Thursday, 17 October 2013
The American Idea of Equality and Detectives
Anna Katharine is a very American writer. A Strange Disappearance is set in New York with a trip to Vermont. We move through Mr Blake's aristocratic house with "heavily frescoed ceilings" (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 2) to the "dark, narrow streets of the East Side" "with hand on the trigger of the pistol I carried in my pocket" (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 6) and Pier 48 E.R. to view the body of a drowned girl ("Pity the features are not better preserved." [A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 9]). Detectives glide effortlessly along the social scale and between different milieus. These scenes of New York life, as Patricia D. Maida suggests, give Green's work value as social history. But they alone do not make the tale distinctly American.
In 1828 Frances Trollope (1780-1863) travelled from London to Cincinnati and stayed there for two years. Four years later she published Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). The book was immensely popular, and it is still a very interesting and entertaining read (note the waste management procedures for Cincinnati). It was the first of many tales of British ladies' travels among the uncouth Americans. Already in this early work, Trollope noted the three qualities that became closely associated with the British view of American life: the idea of equality, the single-minded pursuit of money and the general lack of good manners.
In A Strange Disappearance we see an American class system. The Blake family occupies the top, the Schoenmakers with their rough German accents are pretty much at the bottom. Luttra Schoenmaker manages to move from the bottom to the top and become Mrs Blake. This is extreme upward mobility. The whole plot of the novel depends on this scenario of the wealthy, respectable Blake marrying the poor, (initially) uneducated and unsophisticated Miss Schoenmaker. The first "symptom of American equality" observed by Frances Trollope was a milliner in New Orleans whose "society ... was highly valued by all persons of talent." (Trollope, Chapter 2). Later she writes about her difficulties to find a suitable servant: "The whole class of young women, whose bread depends upon their labour, are taught to believe, that the most abject poverty is preferable to domestic service." - They think "Their equality is compromised." (Trollope, Chapter 6). She employs a girl who stays only as long as she has earned enough money to buy new clothes: "Her sister was also living with me, but her wardrobe was not yet completed, and she remained some weeks longer, till it was." (Trollope, Chapter 6). When Mr Blake decides to pay for Luttra Schoenmaker's schooling, she is "to go out to service in Melville and earn enough money to provide herself with clothes." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 12).
Frances Trollope wondered if the Americans' eagerness to pursue wealth was due to "the unceasing goad which necessity applies to industry in this country, and in the absence of all resource to the idle" (Trollope, Chapter 5). Nothing, she says, distracts the Americans from the chase for more money; "neither art, science, learning, nor pleasure can seduce them from its pursuit." (Ibid.) Money is the main motivating force behind the actions of both the detectives and the criminals in A Strange Disappearance. Q and Mr. Gryce sell their services as detectives and expect to be paid by Mrs Daniels and Mr Blake. The Schoenmakers aim to make money out of Blake, first by robbing him and later by blackmailing him. Mr Blake's father's will is also important, because it is the threat of disinheritance which gives Mr Blake the idea of marrying Luttra Schoenmaker. Luttra is the only character in the novel who is no driven by the desire to make money. Quite the opposite, she tears up the note that offers her the Blake inheritance.
Americans lack manners, according to Frances Trollope: "The total and universal want of manners, both in males and females, is so remarkable, that I was constantly endeavouring to account for it." (Trollope, Chapter 5). Men spit incessantly, and seldom hit the spittoon ("But oh! That carpet! I will not, I may not, describe its condition ..." [Trollope, Chapter 2]). They eat their dinners quickly and without conversation. They have no table manners (Trollope, Chapter 3). Q does not spit at the charity ball, but he is quite happy to cut open a seam in the curtains to give him a peep hole (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 2). He cosies up to Fanny in order to get information from her (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 8). He breaks into the Schoenmakers' house and carries away a ring he finds there (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 7). He unashamedly visits Countess De Mirac pretending to be an antique seller and seizes an opportunity to read a letter on the table while her back is turned (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 8). Q is a resourceful young man, keen to do his job and get the credit. But he is not overly burdened with the finer points of social conventions and good manners.
Trollope suggests that all these American qualities are tied together: "Any man's son may become the equal of any other man's son, and the consciousness of this is certainly a spur to exertion; on the other hand, it is also a spur to that coarse familiarity, untempered by any shadow of respect, which is assumed by the grossest and the lowest in their intercourse with the highest and most refined." (Trollope, Chapter 12)
I have already suggested that this fundamental idea of equality is further reflected in Green's writing in the way all characters whether low- of high-class, are capable of lofty speeches and grand words. It is also reflected in the freedom with which the detectives pursue their investigations. There is no shame in detecting, there is no hesitation in the use of all methods available to spy on people, appropriate evidence and capture the culprits. Yes, ... about capturing the culprits ...
(Plot Spoiler Alert)
Despite the fair game all around (and Green's own religious convictions), justice in A Strange Disappearance is relative. The final resolution of the mystery is very much what the Audleys of Audley Court might have come up with. Mr Blake gets his wife after she demonstrates that she is not returning to him for money, but for love: "I am a woman and therefore weak to the voice of love ..." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 18). Under Mr Gryce's benevolent gaze and with Q providing the final piece of leverage, Mr Blake pays off the Schoenmakers, his wife's embarrassingly criminal relatives, with a "liberal" monthly sum. The Schoenmakers promise to stay away from the Blakes, as long as Mr Blake and the two detectives do not reveal that they are murderers: "Do you three promise to keep our secret if we keep yours?" (Ibid.) The Schoenmakers avoid the scaffold and get away with murder so that Mr Blake does not have to suffer the shame of being married to a daughter and a sister of such men. Instead, they are bundled off to jail for a few years for the lesser crime of bank robbery. (Ibid.) Such a deal is very 'Victorian' in the way it protects respectable people from the taint of scandal. But it is also disturbing in its implications, because it shows explicitly how the wealthy can buy the law and change reality to suit themselves.