Where do you go if you have to escape a domestic abuser in the middle of the night, with nothing but car, keys and kids (if you even have a car)? What if you’ve run out of money and have no place to live? What if you’re a teen who’s been thrown out of your home, or who’s had to escape an abuse situation? Your first thought might be to go to the home of a friend or relative. But if that’s not an option, what other choice have you got?
For many people, the answer is a shelter. There are different kinds of shelters, of course. Some are municipal, some are run by charities, and others by individuals. And they vary greatly in safety and quality. But they’re all integral parts of a system where people sometimes fall through the proverbial cracks. And they can, quite literally, mean the difference between life and death for those who live there.
It’s easy to see, too, why such places are woven through crime fiction. Consider the disparate people who live and work in shelters. And there’s the myriad stories of the residents. That, too, can create conflict, tension, and all sorts of plot points. So it’s little wonder we see shelters in the genre.
For example, Denise Mina’s Exile is the second in her trilogy featuring Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In this novel, she has a job in a Glasgow women’s shelter called Place of Safety. While she’s there, she meets one of the residents, Ann Harris. When Ann goes missing, Mauri begins to get concerned. On the one hand, the residents aren’t required to report on where they go and what they do. Still, as this is a women’s shelter, there’s always the concern that someone might return to an abusive situation. When Ann’s body turns up in the Thames two weeks later, all signs point to her husband, Jimmy, as the killer. But his cousin Louise, who runs the shelter, doesn’t think he’s the murderer. So she and Mauri start to ask questions to find out what really happened to Ann Harris.
Peter Temple’s Bad Debts sees Melbourne PI and sometimes-lawyer Jack Irish trying to find out who killed a former client, Danny McKillop. The trail seems to lead to a man named Ronnie Bishop, who very likely knows more than he’s said about the murder and the past circumstances that led to it. But Irish soon discovers that Bishop has gone missing. As he tries to trace the man, Irish learns that he once worked for the Safe Hands Foundation, a charity group that supports homeless children. And it turns out that Bishop recently telephoned Father Gorman, who runs the foundation. So Irish visits the place and talks to Father Gorman. The visit doesn’t solve McKillop’s murder, but it does give Irish important background information.
The real action in Robert Barnard’s No Place of Safety begins when teenagers Katy Bourne and Alan Coughlan go missing on the same day. Leeds PC Charlie Pearce looks into the case and soon learns that the two young people attended the same school, but had nothing else in common. They didn’t even really know each other. Still, he suspects their disappearances may be related. Sure enough, he finds them both at a hostel for runaways. Usually called The Centre, it’s run by an enigmatic man named Ben Marchant. For various reasons, Pearce thinks at first that the best choice for both young people is to stay at the hostel for the time being. But little by little, questions arise about the place. For one thing, very little is known about its owner. For another, the relations between Marchant (and the hostel’s residents) and the people who live nearby are not good. Tensions are high, and could lead in any number of directions. Then a young girl, Mehjabean ‘Midge’ Haldalwa, shows up at the refuge, claiming that she’s running away from an arranged marriage. As things at the hostel get more and more dangerous, Pearce is going to have to contend with more than just two runaway teens.
In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murderers, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets an early-morning call from her daughter, Mieka, who’s just discovered the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a trash bin near her catering shop. At first, the police think Bernice is the latest in a series of murders they’re calling the Little Flower murders. But this murder turns out to be different. Then there’s another death. The trail in this case leads to the Lily Pad, a Regina drop-in refuge for homeless teens. On the surface, it seems to be a safe place for young people, with hot meals, showers, counseling, and mentoring. But as Kilbourn learns, there’s more going on there than it seems. And some people are carrying secrets from their pasts.
Sara Paretsky’s Tunnel Vision features Arcadia House, a women’s shelter where Chicago PI V.I. Warshawski volunteers, and also sits on the board. One of the plot threads in this novel concerns one of the other board members, Dierdre Messenger. Since the shelter’s focus is survivors of domestic abuse and their children, there are several people – some in very high places – who don’t want it known that anyone in their family is there. And that plays its role when Messenger is murdered and her body left in Warshawski’s office…
And then there’s Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin. DI Marnie Rome is assigned to try to interview Ayana Mirza, whose brothers attacked her with acid. The police are hoping that if she’s willing to testify, her brothers can be prosecuted successfully. At the moment, Ayana is living in a women’s shelter in Finchley, so Rome and DS Noah Jake go to the shelter to try to convince Ayana to speak out. When they get there, though, they find a shocking surprise. Hope Proctor, another resident, has stabbed her husband Leo. On the one hand, all of the witnesses and all of the evidence suggest that Hope was defending herself. On the other hand, there’s a big question of how Leo Proctor got into the shelter in the first place. The more Rome and Jake learn about the shelter and the people there, the more past history and secrets people are keeping play their roles.
Shelters of all kinds are vital resources in many communities. They can literally save lives, and are usually staffed by tireless, deeply committed people. They’re also really interesting contexts for novels, including crime novels.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.