Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

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5.2Sayers’ Female Companion

Sayers’ novel carefully examines various social issues in a feminine world of spinsters and female companions. As Rowland claims, “the feminine cultures of office secretaries and domestic servants provide crucial evidence for a detective working against the male logic of the police” (Rowland 29). Significantly, a female subordinate must intervene in the investigation in order to reveal some noteworthy evidence and clues. The male-dominated detection possesses some limitations and fails to see all the minor details that a proficient woman eye can spot. Strong Poison focuses on male and female relationships. The Great Detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, and his female companion, Miss Climpson, are the only two who believe in Harriet’s integrity. The only reason, why Lord Peter Wimsey believes in Harriet’s innocence, could be his affection towards her, his passion drives him to reveal the truth about Philip’s death and save Harriet from being found guilty of his murder. His female companion though plays a significant role in the inquisition due to her intellect and inventiveness. “There is also a sense of Sayers playing with role reversal in that much of the detecting action is taken by the spinster, with Wimsey in a frustrated and passive feminine position” (Rowland 30).

Miss Katharine Climpson is one of the first ones who sees Harriet Vane as an innocent person and at the beginning of the novel she says to Wimsey: “Do you know, it was me that caused the trouble, mostly, though two of them most bravely backed me up, an oh, Lord Peter, I hope I haven’t done wrong, but I couldn’t, no, I couldn’t in conscience say she had done it when I was sure she hadn’t, could I?” (SP 40). Immediately, Wimsey knows that Miss Climpson will represent his loyal partner and they meet in her office where they are surrounded by women working in their offices, elderly women, but few still young and attractive. They thoroughly peruse step by step through all possible motives which Philip’s murderer could have and their communal investigation starts, having a month to work it out. Wimsey seeks Miss Climpson’s service since he needs someone to pick up any gossip in Harriet’s case at Mr. Norman Urquhart’s office. Wimsey finds out when talking to Mr. Urquhart that the solicitor searches for a new female clerk and sees an opportunity how to obtain some information. Wimsey’s instructions are clear; she must be “steadiest-looking, not too much face-powder […] skirts are the regulation four inches below the knee” (SP 83) to succeed in the competition. Miss Climpson sends six of her employees and Miss Murchison gets the job. After a couple of days she reports to Wimsey in a letter with not much content in it about Harriet’s case but the plan takes its roots soon.

Miss Joan Murchison is thirty-eight, not very talkative, and she represents another female help in Wimsey’s investigation. She has been working in the same financier’s office for twelve years but then something went wrong and suddenly Miss Murchison was out of a job. She put several advertisements but everyone wants a young and attractive girl, not a lady in her almost forties. Finally, she gets an answer from Climpson’s typing bureau and consequently working at Urquhart’s office. Miss Murchison becomes Wimsey’s private eye by tracing what Mr. Urquhart exactly does. Her work is highly appreciated when she finds out something: “You have the makings of a first-class sleuth, Miss Murchison. Very well” (SP 156). The job is, however, far more complicated, when, for example, Wimsey asks her to do something illegal, which she can easily perform, as she is neither a member of a professional police force, nor the lawyer. Since Wimsey needs Miss Murchison to open a lock, he must take her to an expert who would teach her how to open the locked deed-box with the documents that should prove Harriet’s innocence and reveal the real murderer. While taking her to the expert, he makes an ironical comment that he wonders what they go to school for since they “never seem to learn anything really useful” (SP 157). Miss Murchison’s lesson passes quite well and she unexpectedly finds herself walking home with a set of pin-locks in her pocket and some astonishing facts in her head. After several days, Miss Murchison accomplishes her task and gives Wimsey what he needs. Unfortunately, there is nothing significant in Urquhart’s deed-box but some facts point out at an elderly lady who should have the original will. Miss Murchison’s tasks ends here and Miss Climpson appears on the scene since Wimsey needs someone to infiltrate into Mrs. Wrayburn’s house and find the will.

Sayers describes the differences between the male and female detectives: “The male detective, particularly when dressed as a workman, an errand-boy, or a telegraph-messenger, is favourably placed for ‘shadowing’. He can loaf without attracting attention. The female detective must not loaf. On the other hand, she can stare into shop-windows forever. Miss Climpson selected a hat-shop” (SP 198). Here she waits for the nurse who takes care of Mrs. Wrayburn. Her only aim is to acquire the nurse’s confidence and in that way get access to Mrs. Wrayburn. Her mission is fulfilled when she eventually discovers the will and takes notes from the content of the will to report to Wimsey. Miss Climpson successfully achieves her task since she is a woman and can handily insinuate to Mrs. Wrayburn’s surroundings. Such a mission would be unrealizable for Lord Peter Wimsey due to his gender. Contrariwise, Miss Murchison, who also accomplishes her task since she is a woman with particular characteristics and is set to a female employment. In other words, Lord Peter Wimsey would fail to find the real murderer without having such women helpers and his masculine authority would lead him nowhere.

