Blue Suits and Bankers With Their Volvos and Their Valentines*

GentrificationGentrification is a fact of life in a lot of places. The idea is that a place will have greater appeal, a stronger economy and a wealthier tax base if it attracts people who can afford to pay upmarket prices for places to live, shop and so on. On the surface of it, that makes some sense. Most people would agree that it’s good to have a tax base that can sustain a place.

But here’s the problem, according to a lot of other people. Gentrification makes places too homogeneous (let’s face it; shopping malls don’t vary that much). It tends to take away the distinctive nature of an area, a city or a town. Gentrification also means that many middle- and working-class residents can’t afford to live in a place any longer. And it causes traffic and lots of other logistical problems.

That conflict – between those who support gentrification and those who oppose it – certainly plays out in real life. Perhaps you even live in an area affected by it. And it makes for a solid level of interest in crime fiction too.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile for instance, Linnet Ridgeway has purchased Wode Hall, in Malton-under-Wode. She’s completely remodeling the place and intending to make some major changes. Part of her plan is to have some of the local cottages torn down and the residents moved. As you can imagine, some of those residents are not happy at all at being forced out of their homes. Here though is Linnet’s view:


‘They don’t seem to realize how vastly improved their living conditions will be!’


Linnet has money – a lot of it – and high social position, so the locals’ protests aren’t going to be very successful. But Linnet’s lovely new home won’t do her much good. Shortly afterwards, she’s shot during her honeymoon trip. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise that Linnet and her new husband were taking, so he and Colonel Race investigate the murder. Although this example of gentrification isn’t a major plot thread, it shows an aspect of the victim’s character and it’s reflective of how gentrification can work.

In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, a huge gentrification plan is underway for Melbourne. Called Yarra Cove, it’s to comprise a waterfront, marina, exclusive shops and restaurants and more. It’s intended to be


‘…arguably, Melbourne’s smartest new address.’


A lot of people want that upmarket money. What’s more, the area is currently run-down and seen by many as not safe. But not everyone agrees. In fact, an activist group led by Anne Jeppeson has been protesting the closing of the public housing located in that area. There hasn’t been much opportunity for public comment on the gentrification plan either. Sometime-attorney Jack Irish gets involved in this debate when a former client Danny McKillop is murdered shortly after being released from prison. McKillop was convicted of the drink-driving killing of Anne Jappeson and all of the evidence was against him. But now that McKillop’s been murdered, Irish comes to suspect that he might have been framed for Jeppeson’s death. If so, there’s something much bigger going on here than a tragic incident of drink driving.

Michael Connelly’s Echo Park forces Harry Bosch to return to a case he wasn’t able to solve when he first investigated it. Marie Gesto disappeared one day after leaving a Hollywood grocery store and Bosch was assigned the case. But although he had a suspect in mind, he wasn’t able to get the evidence he needed. Now, Raynard Waits has been arrested in Los Angeles’ Echo Park area for two other brutal murders. Incontrovertible evidence links him to the killings, so he’s not going to get away with them. His plan is to make a deal with the police. He’ll trade information on other cases, including the Gesto case, in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. Bosch works with what he learns from Waits to re-open the Gesto case and find out what really happened. Here are Bosch’s thoughts about the Echo Park area:


‘These days Echo Park was also a favored destination of another class of newcomer-the young and hip. The cool. Artists, musicians and writers were moving in. Cafés and vintage clothing shops were squeezing in next to the bodegas and mariscos stands. A wave of gentrification was washing across the flats and up the hillsides below the baseball stadium. It meant the character of the place was changing. It meant real-estate prices were going up, pushing out the working class and the gangs.’


Gentrification isn’t really the reason for Marie Gesto’s disappearance. But it’s an underlying part of the context of this novel.

