Pack Up My Belongings, I’ve Got to Get Away*

Mobile SocietyOne of the major sociological developments of the past hundred or so years has been mobility. People no longer necessarily spend their lives within just a few miles or so of where they were born. Many people relocate because of jobs, although of course, that’s not the only motivation to move house.

This mobility has had a profound impact on communities everywhere. Places where everyone once knew everyone have become more transient. Even in big cities, residents of the same building or block once usually knew each other. That’s not so much the case any more (although of course, it does happen). For police, this change means that it’s sometimes harder to get information about crimes (e.g. ‘I don’t know who lives in that apartment,’ or ‘I’ve seen him/her, but I’ve no idea where that person works, or if that person was at home last night.’)

You see this increase in mobility a lot in crime fiction, which makes sense when you think of the genre as a reflection of society. And it’s been going on for quite some time. For instance, Agatha Christie discusses it in several of her stories, including The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, the village of St. Mary Mead is undergoing quite a bit of change. There’s new council housing in the area, and many people there whom Miss Marple doesn’t know. They come from different places and are changing the makeup of the village as they work, shop and send their children to school. One day, Miss Marple decides to take a walk in the new development. That’s how she meets Heather Badcock, who lives there with her husband Arthur. They’re a pleasant enough couple, and they actually are very helpful to Miss Marple when she has a fall and injures her ankle. Miss Marple discovers that Heather is a fan, to put it mildly, of film star Marina Gregg, who’s just purchased Gossington Hall with her husband Jason Rudd. Heather is more than excited when it’s announced that there will be a charity fête at the hall, as there has been in the past, and that Marina Gregg herself will preside and will meet people. On the day of the event. Heather finally gets to meet her idol. But she soon gets sick and later dies from what turns out to be a poisoned drink. At first, it seems like a case of accidentally poisoning the wrong victim, since Marina has her share of enemies, and Heather seemingly none. It turns out, though, that Heather might very well have been the intended victim all along.

Much of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series is set in the small Québec town of Three Pines. It’s got a long history, and some residents have lived there for a very long time. And we see how that history plays out in Still Life, when beloved retired teacher Jane Neal is killed on Thanksgiving. At first the death looks like a terrible accident, but Gamache and his team learn that the victim was murdered. There’s a scene in this novel in which Neal confronts a group of local boys who’ve been harassing the owners of the town’s B&B. She identifies them all by name, since she knows them. That stops them in their tracks, and also makes them suspects when she’s found dead. It also shows that Three Pines is one of those towns where people know each other. But as time goes on, people do move in and out. For example, in A Fatal Grace, celebrity and ‘life coach’ C.C. de Poitiers and her family move to town. Her background and personal life are deeply troubled, as are her relationships with everyone in town. So when she is murdered, Gamache and his team have plenty of suspects.

Rebecca Tope’s A Cotswold Killing introduces readers to professional house-sitter Thea Osborne. She’s a relatively recent widow who’s trying to make a new life for herself and is using house-sitting as a bridge to whatever comes next. Her first clients are Duntisbourne Abbots residents Clive and Jennifer Reynolds, who are taking a three-week cruise. Thea’s job will be to look after their dogs, their sheep, and their gardens as well as their house. And Clive Reynolds has provided a long and very specific list of duties. On her first night in the house, Thea thinks she hears a scream, but supposes it’s probably her imagination. The next morning, though, she finds the body of Joel Jennison in a pond on the property. The police begin to investigate; and, as she’s new in the area and was in the house at the time, Thea is one of their ‘persons of interest.’ As she begins to ask questions about the death, though, Thea finds that more than one person might have had a motive. One of the things we see in this novel is the impact of people who’ve bought homes in the area in the past few years – the ‘incomers.’ They’ve affected the housing market, the shops and services, and the social relationships in the village, and it’s interesting to see how they and the locals react to one another.

Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books shows the way that mobility can happen. Bookseller’s assistant Israel Armstrong lives in North London. His educational background is in library science, and he would like nothing more than to be curator of a prestigious library. But he knows he has to ‘start small.’ There’s nothing available locally, so when he hears of a position as librarian for Ireland’s Tumdrum and District, he applies for and accepts the job when it’s offered to him. On his arrival, Armstrong finds a sign on the library door saying that it’s closed. Thinking he’s come all this way for nothing, he tracks down the person who hired him; she tells him that the community has decided to switch to a mobile library. As Armstrong gets used to that and many other aspects of life in the area, we see what it’s like for people who don’t know an area to move in. He doesn’t know anyone at first; and although everyone’s heard of him, the locals don’t know him either, really. Along with the actual mystery (the disappearance of almost the entire library collection), this change in the community is an interesting plot thread.

Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery shows a few consequences of today’s increased mobility. Waldemar Leverkuhn and a few of his friends have gone in together on a lottery ticket. To all of their surprise, they win, and decide to go out to celebrate. Later that night, Leverkuhn is stabbed to death in his own bed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate the murder, which means they speak to the other residents of the apartment building where the victim and his wife lived. It’s interesting to see how these residents have superficial, but not very rich, information about the other people in the building. Nobody seems to know a great deal about the Leverkuhns. So the police team look into the family’s past. It turns out that the family had lived in the small town of Pampas from 1952 to 1976, but,

‘They moved out and disappeared. From one day to the next.’

They didn’t keep in contact with former residents, either. Even the family itself shows the effect of modern mobility, as the Leverkuhns’ grown children don’t live nearby.

