This month the Tuesday Night Bloggers are looking at costumes and disguises in detective fiction, something which has featured in the genre since its infancy. This week’s posts look at this theme from a variety of angles, including familiar faces such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers and more outside the box ideas (*cough* JJ *cough*). If you have a post or know of one which fits in with this theme add a link in the comments section below and I’ll add it to the list.
Here are this weeks’ posts:
Bev at My Readers’ Block: TNB: Sayers and Crime in Costume
Brad Friedman at ah sweet mystery blog: Devil in Disguise – Christie’s Costumed Criminals… AND a Quiz!
JJ at The Invisible Event: The Tuesday Night Bloggers: – Cross- Dressing the Genre in Inherit the Stars (1977) by James P. Hogan.
Moira at Clothes in Books: Tuesday Night Club: Masks and Masquerades
N. B. Reading these posts with false beard and noses is optional.
SPOILER WARNING: Readers who have not read the following Christie titles may want to read this post with caution: Partners in Crime, Three Act Tragedy, Death in the Clouds, Lord Edgware Dies, Evil Under the Sun, The Big Four, After the Funeral and The Body in the Library. Titles are typed in bold so readers can skip over passages with spoilers in.
When planning this post I came across something Betty Richardson wrote in her entry for The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999) on Mistaken Identity:
‘Physical disguise and costume are apt in fiction that focuses upon discerning the truth of events and the simple reality of whodunit… but as writers refine the potential of these conventions, they query the nature of identity itself. When detective fiction tackles such fundamental reality, the whodunit becomes the who is it.’ (Richardson, 1999: 292-293 (293)).
On reading this I didn’t feel I completely agreed with it. Firstly because it implies whodunits involving physical disguise are simplistic or less advanced than those focusing on the psychological aspect of identity and secondly I think this view underestimates what can be do with the trope of physical disguise. Indeed the work of Agatha Christie is a good example, showcasing a plethora of ways of using physical disguise and ways which are not focused on the superficial and in their own way examine the issue of identity – which incidentally the topic of my post this week…
Disguises for Criminals
In Christie’s canon there is no one simple reason for a killer or criminal donning a costume or disguise. For instance disguises can be used to frame people or to divert suspicion such as in ‘The Sunningdale Mystery’ (a Tommy and Tuppence case from Partners in Crime (1929)), At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) and in The Murder On the Orient Express (1934), a woman enveloped in a scarlet kimono becomes a red herring for Hercule Poirot – not that it fools him for long. However, more importantly when criminals use disguises, they often use them due to the assumptions others will make of them. For example, in ‘No. 16,’ another tale from Partners in Crime, everyone presumes that the agent being sought will be a man and therefore the agent uses a costume in order to swap genders as a means of evading detection. Initially this looks like it will work, as not only is the agent disguised as a woman, but they also appear to be a victim of the agent being looked for; two features which immediately divert suspicion from them as assumptions are made which preclude the agent being or looking like a woman. Moreover, because the disguised agent has also bound themselves, this adds to the innocent persona they are trying to exude. Costumes with suspicion diverting assumptions also appear in Three Act Tragedy (1935), where adopting a servant position, and therefore a character unlikely to have motive, the killer assumes a false identity as a butler in order to murder someone. Furthermore, within these stories there is an assumption that servants/stewards are people who get overlooked or are not given much attention and this assumption is used to great effect in Death in the Clouds (1935) when the killer is unobserved committing their murderous act in a very contained space, simply because no one pays much attention to flight attendants. Consequently, Christie’s use of criminal disguise is one way in which it could be argued that she encourages her readers’ to question the assumptions they make of others.
Though Christie being Christie she also uses criminal disguise in other sneaky ways, no more so than in Lord Edgware Dies (1933), where a killer creates an alibi for themselves by having someone impersonate them, only to then murder that person also afterwards. Aside from providing an unusual twist in the story, this is a situation which may make readers examine how much of a person we actually take in and how easy it is to assume someone else’s identity. It is arguable that we take in very little about others and what we miss we often supply using our assumptions, a situation Christie’s killers’ manipulate, especially in Evil Under the Sun (1941), where one half of a criminal duo is disguised by their embodying a type of person, in particular a mousey wife who is seemingly being cheated on by her husband. It therefore makes the actual murder plot unlikely – how could such a mousey person impersonate the glamourous intended victim? An eye for detail is also an important quality to have when impersonating someone else, even if you don’t have to look exactly like someone, as the criminals found to their cost in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940).
Disguises for Sleuths
This is something I will be returning to next week, but with Christie it is not just the criminals who recourse to costumes and disguises. At times this can have a comic effect such as with Tommy Beresford in ‘The Man in the Mist’ (Partners in Crime story), where he is in a priest’s outfit (no points for guessing which fictional sleuth he is a pastiche of). Though I think my favourite moment of Beresford disguise is when Tuppence disguises herself as Mrs Blenkensop in N or M? (1941), (which I will be returning to in later weeks on the blog,) as it is a brilliantly comic moment and I like how she refuses to be side-lined out of a case. Hercule Poirot himself is also not above the occasional disguise. I still have amusingly vivid memories of David Suchet’s adaptation of ‘The Veiled Lady,’ (from Poirot’s Early Cases 1974) where Poirot takes on the role of a workman and then a burglar. More famously though Poirot is known for disguising himself as his twin brother in The Big Four (1927) – perhaps not the most mystifying of disguises for the reader, though the other characters are suitably duped. However, this instance of disguise got me thinking about how you can use your own demographic and image as a form of disguise or camouflage. In particular I got to thinking about Miss Marple, who finds the fact that she is a ‘very ordinary… rather scatty old lady,… good camouflage’ (Nemesis, 1971). So without having to add anything to her appearance she is already disguised and with this disguise, of being an old spinster, there are assumptions other people often hold which make her appear harmless or ineffective. How wrong they are!
Costumes and Victims
Not even the victims are exempt from the trope of costumes and disguises in Christie’s work, though invariably it is a feature which is imposed onto them by the killers rather than something they voluntarily choose. For example there are often instances of killers dressing up as their victims in order to confuse when the victim died, such as in Evil Under the Sun or to add further red herrings to the case, in terms of murder motivation, which is brilliantly done in After the Funeral (1953). Yet even here eagle eyed Poirot is able to spot the evidence of a disguise. However the most interesting example of victims and disguise in Christie’s work is in The Body in the Library (1942) where the guilty swap the identities of their two victims. Superficially this seems to work as the police are taken in by the supposed body of Ruby Keene, noting the unnaturally blonde hair, make up and flashy attire and from this point make certain assumptions about her and her death. Yet it is Miss Marple who notices the tell-tale sign of bitten fingernails, a sign which hints at the swap which has been made and consequently Miss Marple does not make the same erroneous assumptions about the murder. In fact she interprets the body in the library correctly and this arguably comes down to how although she understands people in terms of types, she does not forget the individual. In contrast, the police identify a type, a flashy blonde dancer, and use their assumptions of such a person to direct their investigations, in particular they spend some time trying to locate a disgruntled boyfriend, who they assume has done the deed. So despite having a misleadingly clichéd title, The Body in the Library does actually quite cleverly look at the issue of identity, in particular female identity and how it is understood and manipulated by others, as well as commercialised, a theme which crops up when the police investigate Keene’s room and the vast array of beauty products.