Category Archives: Denise Mina

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.

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

I’m an Adult Now*

When does a young person become an adult? What’s the line between ‘not-an-adult’ and ‘adult?’ It’s really rather blurred, if you think about it. Legally speaking, people attain majority in many places when they’re 18, or sometimes 21. This means they can vote, enter into contracts, give sexual consent, and more.

But if you think about it, do you really consider an 18-year-old an adult? In some ways, yes, especially legally. But if you know young people in this age group, you know that they’re often in that ‘not-quite-ready-for-adulthood’ category. So, the legal definition doesn’t really capture it. There are, of course, coming-of-age rituals in different cultures and religions (e.g. the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the quinceañera, confirmation, or the kinaalda (that’s the coming-of-age ritual for Navajo girls)). But those rituals usually take place during the early-to-mid teen years. And most of us would likely agree that people that age are not adults.

So, the answer to ‘how do you know when someone’s an adult’ can be murky. And crime fiction explores that murkiness. That shouldn’t be surprising, since the genre shows us ourselves. But it’s really interesting to see how the question is addressed.

Some people think of adulthood as meaning the taking on of adult responsibilities, such as getting a job, minding the children, having a home, and the like. But plenty of very young people do those things. For instance, in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, protagonist Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell is trying to clear her name of suspicion of murdering her former lover, Douglas Brady. At one point, she’s visiting her friend, Leslie. Here’s what Leslie says about some of the children who live near her:

 

‘‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’’ 

 

This child is only seven – certainly not an adult chronologically. but she’s already doing the sort of child-minding that many parents would entrust only to an adult in whom they had confidence.

In Peter May’s Entry Island, Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec is seconded to Entry Island when James Cowell is murdered there. As it is, he has regular bouts of insomnia. But during his trip to the island, he begins to have vivid dreams of stories he was told as a child – stories of his Scottish ancestor, also called Sime. As the novel goes on, we learn more about that Sime, who lived during the early-to-mid 19th Century, and emigrated to Canada. Among other things, we learn that, although he’s a boy by nearly any modern standard, he takes on a great deal of adult responsibility when his father’s off hunting. I don’t think it’s spoiling this novel to say that the 19th-Century Sime’s father is killed. At that point, Sime takes on even more responsibility for his home, his mother and his siblings. That scenario might not be unusual for the times, but it certainly blurs the line between child and adult.

To make matters even murkier, there are also plenty of crime-fictional characters who are chronologically adults, but don’t really seem to have crossed that threshold. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to the Boynton family. Matriarch Mrs. Boynton and her adult children, Lennox, Raymond and Carol, are in the Middle East on a sightseeing tour. With them is Mrs. Boynton’s youngest child, seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny,’ and Lennox’s wife, Natalie. This isn’t a ‘normal’ family trip, though. Mrs. Boynton is malicious, domineering and mentally cruel. Her family members are so cowed that no-one dares to oppose her, and that includes the three oldest Boyntons. Through the eyes of some of the other characters (including Hercule Poirot), we get to know the Boyntons. It’s interesting to see that, although Lennox, Raymond and Carol are chronologically adults (they’re in their twenties to early thirties), they don’t really live like adults, as we usually conceive of that. Several characters make mention of it. But that doesn’t stop them being suspected when Mrs. Boynton is murdered on the second day of the family’s journey to Petra…

In Vicki Delaney’s Winter of Secrets, we are introduced to Wendy Wyatt-Yarmouth, her brother Jason, and five of their friends. All of them are university students on a skiing trip to Trafalgar in British Columbia. They’re all from well-to-do families, so they have no problem affording the trip, renting an SUV, bringing all of the skiing equipment they’ll need and so on. On Christmas Eve, Jason and his best friend, Ewan Williams, are in the SUV the group has rented. They have a terrible accident and go off the road into a nearby river. Jason dies from the injuries he’s received. But it turns out that Ewan was dead – probably for several hours – before the accident. Now, Sergeant John Winters and Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith have a murder case on their hands. And it won’t be easy. All of the people involved are hiding things, and Wendy and Jason’s parents aren’t very helpful. In the end, though, they find out who the murderer is. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how, although these are adults in several ways, they don’t really live completely responsible adult lives.

