When You’re Down and Out, When You’re On the Street*

ShelterWhere do you go if you have to escape a domestic abuser in the middle of the night, with nothing but car, keys and kids (if you even have a car)? What if you’ve run out of money and have no place to live? What if you’re a teen who’s been thrown out of your home, or who’s had to escape an abuse situation? Your first thought might be to go to the home of a friend or relative. But if that’s not an option, what other choice have you got?

For many people, the answer is a shelter. There are different kinds of shelters, of course. Some are municipal, some are run by charities, and others by individuals. And they vary greatly in safety and quality. But they’re all integral parts of a system where people sometimes fall through the proverbial cracks. And they can, quite literally, mean the difference between life and death for those who live there.

It’s easy to see, too, why such places are woven through crime fiction. Consider the disparate people who live and work in shelters. And there’s the myriad stories of the residents. That, too, can create conflict, tension, and all sorts of plot points. So it’s little wonder we see shelters in the genre.

For example, Denise Mina’s Exile is the second in her trilogy featuring Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In this novel, she has a job in a Glasgow women’s shelter called Place of Safety. While she’s there, she meets one of the residents, Ann Harris. When Ann goes missing, Mauri begins to get concerned. On the one hand, the residents aren’t required to report on where they go and what they do. Still, as this is a women’s shelter, there’s always the concern that someone might return to an abusive situation. When Ann’s body turns up in the Thames two weeks later, all signs point to her husband, Jimmy, as the killer. But his cousin Louise, who runs the shelter, doesn’t think he’s the murderer. So she and Mauri start to ask questions to find out what really happened to Ann Harris.

Peter Temple’s Bad Debts sees Melbourne PI and sometimes-lawyer Jack Irish trying to find out who killed a former client, Danny McKillop. The trail seems to lead to a man named Ronnie Bishop, who very likely knows more than he’s said about the murder and the past circumstances that led to it. But Irish soon discovers that Bishop has gone missing. As he tries to trace the man, Irish learns that he once worked for the Safe Hands Foundation, a charity group that supports homeless children. And it turns out that Bishop recently telephoned Father Gorman, who runs the foundation. So Irish visits the place and talks to Father Gorman. The visit doesn’t solve McKillop’s murder, but it does give Irish important background information.

The real action in Robert Barnard’s No Place of Safety begins when teenagers Katy Bourne and Alan Coughlan go missing on the same day. Leeds PC Charlie Pearce looks into the case and soon learns that the two young people attended the same school, but had nothing else in common. They didn’t even really know each other. Still, he suspects their disappearances may be related. Sure enough, he finds them both at a hostel for runaways. Usually called The Centre, it’s run by an enigmatic man named Ben Marchant. For various reasons, Pearce thinks at first that the best choice for both young people is to stay at the hostel for the time being. But little by little, questions arise about the place. For one thing, very little is known about its owner. For another, the relations between Marchant (and the hostel’s residents) and the people who live nearby are not good. Tensions are high, and could lead in any number of directions. Then a young girl, Mehjabean ‘Midge’ Haldalwa, shows up at the refuge, claiming that she’s running away from an arranged marriage. As things at the hostel get more and more dangerous, Pearce is going to have to contend with more than just two runaway teens.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murderers, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets an early-morning call from her daughter, Mieka, who’s just discovered the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a trash bin near her catering shop. At first, the police think Bernice is the latest in a series of murders they’re calling the Little Flower murders. But this murder turns out to be different. Then there’s another death. The trail in this case leads to the Lily Pad, a Regina drop-in refuge for homeless teens. On the surface, it seems to be a safe place for young people, with hot meals, showers, counseling, and mentoring. But as Kilbourn learns, there’s more going on there than it seems. And some people are carrying secrets from their pasts.

Sara Paretsky’s Tunnel Vision features Arcadia House, a women’s shelter where Chicago PI V.I. Warshawski volunteers, and also sits on the board. One of the plot threads in this novel concerns one of the other board members, Dierdre Messenger. Since the shelter’s focus is survivors of domestic abuse and their children, there are several people – some in very high places – who don’t want it known that anyone in their family is there. And that plays its role when Messenger is murdered and her body left in Warshawski’s office…

And then there’s Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin. DI Marnie Rome is assigned to try to interview Ayana Mirza, whose brothers attacked her with acid. The police are hoping that if she’s willing to testify, her brothers can be prosecuted successfully. At the moment, Ayana is living in a women’s shelter in Finchley, so Rome and DS Noah Jake go to the shelter to try to convince Ayana to speak out. When they get there, though, they find a shocking surprise. Hope Proctor, another resident, has stabbed her husband Leo. On the one hand, all of the witnesses and all of the evidence suggest that Hope was defending herself. On the other hand, there’s a big question of how Leo Proctor got into the shelter in the first place. The more Rome and Jake learn about the shelter and the people there, the more past history and secrets people are keeping play their roles.

Shelters of all kinds are vital resources in many communities. They can literally save lives, and are usually staffed by tireless, deeply committed people. They’re also really interesting contexts for novels, including crime novels.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.   


Filed under Denise Mina, Gail Bowen, Peter Temple, Robert Barnard, Sara Paretsky, Sarah Hilary

25 responses to “When You’re Down and Out, When You’re On the Street*

  1. Pingback: When You’re Down and Out, When You’re On the Street* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. Tim

    Having been homeless (yes, it really happened), I know that there are not such things as shelters; substitutes for home are inadequate. However, writers have imaginations even if they haven’t experiences. I wonder how many writers who write about shelters have experienced them? Oh, the stories I could tell!

