I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but the cosmetics industry is doing very well. Even ‘drugstore’ cosmetics aren’t cheap, and that’s to say nothing of the more upmarket brands. And let’s not even talk about good nail salons and the like. Let’s face it; looking good comes at a price. It takes time, too.
But it’s awfully popular. From organic skin preparations, to perfume, to myriad other things, there’s quite a market for makeup. Flip open any magazine, paper or online, and you’ll find all sorts of cosmetics ads. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we see cosmetics in crime fiction, too. There are all sorts of examples out there; here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), we are introduced to Susan Banks. When her wealthy Uncle Richard Abernethie dies, she stands to inherit quite a bit of money. And for her, this offers the opportunity to start her own enterprise – a cosmetics and beauty business. Her husband, Greg, works in a chemist’s shop, so the plan is to also have a laboratory for special beauty preparations. It’s a major undertaking, so she’s eager for her inheritance. And that’s what makes her a ‘person of interest’ when Uncle Richard dies. At first, everyone’s prepared to say that the death was natural – sudden, but not unexpected. But then, at the gathering after the funeral, Susan’s Aunt Cora Lansquenet says that it was murder. Everyone hushes her, but privately, everyone also begins to wonder. And then, when Cora herself is murdered the next day, everyone is sure she was right. The family lawyer, Mr. Entwhistle, asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. He finds that Susan Banks is by no means the only one who might have wanted to kill Abernethie and his sister.
In Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, we are introduced to Detective Constable (DC) Fiona Griffiths, of the Cardiff Police. She’s tapped to join a murder investigation team when the bodies of Nancy Mancini and her six-year-old daughter, April are found in their apartment. The victim was an occasional sex worker, and at first, the evidence suggests that she might have been murdered by a client. But then, there’s another death. And another. It’s now clear that something very much more is going on than it seems on the surface. And it turns out that the closer Fiona gets to the truth, the darker that truth turns out to be. Fiona battled mental illness as a teenager; and, although she doesn’t wallow in it, she finds it hard to live on what she calls ‘Planet Normal.’ And part of that ‘planet’ is the world of dating. At one point in the novel, she does begin to date someone, and it’s interesting to see how she thinks about the way girlfriends are ‘supposed to’ dress, wear makeup, and so on when they’re on dates.
Elizabeth J. Duncan’s Penny Brannigan is the owner of a nail salon – the Happy Hands Nail Care shop – in the Welsh town of Llanelen. In The Cold Light of Mourning, she gets involved in a case of murder when a young bride, Meg Wynne Thompson, goes missing and is later found dead. As it turns out, Penny was possibly the last person (other than the killer) to see the victim alive. Meg Wynne had come to the shop to have her nails done on the morning of her wedding. She left the shop afterwards, and never returned. So, although Penny isn’t really considered a suspect, her information is important. And she is curious about what happened. The police, in the forms of Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Gareth Davies, and Detective Sergeant (DS) Bethan Morgan are the official investigators. In her own way, Penny investigates, too. Each in a different way, they get to the truth. Many parts of the story are told from Penny’s point of view, so we learn what pride she takes in doing nails. She knows that having beautiful-looking hands and nails makes a difference, and she always works with her clients to choose exactly the right shade for whatever the occasion may be. It’s a lot more than just a paycheck for her.
Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses is the story of teenage sisters Madeline ‘Midge’ and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Dolan. It’s East London, 1966, a time of Mods, Rockers, and all sorts of experimentation. The Dolan sisters have been sheltered most of their lives, raised in a ‘good’ home. But that doesn’t mean they’re not curious about the world around them. They read the fashion and popular culture magazines and want to be a part of it all. One Friday night, they persuade their mother, Eileen, to let them go to the Palais Royale to dance. Her one condition is that their cousin, Jimmy, take them and then bring them home. Jimmy is ‘cool,’ so the sisters agree. They choose their clothes and makeup carefully, as they want to make a good impression. Then, they show their mother:
‘‘My, but you two are a pair of beauties…’
‘You don’t think the makeup’s too much, Mam?’ Bridie, still uncertain.
‘It’s no more than I used to wear. We all wanted to look like Joan Crawford when I was your age and when I look at pictures of me, Sweet Baby Jesus, I look like a painted doll. It makes you look bonny – not that you need it, but no, it’s not too much.’’
With that approval, the girls go to the dance. Later that night, a tragedy occurs that will change both of their lives.
And then there’s Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which introduces his sleuth, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. She lives in the small, 1950s English village of Bishop’s Lacey with her father and her two older sisters, Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy. They’re interested in makeup, clothes, and boys. Flavia, on the other hand, is interested in chemistry. In fact, she’s quite an accomplished chemist, especially for someone her age, and has a real passion for the subject. The main plot of this novel revolves around a stranger who visits the de Luce home and is found dead the next morning. But woven through the story is the ongoing sibling ‘war’ between Flavia and her sisters. They play nasty tricks on her, and she is not one to back away from a challenge. So, she comes up with a plan. She ‘borrows’ one of Feely’s lipsticks and injects it with poison ivy. But her trick ends up having an unexpected outcome…
Cosmetics and the beauty culture have been a part of life for thousands of years. So it’s no surprise that we see their impact in crime fiction, too. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Herman’s A Little More Mascara.