I Have Often Walked Down This Street Before*

neighbourhoodsHow 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.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Barry Maitland, C.B. McKenzie, Craig Johnson, Mark Douglas-Home, Peter May

28 responses to “I Have Often Walked Down This Street Before*

  1. Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Cape Cod mysteries featuring Asey Mayo, from the 1930s and 1940s, are set in a place – the cape – where the year-round residents know each other very well. A lot of them are related; Asey’s cousin Jennie loves to explain how some resident is the second cousin once removed of somebody else’s grandmother. Solving the mysteries often requires a good knowledge of the cape and its people and their behavior.

    There’s also Lilian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who…” mysteries, set in the remote (and cold) town of Pickax, “400 miles north of anywhere.” It’s another place where the community is pretty close-knit, with everyone knowing everyone else’s business, a fact which frequently leads to trouble and also provides clues for newspaperman (and town benefactor) Jim Qwilleran.

    And shouldn’t I mention how dangerous it is to be a resident of Cabot Cove and a friend of Jessica Fletcher? 😉

    • Oh, I think both of those places are clearly their own communities, Les. They’re larger than a building or a street; at the same time, they’re not too large. Interesting how those seaside communities have changed, too, since the advent of air conditioning. I’m sure society has changed dramatically, too, as that has happened.

      And yes, I would say the most dangerous place in the world to take a trip is Cabot Cove, Maine… 😉

  2. Last night I watched Rear Window for the umpteenth time and it is all about neighbours – though there isn’t much of a sense of community at the beginning. People live cheek by jowl, but they don’t really know each other. It is one of my very favourite films.

    • Oh, isn’t it a classic, Christine? And a great example of the way a small geographic place produces a sense of place and setting. As you say, not, perhaps, a sense of community at first, but still, a group of people who are neighbours. I could watch that again and again…

  3. One of my favourites of recent years with the ‘how well do you know your neighbour’ theme has been Alex Marwood’s ‘The Killer Next Door’. Having lived as a student in those anonymous boarding-style houses, I’ve seen first-hand how easy it is to fool and be fooled by appearances.

    • That’s just it, Marina Sofia, isn’t it? You never do know, even if you do pay attention to appearances – sometimes especially if you pay attention. Thanks for mentioning the Marwood. It’s something I’ve heard of, but haven’t (yet) read.

  4. For me this the main feature that tends to distinguish a detective story from a thriller a lot of the time, that sense of intimacy and even claustrophobia. I think Stanley Ellin’ s KEY TO NICHOLAS STREET is a prime example. Thanks Margot 😀

    • It is a key factor in a detective novel, Sergio. I’m glad you put it that way. And thanks for mentioning the Ellin. I always appreciate your filling in the gaps. 🙂

  5. Col

    No neighbour examples as such, though I’m kind of reminded of the old lady and the twitching curtains trope in films. A few examples you’ve mentioned I need to read – Bad Country and The Marx Sisters.

    • I do recommend Bad Country, Col. I think you’d like it. And the Maitland series is a fine one. And yes, there is that curtain-twitcher trope in films, isn’t there? I think it can add a layer to a story if it’s done well.

  6. For me the communal atmosphere at Insula, the apartment block where Corinna Chapman (Kerry Greenwood) resides in Melbourne comes to mind. It conjures up happy hours of reading about a wide assortment of tenants and their quirky lives and habits.

    • Oh, absolutely, JM297. And what’s interesting about that community is that it’s a small neighbourhood in a large city. It’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post, so thanks.

  7. Margot, most Indians in urban areas and towns live in apartments or condo buildings and so they have lots of neighbours, who are usually the first line of immediate help in an emergency. This is also because families are now more nuclear than joint until recently. There is also greater bonding among neighbours living in “community chawls”, a cheaper accommodation for the labour class, and in some cases even the middle class owing to their market value in business districts.

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Prashant. And it makes sense, especially in large urban areas, where you don’t know people in other districts. If your family isn’t around, you do have to have someone you can rely on in an emergency. I hadn’t heard of community chawls before, either – thanks.

