But Lately There Ain’t Been Much Work On Account of the Economy*

One of the biggest issues that many people are concerned about is the economy. And for a lot of people, it’s not really the larger economic issues. It’s basic issues such as jobs/working conditions, education, and so on. How often, for instance, have you seen politicians and candidates go on about all of the jobs they’ll create (or have created)? And plenty of people vote based on those records (or those promises).

Basic economic issues play a role in crime fiction, too. And that makes sense. After all, most people are concerned at some level about getting (or keeping) a job, retiring with some dignity, and prospects for their (grand)children. It’s not really a matter of greed (although I’d suspect a lot of us would like to have more wealth than we do). It’s a matter of economic security. That elemental concern for safety and security can form an interesting background feeling of tension in a story or series.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), for instance, takes place just after the end of World War II. The British economy is recovering from the war, and even people with money are feeling the proverbial pinch. Against this backdrop, we meet the Cloade family, who live in the village of Warmsley Vale. Wealthy Gordon Cloade has always taken good financial care of his family, and has told them that they need never worry about money. Then, unexpectedly, Cloade marries a young woman named Rosaleen Underhay. Not long after that, he is killed in a bomb blast. Now, his widow is set to inherit a great deal of money, and his relations are likely to be left with nothing. The economic uncertainly this brings, combined with the poor state of the general economy, is enough to make the family uneasy and very anxious. That adds an important layer of tension to the novel. And it adds to the mystery surrounding the death of an enigmatic visitor to Warmsley Vale – a man who calls himself Enoch Arden. It turns out he may very well be connected with the Cloades’ financial situation.

Reginald Hill’s Underworld and On Beulah Height both take place against a backdrop of economic tension. In the former, the world of miners and mining is the context for a search for the truth about the abduction and murder of a young girl. The man everyone suspected committed suicide. But when new evidence comes out that he was not guilty, everything changes. Then a miner dies of a fall (was it accidental?) into a mine shaft. Was he guilty? The latter book takes a look at an entire town that disappeared when it was cleared and flooded to create a reservoir. But the people of the town haven’t disappeared. Neither have their secrets. In these novels, the murders aren’t, per se, committed because of economic fears. But that anxiety is there, and plays a role in the stories’ backgrounds.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series begins in 1931 in Berlin. Vogel is a crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt. When she discovers that her brother, Ernst, has been killed, she decides to look into the matter. She can’t involve the police, because she and Ernst allowed two Jewish friends to borrow their identity cards, so they could leave the country. Without proper identification, Vogel risks a lot if she’s stopped by any authority figures. So, she will have to move very quietly. This novel is set during the Weimar Republic and the larger Great Depression. The economy is suffering badly, and it’s gotten so desperate that people can’t always buy even basics such as food. Some women turn to prostitution so they can eat. Other people sell whatever anyone will buy for the same purpose. It’s a frightening time, and that adds to the tension in the novel.

One plot thread of Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising concerns an upcoming strike that’s been planned by the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA). They are looking for better wages and working conditions, and they know that they have to present a united front if they’re to get what they want. The story takes place in 1981, before the integration of the (white) ILA with the (black) Brotherhood of Longshoremen (BoL). The BoL wants parity with the ILA, but many in the latter union fear that if that happens, they’ll lose out on jobs, wages and so on. For them, it’s a matter of economic survival. It is for the members of the BoL, too, though, so there’s an inevitable clash. In fact, some ILA thugs attack a member of the BoL named Darren Hayworth. Unless Hayworth’s attackers are found and punished, the ILA is going to have a much more difficult time in the upcoming strike. So will the BoL. So, the BoL wants the case investigated. For that, they turn to a young lawyer, Jay Porter. He’s black, so he’ll be more likely to be trusted by the BoL. And, he knows Houston’s mayor, Cynthia Maddox. It’s hoped he can use his influence to get justice for Hayworth. This plot thread shows just how much economic issues matter, and it adds tension to the larger story, which also concerns a shooting murder and its connections to corporate greed and powerful people who won’t stop at killing to preserve their privilege.

Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage takes place in 2008, just after the collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ Irish economy. In one plot thread, Dublin DS Bob Tidey, and Garda Rose Cheney investigate the shooting murder of a dubious banker named Emmet Sweetman. During the ‘boom’ years, Sweetman took advantage of the easy money that was available, and didn’t think much about the source of his newfound wealth. But, when the economy went bad, Sweetman found he could no longer pay on his debts. He got more and more desperate, and took more and more risks. And, in the end, his risk-taking caught up with him when some very dangerous people decided they didn’t want to wait any longer for their money.

There’s an interesting look at the impact that economic issues have in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. That novel concerns the residents of an ultra-exclusive community called Cascade Heights – or, more familiarly, ‘The Heights’ – located about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted’ before they’re allowed to move in. It’s a community full of money and privilege, and gated from the outside world. But even that security doesn’t spare the residents from the severe economic problems of late-1990s Argentina. In fact, the economic difficulties hit home, as the saying goes, among even the most privileged characters, and, ultimately, leads to a terrible tragedy.

