Caroline: One of the delightful and reassuring things about classic detective fiction is that it tends to abide by certain tropes. When picking up a whodunnit from the 1920s or 1930s, the reader can be fairly sure of what they might encounter within its pages. Settings like country houses or small English villages are very familiar, as is the presence of a corpse and a detective with the intelletual prowess to work out how this person wound up dead.
Above all, I think we’ve been primed to expect a certain type of character dominating the action. Aristocratic, or at the very least comfortably middle class, these are the people who tend to live in the country houses and the quaint villages. They don’t usually work for a living or have to worry about money — two factors that are very useful in freeing up time to be present for an unfolding murder mystery. Think of all the crime stories you’ve read where people swan around at weekend house parties or fill their days by making mid morning calls on each other. That’s what I mean.
Except it’s not really accurate to say that golden age detective fiction is entirely peopled by wealthy people with the available leisure time to murder or be murdered. There are other kinds of character present too, and they have their roles to play as well.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the nobodies of mystery fiction.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
It’s a cliché at this point, but one that happens to be true: Britain, and thus British fiction, is obsessed with class. The crime writers I cover on this show were no exception. There’s a huge amount to be gleaned about the class dynamics of the twentieth century by looking at the detective fiction that was produced then. It’s also significant that this was a period when notions of class were being substantially disrupted: by the effects of two world wars, by shifting economic structures, and by social change. It’s all on display in the whodunnit.
The entire subject of class is far too broad to be dealt with in one episode, so this is a theme that I plan to return to in the future. For today, we’re going to zoom in on one specific layer within the larger structure: the lower middle, or “clerk”, class. This was a relatively new role within British society, a product of the way the world had changed at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.
Nicola: So you have this new category of worker. In, I think it was around 1911, you’ve got suddenly hundreds of thousands of people now working in London in these very kind of white collar jobs, but they’re not professional jobs.
Caroline: This is Dr Nicola Bishop, a Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and the author of Lower-Middle-Class Nation: The White-Collar Worker in British Popular Culture. As the title of her book suggests, she’s spent a lot of time looking at the way this segment of society is portrayed in popular culture. And we can trace the origins of this back to one thing that still makes us groan today: paperwork.
Nicola: So suddenly commerce and business is generating a hell of a lot of paperwork. So there’s lots of paper being produced. A lot of ephemera that is, that needs to be copied. And so you go from the kind of Dickensian 1850s, you might have a clerk or a boy who copies documents in a warehouse through to having this huge sort of state and commercial need for paperwork.
And so lots of people are drifting down to London for work. And they are doing these fairly sort of tedious, repetitive, but white collar work. And that’s quite complicated because it’s not manual labor. They are separate from manual laborers, but they’re not professionals. So that they’re this kind of in between.
Caroline: This office-based role soon opened up to include other types of worker at a similar class level.
Nicola: People who work in shops and shop floor, shop assistants, drapers, you know, you have people who do window displays for shops, chemists who are operating in that kind of world. But also sometimes teachers find themselves in that position. At the time, you start to have the expansion of teaching with the, with the Education Act and the expansion of compulsory education for children.
And so you’ve now got a huge class of teachers. So you’ve got those sort of figures. You also get in fiction often people like governesses that kind of gentile, not manual laborers, but need to earn money. Fairly well educated and using those skills. And it’s the same with clerks.
Caroline: The sudden explosion of these types of white collar, lower middle class jobs sets alarm bells ringing in the more traditional parts of British society. Nicola’s archive research has shown that although the vast majority of people in clerical roles were operating honestly, the immediate public reaction to “clerks” in general was suspicion.
Nicola: If you look for things like “clerk,” most of what you are finding in a newspaper is, of course, embezzlement, people absconding with some of the money. So you have a kind of, there is a level of responsibility, but also for a lot of people, it’s the first time they’ve had the opportunity perhaps to be around that responsibility and, and sometimes that’s money and, and therefore there is a kind of, there- there’s a media representation that people- that this adds to the nefarious of this, of this particular class, because they have this responsibility, but what if they don’t use it wisely? So I think that’s obviously not everybody, and it’s a very small proportion of people who are doing those jobs, but it does become part of the, the kind of the stereotype around that.
Caroline: Other traits soon come to be associated with this stereotype too.
