Look At All the Slum Kids Around You*

Slums, tenements, housing projects, however you think of them, they’re not the sorts of places you read about in tourist brochures. The people who live there are often the working poor, or those on government assistance. Such places can be dangerous (although not all of them are), and people don’t tend to live there by choice. But they are unique communities, and they have their own cultures. Most real-life cities have such districts, and we certainly see them in crime fiction.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has the skill of fitting in as necessary to solve cases. That includes going into some of London’s dangerous slums. For instance, in The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, for instance, Holmes disguises himself as ‘a common loafer’ and goes into one of London’s more disreputable areas to follow the trail of some missing jewels. And it’s interesting to see that there’s a way to fit in, if you will, in those places, just as there is in the ‘better’ places.

Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy series is set at the turn of the 20th Century, a time of a surge in immigration to the US. Many immigrants ended up in New York’s poorer districts. Murphy herself is fortunate enough not to be truly poverty-stricken, but she knows plenty of people who are not so lucky. As she investigates different cases (she’s a PI), readers get a look at what life was like at that time in New York’s slums and tenements. There are certainly gangs and other criminals. But there are just as many characters in these novels who are ‘poor but respectable.’ And Murphy often finds it easier to ‘fit in’ as she goes into those communities, because she’s an immigrant from Ireland. It’s also worth noting something else about the slums and tenements of this era in New York. Like those of London, they’re sometimes just a short distance away from upper-middle class, or even wealthy, areas.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell, who, when we first meet her, is a ticket-taker at a local theatre. Later, she works at a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse, and then at an outdoor market. Throughout the trilogy, O’Donnell interacts with several characters who live in Glasgow’s poorer districts. These people have their own culture and their own ways of interacting. And they have ways of supporting each other, although most of them don’t have much money. O’Donnell herself isn’t exactly wealthy, and she’s not much for pretense anyway. So, she fits right in. And she’s often more comfortable with that lifestyle. It’s not that she wouldn’t appreciate more money. Rather, she likes the down-to-earth authenticity of the friends and acquaintances she has in those poorer areas.

Glasgow also features in Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, which takes place just after World War II. Douglas Brodie has recently returned to the UK after his wartime service, and is trying to put his life back together in London. Then, he gets a call from an old friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. It seems that Donovan’s been arrested and convicted for the murder of a boy named Rory Hutchinson. Donovan says he’s innocent, but Brodie can’t be sure; he hasn’t seen his friend for years. Besides, there is evidence against the man. Even so, Brodie agrees to return to Glasgow and see what he can do. As he follows the trail, he naturally wants to speak to Rory’s mother, Fiona Hutchinson. As it happens, Fiona is an old love, so their reunion is charged with emotion. But the world hasn’t been kind to her. She’s a war widow who now lives in one of Glasgow’s tenements:

‘The street was patched and holed. The pavement ripped up and the stone doorway into the entrance was covered with scratched territory markers of the Beehive Boys. The hall stank of pish. This was no place for her.’

The tenement is a dilapidated, depressing place. But even so, it’s got its own life and its own culture.

We see that also in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy. These novels feature Fabio Montale, who grew up in the rough sections of Marseilles. He and his friends found all sorts of ways to get into trouble, but everything changed one night when a tragedy occurred. After that, Montale joined the military, and then returned to Marseilles. In the first novel, Total Chaos, he’s become a police officer, patrolling the same government housing projects and rough districts that he lived in as a boy. He’s gotten to know several of the people who live there, and he sees them as human beings. That’s part of what makes his job so difficult, as he can see how often they become victims of police corruption, gangs, and other forces. In fact, he quits the police force in disgust. Even after he leaves the force, though, he’s drawn into cases that bring him into contact with those who live in Marseilles’ poorest areas. As Izzo depicts them, these areas may be poor, but they have a vivid life of their own, and a unique culture.

And then there’s Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight, the sixth in her series featuring Mumbai retired police detective Lalli. In the novel, a small slum called Kandewadi becomes the focus of media hype when some of its children begin to go missing.

‘Our Kandewadi is a small slum sunk off the Andheri-Kurla Road, a maze of tin shacks and lean-tos, winding in and out of a sputter of small industries.’

The people of Kandewadi may not have much, but they do the best they can for their children:

‘Children dressed for school oozed out of the pores of Kandewadi…One thing set them apart from children elsewhere. They didn’t rush out. They walked with a sedate air of enjoyment, almost a sense of occasion.

They were all extremely spruce, the girls particularly, their hair ribbons in crisp bows.’

So, when these children begin to disappear, and are later found dead, the small community is badly shaken. The police don’t do much about the situation at first, but as one, and then two, and then three children disappear, the media pay attention. Now, the case is given to Inspector Savio, who still consults with Lalli. Together, they, and Lalli’s niece, Sita, investigate the case. Among other things, this novel shows the inner workings of a small slum community, and the social networks there. It also shows how the slum is perceived from the outside (as opposed to, say, a wealthy area).

Slums, tenements, and housing projects may not be pleasant places to live. But they have their own life and their own character. And they offer possibilities to an author for plot, level of bleakness, character development, and more.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Slum Kids.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Denise Mina, Gordon Ferris, Jean-Claude Izzo, Kalpana Swaminathan, Rhys Bowen

24 responses to “Look At All the Slum Kids Around You*

  1. I have read three of these books, the two set in Scotland and Total Chaos. All of them are somewhat darker in nature, which makes sense I guess. I can’t think of other examples to offer.

