‘Cause Then You Really Might Know What It’s Like to Sing the Blues*

One of the developments we’ve seen in the crime fiction of the last few decades is more willingness to discuss “down and out” people. By that I mean those who have no real job or money and have to get by as best they can. Folks like this often don’t have the means to live in a safe place, so they get accustomed to doing what they have to do to survive. One thing crime fiction teaches us is that “down and out” people are in many ways not much different to the rest of us. Some of them are in their situations through no choice of their own. Some were born into poverty or are in that situation because of drugs or gangs. Some “down and out” people are kind and can be trusted. Some cannot. All of them though – at least those who manage to survive – have to develop a hard shell as you might say so they can get through their lives. Some crime fiction shows these people in a sympathetic light; some doesn’t. Either way, today’s crime fiction gives us a sometimes unsettling and unflinching look at what it’s like to be “down and out.”

For instance, in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, Inspector Reg Wexford’s physician Dr. Akande asks for Wexford’s help in a personal matter. Akande’s daughter Melanie hasn’t been seen for a few days and Akande is worried. At first Wexford encourages Akande not to worry too much about it. After all, young women could have any number of reasons to take a little time away without telling their parents about it. But when Melanie doesn’t come back after a few days Wexford begins to look into the matter. Melanie was last seen at the local Employment Bureau where she had an appointment with job counselor Annette Bystock so one of the first steps Wexford and his team want to take is to interview Bystock. But she’s off sick. By the time the time catches up with her it’s too late; she’s been strangled. Then the body of a young woman is found in a nearby wood. Wexford believes that the dead woman is Melanie Akande. He’s wrong. When it becomes clear that the victim is another woman Wexford and his team have to add that murder to their ongoing investigation. Bit by bit Wexford gets clues that convince him that all three of the events are connected to the Employment Bureau so he and his team follow up with several of the people who work there and make use of the bureau’s services. Some of the people Wexford encounters are truly “down and out” and the experience gives him real insight into reasons for which people don’t have jobs, and how they get themselves into dire situations.

In Martin Edwards’ All The Lonely People we are introduced to Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin. Devlin makes his living defending people who are on society’s fringes as you might say; he’s represented prostitutes, drunks, drug users and thieves among others. One day Devlin is shocked when his ex-wife Liz shows up at his home. At first he thinks and hopes it might be because she wants to get back together with him. But then Liz tells him that she’s run away from her current lover Mick Coghlin because she’s afraid of him and needs a place to stay for a few days. Devlin has a blind spot where Liz is concerned so he agrees to let her stay even though it was she who left Devlin – for Coghlin. Devlin goes to work the next day as usual but when he gets home Liz isn’t there. She’s left him a note to meet her at a seedy club called The Ferry but she never shows up. The next morning Devlin finds out why: she’s been murdered and her body found in an alley. Devlin feels a strong sense of guilt for not taking her fear seriously and decides to find out who killed her. At first he assumes it must be Coghlin but as he slowly learns about Liz’ last days and weeks he discovers that Coghlin isn’t the only suspect. He also discovers sides of Liz’ life that he’d never known. Devlin’s search for the truth takes him into Liverpool’s worst neighbourhoods and puts him in touch with some very “down and out” people who are mired in poverty, drugs and worse – on their good days.

Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo is the story of Wordsworth scholar and aspiring academician Jane Gresham. She’s originally from the Lake District but now lives in a run-down London building called Marshpool Farm Estate. The building is ugly, run by gangsters and in poor repair and most of its inhabitants are barely getting by – if they have any kind of employment at all. But it’s all that Gresham can afford. Then she hears of a skeleton pulled from a lake not far from where she grew up. The remains could be those of Fletcher Christian; there were always rumours that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island but actually returned to his Lake District home. If so, he would likely have told his story to his great friend Wordsworth and this could mean there’s an unpublished manuscript somewhere. This possibility is enough to draw Gresham home to the Lake District for a visit to see if the manuscript exists. If it does, it could make her career. Gresham begins to track down the manuscript but then one of her resources suddenly dies. Then there’s another death. Now it’s clear that someone does not want Gresham to find that manuscript. Gresham doesn’t know it at first but her thirteen-year-old neighbour Tenille Cole has followed her to the Lake District. Tenille has had a very “down and out” life and is much more streetwise than most of us would want a child of that age to be. She has her own reasons (no spoilers here) to want to escape Marshpool and through her experiences we get a real sense of what life can be like on the fringe.

