There’s something about frontiers. I’m not talking here of actual borders between countries. Some of those are urban areas with strong infrastructures. Rather, I’m talking of another meaning of the word: the limits of settlement beyond which is wilderness. Those outposts really do have a different sort of culture. There’s usually not much infrastructure, so people have to make do. And they often have to depend on each other if they’re going to survive.
Living on a frontier takes an awful lot of hard work. At the same time, though, there are often fewer social conformities expected. So, it can seem as though there are limitless possibilities for what a person can do. And, with more traditional law enforcement often at a great distance, crime and the handling of it can be very different to what it is in more settled areas. People feel they have to handle things in their own way.
All of this, plus the physical dangers, can make for a very effective context for a crime novel. So, it’s little wonder that unsettled frontiers play such a role in the genre. They’re certainly not places for ‘drawing room’ murders, but they have their own kind of appeal.
Part of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet takes place in the American west, in what is now Utah. It’s 1847, and John Ferrier and a small child named Lucy are the only survivors of a group of pioneers heading west. They’re on the point of dying of dehydration and exposure when they are rescued by a group of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). The group takes them in on condition that they adopt the LDS faith, and, with little choice, Ferrier agrees. For several years afterwards, all goes well enough. Everything changes when Lucy grows up. It all leads to a tragedy, and, ultimately, to two murders. Joseph Stangerson and Enoch Drebber have gone to London, and are staying at a boarding-house there. When Drebber is killed, Stangerson is suspected. But then, he himself is killed. Scotland Yard’s Tobias Gregson asks for Sherlock Holmes’ interpretation of some of the clues, and Holmes finds out who killed both men, and how it connects with John Ferrier and with Lucy.
Stark Holborn’s Nunslinger series also takes place in the American west, beginning in 1864. There are twelve books in this series, each of them more novella-length than novel-length. The follow Sister Thomas Josephine as she travels from her convent in St. Louis to a new life in Sacramento. At the time, the journey is full of dangers, only some of which come from geography, weather or wildlife. These stories do contain crimes, but they are as much adventure stories as they are anything else. And they show how difficult it could be to make such a journey at a time when there is little infrastructure or security.
There are plenty of other examples, too, of crime fiction that takes place in the American west, but that’s hardly been the only frontier. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, for instance, takes place mostly in the area surrounding today’s Sydney, during its early days. London bargeman William Thornhill is arrested for stealing a load of wood. He’s due to be executed, but the authorities are persuaded to sentence him to transportation instead. So, in 1806, Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children board a boat for Sydney. When they arrive, they find there’s very little settlement there. Still, they do their best to start their lives. Thornhill finds work making deliveries up and down the nearby rivers, and Sal opens a makeshift pub. Life is a hard scrabble for them, but they begin to settle in. Soon enough, Thornhill learns of some of the brutal ugliness that’s gone on between the settlers and the Aboriginal people who’ve been there for many thousands of years. He wants no part of that violence. But then, he discovers the perfect piece of land on which he wants to build a home. And he learns that, if he’s going to hold on to that land, he’ll have to get his hands dirty, too. This novel isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel, although there are certainly crimes in it. But it provides a look at life in that part of Australia when Sydney was a frontier town.
There’s also Seán Haldane’s The Devil’s Making, which takes place in 1868 and 1869. Chad Hobbes has recently completed his degree in Jurisprudence from Oxford, and wants to travel for a while before settling down. So, armed with a letter of introduction, he travels to the then-frontier town of Vancouver. The introduction to the Governor is enough to get him a job as a constable, which mostly means he has guard duty, helps settles drunken quarrels, and occasionally helps remove the local prostitutes. Then, a group of Tsimshian Indians, who’ve been in the area to sell their homemade goods, brings terrible news to the town. They’ve discovered the mutilated body of Richard McCrory. At first, it looks like a clear-cut case. The dead man had been involved with a Tsimshian woman named Lukswaas. Her partner, Wiladzap, is one of the leaders of the Tsimshians, and it’s believed he killed McCrory. But, he denies committing the crime, and the local law enforcement has to show that they’re actually investigating. So, Hobbes is assigned to ask a few perfunctory questions. He soon learns, though, that Wiladzap is by no means the only person with a motive. As he gets closer to the truth, we learn about what life was like in that part of Canada during its ‘frontier’ days.
Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries take place during China’s Tang Dynasty (618-806 CE). At that time, the district of Lan-Fang, on China’s northwestern border, is a frontier area. As Magistrate, Judge Dee represents Chinese authority. But he often has to make decisions for himself, since communication with the central government takes a long time. There are shops, homes and so on in Lan-Fang, but it’s hardly an urbane, sophisticated place. And it’s always at risk from outside invaders. What’s more, the people are accustomed to rule by local tyrants and thugs. It takes some time for Judge Dee to establish the rule of law there.
There’ve been frontiers in a lot of places in the world. And you could argue that there still places that are ‘frontierish,’ where there’s little settlement and lots of wilderness. Frontiers do offer lots of opportunities to those who take the risk. But they’re also dangerous. Little wonder there’s crime fiction that takes place in that setting.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher’s Don’t Fence Me In.