On the other hand, gentrification is an important theme in Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters. A development company has made plans to tear town Jerusalem Lane, an historic area of London, and replace it with an upmarket shopping, dining and entertainment district. There’s a lot of money involved, so there is a great deal of pressure brought to bear on the residents of Jerusalem Lane to sell up and leave. It is a unique district though, and not everyone wants to leave. One holdout is Meredith Winterbottom, who lives in Jerusalem Lane with her two sisters Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe. When Meredith suddenly dies, it looks a lot like a suicide. But DS Kathy Kolla isn’t so sure. So she and her boss DCI David Brock begin to ask some questions. They find that there are several people who’ve benefited from the victim’s death. One for instance is the development company’s representatives, who now have a clear path to completing their gentrification project. Another is the victim’s son, who will inherit his mother’s home and therefore, who stands to gain by the sale of it. And then there are the other residents of Jerusalem Lane, who could have had their own motives. That’s not to mention the fact that the three sisters are the great-granddaughters of Karl Marx. They had several old books and letters that would be of great interest to collectors and academics. Among other things, this is an interesting look at a district that will be forever changed by gentrification.

Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier is in part the story of the murder of Reginald Montgomery. He and his business partner have been planning the Grizzly Resort and Spa near the small town of Trafalgar, British Columbia. The idea is to bring a gentrified, upmarket group of tourists (and their money) to the area. Some people like the idea. The economy can use the boost, and the gentrification will mean more jobs. Others though see the resort as a threat to the environment and the local ecosystem. So the resort is by no means a ‘done deal.’ When Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith finds Montgomery’s body in an alley one night, she and Sergeant John Winters look into this whole gentrification plan as one possible motive for the killing. There are others, too, including issues in Montgomery’s personal life. Throughout the novel, there’s a real layer of interest as the debate goes on about the effects of having an upmarket resort nearby.

Planned gentrification also plays an important role in Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing. Some wealthy and influential people want to tear down one of Beijing’s impoverished but historic districts to make room for a new, gentrified district full of upmarket shops, restaurants and housing. Professor Luo Gan has been among those protesting this gentrification, claiming that it will drive people out of their homes and will cheat them financially. When one of his students Justin Tan is found murdered, the official police theory is that he was killed by thugs in a robbery gone wrong. But Tan is the son of Susan Tan, First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy in Beijing. She doesn’t believe her son’s murder was the work of robbers, and she wants answers. So she arranges for Inspector Singh to travel from Singapore to Beijing and look into the matter. Singh reluctantly agrees and makes the trip. Soon enough, he finds evidence that the victim’s murder was likely deliberate. Now, Singh works with former Beijing cop Li Jun to find out who the murderer is. Someone involved in the gentrification project could be responsible for the murder. But that’s not by any means the only possibility. In the end, and after another murder, Singh and Li Jun find out what happened to Justin Tan and why.

Gentrification has a way of eliciting really strong feelings. It’s very much a proverbial double-edged sword, and not always popular. It’s a fact of life though, and it adds to a lot of crime fiction novels. Which gaps have I left?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s No Man’s Land.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Michael Connelly, Peter Temple, Shamini Flint, Vicki Delany

18 responses to “Blue Suits and Bankers With Their Volvos and Their Valentines*

  1. I’m not sure whether it counts as “gentrification,” Margot, but certainly as “commercialization”: Ngaio Marsh’s “Dead Water” is the story of a small village where a young boy’s warts are supposedly “cured” when he is told by “a Green Lady” to dip his hands in a local pool of water. When a journalist picks the story up, the town becomes crowded with people seeking a miraculous cure…and, to be sure, they bring their money with them and prosperity to the town. Then a new owner comes along who wants to end the commercialization – much to the anger of some of the villagers…and, before long, there’s a murder… Certainly the end effect of that commercialization is exactly the same as the effect of gentrification – a lot of prosperity for some, a loss of life quality for others.

    • Les – I wouldn’t have thought of Dead Water as an example of gentrification until you explained your thinking. As you say better than I could have, there’s a definite ‘gentrification effect’ of new money that benefits some and leaves others on the margins. And yes, it does reduce the quality of life in the village. Doesn’t matter that for some, the intention is good; it still has some really negative effects that go beyond the murder. Thanks.

