Category Archives: Kalpana Swaminathan

While the Millionaires Hide in Beekman Place*

Have you ever noticed those truly elegant, super-expensive homes? The kind that ‘the rest of us’ could never even imagine owning? The kind you see in magazines or television shows? Yeah, those homes. One of the interesting things about them is that they tend to be set apart. Sometimes they’re in gated, even guarded, communities. Sometimes the properties themselves are gated and/or guarded. Either way, just looking at the houses is a reminder that the very wealthy often live lives that are far removed from the rest of us. And very often (certainly not always!)  that’s by design.

When it’s handled well, that physical gulf between the very rich and other people can add some interesting tension to a novel. Little wonder it’s been a part of literature for a very long time (I’m thinking, for instance, of Émile Zola’s Germinal). And it’s woven into crime fiction, too.

For example, in Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, we are introduced to the Wyatt-Yarmouth family. Drs. Jack and Patricia Wyatt-Yarmouth are both very wealthy, influential people. Their children, Jason and Wendy, have been raised with every privilege, too. It’s that sort of family. One Christmas, Jason and Wendy take a ski trip to the small British Columbia town of Trafalgar. With them, they bring four of their wealthy friends, and stay in a local B&B. On Christmas Eve, Jason and his friend, Ewan Williams, are in the group’s rented SUV when it skids on ice and plunges into the Upper Kootenay River. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith goes to the scene and begins the investigation. Soon, though, she and her boss, Sergeant John Winters, discover that, while Jason was killed by the accident, Ewan had already been dead for some time before the incident. Now the investigation becomes a murder investigation. When they hear of their son’s death, the Wyatt-Yarmouth parents travel to Trafalgar. It’s immediately obvious that they are not accustomed to mixing with ‘regular folks.’ Their attitude causes no end of difficulty and conflict as Smith and Winters try to solve the mystery.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in late 1970s Buenos Aires. It’s a very dangerous time to be in the city, what with the military in firm control of the government. Anyone who is even suspected of disagreeing with the government, or of ‘causing trouble’ is likely to be killed, or worse. No-one is really trustworthy, and even a whisper of dissidence could easily be passed along. Against this backdrop, police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano investigates the murder of Elías Biterman, a successful pawnbroker and moneylender. The death looks at first like a standard army ‘hit,’ so it’s obvious that those in authority want the case left alone. But that’s not the kind of detective Lescano is. So, he begins to ask a few questions. The trail leads to some very high places, too, as people from even the highest socioeconomic levels made use of Biterman’s services. And one of the important elements in this novel is the divide between the very rich and everyone else. The wealthy separate themselves, and do everything they can to jealously guard their privilege. And the desire to penetrate that ‘wall’ factors into the story.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows also takes place in the Buenos Aires area (about 30 miles away), this time, at the end of the 1990s. Most of the action takes place in an ultra-exclusive residential community called Cascade Heights Country Club. Only the very wealthiest people can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted’ before being allowed to purchase a home in ‘the Heights.’ Every effort is made to keep these very rich people from having to interact with ‘regular people,’ too. There’s a wall, a guard, and a procedure for showing identification before being allowed on the property. Disputes aren’t handled by the regular police, either, but by a special Commission set up by the residents. Many of those who live in the Heights feel a real sense of security living in a community that’s removed from the rest of the area. That ‘safety net’ is torn, though, when the financial problems of the late 1990s/early 2000s find their way into the Heights. Little by little the security is eroded, until tragedy strikes.

Kalpana Swaminatham’s Greenlight is the sixth in her series featuring retired Mumbai police detective Lalli. In it, a series of ugly child abductions and murders has struck a local slum called Kandewadi. At first, the incidents don’t get very much press or police attention. But finally, there’s enough pressure on the police to step up the investigation, and Inspector Savio is assigned to the case, He consults regularly with Lalli, so she, too, gets involved in the case. Throughout the novel, there’s a strong sense of the gulf between the very rich and everyone else. The rich separate themselves, and it’s clear that they want to stay far removed from, especially, the poor. And there’s a lot of resentment about that fact that plays a role in the story.