And that’s the thing about today’s mobility. It means that people move a lot more frequently, and that family members often don’t live near one another. Those trends have had major effects on society – and on crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bad Company’s Movin’ On.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Ian Sansom, Louise Penny, Rebecca Tope

18 responses to “Pack Up My Belongings, I’ve Got to Get Away*

  1. It’s a very useful idea for crime writers, and as you say, one that the revered Agatha used a lot. But I wonder if every generation always thinks the new people move around much more than in the past. When you read historical documents, everyday proceedings of court cases and so on, it’s surprising how much moving about people did. Servants didn’t always stay loyal to one family, people did marry out of the village, adventurous children always did find a way to get away…

    • You know, you have a good point, Moira. Through one means or another, there really has been moving about for a very long time. I think it’s been especially the case in the last two hundred years or so since railroads and then autos have made it so easy to travel. But absolutely people have moved about. And it always makes for an interesting plot thread, I think.

  2. I just watched a Midsomer Murders episode where a murder occurs because a young woman wants to marry outside of a community. It was a truly chilling story. The people in the area did not want change moving into the village or anyone moving out. A very unusual concept now, it seemed to me. The best part was that Warren Clarke was a guest star.

    • Ooh, I’m going to have to look for that one, Tracy! I’ve seen a lot of Midsomer Murders, but not that particular episode (or I saw it but don’t recall it, which is more likely). It certainly shows one of the risks of moving into an area…

  3. Like Moira, I think mobility has been part of our ancestors’ lives far more than we give them credit for – after all, someone must have left Europe to settle in America or South America or Australia (and some of them even left willingly, not just out of fear of persecution). I think one area of mobility which has certainly been at the forefront of the news for many years now and is starting to find its way into crime fiction is refugees and immigration (of both the legal and illegal variety): books by Kati Hiekkapelto (talking about immigrants and asylum seekers in Finland), Eva Dolan (migrant workers in England). Of course, the classic in the field is Charles Willeford’s The Way We Die Now, about the exploitation of migrant workers in the South – which reminds me, I want to reread it.

    • You are absolutely right, Marina Sofia. Immigrants and refugees have featured in news stories for some time now, and writers are exploring their experiences. You’ve given some fantastic examples of recent discussions of the migrant life, for which thanks. Henning Mankell, Lene Kaaberbøl, Agnete Friis, Donna Leon and other authors have also looked at this issue. It’s a complex and difficult issue, and it’s definitely an outgrowth of mobility.

      • Col

        I’ve read a couple in the past few years that involve people smuggling and exploitation – Christine James – Sausage Hall, UK-set – David Corbett’s Do They Know I’m Running?, John Lantigua’s Heat Lightning.

        Hat-tip to Marina – you can’t beat a bit of Willeford. Elmore Leonard kind of touched on migrant farm workers in Mr Majestyk, though the main focus was the mob putting the frighteners on a melon farmer. A great film also with Charles Bronson.

        • Oh, I remember that Bronson film, Col! I confess I haven’t read the book, but I agree the film is good. And I’m not even that much of a Bronson fan. Thanks too for your examples and discussion of people smuggling/exploitation. That, too, has been a consequence of mobility. There are several books out there dealing with human trafficking, and I’m glad the topic is being discussed actually. Hopefully it can be addressed.

  4. Living as I do in a very small long established village, as a come-from-away, I can relate to this post. It makes thoughts of murder more like a locked room scenario. We just wrote a mystery evening plot for North West River set in 1916 and were very aware how limited the choices were when a town is not only tiny but isolated. Love those Three Pines mysteries. I agree with Moira though, people were more on the go than we are aware. Their range was smaller but everything was relative.

    • It’s true, Jan, that mobility is not new. It’s now easier to travel farther than it used to be. But movement is what got us all over the populated continents. Your mystery evening plot sounds intriguing! As you say, when you have a tiny, isolated town, you do have fewer choices (and you have to be creative!). I love those set-in-the-past stories :-). And it’s interesting, too. As a come-from-away to a small village, you’ve no doubt had a different sort of experience to what it’s like to move to a more fluid place, or a larger city like Ottawa or Toronto. You’ve got me thinking now, for which thanks.

  5. My late grandmother told me lots of interesting stories of growing up in the early 1900s. She had 21 first cousins and knew all of them because they all lived in the same area. I had 2 first cousins, in contrast, and traveled hours to see them. Times changed so rapidly! Interesting literary tie-ins with this theme, too, Margot, thanks.

    • Interesting, Elizabeth! What a contrast between your grandmother’s experience and your own. It’s similar to what my family’s history is like, and I think it reflects a lot of people’s lives. Times really have changed quickly!

  6. Margot, Elizabeth’s mention of cousins reminded me of my own. Like most people of my generation, I grew up with a bunch of them. In contrast, my children have very few first cousins and they’re not around. Mobility, as we see it all around us today, is one reason why one still cherishes the delightful stories of Enid Blyton and the joys of spending vacations with cousins and friends.

    • Oh, those stories are a lot of fun, aren’t they, Prashant? And I think you’ve hit on one of the reasons they still have appeal. They remind readers of times when you had more family around (cousins and so on). Today’s world is, I think, less like that.

  7. Keishon

    Interesting post, Margot and comments that follow are just as interesting.

  8. I think I might need to start re reading Agatha Christie soon 🙂

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