The sex trade can be very dangerous, especially for those who work independently. Brothels can be a safer and healthier alternative to going it alone, especially if they’re owned and run by skilled and caring owners. Brothel owners have a vested interested in making sure their employees are healthy and safe. And in places where prostitution is illegal, they’re very helpful in terms of keeping the employees out of trouble with the law. Some of them are very particular about clients, too, so that their employees are at less risk. For the client, brothels can offer a more comfortable atmosphere. And if the brothel owner is doing the job well, there’s less risk of STDs.
Of course, real and fictional brothels run the gamut from elegant, upmarket places to seedy, very dangerous places where the employees are treated horribly. Either way, brothel owners can make very interesting characters in crime novels and series. On the one hand, what they are doing is illegal in a lot of places. On the other, they can be very helpful sources of information, and the police find that it’s often better all round to work with them than to make life too difficult for them.
Ed McBain’s Steve Carella knows that. In Cop Hater, he and his team are looking for a suspect they believe might be responsible for killing two of his colleagues, Mike Reardon and David Foster. They’ve traced this suspect to a local brothel owned by Mama Luz. Carella and Mama Luz have a very amicable relationship. Here’s how she greets him when he and his rookie assistant visit her establishment:
“You come on a social call?’ she asked Carella, winking.
‘If I can’t have you, Mama Luz,’ Carella said, ‘I don’t want anybody.’’
She’s helpful in directing him to the room where the suspect is, too.
In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Nag, Hamish Macbeth has been having a difficult time lately. He’s been demoted from the rank of sergeant, and his engagement to Priscilla Haliburton-Smythe is now off. At loose ends and fed up with everything, Macbeth decides to take some time away. He stays at the Friendly House, a beachside inn. It’s not exactly the peaceful respite he’d hoped for, though. Many of the guests are at the very least annoying, and the innkeepers aren’t exactly the stuff of travel fantasy. Then, Bob Harris, who’s one of the residents, is murdered. Macbeth finds himself drawn into the investigation, and begins to trace Harris’ last days and weeks. That includes a follow-up on an incident in which he himself saw Harris leave a brothel. The brothel’s owner, Mrs. Simpson, is both candid and co-operative. It’s clear from their exchange that she’s used to being on what’s technically speaking the wrong side of the law, but at the same time working with the police. It’s also clear from this scene that she cares about the welfare of her employees.
So does Candace Curtis, whom we meet in Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District. In that novel, she hires Toronto PI Sasha Jackson to find one of her employees, Mary Carmen Santamaria. The young woman’s gone missing, and Curtis is concerned that something might have happened to her. Jackson takes the case, and as she investigates, she learns quite a bit about the Toronto sex trade. She also gets to know her new client, and her client’s way of running her business. Curtis takes the well-being of her employees very seriously, so she’s quite particular about accepting clients. She insists, too, on ensuring her employees’ dignity and self-esteem. She’s also smart when it comes to business, and has done well for herself and the women who work for her.
In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which takes place in 1970’s Perth, we meet Superintendent Frank Swann. He’s been away from Perth for a few years, but returns when he learns that a friend has been murdered. The victim is brothel owner Ruby Devine, whose body has been found in her car on a golf course. The official police explanation is that she was probably killed by her partner Jacky White. But the case is flimsy and Swann is sure that more is going on here than a case of domestic violence gone horribly wrong. He’s not going to get much help from his work colleagues, because he’s already a marked man, as the saying goes, for requesting a Royal Commission hearing regarding police corruption. The police he’s accusing are members of what’s known as ‘the purple circle,’ a group known for graft, corruption, and vicious brutality if they are crossed. The word on the street is that they are responsible for Ruby’s murder, so lots of people are afraid to speak up against them for fear of a similar reprisal. Swann perseveres, though, and we learn the truth about Ruby’s death. In the meantime, the Royal Commission hearing goes on, and there’s testimony from several witnesses. One of them, Pat Chesson, is, like the victim, a brothel owner. Here’s what she says about the relationship between the owners and the police before the ‘purple circle’ moved in:
‘When I first arrived to set up my business here, there was understandings between myself and the police. We kept our part of the bargain, they kept theirs. We made sure all our girls was clean and well behaved. We kept a quiet profile. You wouldn’t know, walking past one of my businesses, what it was. And anyone who went outside the rules was run out of town.’’
Among other things, this shows the role that brothel owners play in making sure their businesses fit into the community without causing the police a lot of trouble.
In Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Purity of Vengeance, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck gets a visit from an old nemesis, Børge Bak. Bak is a former colleague who has since transferred, and Mørck is none too pleased to see him. This time, Bak has a request. His sister Esther, who owns a brothel, has been attacked with acid, and Bak thinks he has the right man in custody. He wants Mørck’s help in getting a confession. He’s also brought along another case: the 1987 disappearance of another brothel owner, Rita Nielson. Mørck’s secretary/researcher Rose Knudsen is sure that the Nielsen case was more or less passed over – ‘shelved’ – because of the woman’s profession, and at her insistence, Mørck looks into it. He and his team discover that this disappearance, and that of several others on the same weekend, all have to do with one woman, Nete Hermansen, and her desire for revenge, especially against a doctor who horribly abused his medical privileges.
We also see plenty of brothel owners – mamasans – in work like that of John Burdett and Timothy Hallinan. In Southeast Asia (although not in all of Asia), these are women (there are also papasans – the male equivalent) who manage bars that also provide prostitution services. Their roles aren’t identical to the roles played by Western-style brothel owners, but they bear some similarities. Mamasans and papasans ensure that customers pay the ‘bar fine’ – the price for leaving with one of the bar’s employees. They also make sure that the bar runs smoothly, and, where necessary, they pay off the police and other authorities.
There are many cases of brothel owners who are vicious and predatory, both in fiction and in real life. But plenty of them are business people who make a living providing a service. And some of them care a lot about their employees, and want to make sure that they’re safe and that their clients have a good experience, too. They can also make very interesting characters in a crime story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carol Hall’s A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place.