those people who seem to ‘have it all’ can be just as restrictive.

Crime fiction shows us clearly that that lifestyle can be at least as limiting as the lifestyle most of us have – perhaps more so. And being among that group of people is absolutely no guarantee against tension, conflict and tragedy. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime gives a witty, but biting, look at the upper-class life. In that novel, Catalonia politician Lluís Font hires Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep ‘Pep’ (who goes by the name Borja) Martínez. Font believes that his wife Lídia is having an affair, and he wants to know if he’s right. It’s not just that Font wants to know if his wife has betrayed him; he’s also concerned that any scandal could threaten his political career (he represents the Catholic Conservative party). The Martínez brothers take the case, but a week of surveillance doesn’t turn up anything. It does, however, offer a look at the lives of people of that class. Lídia Font spends her days visiting hairstylists and salons, going shopping, and having coffees and lunches with friends and acquaintances. Her husband, of course, has his political reputation to uphold, so he makes the ‘right’ speeches, goes to the ‘right’ meetings and so on. Then one evening, Lídia dies of what turns out to be poison. The police suspect Font of killing his wife, so he asks the Martínez brothers to stay on the job and clear his name.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack also explores the lives of ‘people of a certain class.’ That novel takes place in 1970’s Buenos Aires, a time when the military is in full control. Speaking out on anything is a very dangerous thing to do, so few people dare it. One day, police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano gets an early-morning call about two bodies left by a riverbank. He goes to the scene and, sure enough, finds the bodies. The two people are victims of an Army ‘hit,’ and Lescano knows better than to ask too many questions about that. But then, he finds a third body. This victim, too, seems to bear the hallmarks of a ‘hit,’ but there are small pieces of evidence that suggest that this is a different kind of murder. Lescano starts to ask questions, and opens quite a proverbial can of worms. The victim is Elías Biterman, a successful pawnbroker and moneylender, who counted among his clients some very wealthy and powerful people. As we get to know some of those characters, we see how restrictive that upper-class life is. One is expected to be at the ‘right’ events, behave in the ‘right’ way and so on. And one is expected to have a great deal of money to do all of that.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows addresses what happens when that protective ‘bubble of money’ is taken away. That novel takes place at the end of the 1990s, in the exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club. Only the wealthy can afford to live there, and prospective residents are thoroughly ‘vetted’ before being accepted. The story begins one September evening in 2001, when a tragedy occurs at the home of El Tano Scaglia and his wife Teresa. Then the story takes readers back to where it all began, and tells the events that have led to that tragedy. As those events unfold, we learn about the lives of the people who live in Cascade Heights. The men have ‘the right kinds of jobs,’ as high-level business executives, bankers, attorneys and so on. The women shop at the ‘right’ exclusive places, raise money for the ‘correct’ causes, host expensive parties, get cosmetic surgery and send their children to the best schools. Some have careers (one, for instance, is a real estate professional). Everything changes with the economic downturn at the end of the 1990s. People can no longer rely on a steady supply of easy money. And this has devastating consequences for everyone.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, we are introduced to successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal and his wife. They live in an upmarket part of Delhi, have a beautiful home and a staff of servants. They also have a reputation and lifestyle to uphold, so the family’s good name is extremely important. Disaster strikes when Kasliwal is accused of raping and murdering a family servant, Mary Murmu. She disappeared a few months ago, and there’s been quite a lot of talk about her fate. He claims that he’s innocent, but the police arrest him. They don’t want to give the appearance of toadying to the rich and powerful, so it’s decided to make an example of this case. Kasliwal hires PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri to find out the truth about his servant’s disappearance, and clear his name. As we get to know the family, we see how limiting that upper-class status can be, despite the privilege associated with it.

