One of the more formidable character types in fiction is the grande dame. She is often (not always) elderly, and she has a lot of influence within her sphere. Sometimes, that influence is beneficent; other times it is far from that. Either way, a grande dame plays a key social role in her circles.
Crime-fictional sleuths know that they’re not going to get very far in their investigations if they don’t get the co-operation of a grande dame, when there is one. That’s because grandes dames can have a powerful influence over other characters. There are many fictional grandes dames; space only allows me to mention a few.
In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, we are introduced to Princess Natalia Dragomiroff. She and her maid are en route through Europe on the legendary Orient Express. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed in his compartment. Hercule Poirot is on the same train and is persuaded to investigate. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same coach, so Poirot’s focus is that group of people. One of those ‘people of interest’ is Princess Dragomiroff. She is elderly, autocratic, and thoroughly accustomed to being obeyed. Yet, she complies willingly when she’s asked to give an account of her own actions, and she even says,
‘‘You need not offer apologies, Messieurs. I understand a murder has taken place. Naturally, you must interview all the passengers. I shall be glad to give all the assistance in my power.’’
After the interview, M. Bouc, who represents the travel company that owns the train, describes the princess as ‘truly grande dame.’ And so she turns out to be.
Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart is the first in his series featuring American ex-pat writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. He’s made his new home in Bangkok, where he’s gained a reputation for being able to find people who don’t necessarily want to be found. That’s why Clarissa Ulrich, who’s visiting from Australia, wants to hire him. She’s concerned because she hasn’t heard from her Uncle Claus in several months, and she’s worried about him. He seems to have gone missing, and she wants Rafferty to find him. Rafferty agrees and starts the search. Part of the trail leads to an enigmatic grande dame named Madame Wing. She agrees to give Rafferty the information he requests, on condition that he do something for her. She claims that something of value has been taken from her, and she wants it back. Rafferty isn’t exactly drawn to Madame Wing, but she is a person of great influence and presence. Besides, he needs the information she has. So, he agrees to the arrangement, and ends up getting drawn into two cases where past tragedies lead to modern-day crimes.
In Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall, television presenter Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford has decided to leave the high-pressure ‘goldfish bowl’ world of television, and open an antique shop with her mother, Iris. Then, she learns that her mother has abruptly moved to the old carriage house at Honeychurch Hall, in Little Dipperton, Devon. Shocked at this move, Stanford goes to Little Dipperton, where she finds that her mother’s had a hand injury from an auto accident. She decides to stay for a short time, until her mother has recuperated. Soon, she gets drawn into a disappearance, and then a murder, all having to do with the history of the Honeychurch family and of Honeychurch Hall. In the process of asking questions, Stanford meets Lady Edith Honeychurch, matriarch of the family. She’s a little eccentric, but she has a strong presence, and she’s got a great deal of local influence. Her personality is an interesting aspect of this novel.
Kalpana Swaminathan’s sleuth, Lalli, is an interesting example of a grande dame. Officially retired now, she is a former member of the Mumbai Police. She has legendary skills among the police, though, and is often consulted and informally brought in on cases. Lalli has a real presence, and still wields a great deal of influence in the police department, although she’s no longer on the force. She has a way, too, of getting suspects and other ‘people of interest’ to co-operate with her, whether or not they want to initially. In part it’s because she’s highly intelligent and skilled. In part it’s because of her presence.
And then there’s Mme. Pomfort, whom we meet in Susan C. Shea’s Love and Death in Burgundy. She is the undisputed social queen of the small French town of Reigny-sur-Canne. When ex-pat Americans Michael Goff and his artist wife, Katherine, move to the town, they soon learn that Mme. Pomfort’s approval is essential to social acceptance in the town. Katherine, in particular, wants to get on Mme. Pomfort’s good side, as she wants to be able to fit in. But that’s not going to be easy. At best, Mme. Pomfort is icily polite, and Katherine doesn’t know how to break that ice. Then, longtime resident Albert Bellegarde dies after a fall down some stairs in his home. At first, it’s put down to a tragic accident. But soon, there are little bits of evidence that suggest otherwise. Katherine gets involved in the investigation because she knew the victim and his wife, Adele. As she starts putting the pieces together, she finds that more than one person might have wanted the victim dead. And she runs the risk of complete social isolation if she can’t persuade Mme. Pomfort to accept her.
And that’s the thing about grandes dames. They wield a great deal of power and influence. So, fictional sleuths have to deal with them at times, whether they want to or not.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Graham Parker.