Most of us have a fixed place to live. It may not be where we grew up, or where we think of as ‘home,’ but it’s the place we return to when the work day is done. When we fill out forms, we have an address to include. But that’s not true of everyone. There are many people who have, as the saying goes, no fixed abode. They travel from place to place, never staying anywhere very long. They’re often on the fringes of society, too.
Groups like this can be insular, since they don’t often make a lot of connections with people not in the group. What’s more, ‘outsiders’ often don’t trust them, and the feeling is usually mutual. So when they’re involved in cases of murder, it can be especially difficult for the police to investigate. It doesn’t help matters that the police are often (‘though certainly not always) biased against itinerants. The whole dynamic can make for a very effective crime novel, given the realities of not having one particular place to live, and the feelings that others have about that.
One such group of people is the group of migrant farm workers. At least in the US, they move from place to place, working a few weeks or months on one farm or in one area, and then moving on. They follow harvests, and when their services are no longer needed, they’re expected to leave.
We see this lifestyle in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. That’s the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who’ve been forced to leave their last place of employment and move on to the next. Lennie, who is of limited intelligence, was wrongly accused of attempted rape when he wouldn’t let go of a young woman’s dress. He says that he just enjoyed stroking it because it was soft, but that’s not how the young woman saw it. When George and Lennie get to their new jobs, they are checked in, given places to sleep, and introduced to the boss’ son, Curly. He’s arrogant, spiteful and rude – not a person you want to cross. As they settle in and try to do a good job, we see how migrant workers have traditionally been treated. And when tragedy befalls the farm, we see how their migrant status affects both men.
The Roma people, too, have a tradition of moving around and staying nowhere for very long. Stef Penney explores life among these people in The Invisible Ones. In that novel, Leon Janko hires PI Ray Lovell to find his daughter Rose, who’s been missing for seven years. At first Lovell demurs, saying that missing person cases aren’t his area of expertise. But Janko insists, and then explains that he wants Lovell because Lovell is half Roma.
‘You’re always who you are, even sitting here in your office, behind your fancy desk. You’re one of us.’
Janko says that Lovell will be able to talk to people in ways that gorijos (non-Roma) will not. Finally Lovell is persuaded to look into the matter. He’s soon dismayed by the resistance he gets from the Jankos, especially considering that it was Leon Janko who hired him. It’s soon clear that they’re hiding something that may very well relate to Rose’s disappearance. As Lovell investigates further, readers get a real sense of what life is like for people who never live anywhere for very long.
In Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich, a Roma girl who allegedly fell into a canal from a Venice roof after robbing an apartment in the building. Brunetti begins to wonder just how accidental the girl’s death was, though, and investigates. His search for the truth leads him to the Roma encampment near the city. As he tries to work with the victim’s people, we see what their lives are like, and why they have very little reason to trust Brunetti, at least at first.
You might not think of it right away, but circus workers are also often itinerant. They may stay for a couple of months in one place, but they spend much of their time ‘on the road.’ That’s what we see, for instance, in Catriona McPherson’s The Winter Ground. The Cooke family circus is happy that they’ve been given permission to stay on the Blackcraig Estate for the winter. As compensation, they’ve agreed to do a few shows for the wealthy Wilson family, who own the place. There are some concerns about having ‘those kinds of people’ around for the winter, but Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver’s two sons couldn’t be happier; they want to see the circus. Then, some nasty events begin to happen in the circus, and Mrs. Cooke wants an end to it. She asks Dandy to investigate. Things go from bad to worse when Anastasia ‘Ana,’ the bareback horse rider, falls from her mount and is killed. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but it’s not long before Dandy begins to believe it was murder.
A circus also plays a role in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes. New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he sees a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He stops her just in time, and takes her to a nearby all-night diner, where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Her mother died when she was two years old; otherwise, her life had been a more or less happy one until recently. In a very strange series of events, Harlan Reid met a man named Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who, as he himself puts it, is cursed with being able to predict the future. Despite warnings, and against his daughter’s wishes, Reid began to visit Tompkins more and more often, whenever he was faced with an important decision. Now Tompkins has predicted that Reid will die on a certain night at midnight. Reid firmly believes that it will happen, and Jean can no longer tolerate the stress. Shawn decides to help her if he can, and takes her to his boss, McManus, to see what the police can do. After all, since Reid is a wealthy man, this could simply be a scam to get his money. That part of the investigation leads to an itinerant circus and another murder investigation. In the meantime, Shawn tries to protect the Reids as well as he can, in case the threat to the family is real. Among other things, this novel offers a glimpse of what it means to travel in a circus, and how ‘circus people’ are viewed from the outside.
Of course, there are some fictional sleuths, too, who don’t really have a ‘regular’ home. Yes, I mean you, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Eleanor Kuhn’s Will Rees is another example of a sleuth who’s a bit of an itinerant. He’s a late-18th Century weaver who goes from place to place on commission. He’s recently married Lydia Farrell, a former member of the Shaker sect. As the series goes on, it’ll be interesting to see how his roving life changes.
Itinerant people often live outside the realm of what we think of as ‘normal.’ They usually have relatively few possessions or connections, and they have a unique culture based on moving around. Perhaps that’s part of what makes them such interesting characters in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by John Phillips, made famous by The Mamas and the Papas. See whether you like that version or the recording done by The Fifth Dimension better.