And then there’s Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus. Dr. Duca Lamberti has recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for euthanasia. One day he’s approached by Pietro Auseri, an engineer who’s concerned about his son, Davide. It seems that Davide has been in a deep depression, and has taken to drinking heavily. Even stints in rehabilitation facilities haven’t been of any help. Auseri wants Lamberti to find out what’s the matter with Davide, and help him. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do, but he agrees. He soon learns that Davide’s depression stems from an incident a year earlier, when a young woman named Alberta Radelli died after threatening Davide that she would commit suicide if he didn’t take her with him. Davide blames himself for her death, so Lamberti believes that his patient won’t heal unless they learn the truth about the young woman’s death. Davide agrees, and the two look more closely into the matter. It turns out that Alberta’s death was not a suicide at all. Throughout the book, we see that, although Davide Auseri is chronologically an adult, he doesn’t really have an independent life, and Lamberti has to coach him to really start thinking for himself.

As you can see, crime fiction isn’t very helpful when it comes to working out where the line is between ‘adult’ and ‘not-an-adult.’ And it’s quite likely that it’s not really a line, anyway. What do you think? When did you first really think of yourself as an adult? I’m due any day now, I think…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Pursuit of Happiness.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Denise Mina, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Peter May, Vicki Delany

Bus Driver…Ambulance Man…Ticket Inspector*

occupationIt’s easy enough to imagine scenarios where fictional police detectives and PIs get involved in investigating crimes. So, a series that features a police officer or a PI makes sense and can be quite credible. It’s harder when the protagonist of a crime fiction series is an amateur detective.

Some professions do lend themselves to the role a bit more than others. For instance, there are lots of fictional academics who are amateur detectives. And it’s not hard to imagine scenarios where the sleuth is an academic (ahem – at least I hope it’s not…). The same might be said of fictional members of the clergy or their spouses/partners. Those people hear and see quite a bit, so it makes sense that they’d be involved in fictional investigations. There are also lots of fictional psychologists, medical professionals, attorneys and journalists who are also amateur sleuths. Again, it’s fairly credible that such people would be in a position to encounter and investigate a crime.

But there are some fictional amateur sleuths out there who have more unusual occupations. In those cases, the author has the challenge of creating a believable context for the sleuth. It’s not always easy to do, but some authors have achieved it.

One such sleuth is Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Harristeen. When this series begins, Harry is the postmistress for the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. She also runs a small farm. Later in the series, she steps aside as postmistress, and takes up cultivating a vineyard. This scenario – with Harry as postmistress, and also sleuth – works (at least for me) because it makes sense that, in a small town, people would gather at the post office, pick up their mail, and talk. This puts Harry in a very good position to know a lot about what’s going on. We also learn that her family has been in the area for generations. So, she’s ‘plugged in.’ There are some aspects of the series that aren’t as credible. But a postmistress as sleuth makes sense.

You wouldn’t expect a ticket-taker to be in a position to do sleuthing – at least not credibly – but that’s what happens in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, the first in her Garnethill trilogy. Maureen ‘Marui’ O’Donnell works in a low-paid job as a ticket-taker. She’s emotionally fragile (in fact, she spent some time in a mental health hospital). Still, she’s trying to get her life together. She even has a relationship with Douglas Brodie. He happens to be married, but she’s working on figuring out what she’s going to do. One morning, after a night of drinking, Mauri wakes to find Brodie’s body in her living room. As you can imagine, the police are not satisfied that she isn’t responsible. So, Mauri decides to clear her own name. And that’s the approach Mina takes to making Mauri a believable sleuth, although she’s neither a copper nor a PI.

