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.