Or Have You Moved Away?*

Mobile CommunitiesI live in the sort of community where people tend to come and go. Many families don’t stay for more than a few years, if even for that long. In such communities, you don’t often get to know the other people who live there very well. In fact, you may not even be aware that a couple or a family has moved in – until you see them moving out.

That kind of community can be difficult when it comes to investigating a crime. That’s partly because the residents don’t really know one another, and partly because people can be long gone before a crime is even discovered – if it is. But with today’s mobile society, such communities are becoming more and more common.

They’re certainly not new, though. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, we are introduced to Norma Restarick. The daughter of successful businessman Andrew Restarick, she lives in London in a flat that she shares with Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. It’s the kind of place where people stay for a short while, but then leave, either to buy homes, or for a job in another place. As one character puts it,

‘‘We cater very largely for people who come and go.’’

That’s one reason why, when Norma disappears, no-one takes much note of it. But Hercule Poirot does. Norma visited him shortly before she went missing, and told him she thought she might have committed a murder. With help from detective story writer Ariadne Oliver, Poirot finds out the truth about what happened to Norma Restarick, and the truth about her claim that she might have killed someone.

The fictional town of Sea Haven, New Jersey, is another place where people tend to come and go. Just ask Chris Grabenstein’s Danny Boyle. He and his boss, John Ceepak, are police officers for Sea Haven, and they’ve seen their share of people who come, stay for a week or two (sometimes longer), and then leave. In fact, when we first meet Boyle in Tilt a Whirl, he’s a temporary cop, hired to help deal with the summer crowds. Here’s what he says about the transient nature of Sea Haven in that novel:

‘Saturday is changeover day. People who rented last week are leaving; people renting this week will show up later, after the maid brigades have vacuumed the sandy floors and tossed out the abandoned seashell collections.’

In an environment like that, it’s often difficult to follow up on leads. And it’s part of the challenge Boyle and Ceepak face when they investigate the murder of successful businessman Reginald Hart. Was the killer a transient homeless person? Someone who was in town for a week or two and now gone? It turns out to be much more complicated than the two detectives think at first.

People also tend to move in and move out in places with second/summer/holiday homes. A lot of people who have such places don’t really get to know each other, and there’s all sorts of opportunity for crime to go on. That’s what happens in Bill Crider’s Death on the Move. Sheriff Dan Rhodes of Blacklin County, Texas is faced with a difficult case when his friend Clyde Ballinger, who owns the local funeral home, is accused of theft. Ballinger’s innocent, but the case leads Rhodes to a disturbing problem: several of the summer homes around Clearview Lake have been completely stripped of anything valuable. What’s more, one of the local residents says she’s seen a suspicious rental van driving around the area. Matters get even worse when a body is discovered in one of the homes. It’s not the owner, and there’s no identification. So at first, it’s really difficult to tell who the victim is. It’s complicated by the fact that this is the sort of place where people come and go, so that nobody really knows anybody else as well as one might think. There’s a similar sort of premise, too, in Jørn Lier Horst’s Closed for Winter.

Very often, when people move, they tend to more or less disappear, at least from the point of view of other people who live nearby. If you think about it, you’re not likely to know where the people who used to live near you have gone. The van comes, their things are packed, and they go. You might have a vague idea (‘We’re moving to ___ because I got a new job’), but you don’t necessarily keep track. We see that in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery.  Elderly Waldemar Leverkuhn and some friends have gone in together on a lottery ticket. When they turn out to be the winners, they decide to go out and celebrate. Later that night, Leverkuhn is killed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate, beginning with the people who live in the same building. Nobody is really close with anyone else, so no-one can really say why Leverkuhn was killed, much less by whom. The victim’s friends aren’t very helpful, either. The team also looks into Leverkuhn’s past, including talking to people the Leverkuhn family used to know years earlier. And it’s not until the team visits that place, where people know each other better, that they start to get some hints about the real truth.

There’s also often a lot of coming and going in migrant communities. People arrive, work for a while, and then either return to their own countries or find other places to settle in more permanently. People may know each other slightly, but they don’t usually keep track of one another. We see that in Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. In that novel, DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira investigate when the body of an unknown man is discovered in the remains of a shed fire. After a short time, the man is identified as an Estonian named Jaan Stepulov. Now the detectives are faced with the thankless task of tracing the victim’s last days and weeks. It’s difficult partly because people in that community are not interested in talking to the police. But just as difficult is finding anyone who really knew the victim. People move in and out to the extent that nobody really knows anyone well.

And that’s the thing about certain communities. They may not be exactly transient, but they certainly don’t have a stable group of people who’ve lived there a while and know each other well. These are just a few examples of such places in crime fiction. Over to you.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Smiths’ Back to the Old House.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Crider, Chris Grabenstein, Eva Dolan, Håkan Nesser, Jørn Lier Horst

42 responses to “Or Have You Moved Away?*

  1. The notion of community is an intriguing one, I think it’s why I love JG Ballard so much – he writes so well about communities gone terribly wrong!

    • The whole dynamics of community are fascinating, aren’t they Cathy746books? There are so many ways in which they can (d)evolve. And people such as Ballard do depict them effectively.