Eleanor Kuhns’ historical (end of the 18th Century) series features Will Rees. He’s an itinerant weaver, who also has a small piece of property. On the surface of it, weaving isn’t the sort of occupation that would likely put someone in contact with murder. But in A Simple Murder, the first of this series, Kuhns sets up a credible context. In that novel, we learn that Rees is despondent over his first wife’s death. He puts his son, David, in the care of his sister, and goes off, working as a weaver where and when he can. Then, he finds out that David has been sent to a Shaker sect establishment, where he’s being mistreated. Rees rushes to do what he can for his son, only to be on the scene when there’s a murder. And, since the Shakers are a small and tightly-knit community, Rees can’t help but be drawn into the mystery as he tries to re-establish contact with his son. Slowly, as the series goes on, word gets around that Will Rees can find answers. So, he begins to build a reputation.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne accountant-turned-baker, who lives and works in a large, Roman-style building called Insula. When the series begins (with Earthly Delights), Chapman has no desire to be a sleuth or to solve mysteries. But she gets drawn into investigating a series of heroin overdoses that might not be as accidental as they seem. It all starts when one overdose happens right outside Chapmen’s own bakery. Then, someone starts targeting the people who live in Insula. Chapman wants to find out who that person is, and her new lover, Daniel Cohen (he volunteers for a mobile soup kitchen), wants to find out what’s behind the overdoses. So, they agree to help one another.

There’s also D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heathington. He’s a retired milliner, who’s moved to the village of Tuesbury. You might not think that a milliner would likely come across a lot of bodies. But Heatherinton has a keen eye for his clients, and a good sense of what makes them ‘tick.’ So, in Hats Off to Murder, he becomes more than curious when two of his clients die. There’s no obvious evidence that they were murdered, but some things just don’t add up. Then, a new client, Delilah Delibes, asks for his help tracking down her mother, Flora, who’s gone missing. Heatherington is not a professional sleuth, and doesn’t pretend to have investigative skills. But he is compassionate. And he’s curious. So, he works with Delilah to find out what happened to her mother. And, in the process, he finds out how and why his clients died.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte, who is a genealogist. His specialty is tracing people’s ancestry, not finding killers. But sometimes, secrets from the past have a way of haunting modern families. So Tayte runs into more than one murder as he searches for his clients’ roots.

For authors who create amateur sleuths, it can be a challenge to create a credible context for those sleuths to ask questions and investigate. When it’s done well, though, it can work. And there really are some interesting occupations out there in crime-fiction land.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Clash’s Career Opportunities.

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Filed under D.S. Nelson, Denise Mina, Eleanor Kuhns, Kerry Greenwood, Rita Mae Brown, Steve Robinson

I’m Living in a Bad Dream*

a-body-in-the-houseImagine this scenario. You wake up one morning, or you come home one evening, to find that there’s a body in your home. So, of course, you call the police. But here’s the catch. How are you going to clear your name? After all, it is your home. So, it’s only natural that the police would have a lot of questions for you. And if you happen to have known the victim, things get even more tricky for you, even if you’re completely innocent. And that’s not to mention the horror of actually finding the body. It’s like a bad dream.

This scenario is used in several crime novels, and it’s not hard to see why. It raises the tension right away. And, in the case of whodunits, it can be very effective at diverting suspicion from the real killer.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly, awake one morning to learn that the body of a young woman has been found in their library. Neither knows the woman, but of course, the police have to start somewhere. And it gets a bit difficult for the Bantrys as questions are raised about how the colonel might have known the victim. Dolly knows her husband isn’t guilty, and asks her friend, Miss Marple, to help find out who the murderer is. The victim is tentatively identified as eighteen-year-old Ruby Keene, a professional dancer at the Majestic Hotel. This discovery opens up several possible lines of investigation, and it’s not long before the police and Miss Marple discover that more than one person could have wanted the young woman to die. Still, there are definitely a few uncomfortable moments for Colonel Bantry… I couldn’t agree more, fans of The Clocks.

Things are even more nightmarish for Janek Mitter, whom we meet in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye. One morning, he wakes up after a night of far, far too much drink. He discovers to his shock that his wife Eva is dead, and her body is in the bathtub. He claims that he didn’t kill her, but Inspector Van Veeteran and his team have to go where the evidence takes them. So Mitter is arrested and put on trial. Although Van Veeteren is beginning to have his doubts, he can’t prevent Mitter from being found guilty. Because Mitter was so drunk the night of the murder, he doesn’t remember much of anything that happened. So, he’s remanded to a mental hospital instead of a prison. Meanwhile, Van Veeteren starts to ask questions about this case. Then, Mitter himself is murdered. Now, it’s clear that he was telling the truth, and someone else killed his wife.

