Gimme Shelter*

SheltersIt’s arguably not as easy to go ‘off the grid’ as it once was, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post. But if you know where to go and what to do, and you have the money and motivation, you can do it. Sometimes, though, it’s not as easy as just disappearing, even if you want (or need) to do that. For example, those dealing with domestic abuse (usually, but not always, women and children) may simply not have access to money, a car and so on. So they need to rely on shelters or on groups of ‘safe houses.’ Sometimes they’re helped by individuals too.

Shelters and other similar places have been around more or less since the 1970s; before then, someone who had to escape had very, very few choices. Even today it can be awfully difficult, but there are shelters and other places that can help to protect survivors of abuse. They’re certainly out there in real life, and they are in crime fiction too.

Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House features Helping Hands, a Southwark women’s shelter. One night, there’s a fire in a warehouse next door to Helping Hands, and one of its residents reports the incident. The body of an unidentified woman is found among the ashes, and Superintendent Duncan Kincaid begins the investigation. At the same time, Kincaid’s partner, DI Gemma James, gets a call from the Reverend Winnie Montfort. One of Montfort’s congregants is missing, and she may be the unidentified woman. There are other possibilities though. One of them is Laura Novak, who works at Guy’s Hospital, and who is also on the Board of Directors at Helping Hands. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the shelter and the people who live and work there do figure into this mystery.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In the second novel Exile, she has a job at Place of Safety, a women’s shelter. There, she meets Ann Harris, who is one of the shelter’s residents. Then, Ann disappears. On the one hand, the residents are under no obligation to tell the staff where they go and what they do. On the other, it’s always a cause for concern when residents go missing, because it could easily mean they’ve returned to an abusive situation. So Mauri does worry about Ann’s well-being. Still, there’s nothing to indicate a problem until two weeks later, when Ann’s body is found in the Thames. Mauri immediately suspects that Ann’s husband Jimmy killed her. But Jimmy’s cousin Louise, who runs the shelter, thinks he’s innocent. So she and Mauri start to ask questions about what really happened.

When we first meet Zoë Sharp’s Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox in Killer Instinct, she’s left the armed forces for reasons she would rather not discuss. But she’s found a way to fit back into civilian life:

‘I’ve been holding self-defence at the Shelseley Lodge Women’s Refuge for the last couple of years.’

On the whole, she finds the work satisfying, and the shelter provides her a place to teach her classes in exchange for not charging its residents any tuition. One night, she goes with a friend to a karaoke night event at the newly remodeled Adelphi Club. During the evening, she gets into a fight with another patron Susie Hollins. When Susie is later found murdered, the police are naturally very interested in Charlie. If she’s going to clear her name, she’s going to have to find out who the killer is, and all of the possibilities are dangerous…

In Sara Paretsky’s Tunnel Vision, her PI sleuth V.I. Warshawski is the lone holdout against the powerful Culpepper brothers, who own the Chicago building where she has her office, and who want to sell it. To add to that stress, one night, she finds a homeless woman and her children living in the building’s basement. She’s trying to find a solution for this family when her most important client asks her to help him find a community service placement for his son, who’s been arrested for computer hacking.  Warshawski finds a place for the boy at Home Free, a homeless advocacy group. Then, Deirdre Messenger, who sits on Home Free’s Board of Directors, is murdered and her body left in Warshawski’s office. Warshawski knew the victim, since both were volunteers at Arcadia House, a women’s refuge. So even if the body hadn’t been found in her office, she’d have taken an interest. She starts asking questions and ends up uncovering some very dirty domestic abuse secrets in some very high places.

Of course, there are plenty of individuals who help those who need to escape, even if they’re not affiliated with a particular group. In Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, for instance, private investigator Lena Jones works with her PI partner Jimmy Sisiwan to rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from Purity, a polygamous sect. Rebecca’s father Abel has rejoined the sect after some time away, and has agreed that Rebecca will marry the group’s leader Solomon Royal. Rebecca’s mother Esther, who’s divorced from Abel, wants Rebecca to be returned to her. So Jones and Sisiwan track Rebecca down and rescue her. In the process, Jones sees that Royal has been shot and is badly wounded. Still, she thinks that since neither she nor Rebecca had anything to do with the incident, they’ll be fine. But shortly after Rebecca and Esther are re-united, Jones learns that Royal has died. Now Esther is a suspect in his murder and will very likely be extradited from Arizona to Utah to face trial. So Jones infiltrates Purity to find out who really killed the victim. As she gets to know the area, she discovers that what’s going on at Purity is much more than just teenage girls being forced to marry (as if that weren’t bad enough!). But she also learns of a few individuals who have helped some of the women and children escape. And that makes a big difference.

Domestic abuse shelters and refuges are important ‘safety nets’ for those trapped in abusive situations. So it’s little wonder they show up in crime fiction, too. And in real life, they can use all the help they can get. Just as an example, if you’re looking for a new home for books you no longer want to keep, why not consider such a shelter? A good book can provide a badly needed balm when someone’s in such a situation. Your time, your donations and your advocacy when funding’s being debated are also good ways to help.