  2. I have read The Marx Sisters. Peter Temple’s Bad Debts and Delany’s In the Shadows of the Glacier are planned reads for this year. Should be interesting.

    • Tracy – Oh, I think you’ll like the Molly Smith series. It’s got solid character development, believable mysteries, the whole thing. And a distinctly British Columbia setting too. I hope you’ll enjoy it (not that I’m biased…)

  3. This is such an important subject. The area I live in in Melbourne used to be a working class 1950s immigrant area. Now, with gentrification, it’s millionaire’s row. A run-down little house round the corner from us sold last year for $980,000. Stamp duty takes it well over the $1 million mark, and then you’d have to start renovating it—or knocking it down and building it again, if allowed. We live in a modest 3-bedroom 1-bathroom townhouse in need of renovation and with no aircon or dishwasher, which we rent. It’s for sale at the moment—but we could never afford to buy it, because they want about $750,000 for it. This is despite worrying cracking throughout the house.
    On the other side of town, in the so-called “leafy suburbs”, a house I sold for $407,000 in 2000 recently sold again for $1.3 million. Should have held on to it!

    • Caron – Oh, those are such glaring examples of what happens with gentrification. The same sort of thing has happened in the area where I live. Most people who haven’t owned their homes for more than, say, twenty years or so can’t afford to buy even a modest three bed/two bath sort of home in a decent area. You can sometimes find bargains but they are very, very few and far between. And even with the major recession of 2008, you still couldn’t find a decent and affordable home in the area. You definitely can’t now. A lot of it is that big development companies and so on are buying up the areas and turning them into upmarket playgrounds. Yes, it brings in the CEOs and the tourists, no doubt about that. But a lot of ‘regular’ people end up renting.

    • It is nice to know that it is not only London and Southern England where gentrification has taken house ownership beyond the hopes and aspirations of so many people. There are areas of South East London which when I was a teenager were very rundown, but now have numerous restaurants, organic butchers, and delis.

      • Norman – No, it most certainly isn’t just London and Southern England. I’ve read though about how expensive it is to have a home in London. And I”m not at all surprised to see that trend in Southern England, too. It’s a real challenge for ‘regular’ people to find a decent home there too, or so I’ve read.

  4. This is a great topic, really interesting. I cannot think of any specific examples to add to your excellent list, although I think it’s a subject that has come up in various Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell books – she is very good on the way neighbourhoods change over the years.

    • Moira – That she is, and I hadn’t specifically thought of her work when I was writing this. Still, it certainly fits. Thanks for that idea and for the kind words. I like the way she deals with the psychological as well as the financial fallout from changes that gentrification and other developments bring.

  5. Margot: As I was reading Moira’s comment which mentions Ruth Rendell I thought of a post Rich put up at his fine blog, pastoffences, last year on Rendell’s house being listed for sale at 720,000 pounds. It looks like it would qualify for gentrified. Her knowledge of neighbourhood change would appear to be personal. The link is:

  6. Margot – I’m not sure if this counts as gentrification, but a theme that runs through Raymond Chandler’s novels is the spoiling of Los Angeles through tasteless, rampant commercialization. Chandler’s prior occupation as an oil company executive probably contributed to his jaded views. It seems to be an idea that turns up in many writers’ work: California as a paradise lost to big money and big development.

    • Bryan – Oh, I think it most definitely counts as gentrification as a theme. Chandler as you know had strong feelings about the effect of big money and commercial development, and it comes through in more than one of his novels. Thanks for filling in that gaping hole I left. And as you say, he’s not the only writer with those strong views.

  7. Col

    Nothing to add by way of example. Looking forward to reading the Temple and Maitland books you mentioned.

  8. In long running series you often see how a city is changing through the eyes of the writer. For example Rebus shows us how Scottish cities have undergone a massive amount of gentrification and Rankin cleverly does this showing political rivalries too.

    • Sarah – Now that’s true! And you’re putting me in mind of Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham too. There are a lot of examples of the way places change as a series goes on, and it certainly does show gentrification.

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