    • I’m sure that you could, Tim. And honestly, anyone can end up homeless. Things happen in life. As you say, there are differences between shelters ‘places to sleep and eat’ and home.

  3. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Don’t miss mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg’s timely post!

  4. Hmm… I’m struggling to think of any crime fictional examples, but Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 has an assassin, Aomame, as a heroine (so that makes it kinda crime, eh?), whose victims are selected from men who have abused women who live in the shelter provided by Aomame’s employer. Confused? Yes, well, the book confused me too… 😉

  5. A.M. Pietroschek

    I remember a shelter (at the train station), where a helpful guy told all the more attractive women how becoming his prostitutes would save them. Still your question was more specified, hence:

    Some people think that, in absence of an elite-lawyer, being a registered nutjob can help to make it through the courts of Law. Similar sources of wisdom proclaim that bumdom and asylum have one truism in common, namely that those who entered unscathed surely won’t leave in such a blissful state, both physically & mentally.

    Making a dive into the low-born realms and shelters, for a murderer or avenger in crime fiction, is oft based on the fact that simple, long outdated forms of crime still work, where neither police nor people want to look too closely aka thoroughly. Mugging a nomad bum who resembles oneself allows a new identity, and be it only to murder someone or cheat the social fee or leave debts behind… The one trick needed is to know who in the state office is kind and superficial on background checks, and you can get all the other cards (medi care & such) easily, like in a simpleminded movie…

  6. Col

    Shelters – a sad fact of life. I’m unsure if I’ve read that particular Temple novel, I’ll have to recheck and re-read maybe!

  7. Margot, the only example I can think of, as I write this, is a Hercule Poirot mystery (whose title I don’t recall) where he questions a bunch of (hostel) students (in a murder case, I think). I’m sorry my memory is not as good as yours, Margot. I read this novel years ago. I can see why the homeless and those living in shelters would be vulnerable characters in crime fiction.

    • You have a better memory than you think, Prashant. If I’m not mistaken, are you thinking of Hickory Dickory Dock? That one’s set mostly in a student hostel. And you’re right; people living in shelters of any kind are vulnerable, in real life and in crime fiction.

  8. SteveHL

    The Best Defense by Kate Wilhelm is about murder and arson at a women’s shelter. A child is killed and her mother is tried for the murder. Barbara Holloway, a continuing character in a series by Wilhelm, is the attorney for the defense.

    In Michael Z. Lewin’s short story “Good Intentions”, the man who runs an unofficial women’s shelter is beaten and stabbed by the former boyfriend of one of the women and three other men. Lewin’s continuing character, private detective Albert Samson, solves the case.

  9. The example that instantly sprang to my mind was Someone Else’s Skin which I imagine to be a good portrayal of a shelter – great story too, but you’d already picked that one and now I can’t think of another!

    • I’m glad you mentioned it, Cleo. I agree that it’s a really solid portrayal of what life in a shelter is like. I think that adds to the sense of authenticity of the story.

  10. kathyd

    I remember the shelter in Mina’s book and Paretsky’s book. Then there’s Clare Mackintosh book I Let Her Go where someone carries out a shelter’s card but doesn’t actually go to it — bad move. Shelters aren’t home, but in a crisis there’s a roof, showers and food, and maybe someone to talk to.
    Whenever the government here cuts the budget, mental health services, domestic violence shelters and domestic violence and rape hotlines are defunded.
    I keep meaning to send Safe Horizon, shelter system here, some books.
    Though not home, these shelters are so needed, whether one is homeless or victim of domestic violence. And then there are shelters for abused teens, including LGBTQ teens who re thrown from their homes. So sad.
    I loved the Mina Garnethill series and all of Paretsky’s books. V.I. Warshwski’s friend, Lotte Hershel, doctor, runs a community health clinic for low-income people, and helps people in other ways, too.

    • You’re right, Kathy, that shelters fill an important need. They may not be home, but they can be safe places to eat, sleep, get resources and so on. Thanks for mentioning the Mackintosh; it’s a good example of what I had in mind with this post. And thanks for reminding everyone about donating books to shelters. Folks, imagine the lift that a good book can offer to someone who’s in crisis. If you’re finished with books, shelters are great places to give other people a chance to love them.

  11. I created a fictitious women’s shelter on the 16th Street Mall in Denver for “Dead Wrong” — I placed it within walking distance from the bus station so it served as a safe haven for Lynnette when she was trying to keep a low profile while on the run.

    There’s a lot of drama associated with most shelters so they make interesting settings for part of a novel. As a matter of fact, I would think the stories of each person staying in a shelter on any given day would give a writer ideas for decades. I remember a movie from a long time ago, maybe a TV movie, called Stone Pillow that starred Lucille Ball as a homeless woman. It’s worth watching for anyone interested in this particular social problem since it still exists today…and may be worse than it was back when that movie was made.

    • Hey, folks, did you hear that? Dead Wrong is a great example of the way shelters are/can be used in crime fiction. Pat, thanks for reminding me of that. And thanks for reminding us of The Stone Pillow, too. I remember that, and how impressed I was with Lucille Ball’s performance. It’s definitely something you’ll want to look for, folks, if you haven’t seen it; it’s a pretty powerful film.

      And you’re right, Pat; the individual stories of people who come to shelters are really interesting in and of themselves, and can make for great contexts for a story.

  12. kathyd

    And this post reminds me: I must read Sarah HIlary’s books or one of them and see how I like it.

  13. A sad topic, Margot. You have a couple of books in this post that are on my TBR pile: Exile by Mina and Peter Temple’s Bad Debts.

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