It’s a hugely lucrative industry that’s found its way into many cultures. Whenever there’s a group of people willing to pay for sex and another group willing to sell it, there’s a market for prostitution. Prostitutes’ clients run the gamut of socioeconomic statuses, racial and ethnic groups, professions and education levels. And prostitutes themselves run the gamut from the most elite call girls with an “A-list” client base to homeless young women who use the money they earn to buy drugs. Prostitution can be an extremely dangerous business, too, and whether it’s fair or not, it’s often connected to drugs, gangs and criminal activity. Prostitution is prevalent and it’s often associated with illegal activity. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we see it an awful lot in crime fiction.
For instance, in Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick, his sleuth Mike Hammer happens to be in a coffee shop when he meets Nancy Sanford, a down-and-out young woman who’s turned to prostitution. She tells Hammer her hard-luck story and he gives her some money to start over. Within a few days though she’s dead, the victim of a hit-and-run incident. Hammer is fairly certain that Nancy Sanford didn’t die by accident so he begins to investigate. What he finds is that she was collecting evidence against the leaders of a prostitution ring who’d forced the young women involved into the trade. Her plan was to expose those behind this organisation and have them sent to prison but she was killed before she could. So Hammer makes it his personal business to find out who’s responsible for her murder.
We see the image of the “prostitute with a heart of gold” in Ed McBain’s Cop Hater. In that novel, police detective Mike Reardon is shot on his way to the precinct. Detective Steve Carella and his partner Hank Bush are called to the scene and they begin to push very hard on the case since it’s a cop who’s been killed. Then Reardon’s police partner David Foster is murdered on his way home from work. Now it looks as though someone may have a vendetta against that pair of detectives so Carella and Bush look in to Reardon and Foster’s cases to see if they can track down the killer. They pursue one of their leads to a brothel owned by Mama Luz, who’s known Carella for a while. He basically looks the other way when it comes to her business, and she makes sure that her business doesn’t cause Carella any trouble. Here’s the way they greet each other in fact when Carella and a rookie cop arrive at Mama Luz’ brothel:
“‘You come on a social call?’ she asked Carella, winking.
‘If I can’t have you, Mama Luz,’ Carella said, ‘I don’t want anybody.’”
Mama Luz does what she can to help Carella and even though his trip to the brothel doesn’t really solve the case, Mama Luz is painted as a sympathetic character.
Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus introduces us to Dr. Duca Lamberti, who has just been released from prison for euthanasia. He is hired by a rich Milanese industrialist named Auseri to help Auseri’s twenty-two-year-old son Davide, who is an alcoholic. Lamberti agrees a little reluctantly and begins to spend a lot of time with the young man. Slowly he learns why Davide Auseri is an alcoholic: he is convinced that he is directly responsible for the suicide of Alberta Radelli, whose body was discovered in a field on the outskirts of Milan a year earlier. Lamberti suspects there’s more to this story and, mostly to help Davide get on with his life, he looks into the case. It turns out that Alberta Radelli and a friend of hers Livia Ussaro had been experimenting with prostitution although they worked independently (i.e. without a pimp). Then Alberta was drawn into greater danger than she could have imagined. Lamberti suspects she was killed for that reason and not suicide. His belief is supported when he learns that about the same time, a friend of Alberta’s Maurilia Arbati was also killed after being drawn into the same dangerous web. Lamberti enlists Davide’s help and that of Livia Ussaro to catch those responsible for the murders.
In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s December Heat, we meet retired police officer Vieira, who gets caught in a web of murder when his girlfriend Lucimar, a prostitute who calls herself Magali, is murdered. On the night of her murder, she and Vieira went out to dinner and Vieira had so much to drink that he doesn’t remember exactly what happened. All he knows is that Magali is dead and his wallet is missing. There’s evidence against Vieira in this murder, but Inspector Espinosa, who knows Vieira and has been assigned this case, is fairly sure that it’s not the kind of murder Vieira would likely have committed. So he begins to dig more deeply into the case to find out who the killer is. In this novel it’s clear that
“Hookers weren’t important. Magali had been important to Vieira, and probably to nobody else.”
But Espinosa is unwilling to let the case die. In the end, he discovers who really killed Magali and why.
In Donna Malane’s Surrender, missing persons expert Diane Rowe begins an investigation of her own when she gets word of the murder of James Patrick “Snow” Wilson. Rowe has a special interest in this murder because shortly before his death Snow had confessed (actually bragged is the better term) to killing Rowe’s sister Niki a year earlier. According to what Snow said, he was paid to kill Niki Rowe but he didn’t say who his “client” was. But Snow was killed in the same way that Niki had been killed, so Rowe thinks that if she can find out who hired Snow she’ll find her sister’s murderer. To do that she has to find out who would have wanted to kill Niki and that leads her into her younger sister’s world of exotic dancing and prostitution. As she learns more about her sister’s life, Rowe meets several of the people involved in the same business as well as their clients and learns that there were sides to her sister’s life that she’d never known. In the end Rowe finds out who the murderer is, and is able too to start coming to terms with Niki’s loss.
There’s also Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District featuring Toronto private investigator Sasha Jackson. Jackson is hired by brothel owner Candace Curtis, who’s concerned about the disappearance of one of her employees Mary Carmen Santamaria. Jackson agrees to search for her and finds that the prostitution business can be very dangerous. In fact, I don’t think it’s giving away spoilers to say that both Jackson and Curtis become targets themselves.
And then there’s James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, in which we meet former prostitute Amelia Jacobs. She now works as a maid for Sam Laidlaw, who is still “in the business.” Laidlaw has a young son Jake whose father is local gangster Michael Haggar. Jacobs is concerned because she’s afraid that Haggar may cause trouble for Laidlaw – may even take her son away from her. So Jacobs asks an old acquaintance Inspector John Carlyle to find Haggar and warn him to leave the boy alone. Carlyle agrees but by the time he gets to tracking Haggar down it’s too late; Haggar and Jake have disappeared. Now besides the murder case he’s already working on, Carlyle has to find the missing boy before something far worse happens to him. In this novel, we see prostitutes not in terms of what they do for a living but as humans.
There are also of course many novels such as Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström’s The Vault (AKA Box 21) in which prostitution is painted in an ugly, dangerous and horrific way. Whether it’s legal or illegal in a given place prostitution is a part of many, many cultures. Those who are involved in that business, whether buying or selling sex, have all sorts of personalities and backgrounds. It’s little wonder that their stories find their ways into crime fiction.