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. It’s the late 1950s, and Evelyn ‘Eve’ Hobart has always been acquisitive. But she grew up with little money and no privilege. Things change when she meets Hank Moran at a college dance. He comes from a wealthier family with a reputation. Eve isn’t rich, but she is beautiful and seductive, and it’s not long before they’re married. Now she becomes a part of the ‘better class’ of Philadelphia-area society. Women of that class take day trips into the city to shop, spend money on their suburban homes, and belong to clubs and societies. For Eve, though, the real spark of life is getting and having things, especially taking things she hasn’t bought. It gets her in trouble more than once, and eventually, lands her in The Terraces, an expensive ‘special place’ where she can be ‘cured’ of her compulsions. But Eve remains completely dysfunctional and toxic, doing whatever it takes, including murder, to get what she wants, whether it’s clothing, jewels, or men. As her daughter Christine grows up, Eve draws her into that web, and Christine, being so dependent on her mother, can do little about it. As the years go by, that dysfunction continues to dominate their relationship until Christine notices that her younger brother Ryan is starting be drawn in to their mother’s life, too. Now, she decides she will have to rescue Ryan, and set herself free, too.

By the way, it was a conversation with Patti Abbott that got me thinking about this topic. Thanks for the inspiration!

On the outside, the life of those who have a privileged existence can seem very alluring. But it really is as limiting as any other life. And it can be at least as deadly.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper.

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Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Ernesto Mallo, Patricia Abbott, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana

At the Watering Holes of the Well-to-Do*

Exclusive ClubsAgatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…) begins at the Coronation Club during a World War II air raid. Major Porter is reading a newspaper item which he discusses with Hercule Poirot. The item concerns the death of wealthy Gordon Cloade, who’s been killed in a bomb blast. Cloade leaves behind a young widow Rosaleen, as well as several relatives. And therein lies the problem. He’d always made it clear to his family that he would take care of them financially, so they’ve never gone without. But he died without making a will. Now Rosaleen is entitled to everything, and that fact leads to acrimony and worse. Major Porter plays a role later in the novel, and at one point Poirot has a conversation with him:
 

‘Poirot guessed that for Major Porter, retired Army officer, life was lived very near the bone. Taxation and increased cost of living struck hardest at the old war-horses.
Some things, he guessed, Major Porter would cling to until the end. His club subscription, for instance.’ 
 

Major Porter’s attitude towards his club isn’t uncommon. There’s something about belonging to an exclusive club that makes members feel special – even superior. Little wonder there are so many of them.

Exclusive clubs can also serve as effective contexts for crime fiction. Who knows what might go on among members, and clubs offer all sorts of options for the author. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates a death that occurs at his own Bellona Club. Old General Fentiman has passed away while sitting in his customary chair at the club. His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, has also passed away. What’s important in this instance is the timing of the deaths. If Lady Dormer dies first, the family fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If Fentiman dies first, the money goes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin Ann Dorland. When it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned, Wimsey looks into the matter. And with so much money involved, there’s a lot at stake. Here’s Fentiman’s grandson’s amusing commentary on the club:
 

‘Place always reminds me of that old thing in Punch, you know—‘Waiter, take away Lord Whatsisname, he’s been dead two days.’ Look at Old Ormsby there, snoring like a hippopotamus. Look at my revered grandpa — dodders in here at ten every morning, collects the Morning Post and the armchair by the fire, and becomes part of the furniture till the evening. Poor old devil. Suppose I’ll be like that one of these days.’
 

Still, neither Fentiman would give up his club subscription

Several of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories feature exclusive clubs. For instance, in Gambit, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate when Paul Jerin is poisoned. It seems that he did magic stunts and other party tricks, and was also quite skilled at chess. Matthew Blount, a member of the exclusive Gambit Chess Club, had played against Jerin a few times and the idea was born of a kind of competition at the club. Jerin would sit in one room, blindfolded, and play twelve simultaneous chess matches against other members of the club, who would sit in other rooms. Moves would be communicated by messenger. At first everything went well enough. But then Jerin suddenly died from what has turned out to be poisoned hot chocolate. Since it was Blount who brought Jerin the chocolate, he’s the most likely suspect. But his daughter Sally is convinced he’s innocent. So she hires Wolfe and Goodwin to find out the truth.