5.3Rendell’s Feminine Fighter

Ruth Rendell describes crime in connection to “outmoded social conceptions, particularly those of class” (Rowland 39), but her works imply the hope of future reform and her characters live in disorder instead of keeping and protecting the social stability. Road Rage possesses the newly formed nearly classless society where the reader meets only people working in usual places and the class distinction is hardly seen, yet the social structure plays an important role within the crime plot and turns out to be one of the reasons for the criminal fault. Not only social structure, but also gender separation frames the text and female characters lead the re-establishment of the social layout.

Ruth Rendell, in contrast to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, strives to paint her novel in a more modern way with socially oriented female fighters who lead the social and global movements in the community. However, “the conservative societal codes implicated in crime still operate” (Rowland 40) and define the detective story within the traditional characteristics of class-divided society in crime fiction. The greediness for money plays the same fundamental role in the late twentieth century, as with the criminal characters in earlier traditional detective fiction, and the Struthers, including Kitty, maintain similar features over the property values because they feel they are threatened by the construction of the bypass. Mr. Struther is a rich man and he uses the power of money to get more supporters to his plan: He’s “not far off a millionaire” though. “But the Damon Sleasars of this world are corruptible, probably went on raising the price until Slesar yielded. No doubt he got enough to set his parents up elsewhere even if they did lose their livelihood” (RR 384), Rendell shows the middle-class arrogance and venality of ordinary people by the wealthier. She also pictures Mrs. Struther as a narrow minded woman who fights for her possession, seeing only her benefits. That might be the main source of Rendell’s subject matter for the criminal act although she reflects the mystery of the everyday experience in an anonymous murder of the young German girl and the failure of solving it. Inspector Wexford summarizes the whole case in a couple of sentences:

All over. It was all for nothing. A young woman with all her life before her is dead, a misguided young man is dead, a boy who can’t tell truth from fantasy is going to present the shrinks and social workers with a problem for years to come, and six people are going to prison. And the bypass will still be built. (RR 388)

Wexford’s wife points out the fact that the two classes of lower and the higher middle class members are in the war because of the protection environment issues. She sees the impact of the construction and feels a great pain for the beautiful nature but has no power to prevent from building it. Only small and gradual steps might lead the population towards the better world. The two classes in opposition, one represented by Dora Wexford and the other by Kitty Struther, who falls into the lower middle class, represent the two radical poles in the country and Chief Inspector Wexford stands in the middle and creates a bridge that connects these two poles. In other words, he becomes a diplomat in the environmental issues and he tries to regulate both sides but ends up in failure.

The female abductor, Kitty Struther, constitutes an opposite character. Rowland defines Rendell’s work in the sense of domesticity: “the varying, often oppressive constructions of the feminine throughout the century, result in forms of domestic feminine power and assertiveness frequently contingent to irrational, even criminal urges” (Rowland 166). Kitty can be viewed as a fighter for her home, her property, her social status. She pretends to be one of the victims, but Dora has doubts about her real role among the kidnapped: “I once read in a book how amazed someone was to hear a really refined ladylike woman use foul language in a situation that was… well, like this one… that was how I felt about Kitty Struther. The spitting and then the words she used” (RR 178). Dora also remembers that the Struthers were taken away after a while and were not seen again, which leads the detectives to another clue. Finally, the investigators find the true reason for kidnapping all the people and arrest the Struthers who capitulate but neither of them seems to understand their guilt. Kitty Struther becomes even proud of her husband: “My husband planned it all, it was his idea… I wonder what your wife said about us. We put on a jolly good act, you know. Good as professionals. Owen was Colonel Blimp and I was the terrified little woman” (RR 371-72) which perfectly characterizes Mrs. Struther’s qualities. The ‘little woman’ is determined to stop the project of building the by-pass and that was their real purpose of the kidnap.

Rendell’s motivation for the murderer is defined “as psychological investigations into the darkness of the human psyche for which there is no effective guiding moral principle” (Munt 25), which is manifested in the figure of Kitty Struther. She is driven by the financial desire which she hides behind the environment protection project, forgetting any moral principles and thinking that she does a right thing. Rendell creates two opposite characters to show the antitheses and the two contradictory sides of the human world.

Rendell manages to employ a very contemporary topic to form not only authentic atmosphere, but also the center of the plot. Incorporating details from family life into the investigators’ practice adds to the genre and its development towards the reality. Female assistance on either side shapes the feminine approach towards the issue and sorts the various kinds of women to different areas.

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