  2. Ah, I know that ‘transient’ community feeling all too well – that is the nature of the expat community. The ones you like seem to leave all too soon, while the ones you hate – you seem to be stuck with them forever! Can lead to many a murderous thought…

    • It certainly can, Marina Sofia. And the expat community has the added layer of cultural differences and the angst, etc. of trying to operate within the ‘host’ community. Perfect context for a novel…

  3. There is a removal van down the lane now, and it is dark outside. I am very tempted to go and have a nose….surely that isn’t just a roll of carpet going in to the back? These occupants, of the over-run cottage, didn’t stay long…just saying.

  4. If you haven’t seen it, this is a marvelous but harrowing film connected to this theme. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreams_of_a_Life

  5. Grear subject Margot. As you know, my tales are written in a tight knit community but you always have the outsiders, the one’s who don’t fit or don’t want to fit and of course those who have dark secrets they’ve kept well hidden…

  6. Col

    How sad is the link PDB sent?

  7. mudpuddle

    coming back from shopping this afternoon, we saw a large van parked in front of a house that had been vacant for a while. two men were disassembling it piece by piece and throwing it into the back of the truck. there’s been a lot thievery in the neighborhood lately and we were wondering…

  8. I like how you take a concept [theme] and then find various examples in different crime fictions. I like the analysis. My question is — what comes first, the stories or the theme? I’m saying that with a smile, because I suspect the answer is BOTH — in a way. 🙂

  9. I don’t think I’ve read a novel with transient people, though I can see what a great backdrop it would be for a crime novel. We live in a vacation town, too, but it’s not transient. Most people own their homes and come up on weekends round year. If they didn’t, my imagination might run wild with suspicion.

  10. Great timing for this post we came back from work yesterday evening to find that two sets of neighbours have moved out from our little close (6 houses)! As you say very different to the times when people stayed put, sometimes for their whole life-time. I think this is why I’m more drawn to small-town crime fiction especially when the claustrophobic nature of the relationships is often so revealing!

    • Oh, no doubt, Cleo! Those small-town crime stories really do delve into those complex relationship dynamics, don’t they? And you don’t really get that with a more transient community – not in the same way. And it must have been surprising to find that 1/3 of the families in your close have moved. It changes the whole pattern, doesn’t it?

  11. A.M. Pietroschek

    While I am not featured by Ballard at all, I remember from my own time among the urban homeless how cheap life can be. And how wonderful it is to be the ‘unwelcome creature’ trapped between disgusted mainstreamers and lurking criminals day and night.

    In example: I myself always considered the swollen back of the hands a sign of drug abuse, but it is not. It stems from prolonged exposure to bacteria, means we all look like that once homeless…

    Somehow reading you words here made me remember Tom Selleck playing Jesse Stone, Chief of Police in Paradise Mass…

    Thanks for another interesting and well-done ‘mysterious confession’.

    • Thanks for the kind words, A.M. And for the reminder that homelessness also puts one into those groups that are never in one place for very long. It does cheapen life, and it changes everyone’s perception of the kind of person one is. I didn’t know that about swollen hands, so thanks for that enlightenment, too. I always like to learn.

      And about Tom Selleck playing Jesse Stone? I must admit I prefer the books to the television show. But still, a good series to remember.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        Manifold the books ARE better, I am merely not in any position to enjoy reading these days. It was the police-talks with the sea clear in sight which ‘Sea Haven’ vaguely reminded me of.

        One day I do lots of research and find the one crime book you didn’t already know about? No, I simply rejoice in you being such a generous host and confessor. 😉

  12. Kathy D.

    A very strange couple moves in next door to Kinsey Millhone’s house and some weird things start happening to the water supply. Anyway, who they are and why they are living there is a secondary plot in “X.” Yes, I needed a light vacationy-type read and it suited me just fine.

    • And there’s no reason not to enjoy a vacation-y type read from time to time, Kathy. And that plot point is an interesting example of the sort of thing I had in mind with this post.

  13. Margot, it’s interesting how a village, small town or community always looks at visiting strangers with suspicion. It’s a given that these things happen in both books and films, adding suspense to the story/plot.

    • I know what you mean, Prashant. Villages and small towns can become quite insular that way, so that anyone knew who comes in is automatically ‘an outsider,’ and not to be trusted.

  14. In our neighborhood there are a couple of rental homes with college students and I can never keep track of who’s who. One year we were visited by the FBI who claimed one of our former student members was applying for a job and they were doing a background check. I was embarrassed that she had lived in our court nearly two years and I’d never met her and knew nothing about her. I think I could turn that into a good story….

    • Oh, you sure could, Pat! How interesting!! And of course, you’re right; college students do come and go. So it’s hard to keep track of who’s there and who isn’t. Now I’m curious about that former student…

  15. This does sound like fertile ground for crime fiction novels, but I cannot think of any that I have read like this. I guess my recent fiction has been about stable groups.

    • I think a lot of it probably does have to do with the kind of stories one’s reading at any given time, Tracy. And stable groups can be fertile ground for a crime novel, too…

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