In H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case, Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay Police has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector. He’s delighted with that, and with the prospect of becoming a father (his wife Protima is due to give birth very soon). Then his boss Sir Rustom Engineer assigns him to a delicate case. Iris Dawkins has apparently committed suicide; her widower wants to know why. Since Engineer is an old friend of Dawkins’, he’s promised to have someone look into the matter. So Ghote goes to Mahableshwar, where Dawkins lives. Ghote begins by tracing the victim’s last days and weeks, and it’s not long before he comes to believe that she was murdered. Part of the trail leads to the Mahableshwar Club, so Ghote pays more than one visit there:
 

‘Smoking Room. Inside, at once evident, the aroma from many past years of cigars, pipes and cigarettes lingering unmistakably. But yes, in the far corner a human being. Must be, even if he is holding up the broad pages of the Times of India.’
 

The story has a clear depiction of the Anglo-Indian club.

Of course, there are plenty of modern clubs too, as we see in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which takes place mostly in the late 1990’s. The setting for most of the novel is the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Potential members/residents are thoroughly vetted before being admitted, and everything that happens within the community is monitored and managed by its Commission. From the physical design of the area to the ID cards that are provided to members, it’s all specially designed to keep the outside world at bay. And those who live there are desperate to maintain their status as accepted members in good standing. So when the financial troubles of late-1990s Argentina find their way into the club, residents begin to worry about keeping up their privileged lives. As those problems worsen, it gets harder and harder to do that. The desperation to remain a part of this exclusive club ultimately leads to tragedy.

But that’s how important being a part of a very exclusive club is to some people. That feeling of being ‘set apart,’ superior and privileged can be intoxicating. And the club setting can make for a very solid crime setting.
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Peron’s Latest Flame.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Dorothy Sayers, H.R.F Keating, Rex Stout

Acting Like a Born Aristocrat*

Casual SnobberyMost of us would probably say we don’t care much for snobbery. And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a snub, then you know how alienating that can be. What’s interesting too is that sometimes, the assumptions that underlie snobbery (i.e. I belong to a group that’s inherently better than other groups) is so deeply ingrained that snobs may not even be aware of their own beliefs.

I got to thinking about that kind of snobbery after reading a really interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books. And by the way, if you don’t already follow that excellent blog, I really do recommend it. It’s a fabulous site for daily posts on fictional fashion, culture, and what it all says about us. Snobbery really is woven into a lot of cultures, and it’s certainly a part of crime fiction as well. There are far too many examples for me to list them all in this one post, but here are a few.

Agatha Christie depicts snobbery in several of her novels and stories. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), a group of passengers is en route by air from Paris to London. Towards the end of the flight, one of the passengers, Marie Morisot, dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Hercule Poirot, who is on that flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who is guilty. Among the characters, we find a ‘mixed bag’ of people. Some of them, such as passenger Venetia Kerr, are ‘well born’ and have the assumptions of their class. It’s not that they’re rude or deliberately offensive. But, as one character puts it:
 

‘She walks about as though she owns the earth; she is not conceited about it: she is just an Englishwoman.’
 

There’s also Cicely Horbury, who started as ‘just a chorus girl,’ but has married Lord Stephen Horbury. In her case, she has eagerly taken on the lifestyle of the upper classes, but she doesn’t have those unconscious assumptions. She’s quite a different sort of snob. I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile, Lord Edgware Dies, etc.