There are, of course, other series where we see the way the wealthy live quite far removed from everyone else. For instance, there’s Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series, which takes place in Madras (today’s Chennai) in the 1920s, in the last years of the British Raj. India is still in the hands of the wealthy and titled English, and they want to retain control. Most of the English in India live in separate communities. The really wealthy ones belong to exclusive clubs, where only the ‘right’ people belong. In other ways, too, many of the wealthy English choose to remain at a distance from any of the ‘regular’ people.

And there’s Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair series. Those novels take place in the early 1930s, mostly in New South Wales. At the time, the Great Depression has taken firm hold, and many people are desperate. There is a small group, including the Sinclair family, who have money, power and privilege. And many want to keep it that way. So, the very wealthy separate themselves, and work to keep that physical divide between themselves and ‘everyone else.’ Rowly himself isn’t nearly so conservative, and has friends from different socioeconomic strata, much to the dismay of his older brother and head of the family, Wilfred.  

And Wilfred’s not alone. There are plenty of fictional wealthy people and communities that try to stay as far removed as possible from the rest of us. That can add some interesting tension to a novel.

Ps. Oh, the ‘photo? That’s a ‘photo of Billy Joel’s Florida home. Yes, I took several shots of it during a recent trip. What?! 😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Close to the Borderline.

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Filed under Brian Stoddart, Claudia Piñeiro, Ernesto Mallo, Kalpana Swaminathan, Sulari Gentill, Vicki Delany

Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid*

An interesting quote, attributed to Dennis Lehane, goes this way:
 

‘Maybe there are some things we were put on this earth not to know.’
 

And it’s got me thinking about whether there really are some things that people are better off not knowing. On the one hand, if someone finds out the truth later, this can wreak all sorts of havoc, to say nothing of the breach of trust. On the other hand, there may very well be some things that are best left alone. And it’s not always an easy call to make. Just a quick look at crime fiction is enough to show that.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, for instance, Hercule Poirot gets involved in a murder investigation when he is invited for lunch at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. He arrives just in time to see that Dr. John Christow, another guest, has been shot. The apparent shooter is standing near the body, holding the weapon. But soon enough, Poirot is left unsure of whether he has really seen what he thinks he saw. He and Inspector Grange investigate, and find that there are several possible suspects. At one point, Christow’s widow, Gerda, says this about their son, Terry:
 

‘‘Terry always has to know.’’
 

She’d rather keep Terry and his sister, Zena, as far away from the investigation as possible, but Terry isn’t that sort of child. And even Poirot hints, later in the story, that Terry will want to know the truth. And there’s a real question about whether children should be told the truth about a parent’s death.

Similar sorts of questions are addressed in Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels. In one plot thread of that novel, we are introduced to four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards.  They’re growing up in a small, isolated Welsh village in 1962. As their part of the story goes on, we slowly learn about some secrets that people in the village are keeping. Little by little, the children learn what some of them are. What’s more, they find that they’re woven into the web of some of those secrets in ways they didn’t know. And that causes its own trouble. In fact, it’s an interesting question whether it would have been better for them not to know. To say more would spoil the story, but Horton address the question in some interesting ways.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger introduces us to Fabien Delorme. As the story begins, the police inform Delorme that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car crash. What’s more, they tell him that Sylvie was not alone in the car. It seems that she had a lover, and the news takes Delorme by surprise. He can’t resist trying to find out the other man’s name, and he soon does: Martial Arnoult. Delorme also learns that Arnoult left a widow, Martine. Now he feels the need to know more about her; and before long, he’s stalking her. He even follows her and a friend as they take a holiday trip to Majorca, where he begins an affair with her. That relationship spins quickly out of control, and it’s not long before tragedy results. And you could argue that it all might have been prevented if Delorme hadn’t known the truth about his wife’s affair.

In Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais, we are introduced to Paris PI Aimée Leduc. Soli Hecht hires her on behalf of Temple Emmanuel to do some decoding, and deliver the results to one of the temple members, Lili Stein. By the time Leduc gets there, though, it’s too late: Lili Stein has been murdered, and a swastika marked on her forehead. Leduc is a ‘person of interest,’ since she was on the scene, but it’s soon clear that she’s not the murderer. She gets interested in the case, though, and investigates. The answers lie in the past, during and just after the Nazi occupation of France; and those events have repercussions in modern Paris. Leduc finds out what really happened, and we learn the truth. The question is, though, how much she will tell the victim’s son, Abraham:
 

‘‘Aimée,’ Réne[Leduc’s business partner] asked slowly, ‘Will you tell Abraham?’
‘If he asks. Otherwise, I’ll let the ghosts alone. All of them.’’  
 

In the end, it’s an interesting question whether Abraham Stein has the right to know everything about his mother’s death.

And then there’s Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight, the sixth in her series featuring retired Mumbai police inspector Lalli. In this novel, parents living in the small slum of Kandewadi become terrified when some children begin to disappear from the slum and are later found dead. At first, the media and police don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on. But after several children have been killed, Inspector Savio is assigned to the case, and he consults with Lalli. Finding out the truth is a slow, painful process, some of that truth is truly brutal and ugly. So Lalli doesn’t tell everyone everything. There are some things she keeps private, even from her niece, Sita, who is part of the team that helps her. In this case, Lalli believes that more harm than good would come from saying too many things to people who don’t need to know them. I can’t say more without spoiling the story, but it’s interesting to see how that question of how much people need to know is addressed.

And it is a good question. Is Lehane right? Are there things we’re better off knowing?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Daryl Hall and John Oates.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Cara Black, Kalpana Swaminathan, Pascal Garnier

Take All My Preconceptions*

We arguably have a more global society now than ever before. This means that most countries have a diverse population – some more diverse than others. And that means we often encounter people from lots of different backgrounds.

So far, so good. I’d guess most of us believe, at least in principle, that we should be able to work with all sorts of different people. The problem is, it doesn’t always work out that way in day-to-day encounters. Part of the reason for that is that we often have preconceptions of people that we don’t even know we have. They may be unconscious, but they can be no less hurtful for that. In fact, they can end up creating a group of ‘second class’ citizens. To see what I mean in real life, you really should read this excellent post from Marina Sofia, who blogs at Finding Time to Write. G’head, read it now. I’ll wait.

Back now? Thanks. The same thing can happen in crime fiction, even when the characters involved aren’t consciously xenophobic, or even consciously bigoted. It’s simply a set of assumptions that frames those characters’ reactions to others.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates when Celia Austin, a resident of a student hostel, is murdered. Her death turns out to be connected to a number of other strange and unsettling events at the hostel, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out the truth. That involves interviewing the other people who live at the hostel. Here’s what Sharpe says to Poirot about it:
 

‘‘You met some of them the other night and I wonder if you could give me any useful dope – on the foreigners, anyway.’
‘You think I am a good judge of foreigners? But, mon cher, there were no Belgians among them.’
‘No Belg – oh, I see what you mean. You mean that as you’re a Belgian, all the other nationalities are as foreign to you as they are to me. But that’s not quite true, is it? I mean you probably know more about the Continental types than I do – though not the Indians and the West Africans and that lot.’’
 

It’s not spoiling the story to say that Sharpe doesn’t assume the killer has to be someone who’s not English. He doesn’t use cruel slurs, and so on. But his assumptions are there nonetheless.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives follows the fortunes of the Eberhart family when they move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. What seems to be the right move to an idyllic town turns into a nightmare as Joanna Eberhart and her new friend, Bobbie Markowe, discover some very dark secrets that the town is hiding. At one point, Joanna has a conversation with one of the residents of the town, who tells her:
 

‘‘A black family is moving in on Gwendolyn Lane. But I think it’s good, don’t you?’’
 

Admittedly, this novel was first published in 1972. Still, it’s interesting to see how those assumptions come through.

