Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mysteries and the Social Order

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve been reading my way through as many of Margaret Frazer’s Dame Frevisse medieval mysteries as I can get my hands on, and it’s gotten me thinking about the social order as depicted in the microcosm of mysteries. Frazer’s work is based on sound research and a fine empathic imagination. Her characters are very much rooted in their 15th century English world. Dame Frevisse, for example, having embraced the life of a cloistered Benedictine nun from a desire to spend her time with God, is not thrilled when she’s sent out into the world on some errand or another—in the course of which she inevitably solves a murder—but unhappy with the interruption of the cloister’s orderly schedule of prayer and downright irritated at being surrounded by so many people talking. A lesser writer would make her take more pleasure in the temporary freedom.

From the Middle Ages, my mind leaped to the Golden Age of mystery. In the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham, class is innate and unchanging. A lord is a lord and a servant is a servant. Bunter and Lugg are happy to spend their lives serving Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion respectively. The police talk very differently to the housemaid than they do to the lady of the manor. In the work of Ngaio Marsh and Patricia Wentworth, who were writing through the 1950s, the social order remains more or less inviolate. Almost every character’s intelligence matches his or her social class. Wentworth’s Miss Silver books are the coziest of cozies, but they don’t lack for emotional depth and character development—within limits. Even Miss Silver talks differently to the housemaid, who never surprises her by being unexpectedly intuitive or well-read. In Wentworth’s world, young women are invariably either good girls, bad girls, or silly girls. A decade later, Patricia Moyes’s Henry and Emmy Tibbett are solidly middle class and anti-snob. After all, they live in Chelsea. But the English village is still a village, where the Chief Constable dines with the titled and landowning families, the doctor dines with the vicar, and the housemaid is still not too bright.

Growing up on English novels, I suspended disbelief about this perfectly ordered world over many years of reading. Now, when I reread old favorites as I love to do—most recently, Marsh’s A Clutch of Constables and Moyes’s Murder Fantastical—I have to work at not being distracted by the complacent snobbery woven into the fabric of these otherwise delightful reads. Some classic American mysteries resemble English novels in this respect. Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamadge books come to mind. Gamadge is undeniably a gentleman, and he inhabits a New York in which the Social Register matters, however impoverished and dysfunctional the old families may be. But America is at heart egalitarian. I suspect it was a lot easier for American writers to give up a world in which everyone knew his or her place.

The archetypal value of manners in the broadest sense, manners as essential to culture—the subtext of the sociological assumptions of the kind of fiction I’m talking about—seems to be that what separates the high from the low is whether the person in question knows which fork to use when at a formal dinner. It’s a persistent belief that this is important. I seem to remember that in the movie Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts as the Cinderella-like prostitute was embarrassed over the matter of forks. What I’m embarrassed about is how many years it took before it occurred to me to wonder who could possibly respect or care about a bunch of people who judge others by how they use their forks.


paul lamb said...

All of the Sherlock Holmes tales can be read with this social structure in mind. Much of his sleuthing is successful because of the rigidity of the social classes. People can be expected to behave in certain ways depending on their class. And those who step out of the accepted order are even more obviously the trouble makers.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good point, Paul. Wouldn't it be interesting to examine the "troublemakers" in novels with a context of rigid social structure to see if we'd reframe their behavior (not murder, obviously)in a more egalitarian context. I'm currently reading Elizabeth George's WHAT CAME BEFORE HE SHOT HER, which is all about that ambiguity and characters doomed by the social order, the flip side of the murder of an upper class character in her last book.