Too much drink also plays a role in what happens to Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell in Denise Mina’s Garnethill. Mauri wakes up one morning after a night of drinking. She discovers her lover, Douglas Brodie, dead in her living room, but she can’t recall what happened. As you can well imagine, she’s a prime suspect. For one thing, she is mentally fragile; she’s even spent time in a mental health facility. For another, she and Douglas had been having problems, not the least of which is that he is – was – married to someone else. It doesn’t help that Mauri is not from the sort of background that inspires a lot of support from the police. But she’s sure she didn’t kill Douglas. So, she starts to ask questions. As she gets closer to the truth, Mauri finds out some dark secrets that someone wanted very much to keep.

Rob Kitchin’s Stiffed begins as Tadh Maguire is sleeping off a night of drinking. He’s jolted awake by a frightened shriek from his girlfriend, Kate. A second later he sees why she’s screaming. There’s a dead man in his bed. What’s more, Maguire knows who the man is. The victim is Tony Marino, second-in-command to crime boss Aldo Pirelli. If Maguire calls the police, it won’t be long before Pirelli finds out what happened. And he’ll likely assume that Maguire killed his associate. That can only have a bad outcome. There’s also the very likely possibility that Maguire will be the police’s prime suspect. Also not a good thing. So, Maguire calls his friend, Jason Choi, and asks him to help remove the body. That leads to all sorts of consequences, including abduction and some very nasty thugs who think Maguire has some money they want. This novel is more of a screwball noir approach what happens when a dead body ends up in your home.

You’ll notice that in several of these examples, there’s a night of drinking involved. And that’s one way to make it credible that a body could be put in someone’s home without that person knowing it. But it’s not the only way.

For instance, in Sherban Young’s Fleeting Memory, a man wakes up to the sound of someone knocking at the door of his cabin. He opens the door to find a woman who asks for his help. She says she doesn’t know who she is or why she’s there, but she needs assistance. The man invites her in, but when she asks his name, it occurs to him that he doesn’t know who he is, either. Thinking he’s mocking her, the young woman leaves. That’s when the man notices the body of another man on his living room floor. Now, he has to figure out who he is, as well as who the dead man is and why the body is in his living room. Just then, the man gets another visitor, PI Enescu Fleet, who’s looking for his missing dog. Fleet seems to be the answer to the man’s problem, and he agrees to look into the case.  

And then there’s Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House. One evening, real estate agent Hans Vannerberg tells his wife, Pia, that he’s going to go look at a house for a client. When he doesn’t return, Pia gets concerned and contacts the police. The next morning, they begin their search. It ends when Ingrid Olsson, who’s been recovering from hip surgery, returns to her home to find Vannerberg’s body in her kitchen. She can account for her whereabouts of course, and she wouldn’t have been capable of murder in the first place. So the police, in the form of Stockholm area DCI Conny Sjöberg and his team, trace Vannerberg’s last days and weeks to find out who would have wanted him dead. It turns out that this murder is connected with other killings – and with a past traumatic incident.

See what I mean? You can be perfectly innocent, and still end up with a body in your house. So do be careful this holiday season…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Violent Femmes’ Bad Dream 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carin Gerhardsen, Denise Mina, Håkan Nesser, Rob Kitchin, Sherban Young

I’m Your Social Worker*

social-workersThey’re often on the front lines in domestic situations. And they’re the ones who are called in when children may be at risk. I’m talking, of course, of social workers. They have a thankless and sometimes dangerous job, but the vast majority of them do their very best. There’s a high turnover rate among social workers, as you can imagine. The pay isn’t good, they often have a very much heavier caseload than anyone can reasonably be expected to handle, and they’re not always welcome at homes where they pay visits.

Yet, their work is vital, and can save lives. We do hear occasional horror stories of social workers who are incompetent or worse. But, as I say, the vast majority are hardworking, conscientious individuals who care.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of social workers who make appearances in crime fiction. It’s a natural fit, if you think about it. And they can add an interesting perspective to a crime story.