  8. kathy d

    Oh, gosh, I have wanted to live in Corinna Chapman’s building ever since I opened the first page of a book f3eaturing her by Kerry Greenwood.
    When I think of neighbors in mysteries, the first one I think of is V.I. Warshaw’s elderly downstairs neighbor, Mr. Contreras. He takes care of her dogs and watches out for her, even demanding to go with her to dangerous scenes at times.
    Then there’s Kinsey Millhone’s very good friend and neighbor, Henry.
    Then there are the neighbor-suspects, as in Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope book, “The Moth Catcher.” Everyone is a suspect in this small community.
    Same, too, in a locked-house mystery, “The Human Flies,” by Lahlum. Neighbors within a house are all suspects in murders of other residents.
    What interests me are the observations of neighbors in mysteries when a crime has been committed, whether in an apartment building or house. Detectives always talk to the neighbors; sometimes they are helpful, sometimes they send investigators on a wild goose chase.

    • That’s true, Kathy. The police do often talk to the people who live in the same building/street, etc.., because someone might have seen something. But that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily get a lot of useful information. And you’ve given some great examples of different perceptions of ‘community.’ It really does depend on culture, geography, and sometimes personal factors, I think.

  9. Tim

    The isolation of farm life (rural community) was depicted in splendid fashion by Glaspell in “A Jury of Her Peers.” The dangers of village life were depicted in horrifying fashion by Jackson in “The Lottery.” Then life in Thebes goes very, very wrong in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. All three stories are fixed forever in my memory as examples of “communities” gone haywire.

    • And those are all excellent examples of the way the concept of ‘community’ can go very, very wrong, Tim. I also like the fact that you’ve mentioned Oedipus Rex as an example of crime fiction. A lot of people don’t think of the classics when they think of crime fiction, but I think many of them ‘count.’

  10. In Dorothy Sayers Gaudy Night the community is Shrewsbury college. The colleges are also in the town so there you have a small community inside a larger one so to speak. A bit like a Russian doll.

    • Yes, indeed, Vicky, and that’s such a good way to describe the Shrewsbury community. Thanks for the reminder of the novel, too; I think it’s one of Sayers’ better ones. But, being an academic, I’m biased…

  11. Another fascinating post which started from the first question – I consider my neighbours those that live in the same cul-de-sac as I do – is that because I live on a small island or because the occupants change relatively frequently – or dare I say it, because if I chose I can observe what they are doing rather than those who live in the houses directly opposite?
    Love your examples too especially now I have read Miss Marple and understand St Mary’s Mead and of course I was a huge fan of the Lewis trilogy 🙂

    • That is a great trilogy, isn’t it, Cleo? I’m a fan, too. And you ask an interesting question about the people you consider you neighbours. I’d have to think about that, too. Are they just the people who live in my building? Just that and the nearest other buildings? It’s something to think about. And I know just what you mean about observing, too. There’s something about that visual contact that makes someone ‘feel’ more like a neighbour than if that person lives just one street over. Hmm…..much ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks. And thanks for the kind words, too.

  12. Gillian White’s Copycat makes great use of the small neighbourhood – one street – the characters live in. They are middle-class, but a new sink estate has been created nearby which has destroyed their property prices so none of them can afford to sell up and leave. She really gets the claustrophobia of living in a tiny community, and the way sometimes friendships are more to do with where people live than having anything real in common.

    • Oooh, now I shall have to look into that one, FictionFan! I’ve heard good things about it, but it hadn’t yet made the leap from radar to wish list. Sounds as though it should. And I love the premise there, too: members of a community more by geography than by commonality. Intriguing…

  13. kathyd

    Who is a neighbor? People in my apartment building? Yes. People in the adjoining buildings? Or across the street? I don’t know most of them, so I guess not. i’d say that person lives next door or across the street.
    But if a crime was committed across the street, investigators would interview people in the adjoining buildings or across the street and would probably consider them “neighbors.”
    But is a neighbor just a nearby resident? Or is a relationship involved?

    • That’s a good point, Kathy. Do we have to have a relationship with a person for that person to be a neighbour? I don’t know that it’s absolutely essential. It’s a really interesting question. And you’re right; if there is a serious crime, the police don’t just talk to the people who live, say, next door, one floor down or up, and so on. Someone half a block down might have seen something. So they have consider other possibilities.

  14. I love Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian books, and particularly enjoy the sense of community life in Cavaunagh St in Philadelphia, with all the Armenian families (immigrants made good) with their cafe and cooking and decorating and knowing each other’s business. I think that’s where I would like to live.

    • Ooh, perfect example, Moira! Thank you! And what’s so interesting about Philadelphia is that it really is a collections of neighbourhoods like that. I’m glad you brought that up.

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