We also get a look at life on the fringe in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Chapman is a baker who provides bread for The Melbourne Soup Run. That’s a mobile soup kitchen that serves Melbourne’s street people. In Devil’s Food for instance, Chapman goes along on the soup run one night to help serve. Through her eyes we get to meet several of the people who for a variety of reasons are out on the street. There’s a young boy Toby for instance who ran away from home because he was being abused and has ended up on the streets. The Soup Run gets to the part of Melbourne where he’s hiding just in time to prevent him from complete collapse due to starvation. In fact as it is he has to be taken to hospital. In one of the plot threads of this novel, Chapman is searching for her father, who seems to have disappeared into Melbourne’s streets, so she uses the contacts she makes on the Soup Run to try to find him. She traces him to a dilapidated old house where several of the poorest of the poor live when they don’t have anywhere else to go. There Chapman meets ten-year-old Nyrie who lives there with her mother Sharelle and her baby sister Breehanna. Sharelle is terminally ill and too poor to arrange for care for her children or any medical care for herself. Gradually Chapman follows the leads she gets and is able to find out what happened to her father. She also gets insight into what life is like for Melbourne’s “down and out” population.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant features Delhi private investigator Vishwas (Vish) Puri. He and his team are hired by successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal to find out what happened to Mary Murmu, a servant who lived with the Kasliwal family until she suddenly disappeared. Kasliwal has been charged with raping and murdering her and he wants to clear his name. The trail in this case leads to Mary’s home village which is extremely poor. It is in fact so heartbreakingly poor that Mary’s parents felt they had no choice but to send her to Delhi to try to find some kind of work. And working as a servant is at least better than being sold into prostitution. Nonetheless Mary’s father feels terribly guilty at the thought that his decision may have led to his daughter’s death. That trip to the village though is very helpful to Puri as he puts the pieces together and finds out the truth about Mary’s disappearance.

And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, which tells of the murder of Tasmania Police Sergeant John White and of the investigation into his death. The suspect in this murder is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in trouble with the law off and on for most of his life. He’s gotten very accustomed to the cycle of being caught for a crime, going before the judge, promising to “mend his ways” and being sent to a remand facility rather than a prison because of his age. One of the chapters in this novel tells the story of the crime from Darren’s perspective and we can see through his eyes what it’s like to grow up as one of the “down and out” people. He is brutally honest about his views, his life and his decisions and through his point of view Erskine offers an unvarnished look at the life of those who are just trying to survive in the only way they can.

And that’s the thing about those who are “down and out.” Whatever their reasons for being on the fringes, they have learned just how hard life can be on and close to the streets. It gives them a very hard edge and a canny ability to stay alive.


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Everlast’s What it’s Like. Not a “family friendly” song, but the lyrics fit the topic.


Filed under Kerry Greenwood, Martin Edwards, Ruth Rendell, Tarquin Hall, Val McDermid, Y.A. Erskine

10 responses to “‘Cause Then You Really Might Know What It’s Like to Sing the Blues*

  1. Your post has just remind me of Missing by Karin Alvtegen., Margot.

    • José Ignacio – Thank you for that reminder; Missing is an excellent example of what I mean! For those who don’t know the novel, the main character Sibylla Forsenström has been living on the streets of Stockholm and has built up a network of places to stay, ways to get food and so on. Then she becomes the chief suspect in a murder. It’s a fascinating look at life on the streets and I appreciate your reminding me of it.

  2. Margot, your post hits the mark. I just finished Jussi Adler-Olsen’s second Department Q novel, THE ABSENT ONE (DISGRACE), and it features a woman that’s ‘down and out’ and living on the streets. The reason she’s there and why she stays is an intriguing part of the story.

    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that novel! I’m expecting my copy of it any day and from what I’ve read about it it’s a terrific example of my main point here. The character of Kimmie is certainly “down and out” and I’m looking forward to reading her story.

  3. Yet again one of your entries gave me ideas for new books to read and also reminded me of a good one! I recently read The Caveman’s Valentine by George Dawes Green, and it has lived on in my mind – the protagonist is a homeless man with mental health issues, and the setting and milieu were astonishing. But it is also a very good detective story, very well-plotted, Apparently a film was made of it, but my attempts to get hold of it failed. But recommended.

    • Moira – Why, thank you 🙂 – I’m glad you got some ideas for books to try and you’ve given me a good one too. I’ve heard The Caveman’s Valentine was quite good and I’m glad to hear that it’s worth a read. Another for my already-groaning TBR…

  4. Great post. I feature a homeless shelter in my latest novel.



    • Martin – Thank you 🙂 – And I think a homeless shelter is a really interesting context for a murder mystery. There’s a mix of people, lots of opportunities for different kinds of motives and so on.

  5. Actually, one of the most fascinating scenes in The Grave Tattoo is that scene where Tenille Cole has that run in with trouble in her block of flats. It added another dimension to the story. I almost never got through that book but after reading a third, the rest really picked up.

    • Clarissa – Oh, that scene is wonderful isn’t it? I don’t want to give away spoilers but yes, it adds a dimension to the novel and it shows the kind of people who live there and the kind of life Tenille has led.

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