For example, in one plot thread of Jonathan Kellerman’s Blood Test, we learn of five-year-old Heywood ‘Woody’ Swopes. He has a treatable form of leukemia, but his parents refuse treatment. Instead, they want to choose holistic and other non-medical treatments. This could be fatal for Woody, so his doctor, Raoul Melendez-Lynch, asks a former colleague, child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware, for help. Delaware agrees, and  Melendez-Lynch puts him in contact with Beverly Lucas, a social worker attached to the hospital. She’s worked with the Swopes family, and Delaware is hoping that, together, they’ll be able to make some progress. Instead, Woody’s parents remove him from the hospital. Then, he disappears. Now, Delaware and Lucas must find the boy while he still has a chance to stay alive. Then, his parents are found dead. The only link to the family is Woody’s twenty-year-old sister, Nona, who has her own serious problems. In this novel, Lucas shows how important social workers can be when families have medical crises.

In Kate Ellis’ The Merchant’s House, DS (later DI) Wesley Peterson takes up his new duties at Tradmouth CID, in Devon. He’s no sooner settling in when word comes that the body of a young woman has been discovered at Little Tradmouth Head. The CID team begins the work of identifying her and trying to trace her killer. The trail leads to a local caravan of travellers and young man named Chris Manners, who may have some information. When it’s discovered that he has a little boy, Daniel, living with him, Social Services gets involved in the form of Lynne Wychwood. Among other things, she has to assess whether the boy is safe and living in an appropriate environment. And, if possible, she has to do that without alienating Chris; it’s going to be much easier if he sees her as an ally rather than The Enemy. Lynne doesn’t solve the case. But her work with Chris and Daniel proves very helpful, and it’s interesting to see how social workers try to be flexible and do what’s best for the child when they can.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In Exile, the second in the series, Mauri is working at a Glasgow shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. When one of the residents, Ann Harris, goes missing, not much concern is raised at first. Residents are free to come and go as they wish. But when Ann doesn’t return, Mauri begins to get concerned. Then, Ann’s body is found in the Thames a few weeks later. At first, Mauri is convinced that Ann’s husband, Jimmy, is responsible. But his cousin, who runs the shelter, insists that he’s innocent. So, Mauri tries to trace Ann’s last days and weeks. The trail leads to a London solicitor’s office where Mauri meets social worker Kilty Goldfarb, who’s also Scottish. The two strike up a friendship, and Kilty turns out to be helpful in this case. She returns in Resolution, the last of the trilogy, and her experience in social work turns out to be useful in that novel as well.

Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night introduces readers to Delhi social worker Simran Singh. At the request of a former university friend (who’s now Inspector General for Punjab), Singh returns to her home town of Jullundur. She’s there to work with the police on a very difficult case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested for murdering thirteen members of her family, and then burning the family home. There is evidence against her, but there is also the possibility that she, too, was a victim who managed to stay alive. The police can’t determine Durga’s role in the tragedy, because she hasn’t spoken about it. The hope is that Singh will be able to get the girl to open up and talk about what happened. At first, Durga is unwilling to say much of anything. But, bit by bit, she begins to trust Singh, and starts to talk about her family. Little by little, we learn what happened that night, and the dark secrets that led to the deaths. Among other things, this novel shows how social workers sometimes have to be creative when it comes to doing their best for the children they are charged with protecting.

Social workers take on a wide variety of roles. For instance, In Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, we learn that Chapman (who is a baker) works with the Soup Run, a Melbourne group that provides food, (non-alcoholic) drinks, blankets, and sometimes medicine to Melbourne’s street people. One of the other people involved with the Soup Run is Jen, a local social worker, who
 

‘…can wedge a client into a lodging house with pure force of character.’
 

Admittedly, Jen is not a main character who helps solve mysteries. But she shows the dedication that most social workers have to doing their best for those in need.

There’s also J.M. Green’s Good Money, which introduces Melbourne social worker Stella Hardy. When one of her clients, an émigré from Africa, is found murdered, and then a neighbour disappears, Stella starts looking for answers. And she finds that the truth is a lot more dangerous than she thought. I admit, I haven’t (yet) read this one. It was just too good an example not to mention. Want to know more? You can read terrific reviews here and here on Fair Dinkum Crime, the source for Australian crime fiction.

There are a lot of other social workers who appear in crime fiction. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glasvegas’ Geraldine.

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Filed under Denise Mina, J.M. Green, Jonathan Kellerman, Kate Ellis, Kerry Greenwood, Kishwar Desai