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer gets a new client: Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida, a school for ‘troubled youth.’ Sponti is worried because one of the students, seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, has gone missing. Tom’s parents are both wealthy and well-connected, so he’s afraid of what will happen if they find out Tom’s gone. Archer is at the school discussing the case with Sponti when Tom’s father Ralph Hillman bursts in with shocking news. It seems that Tom has been kidnapped and his abductors want ransom money. Archer returns to the Hillman home with Ralph and begins to investigate, in the hopes of finding Tom. It’s soon clear to Archer that this is no ordinary kidnapping case. For one thing, the Hillmans are not nearly as forthcoming about Tom and the family dynamics as you’d expect from a couple desperate to get their son back. For another, it’s quite possible that Tom may know the people who took him, and may in fact be with them willingly. Then, one of the people Tom is with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. As Archer finds out the truth in this case, we see how the Hillmans’ money and power have affected their assumptions about themselves and others. They are snobbish in their way, and that’s how they treat Archer- often without really seeming to be aware of it. What’s more, it’s very important for them to keep up their status in the community.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces readers to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. One of the clients with whom he works in this novel is prominent attorney Ajay Kasliwal. A few months ago, one of Kasliwal’s household servants, Mary Murmu, disappeared. Now, evidence has come out that suggests Kasliwal raped and killed her. He claims that he’s innocent and has no idea what happened to her. But the police want to prove to the public that they cannot be ‘bought,’ so they’re making an example of Kasliwal. Puri agrees to look into the matter, and he and his team begin to investigate. As they search for the truth, we see how the Kasliwals’ assumptions about themselves and others are woven into what they say and do. On the one hand, Kasilwal is not a cruel, arrogant person. He’s not even particularly unpleasant. But it doesn’t really occur to either him or his wife to communicate with Mary’s family, members of an entirely different social class. And Mary’s life is not really important to either of the Kasliwals: their concern over her has to do with the possible damage to the family’s reputation, not with any concern for her.

We also see that same kind of casual snobbery in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. Much of the action in this novel takes place at Cascade Heights Country Club, an ultra-exclusive community thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Members are thoroughly ‘vetted’ before they’re allowed to move in, and there are several measures in place to keep the ‘outside world’ away. Club members shop and dine in certain places, and it would never occur to them to mix with ‘other kinds of people.’ Tragedy strikes this supposedly safe haven, and things begin to unravel. But even then, we see how people who live in ‘The Heights’ interact with each other and others. At one point, for instance, some of the women who live in the community decide they want to help ‘the less fortunate.’ It would never occur to them to actually get to know any of those people. Instead, they host a charity sale of their used clothes and some accessories. The scenes in which they plan and hold the sale show how unconscious their snobbery is. They really aren’t nasty, cruel people. But they do assume that some people (including them) matter, and some don’t.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney living in Arding, New South Wales. He comes from a well-off ‘blueblood’ family, and it’s always been assumed he’ll do well in life. He has, too: he’s married to an attractive, intelligent wife, Jodie; he has two healthy children; and his career is on the rise. Then everything changes. His daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child Angus didn’t even know about until it comes out now. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie tells the nurse that she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks the files, there is no record of a formal adoption. Now the question is: what happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? As the Garrows’ lives spin more and more out of control, we see how the casual snobbery of people like Angus’ family of origin impacts how they feel about Jodie, and what they think should be done.

ferent sort of snobbery – but just as real – in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, which introduces Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. The body of national model worker Guan Hongying is discovered in the Baili Canal near Shanghai. It’s a politically-charged case, since the victim was somewhat of a celebrity and had several friends among the elite of the Party – the High Cadre. At first, the official theory is that she was raped and murdered by a taxi driver. But other evidence suggests strongly that that’s not what happened. Now Chen and his assistant Yu Guangming have to search elsewhere. Slowly, they trace Guan’s last days and weeks, and find out that way who killed her and why. Throughout this novel, we see clearly how High Cadre people and their families see themselves and others. It’s not that all of them are horrible, cruel people; some are, but some are not. But they do see themselves as entitled, and certainly not in the same class as ‘other people.’

And that’s the thing about that unconscious, casual snobbery. It’s so unconscious that people who have those assumptions may not even be aware of their own skewed thinking. Which examples of this have stayed with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Herman’s Elegance.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Qiu Xiaolong, Ross Macdonald, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James