I 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.