An interesting comment exchange with Col at Col’s Criminal Library has got me thinking about land development. As the population increases and becomes ever more mobile, there are more and more land development projects. In a way, it makes sense, since bringing new people and new industries to an area means a stronger local economy. But a lot of people believe that too often, that economy grows at a devastating price: the loss of the land, the local wildlife and the ecosystem. That’s to say nothing of people who object to the changes that development brings to their small towns and their quality of life. That conflict between land development advocates and opponents is ongoing and has sometimes flared up into violence. So it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction too.
A few of Agatha Christie’s stories touch on land development in a tangential way, (I’m thinking for instance of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side and Death on the Nile). In those stories, there’s some dismay for instance at the coming of council housing and the uprooting of people so that a personal piece of property can be developed. But that theme isn’t a central part of the mystery.
In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts though, land development plays a major role in the story. Sometime-attorney Jack Irish gets involved in a case of greed, corruption and land development when a former client Danny McKillop is murdered. Irish had unsuccessfully defended MicKillop in a drink-related hit-and-run case in which Melbourne activist Anne Jeppeson was killed. When McKillop was released from prison after serving his sentence, he contacted Irish, trying desperately to reach him, but by the time Irish returned McKillop’s calls it was already too late. Now Irish feels a sense of guilt over not getting to McKillop sooner and over not doing a better job of defending his client. So he decides to look into the Jeppeson case again. He soon discovers that McKillop was framed for Jeppeson’s murder. Before her death, Jeppeson had been spearheading a protest against the closing of a public housing estate in Melbourne’s Yarrabank district. And the more Irish looks into this planned closing, the more he sees that it’s motivated by greed, land development planning and corruption. In the end, Irish and journalist Linda Hillier trace the murders to very highly-placed people with much to lose if the planned closing doesn’t go through.
Science fiction novelist Zack Walker and his family get caught up in a fight between land developers and local eco-activists in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Walker and his family move from the city to Valley Forest Estates. There, Walker hopes that life will be safer (and less expensive) for his family. He soon finds out how wrong he is though when he witnesses an argument between local environmental activist Samuel Spender and one of Valley Forest’s sales/development executives. Later that day Walker discovers Spender’s body in a nearby creek. Then, Walker is trying to return a handbag he’s found to its owner when he discovers the owner’s body. It’s now clear that something very serious is going on at Valley Forest. And even though the one thing Walker wants more than anything else is to have a safe, quiet life, he finds himself more and more involved in the murders, which have everything to do with greed and development schemes.
Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage tells the story of the conflict that arises over a planned road that will cut through Framhurst Great Wood. Many of the residents of Kingsmarkham, including Inspector Reg Wexford and his wife Dora, are not happy about this road. In fact, Dora’s joined a local citizens’ group that is actively opposing this development. But matters turn ugly when several groups of activists come to town. They end up taking hostages, including Dora Wexford. Then, there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to work the murder case as well as try to rescue Dora and the other hostages before there’s any more death. The land development people aren’t exactly Citizens of the Year in this novel, but Rendell doesn’t oversimplify the issues and it’s interesting to see how she portrays what is sometimes the darker side of activism.
Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier has land development as one of its major themes too. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith has recently joined the Trafalgar (British Columbia) police. One night while making her rounds, she finds the body of wealthy developer Reginald Montgomery. Sergeant John Winters is assigned to investigate the case and he and Smith begin to look into Montgomery’s professional and private relationships to find out who would have wanted to kill him. There are several suspects too. One important angle to this case is that Montgomery was co-owner of the soon-to-be opened Grizzly Resort, an upmarket resort/spa/holiday destination. Many people feel that Grizzly will bring in desperately-needed money and will provide jobs for several of the local residents. Others feel at least as strongly that the resort will ruin the natural beauty of the area and will be hard on the local ecosystem. They don’t want the influx of tourists either. That conflict adds an underlying layer of tension to the novel as Smith and Winters work to find out who killed Montgomery and why.
In C.J. Box’s Open Season, newly-appointed game warden Joe Pickett has an embarrassing encounter with local outfitter and poacher Ote Keeley. Shortly afterwards, Keeley’s body is found on Pickett’s property. What’s more, Pickett’s daughter Sheridan discovers something else – a family of endangered animals living in the woodpile near the post where Keeley’s body was discovered. Now that Pickett and his family are personally involved, he works to find out who killed Keeley. What he discovers is a long-simmering conflict among oil developers, a poaching ring and independent locals who do not want a game warden telling them what they can and cannot do. This isn’t the only novel in this series in which Box addresses issues of land development and what it may mean.
That’s also true of Carl Hiaasen’s work. In several of his novels (I’m thinking for instance of Lucky You and Tourist Season), we meet characters who want to develop the land. And it’s Hiaasen’s work that actually got Col and me ‘talking’ about the way land development is portrayed. As Col pointed out, Hiaasen uses a lot of humour in his stories but there’s a strong underlying urgency about protecting the land from over-development.
There are plenty of mentions of land development in cosy mysteries too. For instance in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Prretty Is as Pretty Dies, retired English teacher Myrtle Clover is ‘volunteered’ to work with her local church’s women’s group. She goes to the church for a meeting of the Altar Guild where she finds the body of Parke Stockard. Myrtle wants to prove, especially to her overprotective son, that she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet, so she decides to investigate the murder. As it turns out, there are several suspects. Parke Stockard was a malicious real estate developer who used all sorts of unethical and illegal tactics to ensure her place in the community and to get the properties she wanted. Myrtle sifts through what she finds, what people tell her and what she overhears (deliberately and otherwise), and figures out who killed the victim and why.
The question of whether, how and for what purpose land ought to be developed is not an easy one. That’s why it’s been such a contentious issue for such a long time. Little wonder we see so much crime fiction that touches on land development.
Thanks, Col, for the inspiration. Folks, please do pay Col’s blog a visit; it’s a nicely focused set of crime fiction reviews well worth following.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s No Man’s Land.