Sometimes, people’s assumptions are clear, or seem clear, even without words. For instance, in one plot thread of Elizabeth George’s With No One as Witness, there’s a series of three murders, all of young boys. The police haven’t ignored the case, but they haven’t made a lot of progress, either. And the media hasn’t paid a whole lot of attention. Then, there’s another murder. Unlike the other victims, this boy is white. Now, the media starts to devote a lot more time and energy to the murders. And there’s a lot of talk that the police are only ramping up their efforts because this newest victim is white. Whether that’s true of each individual journalist and police officer, it seems to show a general assumption that some deaths are more meaningful than others. And that isn’t lost on the police, who return to the older cases and try to put the puzzle together.

Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club takes place in 1950’s Auckland. The real action in the story begins when a ship from England docks. One of the passengers is Istvan Zieglar, a refugee from Hungary who wants to start a new life in New Zealand. He’s heard about jobs at Auckland Harbour, and has come to help build the new bridge there. He soon gets involved in a dark mystery surrounding a local children’s home called Brodie House, and its connection to some terrible tragedies. Along the way, Zieglar has to get used to life in his new home. For one thing, he isn’t fluent in English, although he can get by. But, because he sometimes doesn’t understand what people say, his workmates assume that he,
 

‘‘…understands nothing…thick as a brick…’’
 

In fact, the assumption that he can’t do the work costs him the job. The foreman on the job has some other assumptions, too:
 

‘‘…a team of Italians are due here to assist with girders D, E, and F. Not sure what a bunch of Dago tunnellers know about steel girders, but the bosses hired them in their wisdom and we’ll just have to make the most of them.’’
 

Here, it’s very clear that certain assumptions are made about New Zealand workers vs workers from other places.

There’s also Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight, which features her sleuth, retired Mumbai police detective Lalli. In the novel, a small slum known as Kandewadi is the focus when several children who live there disappear and are later found dead. The media and the police don’t do very much about it. That, in itself, reveals assumptions about the lives of the people who live in Kandewadi. Finally, after several such deaths, the media pick the story up, and Inspector Savio, who regularly consults with Lalli, takes up the investigation. And it’s interesting to see how assumptions about life in slums plays a role in the story.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. In it, newly-minted psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark, who is dealing with the long-ago abduction of her sister, Gracie. Elisabeth’s story is eerily similar to Stephanie’s own. Seventeen years earlier, her sister, Gemma, was also abducted. Now, Stephanie decides to lay her ghosts to rest, and find the person who wrought so much havoc. So, she travels from Dunedin, where she lives and works, to her hometown of Wanaka. Along the way, she meets a hunting guide, Dan, who offers to take her out into the bush. Reluctantly, Stephanie agrees. It’s soon clear that she has preconceptions about Dan:
 

‘‘Wine, please. White wine?’ [Anderson]
‘I can manage both colours. Types as well. So. What type of white?’
He’s grinning again. She sees he’s teasing her.
‘Pinot gris?’ Huh, I guarantee he hasn’t got that.
‘Central Otago?’
‘Uh, yes. Thanks.’
He opens a bottle, fills a glass and hands it to her. ‘I believe I’m making progress.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hope that I’m adequately demonstrating to you that all hunters aren’t blokey yobbos.’
‘I didn’t say they were.’
‘You didn’t actually say it, no.’’

 

It’s an interesting example of the way we can have preconceptions without even being conscious of it.

And that’s the thing about such assumptions and frameworks for thinking. They shape our thoughts and, therefore, our interactions, even when we’re not aware of it.

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. Now, please, do go check out Finding Time to Write. Excellent reviews, thoughtful commentary, and fine poetry await you.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Orianthi Panagaris’ Courage.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Ira Levin, Jen Shieff, Kalpana Swaminathan, Paddy Richardson

No Compassion*

Early in life, most of us develop the capacity to take another’s viewpoint, and have sympathy – even empathy – for others. All of the religions and spiritual traditions I know about make a point about the importance of compassion. And even if you don’t believe in any religion or religious tradition, you’ve probably been taught the importance of sympathy for others. It’s part of the glue, if you will, that holds society together.

But not everyone has that sense of sympathy and compassion for others. Psychologists don’t agree on why a person might not have that capacity. And, in any case, there are any number of possible causes. Whatever the reason, the end result – a person who doesn’t have sympathy for others – can bring sorrow and tragedy. And in crime fiction, such a character can be truly chilling.

