Where I live, the climate allows for construction throughout the year. So there’s quite a lot of ongoing building/tearing down/painting, and so on. That means, of course, work for local construction firms and their workers. It also has got me thinking about how neatly construction projects fit in with crime fiction plots.
For one thing, there’s the site itself. There are lots of opportunities for ‘accidents’ on construction sites. For another, there are the people who work on the site. Construction projects, especially large ones, draw all sorts of people from different backgrounds. So there’s lots of opportunity for the author to create different character portraits and plot threads. And there’s a lot of money at stake in construction projects. So companies sometimes go to all sorts of lengths to get bids for the work. And the less they have to spend on doing the work, the better they do. That lends itself to all sorts of plot threads. So it’s little wonder that construction projects figure the way they do in crime fiction.
There’s an interesting example of a construction project in Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning. There’s a major project taking place on the campus of Holm Coultram College, that involves moving an eight-foot bronze memorial from one part of campus to another. When the memorial and its base are lifted, everyone is shocked to discover that there’s a body underneath. It’s even more shocking when the body turns out to be former College President Alison Girling, to whom the memorial was dedicated. Everyone had assumed that she was killed in a freak avalanche during a skiing trip five years earlier, but now it’s clear that either she never left campus, or her body was brought back there for some reason. Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe investigate. They find that this death has everything to do with the complicated network of relationships on campus.
In Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters, we are introduced to DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla. The novel begins with the death of Meredith Winterbottom, one of three sisters who live in a home in London’s historic Jerusalem Lane. At first, the death looks like a suicide, but Kolla notices a few things that don’t add up. So, with Brock’s support, she starts asking questions. It turns out that a large construction and development company wants to buy out all of the residents of Jerusalem Lane in order to create a new entertainment and shopping/dining district. The victim and her sisters were the last holdouts, and there’s a lot of money at stake. So that’s one very likely lead. So is the fact that Meredith’s son Terry, who inherits the house at his mother’s death, is very much in need of money. The proceeds from the sale of the property could be just what he needs. There are other leads, too. And it’s interesting to see throughout the novel how the coming construction impacts both the people of Jerusalem Lane and the local area.
In S.J. Rozan’s No Colder Place, PI Bill Smith gets an interesting case from a colleague, former cop Chuck DeMattis. Someone’s stolen a backhoe from Crowell Construction, the general contractor building a new high-rise building in Manhattan. What’s more, Lenny Pelligrini, the crane operator has disappeared. Smith’s task will be to go undercover as a mason and find out what’s going on. He starts on the job, and begins to ask questions. Then, Pelligrini’s body is discovered. And foreman Joe Romeo meets with a convenient ‘accident’ during a very carefully orchestrated riot. There’s clearly more going on here than a case of theft, and Smith works with his occasional business partner, Lydia Chin, to find out what’s behind the murders.
Many large construction projects attract immigrant workers, and that’s been another fruitful avenue for crime novelists to explore. For example, in Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home, we meet DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit. The body of an unknown man is found in a burned-out shed belonging to Emma and Paul Barlow. The evidence suggests that the man had been living there, and that’s not out of the question, since migrant workers often take up temporary residences in places like sheds, until they can afford somewhere else to live. If the man was a foreigner, this could be a hate crime, which is why Zigic and Ferreira get the case. The man is soon identified as an Estonian named Jaan Stepulov. Now, the detectives trace the victim’s last days and weeks to find out who would have wanted to kill him and why. And as they do, they learn about the inner workings of construction companies and contractors who hire migrants to do the work. It’s an interesting, if sometimes tragic, look at the lives who come to work on construction projects.
And then there’s Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club, which takes place in 1950’s Auckland. In one plot thread of that novel, Istvan Ziegler emigrates from his native Hungary to New Zealand. He’s got a line on a job working on a new bridge that’s being constructed, and he’s hoping to make a new life for himself. He believes that working on construction sites, even though it’s difficult, will offer more than staying in Hungary. He connects with his new employer, settles into a cheap hotel and gets ready to begin his job. One day, he discovers a young woman in another room of the hotel, who seems to have been badly injured. He stays with her until she’s out of danger and learns some things about her. She is Judith Curran, who’s come to Auckland to have an abortion. The procedure left her badly hurt, and of course, she doesn’t want to admit what happened to more people than is absolutely necessary. She and Ziegler get drawn into a dangerous mystery surrounding a group of orphan girls who’ve just arrived in New Zealand. Admittedly, the new bridge going up isn’t the main point of the novel. But readers get to see what it’s like for construction workers as they settle into new places. And there’s an interesting bit that shows how workers heard about such jobs in the days before the Internet.
Construction sites draw all sorts of people together. They also mean work and commerce. But they can be at the very least annoying, and at worse, lethal. But don’t take my word for it; just check crime fiction and you’ll see.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Cowboy Junkies.