And that’s the thing about the economy. We might not think a lot about the stock market, the larger economic forces operating in a country, etc… But, when it comes to basic economics such as jobs, affordable housing, and so on, people do care. A lot. It’s a basic safety and security issue, and it can form an interesting backdrop to a crime story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s The River.  


Filed under Agatha Christie, Attica Locke, Claudia Piñeiro, Gene Kerrigan, Rebecca Cantrell, Reginald Hill

20 responses to “But Lately There Ain’t Been Much Work On Account of the Economy*

  1. Ah, you’ve reminded me I really want to read Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, having enjoyed her later novel The Cutting Season several years ago now. And I don’t even need to add it to my TBR since it’s been sitting on my Kindle since 2015… I must boost it up the priority list! Those Reginald Hills are both excellent too – I think he was at his best when he was writing with that kind of mildly political edge…

    • I know what you mean, FictionFan. Hill was able to write about those ‘hot topic’ issues without preaching or turning a book into a lesson on politics/history/etc.. I think that’s part of the appeal of those books. They give the reader a sense of the issues without making it a major part of the story, if I can put it that way. As for Locke’s work, I do strongly recommend both Black Water Rising and its follow-up, Pleasantville. Both are, in my opinion, excellent novels.

  2. Col

    Great post, I loved Kerrigan’s The Rage. Time to get back to him I think.

  3. I have three of Attica Locke’s books on my TBR and your post has made me want to move them to the top of the pile very soon. I do love reading your posts, you always make me think a bit more about the books I’ve read and encourage me to seek out the ones I haven’t.

    • That’s very kind of you, Hayley – thank you. I’m glad you enjoy the posts. And I do recommend Locke’s work. It’s got a real sense of place, time and context. The characters are well drawn, too, in my opinion.

  4. I agree with all the positive comments about Attica Locke – she has so much to say about the economics, politics and racism of present-day USA (I would almost have said in the past just a few years back, but it seems to be too contemporary for comfort now).
    Eva Dolan’s books, particularly the first two, give quite a bit of an insight into the precarious and exploitative jobs that migrant workers often get lured into in rural parts of the UK.

    • You make a well-taken point about Attica Locke, Marina Sofia. Her work really does seem uncomfortably contemporary right now. But, to me, that’s a good reason to read it. Eva Dolan’s work is excellent, too, so I’m glad you mentioned it. Certainly it shows how migrant workers who are desperate for money get lured into jobs, as you say, in the UK. It’s quite scary, actually.

  5. kathy d

    I agree with your comment and other comments about Attica Locke’s books. But I’m puzzled as to why I don’t remember the details of Black Water Rising as well as you do. Maybe I have to reread it.
    And now I am reminded to read The Rage and the first in Cantrell’s series.
    I also agree about Thursday Night Widows, an unusual but good read. Quite a stand-out among mysteries.
    And I concur with the points about Eva Dolan’s first two books dealing with the dangerous and uncertain jobs for migrant workers in Britain. Her books were an eye-opener to so many people.

    • I think you would like Rebecca Cantrell’s work, Kathy. It certainly gives a good picture of Germany just before the Nazis took power. And Hannah Vogel is a well-drawn character. It’s true, too, that Dolan’s work shed light on a serious problem. Attica Locke’s work is, as you say, excellent, in my opinion. Folks, if you haven’t tried it, I recommend it.

  6. I bet. Using an unstable economy sounds like an intriguing thread. You’re examples were spot-on, Margot, and helpful in solidifying your point. Thanks for another amazing post. I don’t know how you do it with such regularity.

    • Thanks very much, Sue. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I really do think there’s something about unsettling economic situations that makes people feel desperate. And that can spell disaster…

  7. kathy d

    I did finally toughen up and read Cantrell’s Game of Lie set during the Berlin Olympics. And I do want to read the first book.
    On Thursday Night Widows, Pineira writes unusual books. Every one of them differs from the last.

    • You’re right about Claudia Piñeiro, Kathy. She certainly doesn’t ‘stick to a script.’ And I’m glad you’ve had a chance to read some of Cantrell’s work.

  8. Frankly, Margot, I could never think of relating crime fiction with economics, unless it’s heists and embezzlements. Detectives, in particular, seem rather above such matters. Perry Mason and Hercule Poirot, for instance, often do not bother about their fees, which is bad economics.

    • It certainly is, Prashant. Holmes, too, usually doesn’t speak much about economics, except in the case of A Scandal in Bohemia. And, yet, troubling economic times can certainly form the backdrop for a compelling story, I think.

  9. I have The Rage but haven’t read it yet. Same for Thursday Night Widows. Got to get to those books.

  10. I’ve been meaning to try both Eva Dolan and Attica Locke, and now you’ve given me an extra prod.

    • Both are authors I highly recommend, Moira. Their books are not light, easy reading, but they have very interesting characters, and they’re very well-written.

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