It is a truth universally acknowledged that, by and large, the sleuths of the Golden Age of mystery novels hail from aristocratic or upper-middle class backgrounds. Lord Peter Wimsey is the younger son of a duke, while Albert Campion is said to be very grand indeed in spite of his flat over Bottle Street police station and his ex-burglar valet, Mr Lugg. Miss Marple is an elderly lady of independent means, living comfortably enough in a pretty cottage in an equally pretty village, while Miss Silver, although working as a professional Enquiry Agent, is unmistakably a gentlewoman. Poirot, although known to be a former Belgian policeman which might put him lower down the ladder, is a foreigner (always a good move when you want to confuse the class structure) and is, nevertheless, a welcome guest at elegant dinners, country house weekends and anywhere that the nobs and toffs (to coin a phrase) are likely to hang out.
There’s a reason for this and it’s not entirely to do with the so-called Snobbery with Violence so often cited for the sleuths of the Twenties onwards. Think about it. An amateur detective needs to have time on his or her hands; time to investigate suspicious happenings, time to follow up mysterious coincidences, time to indulge in collecting incunabula (what they?) or shadowing a suspect. Besides having ample leisure time a sleuth needs to have the entrée to polite society, or at least to the society frequented by the suspect, be it a gentleman’s club or a genteel tea party. It’s no good shivering outside with your plebeian nose pressed against the vicarage window; you’ll never catch a villain that way, only a cold.
To illustrate this: picture Lady Edith Crawley of Downton Abbey. She has too much time on her hands and is ideally placed to go sleuthing in high places. Daisy the kitchen maid, however, starts work before six in the morning and falls exhausted into bed after a sixteen hour day. She’s never going to have much time for poking her nose into everyone’s business, but come to think of it, it could be an ideal career move for Lady Edith!
Back in the heyday of the mystery novel, readers weren’t all from the top drawer; in fact most of them were from a much lower level of society but they didn’t want to read about people like themselves, struggling with bills and unemployment, or the kind of crime that afflicts the impoverished and needy. No, and I have my mystery-addicted mother and granny’s word for this, they wanted to be taken out of themselves; to picture themselves swanning into the library wearing pearls and silks after dinner, only to stumble on a corpse. They didn’t want to be the one wearing a pinny and black-leading the grate, chased up for debts by the tally man, or interrogated by a lowly police constable. Not likely, that was real life! The very least they demanded was a scrupulously polite questioning by a languid young gentleman officer like Inspector Frank Abbott, backed up as he was by his ‘revered preceptress’, the frumpy but always ladylike governess-turned-sleuth, Miss Maud Silver.
It’s different these days, at least when you come to police procedurals. Superintendent ‘Fat Andy’ Dalziell is a far cry from Frank Abbott, and there are amateur sleuths who don’t come from a stately home. However, even if you aren’t bothered about having a ladylike detective, what you do need is a protagonist who has time on her hands.
I’m currently writing two distinct cosy mystery series: the Victorian books featuring young (slightly shady) Australian widow, Charlotte Richmond, and the contemporary books starring Harriet Quigley who is a recently-retired headmistress. Both heroines have the requisite time on their hands so that when they discover a body, (as they both do with disturbing frequency), they have plenty of time to investigate. As a young woman who has come to England to live with her late husband’s wealthy, well-respected, family, Charlotte has no need to snatch moments from scrubbing floors or milking cows when she needs to ask pertinent questions: she’s a lady, or at least, she’s trying to pass as one. Harriet has retired and therefore is available if someone wants to discuss troublesome events over a cup of coffee during the day; she’s left behind the days of time tables and exams and staffroom squabbles and is well-placed to carry out her investigations.
Of course there are lots of current cosy mysteries that feature amateur detectives who put in a full day at work and have to restrict their sleuthing to evenings and weekends, but I’m writing English village mysteries – and the retired or comfortably off village dweller (possibly living in a nice Georgian house or a delightful cottage with roses round the door, of course,) is ideally suited to the genre. Besides, I’m a sucker for them as a reader and it’s fun to stick to the traditions. Mostly…
We all know murder is terrible and the fall-out is devastating. There are plenty of amazing writers who deal with this in ways that are both sensitive and true to life, but while the writer of a cosy mystery absolutely never trivialises the crime, the grief and the terror, it’s mostly something of a fairy tale. The good are rewarded, the bad are punished, right is seen to triumph, and wrong-doing fails to succeed.
A cosy mystery is a cautionary tale in many ways. The reader can feel confident that he or she (usually ‘she’) won’t be too shocked or upset when a corpse turns up. It’s unlikely to be someone in whom she’s invested time and emotion and become attached to, though here’s the sneaky thing: occasionally, the victim will be likeable and much mourned. You can never quite take it for granted!
Television only serves to perpetuate the myth. We know most people don’t live in large houses in picturesque villages, nor do they have deep, dark secrets worth killing for. We know real life justice isn’t always done, however much we’d like to believe it, so we’re willing to suspend belief when half a dozen people in the same village die in bizarre circumstances (Midsomer Murders), or several members of one Oxford college will carelessly allow themselves to be pushed off pinnacles, drowned in the Thames, mugged at Magdalen or bumped off in the Broad, (Morse and Lewis).
In real life the police would have spotted the different label on the wine bottle or the misplaced crossword clue, but in real life, although there may be plenty of people with time on their hands: watching daytime television, working shifts, or just off sick, not so many of them have the resources needed to penetrate ivory towers, posh restaurants, occasional castles or country house hotels. Not just like that…
So, to return to my opening sentence: it is a truth universally acknowledged that murder in real life is (mostly) a lot less classy than it is in fiction!