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Rolling Stones song.


Filed under Betty Webb, Deborah Crombie, Denise Mina, Sara Paretsky, Zoë Sharp

30 responses to “Gimme Shelter*

  1. Great examples, as usual, Margot – and isn’t it interesting that these situations have been described mainly by female authors? While ‘safe houses’ for spies and whistleblowers tend to feature more in crime fiction written by men. Hmmm, so maybe there are some gender differences after all…
    A women’s shelter features prominently in Sarah Hilary’s first novel ‘Someone Else’s Skin’ – but things are much more complex than one might think and the women are not always helpless victims.

    • Marina Sofia – It’s funny. I was just talking to Mr. COAMN earlier about that very thing. There are a lot more books featuring women’s shelters written by women. I struggled with that as I was putting this post together, but there really is a gender difference. And thanks for mentioning Someone Else’s Skin. As you say, women are not always helpless victims…

  2. I was going to mention Someone Else’s Skin but Marina bear me to it. Disappearing for domestic violence reasons also is a feature of Rachel Abbott’s Sleep Tight. I do like Marina’s observation that books seem to divide along gender lines.

    • Cleo – That’s a great example. I’m glad both of you mentioned it. You definitely filled in a gap I left. And although I’ll admit I’ve not (yet) read the Abbott, I’ve heard good things about it, so thanks for bringing that one up too. And it is interesting that gender difference. In fact, I may think about some of those gender differences in topic for a post at some point. You’re giving me much ‘food for thought.’

  3. Your post made me think of Rosemary Aubert’s crime novels in which shelter for the homeless is quite predominant.

  4. Terrific post, Margot. Could the reason women authors write about women’s shelters and not men is that men are barred from such places (at least in Australia)? Or do you think men take violence less seriously if the prefix ‘domestic’ or ‘family’ is attached?

    Thanks for encouraging people to donate pre-loved books to those experiencing homelessness. There’s a great place for your Melbourne readers’ books at The Footpath Library:

    Mind you, I often wonder whether my crime library is appropriate for people who experience real violence in their lives. I suspect they might prefer reading other genres if their aim is to ‘escape’ reality for a few hours.

    • Thanks, Angela. And you ask a fascinating question about male v female perspectives on shelters. I can only give you my opinion, but I will say that Mr. COAMN, who is an officially licensed male, agrees with me. Even in places where men are permitted in shelters, they are far less likely to experience that sort of violence – to know what it’s like to need such a place. So it simply may be that fewer male authors feel a kind of intimate connection with that topic than female authors do. And the fact that there are places where men are not permitted in this kind of shelter does perhaps distance men from the topic. I’ll say again that I struggled with this one, as I strive to be as fair as I can when I post. What’s more, my male friends and my husband see this kind of violence as everyone’s problem and they do more than just give lip service to gender equity. So in a way I feel it’s quite unfair to the many men I know. But the numbers are what they are. And I’d suspect there are men out there who don’t pay a lot of attention to domestic violence because they themselves don’t abuse their partners. It’s a really interesting topic, and I’m glad you folks are giving me much to think about.
      Also, thanks for that link. Melbourne folks, do check out The Footpath Library. And even if you don’t live anywhere near Melbourne, please consider giving your loved books new homes among those who are homeless and in shelters.

  5. Oh, thanks for giving me a couple new books to read, Margot (as if I didn’t already have piles all over my house).

    “Desert Wives” was an outstanding novel. In addition to being a good thriller, there were some powerful messages in that story.

  6. I was reading your comments, as I often do, and I agree there is a huge difference in gender. If you look at a Sisters In Crime newsletter it is often filled with examples, such as women writers make less money then men. They can, and often do, write POVs from both genders, whereas men often stick to the male POV. Men are often higher on the bestsellers’ list, too, while some deserving women have written stronger books. And men don’t use the senses and emotions as often as women writers. Sisters In Crime is built on finding equality within the industry and has made great strides in doing so.

    Back to your fabulous post. Donation is a wonderful idea! I’m going to get my old books together, if I can find any that I haven’t scribbled all over. 🙂

    • Sue – I always learn so much from the comments and interaction on my posts. I’m glad you’ve been enjoying them too. And your own comment is really interesting. There are a lot of interesting gender differences in who writes about what, who chooses which sub-genre and so on. I always find it interesting too when a member of one or the other sex ‘bucks the trend’ and does something ‘atypical.’ Thanks for sharing what SIC has found.
      And about donating? I’m glad you think it’s a good idea. In my opinion, we need to support shelters whenever we can.

  7. An intersting post and discussion as always! Well, given the discussion re gender, I’ll mention Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 – maybe thought of more as fiction or fantasy than crime, though crime plays a huge part in it. The female protagonist, Aomame, is an assassin and we discover that her targets are domestic abusers – and the person who hires her runs a refuge for the women victims.