Nicola: I think the clerical class, the lower middle class are- a lot of the attitudes and the tropes tend to be focused on men. And I think there’s a lot there about masculinity and this idea that the lower middle class man isn’t masculine and that’s because they might be little because they’re often, like I say, balding characters there’s, there’s lots of references made to this idea of masculinity around the lower middle class. And the male clerk in particular seems to have been a real source of venting and, and humor about the situation, the sort of class situation.
Caroline: Beyond detective fiction, there are lots of examples in the literature of the time of this kind of emasculated, tragiccomic, suburban clerk figure. In her book, Nicola highlights texts like George and Weedon Grossmith’s 1892 comic novel The Diary of a Nobody, 1905’s The Suburbans by Thomas William Hodgson Crosland and even TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.
You don’t get nearly so many female characters in this role, by the way — although women did do secretarial work of the type we’re talking about, of course, it just didn’t seem to dominate the perception of this class in the same way. You’re far more likely to get female characters operating in relation to male ones, as a wife or daughter, than as the embodiment of the lower middle class stereotype themselves.
Part of what makes these men these lower middle class clerk characters awkward and ripe for mockery, is that the don’t quite seem to fit into the established social order. They’re part of something new, sandwiched between two groups that have a much more entrenched identity.
Nicola: Because the middle classes are looking down, but the working classes also have a kind of security to their identity that the lower middle class can’t copy. So they are kind of really awkwardly placed and that often comes out in the depictions.
Caroline: This is where much of the comedy around these roles comes from, this awkward, misfit energy.
Nicola: People aren’t proudly lower middle class. There isn’t a kind of a sense of what that means in a positive way. And I think working class figures often do have that in, in that sense of, of identity in a more cohesive way. And same is true of the middle class, but there is often a kind of a refusal to want to admit to being lower middle class.
It’s not something anybody’s very proud of and it, it all, it feels like you’re not quite what you want to be, which is middle class. But equally, you’ve sort of alienated yourself through your behaviors and your expectations from the working class. So I think that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from. And I think that is what creates a lot of British comedy.
I think if you look at a lot of very funny figures, you know, like Basil Fawlty and David Brent, and Captain Mainwaring, they are often lower middle class figures. And what’s funny about them because everybody else gets to laugh at them.
Caroline: Can you think of a genre where a character that everyone overlooks and laughs at might thrive? I can.
After the break: Agatha Christie’s clerks.
Caroline: Because Agatha Christie’s writing career spanned such a large proportion of the twentieth century, her books are a great place to go looking for examples of the nobody clerk character in detective fiction.
Nicola: And I think she’s a really interesting marker of how those stereotypes become part of wider cultural circulation, because she’s not writing to have a discussion about class. She’s writing crime fiction. She’s writing to have the, the murders at sort of front and center of that.
Caroline: And yet, the lower middle class characters seem to slot right in.
Nicola: There are a lot of her characters do fit a lot of these tropes, and there are lots of ways in which they become nobody. So they’re either ignored completely -so clerks in something like The Mystery of the Blue Train, there’s a clerk in a room who’s literally kind of dismissed very quickly as just a clerk who no one’s gonna be interested in because he is not Poirot or somebody important. So you do get quite a lot of these kind of clerks that aren’t- that are kind of invisible. So they’re literally, nobodies.
You do get quite a lot of the clerks who sort of capture that idea that, that we talked about earlier with the responsibility. So people who are likely to be embezzlers. So, you know, Poirot’s like, this is something here that- this is gonna be somebody who’s probably stealing money and they are.
So there are figures in After the Funeral who are just set up as sort of dodgy types. They’re the lower middle class solicitors clerks, perhaps, but they’re gonna be looking at things that they shouldn’t be looking at or stealing things they shouldn’t be.
Caroline: So that’s two key elements of this role right away — clerks in these stories are either invisible, or they’re dodgy, or both. But there’s much more to Christie’s portrayl of this character, as we see in her 1936 novel The ABC Murders. This is a novel in which Poirot is being taunted by a serial killer seemingly with a dual fixation on the alphabet and the ABC railway guide. The first two victims, Alice Ascher and Betty Barnard, would arguably both fit the lower middle class stereotype, although they are women — Alice is a shopkeeper and Betty a waitress with pretensions to greater things. But it’s in the character of Betty’s boyfriend, Nicola says, that we really see Christie begin to exploit this stereotype to the full.
Nicola: Donald Fraser is a chemist’s assistant, but is full of the kind of neurosis that you often see with lower middle class figures.