Agatha Christie included several such characters in her stories. For instance, in Lord Edgware Dies, famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to approach her husband, Lord Edgware, regarding a divorce. She tells Poirot that she wants a divorce, but that her husband won’t agree to it; she wants Poirot to get Edgware to change his mind. This isn’t Poirot’s usual sort of case, but he agrees to at least speak to the man. When Edgware says he has no objection to the divorce, Poirot thinks the matter is done. That night, though, Edgware is murdered in his study. The most likely suspect is his wife, and there’s evidence against her. But she claims to have been at a dinner party in another part of London at the time. And twelve other people are ready to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. They find that this killer has no conscience, really, and no sense of sympathy for others. Here’s a tiny snippet of a letter that the killer sends to Poirot:
 

‘I feel, too, that I should like everyone to know just exactly how I did it all. I still think it was all very well planned…I should like to be remembered. And I do think I am really a unique person.’
 

And that matters more to this killer than does any consideration for anyone else.

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the Blackwood family. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ lives with her sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian in the family home just outside a small New England town. We soon learn that the Blackwoods are a very isolated family. No-one in the village wants anything to do with them, and the feeling is mutual. Gradually, we learn of a tragedy that took place six years earlier, in which three other members of the Blackwood family died. Almost everyone in town thinks that one of the remaining Blackwoods is responsible, which is why the local people shun the family. Still, life goes on, more or less. Then one day, a cousin, Charles Blackwood, unexpectedly comes for a visit. His visit touches off a series of events that ends up in more tragedy. Throughout this novel, the lack of conscience and real sympathy for others plays an important role in what happens. And it adds to the tension and suspense.

In Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake, we are introduced to John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife, Rosie, own a fishing lodge in the northern part of Saskatchewan, but live in the small town of Crooked Lake, further south in the province. It’s not the sort of place where a lot of violent things happen as a rule. But then one day, Harvey Kristoff is murdered. The weapon seems to be a golf club, and his body is discovered on the grounds of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The most likely suspect is Nick Taylor, who was recently fired from his position as Head Greenskeeper, and who blames Kristoff for his termination. But he claims he’s innocent, and asks Bart, who’s a good friend, to clear his name. Bart doesn’t want to think his friend is a murderer, so he agrees to look into the matter. And he soon learns that there were plenty of other suspects. Then, there’s another murder. Bart finds out who the killer is and in the end, we find that the murderer,
 

‘…took the lives of two men as if they were nothing more than annoyances.’
 

It’s a disturbing look at what someone with no sympathy and no compassion is really like.

Peter Robinson introduces us to that sort of character, too, in A Dedicated Man. In that novel, archaeologist Harry Steadman retires from his position at the University of Leeds. He and his wife, Emma, then move to Yorkshire, where he plans to excavate some Roman ruins in the area. He gets the necessary permissions, and then begins the work. Then, tragically, he is murdered by blunt force trauma. DCI Alan Banks and his team investigate, and they soon discover more than one possibility. For one thing, not everyone in the area was best pleased about the excavation. For another, there’s the matter of Steadman’s former colleagues at Leeds. There are other possibilities, too. In the end, Banks and his team find that this killer has no real regrets and, really no sympathy either for Steadman or anyone else.

And then there’s Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight. In that novel, five children from a Mumbai slum called Kandewadi go missing, one by one. And, one by one, their bodies are returned to their families. Once the media outlets get hold of the story, pressure is put on the police to solve the murders, and Inspector Savio is assigned to investigate. He is in the habit of consulting with retired detective Lalli on his cases, and this one is no exception. Savio, Lalli, his assistant Shukla, and Lalli’s niece, Sita, investigate the killings. They discover that behind these deaths is a complete lack of sympathy for others or compassion. And it’s that lack of humanity that makes the killings even more disturbing, if that’s possible.

And that’s the thing about sympathy for others, and compassion. They help most of us control what we do, even if we do get angry or resentful. Without those qualities, the result can be truly chilling.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Talking Heads.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kalpana Swaminathan, Nelson Brunanski, Peter Robinson, Shirley Jackson

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