    • Thanks, FictionFan. I always find our discussions really fascinating too, and I always learn from you folks. And thanks for the mention of the Hurakami. A very interesting context and premise, and it’s good to include a male author who addresses the issues around shelters.

  8. Some really interesting discussion here Margot…as always. There needs to be a bigger discussion re DV/family violence – maybe the need is to remove the descriptors/find new ones – violence is violence and maybe then it will be dealt with on the same level as all violence (a timely post I was reading something this weekend about domestic violence and court sentences- being lighter for this sort of family violence) I know that some years back adding DOMESTIC gave voice to a much hushed up crime but maybe we need to find a new way to discuss? PS I did work in a women’s refuge in a previous life…women who make the decision to leave are very brave and need our support…

    • Carol – I couldn’t agree more that women who leave have a great deal of courage. They deserve all of the support we can give them. And one of the things they deserve is for us to keep the discussion about domestic violence going. We won’t come up with solid solutions if it’s not discussed openly. And we won’t help people understand how serious domestic violence is.

  9. That a shelter can itself be ‘attacked’ is of course even more disturbing (my Mum used to volunteer for support agencies for people in trouble – such distressing stories) – the need for sanctuary will seemingly never go away. some fascinating examples there. Thanks Margot for the food for thought/.

    • It really is disturbing, isn’t it, Sergio? You’re right; the people who have need of such places really do have very sad stories. They need our support, not more trouble. And it’s true the the need for sanctuary is probably not going to end any time soon, sadly. Little wonder that places like that pop up in crime fiction as they do.

  10. Col

    Mina and Sharp are two on the piles, just not got to either author yet.

  11. When we first meet Sarah Hilary’s protagonist it’s dealing with a death inside a women’s shelter. It’s a really well done book and makes you think.

  12. Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House is a book I read on your recommendation Margot, and I’m grateful. It has stayed in my mind, partly because of that theme of women -many of them – in trouble and in need of shelter.

  13. Kathy D.

    I have read none of these books, but just added In a Dark House, Desert Wives and Someone Else’s Skin to my groaning TBR lists.
    I think men do not write about domestic violence and shelters because as a rule, they have no need of them, and it’s not an issue they have to deal with, and women do have to deal with it and even if they are not abused, they know someone who was or else pay a lot more attention to the issue. And it’s an issue women’s organizations pay a lot of attention to, in general.
    When the government shutdown happened a year or so ago, some shelters closed as did some hotlines for abused women and children.
    And, yes, men see espionage and intrigues as part of their world, and
    are more likely to write about those elements. Who goes to see these movies, especially the more violent or very high-tech ones these days?
    It’s usually men and not women.
    I think it’s a great idea to donate to women’s shelters or homeless shelters.
    When I cleaned out my mother’s apartment, I gave boxes of her books to Housing Works, which sells a lot of items to pay for housing for people with HIV and AIDS, and there is a shop of theirs near my house so it worked.
    I don’t know where there are women’s safe houses/shelters near me,
    but I’ll check. It’s a good idea.

    • Kathy – Mr. COAMN made the same point that you did, actually. As a rule (and of course generalities are always very risky!), men don’t have to be directly concerned with shelters and safe houses. So it makes sense that they’d write about them less often. Your comment about men and espionage fiction is also interesting. Although it’s really not true, there’s been this perception that espionage is ‘a man’s game,’ so perhaps that impacts the people who write about it? It’s an interesting point.
      I’m glad you found a good place for your mother’s books. I love it when beloved books find new homes with people who will treasure them and be glad of them.

  14. Kathy D.

    Well, in hearing or reading about movies with espionage or Cold War hostilities or related topics, it’s nearly always men, although Ingrid Bergman did play a lovely agent in Notorious, one of my favorite movies. And, so, too in a classic, The Lady Vanishes. And there were women in WWII espionage movies.But this world does seem to focus on male agents, somewhat based on books written by men featuring male characters.
    But women do write about domestic violence and shelters, and probably more donations for shelters and domestic violence hotlines come from women. And we’re all familiar with survivors/victims of this trauma, or
    have friends who know them.
    I haven’t seen many male writers deal with this issue, except Arnaldur Indridason who did it well.
    It’s not an exciting issue, as is espionage, racing around the world in double crossing and intrigues. I wonder if the great spy writers focused on women characters. Or if many women write about this topic. I haven’t read this genre so I don’t know.
    I haven’t heard of a woman writer mentioned in any blog discussions about this topic.

    • Kathy – You know, you make a really interesting point about woman who write espionage stories. They’re out there, but there aren’t as many of them, that’s for sure. I’m glad you mentioned The Lady Vanishes and Notorious. Those are great examples of the way female spies have been woven into fiction. I really ought to do some thinking about that whole issue, because it’d be a really interesting blog post. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  15. The only author in your post that I have read is Crombie. I will have to try others listed here. Also Rosemary Aubert. I have wanted to read her books too.

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