    • You’ve got a point, Tracy. Slums, tenements and so on are not usually pleasant, happy places to live. So it is logical that stories about them wouldn’t be ‘frothy’ and light.

  2. The novel I read that completely changed my understanding of so-called slum dwellers was A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry. Not a crime novel (unless you draw a very long bow), but as outstanding read nonetheless.

    • Oh, thank you, Angela. Trust you to suggest an excellent read that fits right in. I always appreciate a novel that broadens understanding, rather than pander to stereotypes. I appreciate the nudge!

  3. Now, look here! Two from Glasgow?? You’ve been taking bribes from Edinburgh, haven’t you?? Well, the Glasgow Tourist Board have been informed and are sending the Glesca Haggis Hurlers in your direction… 😉

    Haha! I keep hoping that one day someone will write a series set in Glasgow that highlights the slightly more salubrious bits of the city… there really are some, honest! 😉

    • Uh-oh! Now I’m in trouble! If the Glesca Haggis Hurlers have targeted me, I’m for it! As to any relationship I might have with the Edinburgh Tourist Board, that was strictly – erm – consultative. I wanted a back-channel… just in case… 😉

      In all seriousness, I’d like to read more about the lovely parts of Glasgow, too, FictionFan. I know they’re there, and it would be good to read about them.

  4. A thought-provoking post, Margot. I haven’t read several of these books but they are going on my TBR list now. Thanks for sharing.

  5. kathy d.

    Denise Mina has written about life in council housing in Glasgow many times, not only in the Garnethill series, but in other books.
    And Malla Nunn set some of her Emmanuel Cooper in early 1950s apartheid South Africa in poor areas of Durban, I think.
    A movie that will tear at any kind person’s heart strings is “Queen of Katwe,” about a young girl who lives in the slums of Katwe in Uganda, becomes a champion chess player. If you see those children even at young as 4 years old, lighting up to the challenge of learning and playing chess, you will be moved. It shows how much children even in really difficult situations want to learn and can learn.

  6. Col

    I quite expected St. Mary’s Mead to feature in your post! Haha…maybe not. I still haven’t got to those Izzo books yet!

  7. Loved this article…I am so happy to read about Kalpana Swaminathan’s Lalli series in your article….Going to read that.

    I have read somewhere that murder mysteries/ crime genre can also highlight the social issues. Earlier, I used to think ‘ how’. After reading Private India ( Private #8) James Patterson’s novel co-written by Indian thriller author Ashwin Sanghi, I realised what it exactly meant.

    You are right..Slums are not even a pleasant place to live but it has its life and character. Sometimes, I wonder why their lives are not featured in crime fiction barring a few exceptions…

    Love your posts…
    Shalet Jimmy

    • Kalpana Swaminathan’s Lalli series is well-written, Shalet Jimmy, and this particular one has a very vivid depiction of life in that section of Mumbai. If you do read the novels, I hope you’ll enjoy them. You make a well-taken point, too, that mysteries can be used to call attention to social issues; several writers have done just that. And thanks for mentioning the work of Ashwin Sanghi; that’s an author whose work I should try.

      Thanks for the kind words! Glad you enjoy these posts.

  8. I automatically think of Brazil’s favelas when I hear of slum kids, although there aren’t that many crime novels actually set there (more factual ones like City of God), but there are references to favela kids who have grown up to be assassins in Patricia Melo and Rubem Fonseca’s work.

    • You know, Marina Sofia, I almost mentioned that Melo in this post. Since I didn’t in the end, I’m glad you did. Certainly favelas are clear examples of slums. You’re right, too, that there aren’t a lot of novels set there. I think it could be a really effective setting if it’s done right.

  9. kathy d.

    Paula Marantz Cohen’s “What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper” tells a tale in which the three James’ siblings solve the Jack the Ripper murders. But in the process there is much description of London slums int he late 1880s, an area of such terrible poverty that women sold their bodies to feed their children or ended their lives.
    Then I read Bombay Ice several years ago and in it are descriptions of a gigantic encampment of hundreds of thousands of homeless people right outside the city. They were fighting for sewage drains to be installed. I remembered being bowled over by the scenario of so many poor people living in such harsh circumstances.
    And Gordon Ferris’ book “Pilgrim Soul” also takes place in Glasgow, but one gets a feel of the Jewish community and businesses — and I could almost smell the bread being baked in their bakeries.
    There’s also the hit movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” which quite vividly describes the slums and shows some very shady operations exploiting homeless children.
    Arundati Roy’s famous book, “A God of Small Things” gives a view of poverty and racism in India.

    • Thanks, Kathy, for sharing those suggestions. All of them are great examples of the way slums, tenements, and so on are depicted in the genre. I’m glad you mentioned them.

  10. I love the way the authors described the areas. Thanks for including the quotes.

  11. Some great suggestions there – from you and from your readers. I mentioned City of God the film recently on your blog – I didn’t realize till I read Marina Sofia’s comment above that it was a book first. I must try to find it.

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