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The Quilty Reader

Lawyer, mother, avid reader. Game host extraordinaire! Partner in crime to Obsidian Black Plague! My bookish weaknesses include classics, fantasy, YA, and agreeing to read more books than is even remotely possible.

Victim blaming, 1941

The Body in the Library - Stephanie Cole, Agatha Christie

Obsidian Blue & I have both been reading the Poirot mysteries, and as it happens, she read Miss Marple last year. I'm going in reverse order & will be reading Miss Marple next year.


However, my family was looking for an Agatha to listen to on our vacation, & this one was relatively short (a little over 5 hours) so we decided to listen to it.


The thing about Christie is that it is sometimes highly discomfiting to read her books because she is often casually racist and occasionally reflexively victim-blamey. This was one of those books where there was a moment that stood out to me - to the point that I turned to my 19-year-old daughter and said "nice bit of victim blaming there . . . "


There are two murder victims in The Body in the LIbrary:


1. Ruby Keene: 18-year-old light skirt dancer from the nearby Majestic Hotel, Ruby is a platinum blonde with sex appeal and attitude. She dances, makes vacuous chatter with susceptible old men, and has an eye for "the main chance," (say it with a veddy, veddy plummy British accent) which essentially means she's willing to do just about anything for money. She's not a prostitute, but she is just one step above, all legs, hair and red, red lips seeking male attention.


2. Pamela: 16-year-old pig-tailed Girl Guide gone missing in her uniform after a Girl Guide rally. Pamela is a sweet innocent, in sensible shoes and knee socks. She plays field hockey, goes to school, and has a da who is retired military and a mum who probably bakes a lot of cookies. All around good kid, just the kind of girl cherished by British aristocrats nationwide.


And here is how the chief investigator describes his attitude toward the victims:


"A nice kid,” Harper thought, as he looked at the earnest face of the pigtailed girl. His mouth set in a grim line as he thought of the charred body in the car. He vowed to himself that the murder of Pamela Reeves should not remain one of Glenshire’s unsolved mysteries.


Ruby Keene, so he admitted privately, might have asked for what was coming to her, but Pamela Reeves was quite another story. A nice kid, if he ever saw one. He’d not rest until he’d hunted down the man or woman who’d killed her."


So, let's unpack this little bit of misogynism for just a moment: what was Ruby Keene's great sin that caused her to "ask for what was coming to her?"


Well, she was independent. She wasn't under the protection of a man - she'd been responsible for making her own living for a couple of years. She was beautiful, in a flashy sort of a way. She'd managed to con her way into the affections of a wealthy man who was far her superior in social standing. She danced for a living - and when I say she danced, I don't mean she was an exotic dancer. She actually danced - tango, waltz, etc, in the hotel, and partnered wealthy young men who wanted to dance with a pretty girl. She painted her nails. She acted, in other words, like a young woman with no resources other than a pretty face and nice figure, and she was going to get what she could for those two things before she became to old to benefit from them. She had essentially no education, no skills, and no long-term job prospects.


Her culture made her. Her culture despised her for being what it made her.


Pamela Reeves, on the other hand, came from resources. Former military father, inevitably to be married off to a young man of her class, causing nary a moment's heart-ache to anyone, she would never be required to earn her own living, never scrap to ensure that she was fed, and never, ever would she be forced to trade (at least not obviously) on her sex appeal to get by.


And for those differences, Ruby Keene got what was coming to her. Pamela Reeves was considered the innocent victim of malice.


Stuff like this doesn't ruin the book for me - I can still enjoy it for what it is. And I know that many of these same prejudices exist today - there is nothing the media loves more than a pretty white girl who is brutalized - it appeals to society's basest instincts about who is valuable and who is not. 


You've come a long way, baby. Except when you haven't.