Working on a Building*

constructionWhere 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.


Filed under Barry Maitland, Eva Dolan, Jen Shieff, Reginald Hill, S.J. Rozan

32 responses to “Working on a Building*

  1. You always introduce me to such interesting series!

    On the construction theme, albeit of the non-commercial type, is Sarah Graves’ Home Repair is Homicide series.

    • Thanks very much Debbie. I’m glad you like what you find here. And thanks, too, for mentioning Graves’ series. I’ve heard of it, but must admit I’ve not (yet) dipped into it. It certainly fits, though!

  2. Wondering how one goes about stealing a backhoe to begin with. Quite amusing and intriguing. A restaurant here purchased a huge food truck complete with kitchen for a go into the street-food service. The day it arrived, it was nipped right from the parking lot. I have been wondering since, how that was ever possible.
    You are always informative and inspiration Margot.

    • Thank you, Lesley. That means a lot to me. And you know, I can’t imagine how a food truck would just ‘walk’ like that. You would think someone would notice it, but perhaps if someone made off with it in a purposeful way, it’d look like the truck was simply done its hours there and left. Hard to say. And the backhoe story is kind of interesting, actually…

  3. Yes, I always feel digging anything is a risky business – it seems every building site is littered with corpses! There was a soap on TV over here, Brookside, which had a long-running and dramatic storyline about an abusive husband whose wife and daughter buried him beneath the patio they were having built in their garden. It was one of those storylines that caught the public imagination – like who shot JR – so that even people who never watched the soap knew about it. And it’s now become a kind of standard joke over here that patios really only exist to bury bodies under. Thankfully I don’t have one. Yet. 😉

    • Yes, I’d say it’s a very good thing, indeed, FictionFan 😉 It’s funny, isn’t it, how a soap or other such show catches the public’s imagination. I’d heard of Brookside, but didn’t know what it was about; it sounds like that storyline became iconic. And I can see why, too. There’s just something about a dramatic story arc like that. Hmmm…this is sparking my imagination. Perhaps I should try my hand at screenwriting. 😉

  4. Col

    Didn’t it used to be claimed (ever verified?) that the Mafia would dispose of bodies at construction projects? That’s one of the Jimmy Hoffa rumours.

    • Yes, it is, Col. In fact, that’s one of the most persistent legends about what happened to Hoffa. And I’ve heard the Mafia used construction sites more than once.

  5. tracybham

    As usual, the only example I can thing of is a Rex Stout book: THE RUBBER BAND. In that book, one of the characters, Mike Walsh, is the night watchman for a construction site, and there is a death discovered at the site. I don’t know if this is one of my favorite Nero Wolfe books, but it does have several elements I like, hiding a person at Wolfe’s brownstone in an unusual way, and a nice romance on the side.

    • That’s a nice choice, Tracy. It’s a perfect example for what I had in mind with this post, so thanks. And feel free to mention Stout’s work any time at all.

  6. A great post Margot and you’ve reminded me I really need to start Eva Dolan’s series!

  7. I’d never realized just how much construction was involved in crime stories. I always think of a killer boarding someone up in a wall of a house or the floor as in Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell- Tale Heart. Some interesting new books to check out. Thanks, Margot. 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mason, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I think The Tell-Tale Heart is a good example, too, of how construction and building figure in books, too – in this case, horror. Thanks for bringing it up.

  8. This post as well as Lesley’s comment reminded me of a story. My husband worked in the asbestos business for years, and because the disposal was so expensive he saw all kinds of construction owners cutting corners. One man not only buried asbestos on his construction site, but he even went as far as burying his tractor (the huge ones with a bucket loader) in order to put in a claim for a new one — his usual MO whenever he needed a new piece of equipment. It took years, but finally the insurance company caught up with him and when they unearthed the fraudulence, they also found the asbestos. The owner went to straight to jail for several years, as he should. What struck me about this story was the determination it took to bury a tractor. That’s a lot of greed.

    • Wow! What a story, Sue! What a story! I’m sure the insurance company was really glad to catch a guy like that, no doubt about it. Yikes! Thanks for sharing the story.

  9. What a unique topic, Margot! Great post! 🙂

  10. I’ll have to add the Reginald Hill novel to my list! Construction can really unearth some surprises. 🙂

  11. Margot, I can’t offer any examples of construction sites in crime fiction, though, in real life, I can easily associate construction and property with crooked politicians, shady builders, and the mafia. You have mentioned some great examples here, authors I must remember to read someday.

    • You make such a good point, Prashant, about the people behind those construction projects. All sorts of shady deals happen, and it’s not surprising that they could end in murder.

  12. Margot, I spent a great deal of my summer living in a construction zone in which we had to redo the foundation of the triplex I live in. Now, that I read your post I can see how it would be easy to bury a body under all the ruble.
    As usual, a very interesting post and I’m happy to get back to blogging and reading your blog! 🙂

    • Delighted you’re back, Carol! Ad I can only imagine how annoying it must have been living in a construction zone most of the summer. Hopefully the work is done now, and your life can get back to some semblance of peace. 🙂

  13. Margot: In the last three books of the Joanne Kilbourn series a huge development in a desperately poor area of Regina featuring a large community building is at the heart of the books. It proceeds from planning to construction to use over the course of the books and is an important part of each book.

  14. Large-scale construction round here (and I’m sure in most places) is now often preceded by an archaeological dig – thus doubling the opportunities for crime writers to find, place and bury the bodies! I’m sure the archaeological side could give you a whole other post. Elly Griffiths and Tana French have both used the tension between the archaeologists and the builders to good effect…

    • They have, indeed, Moira. And you’re absolutely right that that preliminary digging opens up lots of possibilities for a crime fiction plot. Perhaps I will dig back into this topic on another post at some point…

  15. Rob Kos

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing Margot

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