Go Where You Wanna Go*

ItinerantMost 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.


Filed under Catriona McPherson, Cornell Woolrich, Donna Leon, Eleanor Kuhns, John Steinbeck, Lee Child, Stef Penney

32 responses to “Go Where You Wanna Go*

  1. This is definitely off-beat! I like it! I never expected to read about Mice and Men in your mystery postings, yet it FITS with the concept of people who do NOT stay PUT.

    Reading this made me think of another mystery novel involving gypsies

  2. In the old days of music hall, performers had to be on the road most of the time, as Elly Griffiths showed so well in her recent historical crime novel, ‘The Zig-Zag Girl’. It concentrated on magicians appearing in the various seaside resorts around Britain in the post-WW2 era, and I thought she gave a very authentic picture of lives lived in dingy bed and breakfasts, moving on to a new place every week, but with a kind of camaraderie amongst the performers.

    • You know, FictionFan, I hadn’t thought about music call and vaudeville people, but you’re absolutely right. They, too, were itinerant. They stayed at the worst flophouses for the week or month or whatever, and they did have a kind of a grim life. But yes, there was a sort of camaraderie, and you did run into the same people here and there. Thanks, too, for mentioning The Zig-Zag Girl. I give Griffiths a lot of credit for branching out like that. I wonder if she’ll do that again.

  3. Another great topic for COAMN, Margot. I’ve always been fascinated by the Roma and those whose sense of identity is not rooted in land/place. My favourite ever non-fiction book is a history of the Roma people called Bury Me Standing, well worth reading if ever you need a break from crime fiction (ha, ha).

    • Oh, thank you, Angela (and thanks for the kind words)! I always like to get ideas for new reading. And Bury Me Standing sounds interesting. Like you, I find the Roma people fascinating, and it’s so interesting to conceive of a life where you don’t really have a regular place you call ‘home.’ I’ve often thought that of the migrant farm workers who’ve been responsible for so much of the agricultural success of places like California. I think that’s worth another post in itself…

  4. Margot: There was a time when the Inuit people of Arctic Canada roamed the North as they pursued different animals for food in different seasons. In my youth they were termed nomads but their travels were never random. They had camps in specific areas each season of the year. They had no fixed address in terms of southern Canada. It was a hard but fascinating life. Scott Young in his brief series features RCMP Inspector, Matthew “Matteesie” Kitogitak who was a member of the last generation to live off the land. His 90 year old mother, Bessie Apakaq, still travels the north going from one family member to another. Aspects of the lifestyle survive in hunting camps or traplines but the Inuit now have addresses.

    • Thanks, Bill, for that reminder about the Inuit. They are an excellent example of a people whose concept of home and identity had much more to do with family and other things than with being in one place. In that sense, they remind me of some of the Aboriginal groups of Australia, whom Arthur Upfield weaves into his Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels and Adrian Hyland into his Emily Temepest novels.
      You’re right, too, that Scott Young’s Matteesie Kitogitak novels really show readers what life in the far northern part of Canada is like. As you say, difficult, but interesting. Folks, if you’ve not yet tried Young’s novels Murder in a Cold Climate and The Shaman’s Knife, I recommend them.

  5. When you mentioned the Roman, I have to admit my thoughts went to poor Enid Blyton, a typical reflection of her times no doubt, who in her Secret Seven and Famous Five books would occasionally have a travelling circus nearby with some dodgy ‘gypsies’ being suspected of some crime. Although, to her credit, it would often turn out they weren’t the actual perpetrators…

    • Ah, yes, Enid Blyton! As you say, Marina Sofia, a product of her times, I’m sure, so it’s no surprise that ‘Gypsies’ are portrayed as they are. I wonder if Blyton made them innocent because she thought ahead of her time? Interesting…

  6. Marina Sofia is so right – circuses were quite the feature of Enid Blyton. And Noel Streatfeild wrote a book about a circus too… and the marvellous Mary Stewart had a travelling circus in her Airs above the Ground. Great topic!

    • Thanks, Moira. And thanks for the reminder of Mary Stewart. She did some great Gothic stories! You know, circuses themselves are such interesting settings and contexts. I could do another whole post on that along; thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  7. There is something about people who tend to be on the move that leads to mystery and unfortunately for them mayhem at times. For some reason I thought of people in the Armed Forces having to move every so often from state to state and sometimes from country to country in service to keep us safe. An interesting post as always, Margot.

    • Oh, Mason, that’s a fascinating point!! People in the military do move a lot. They could be assigned to go nearly anywhere, depending on the country they serve and their role. I’m really glad you brought that to our discussion – thanks! And thanks for the kind words.

  8. I’ll add Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep to your list because the creepy bad villains disguise themselves as older retirees on the move in their campers and RVs. This one is just as much crime fiction as it is horror.

    • Oh, that’s a great one, Pat! And that opens up the whole category of people who’ve retired and travel around like that – in RVs. That’s a culture unto itself, too. Thanks for that idea.

  9. Margot, I loved OF MICE AND MEN even though it was a sad story. I take this as a reminder to read Steinbeck again. He was such a wonderful writer.

    • Oh, he really was, wasn’t he, Prashant? I think his work is definitely worth re-reading. And as for Of Mice and Men, I couldn’t agree more. It’s such a fine story, even if very sad.

  10. Home is such an important thing to all of us. Perhaps we create a home for our charcaters that appeals to ourselves? I know I moved around a lot when I was younger and yet ai write about someone who’s lived in the same place most of his life. It’s an interesting subject.

  11. All of these books sound very interesting, and these types of groups would be great for a mystery novel. Only one you mentioned that I have read is Of Mice and Men, so many there for me to seek out. Especially the Cornell Woolrich. My husband and I are both interested in his books and stories.

    • Woolrich wrote some great stories, Tracy; I can see why you’re interested in them. And as for the rest, well, there’s never enough time to read everything out there.

  12. Col

    I thought of Reacher who in the early books at least (and perhaps throughout the series?) seems to be a bit of a wanderer. Ditto the first John Rambo book by David Morrell – an ex-serviceman travelling around – borderline vagrant and the sheriff tries to run him out of town.

    I’m sure it used to be a thing of past fiction where the stranger in town wasn’t welcomed and the local law would drive them to the town border and advise them not to come back.

    • Oh, that’s a classic, though, isn’t it, Col? The stranger gets a ‘friendly piece of advice’ first, and if s/he doesn’t listen, is escorted to the edge of town (or wherever) and made to leave. I don’t think that happens any more, but it’s a great plot point. And you’re right about Reacher; he does his share of moving about. I have to admit I’ve not read the Morrell, but it sounds like a great example of what I had in mind with this post.

  13. It’s always a pleasure to read your posts. My preference is The Fifth Dimension but a close tie. I thoroughly enjoyed the choreography of the YouTube video I watched. 🙂
    Interesting post. I want to read Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has A Thousand Eyes. 🙂

    • You’re not the only one who prefers the 5th Dimension’s version, Carol. I think quite a lot of people do. And yes, that YouTube video’s great. If you do read the Woolrich, I’ll be interested in what you think of it. 🙂

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