How close does someone have to live to be considered a neighbour? What do you think of when you think of ‘neighbourhood?’ What’s interesting about those questions is that the answer to them varies, sometimes quite a lot. For some people, for instance, the apartment or condo building in which they live ‘counts’ as their community. Those are the people they know. For others, it’s the residents of their small town. Others’ idea of community is larger still.
These differences make sense, if you consider demographics. It’s impossible to really get to know all the inhabitants of a city of ten or more million people. When the population is spread very thin, the nearest person might live a few miles away. So your conception of ‘community’ would have to be geographically larger.
The police have to keep those conceptions in mind when they’re investigating, because the circle of people they need to consider might be very small (a building, a block on a street, etc.…) or large (a county). So it shouldn’t be surprising that those differences in community would come through in crime fiction.
For instance, Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters features a very small neighbourhood – London’s Jerusalem Lane. It’s one street. A development company wants to buy up all of the property on the street in order to create a new shopping and entertainment district. One by one, the residents agree to sell their property. The last holdout is Meredith Winterbottom, who lives with her two sisters, Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe. One day, she is found dead of what looks like suicide. DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla investigate the case. Kolla finds some signs that suggest this might not have been a suicide, and Brock gives her the ‘green light’ to look into the matter. She soon finds that more than one person had a good reason for wanting the victim dead. For one thing, there’s the development company that desperately wanted her land. For another, her son is set to inherit the house. He was in dire need of money, and would have been more than willing to sell out to the developer. And then there are the people of Jerusalem Lane. Everyone knows everyone, and there is definitely animosity among some of the people who live there. Interestingly, Jerusalem Lane is one of those communities that are defined quite narrowly in terms of geography.
Some fictional communities go beyond the street, but are still rather narrowly defined. For instance, Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Mead is like that. It’s a small village – the kind with roots dating back many years. People consider each other neighbours, even if they don’t exactly live on the same street. They see one another at the shops, the library or the church, and everyone knows each other’s business. And, in The Murder at the Vicarage, Inspector Slack has to deal with the fact that this is a small community to which he doesn’t belong. He’s there to investigate the shooting death of Colonel Protheroe, who was killed during a visit to the local vicarage.
Christie creates a different sort of neighbourhood in The Clocks. Special Agent Colin Lamb is investigating possible espionage activity. The trail leads to Wilbraham Crescent, in the town of Crowdean. It’s not really what you’d call an insular tiny community, but the houses back on each other, so the residents know each other, and some of them know quite a lot. When the body of an unknown man shows up in one of the houses in the crescent, Lamb’s friend, Inspector Richard ‘Dick’ Hardcastle investigates. In the process, he and Lamb learn a lot about this community. It’s an interesting look at the way living in the same development can bring people together.
Peter May’s Lewis trilogy portrays the sense of neighbourhood and community that binds the people of a small island together. These novels feature Edinburgh cop Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod, who returns to his home on the Isle of Lewis to investigate a murder there that resembles one he’s investigating back in Edinburgh. In the process of solving those murders, MacLeod ends up having to face his own past. Over the course of the novels, we see how his life is bound up with those of the other members of his community, even though he lived away for a number of years. I know, fans of Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective.
In some cases, the concept of community is much geographically broader than just one building, street or small region. Very often, that’s because the population is more spread out. We see that, for instance, in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series. Longmire is the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. His territory is geographically large, and the people he serves are widely dispersed. So, his sense of ‘neighbourhood’ couldn’t successfully be confined to one building or street.
Neither could Rodeo Grace Garnet, whom we meet in C.B. McKenzie’s Bad Country. He’s a former rodeo star who now makes his living as a PI in the Tucson area. He’s hired by Katherine Rocha to find out the truth about her grandson, Samuel. According to the police, Samuel died of a fall from a bridge. But there’s evidence he was shot and knocked off the bridge. Garnet begins to ask questions about the case, beginning with the people Samuel knew. And that search isn’t confined to just the Tucson city limits, or to one area within the city. Instead, Garnet pursues the case over a wide geographic area.
There are even some fictional characters, such as Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest, whose concept of ‘neighbours’ doesn’t really have a geographic connection. Tempest is an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO). Many Aboriginal and other, similar, communities aren’t confined to just one place; rather, they move around. So, perceptions of ‘neighbour’ are quite different. When there’s an investigation in one of those communities, the police can’t really focus on, say, a group of buildings or one small place. Rather, they need to focus on a group of people, who may move around together. Fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte can tell you the same thing about his investigations.
Because there’s such variety in culture and community, there are dozens of different conceptions of ‘neighbour’ and community. That’s certainly true in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too. Which examples have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s On the Street Where You Live.