So he has all this sort of pent up importance that nobody can see because of his class. And he just needs money and then he’ll be somebody, but he’s a nobody. And, and, and the character is almost psychologically unbalanced by the base of the fact that he doesn’t have recognition that he’s important. And that, that becomes quite a, a recurring trait.
This idea that, that you have, it’s all pent up. This, this, ‘nobodyness’ being in the lower middle class means it is gonna kind of overflow and come out and that might lead to something quite dramatic.
Caroline: This is then carried through and intensified with the character of Alexander Bonaparte Cust. He is a door to door salesman who is a prime suspect throughout The ABC Murders because he always seems to turn up at the scene of the crime, but at the same time doesn’t quite fit the psychological profile of the killer that Christie is building up for the reader.
Nicola: Because there’s this idea that actually in a lot of Christie’s works, while the clerk might be an embezzler or not important, not likely to be a murderer because again, murdering requires something the clerk is unlikely to have, which is this kind of gumption this, this, you know middle class ability to follow through that is not likely to be seen in the lower middle class clerk. And that’s true of Cust, you know, he’s, he’s really neurotic and he’s very Provokian and he has these kind of, “The women are watching me.. What’s happening?” And we’re sort of meant to think something bad’s gonna happen there, but actually he’s not got it in him. He’s not enough of an important person to do this.
Caroline: Christie plays with the lower middle class reputation for invisibility: these overlooked clerk types are not considered virile enough to commit murder, but could it not be that this is the perfect cover for killing?
Nicola: She also has a really interesting element which is seen in, in The Big Four probably best where the being a nobody is a really dangerous thing. There’s actually something when you are invisible when nobody sees you, when you are a non-entity, you could actually get away with anything because nobody will remember you. And it’s something that comes up with Cust as well, actually, cuz the plan is that as you know, he should go around and be seen at every murder location, selling stockings and actually nobody spots him. And that’s the, that’s the downfall in the murderer’s plan because he’s such a nobody that nobody remembers having ever seen him, but that’s what’s dangerous. I think Christie sort of says later in The Big Four that actually, if you aren’t remembered, then you are actually the perfect murderer because if you’re non-entity, nobody will ever expect you to do anything that might be murderous. So it’s a perfect camouflage as well.
Caroline: And what’s all the more fascinating about Christie’s inclusion of these lower middle class characters in her fiction is that they made up a large part of her readership. The rapid expansion of both the number of office workers and the suburbs where they lived had created a commuting population with enough disposable income to buy books to read on the journey. This created a hungry audience for fiction, Nicola says.
Nicola: Suddenly you’ve got a market, it opens up the market for a mass readership that has got time on the train commute or the bus commute to read. And you also have developments in publishing, which make books much cheaper. So suddenly you’ve got people who can afford to buy books, have got this time every day to sit and read them.
And so the office class and sort of lower middle class were avid readers of crime, thrillers, you know, anything you can read in a train. And I think that that, that commuting office class became a huge part of the, the readership of mass novels.
And, and I think particularly, you know, crime, thriller, adventure, escapism- I think for the same reason now that, you know, people want to read a lot of this type of fiction, I think if you’ve got a really monotonous, boring job that actually you want to read about things that are going to be exciting and, and sort of help you escape from that.
Caroline: The fascinating thing, of course, is that having such a large lower middle class readership didn’t change how Christie wrote about these characters at all.
Nicola: And I think there’s, you know, there’s no doubt that crime writers like Christie were obviously really widely read in this class. And it’s really interesting that that doesn’t matter to the way that they’re represented. There isn’t a kind of a, a, a need to gloss that over with there being these lovely characters or these characters that people find heroic or, or anything else. I think that’s- that’s part of what’s represented as the lower middle class ‘s lot. You know, that, that, that actually you’re the butt of the joke in lots of ways, but that’s, that’s still okay.
Caroline: I hope you have a clear picture of this character now — a misfit in Britain’s extremely hierarchical class system, hardly noticed or deemed significant, and if they are, considered a figure of fun. And I’m sure you can begin to see what a gift this type of person is to a crime writer. Compared to the flashy aristocrats and cocky working class people, they are a nobody, fading into the background. The last person you might suspect.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/thenobodies. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Thanks to my guest, Dr Nicola Bishop. Her book, Lower-Middle-Class Nation: The White-Collar Worker in British Popular Culture is published by Bloomsbury Academic.
If you’d like more Shedunnit, consider joining the Shedunnit Book Club — I make two bonus episodes a month for members, or three if you join at the higher level. You can find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. The podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.