Land is a very valuable commodity in a lot of places. That’s especially true if the land has special significance, or if there is a valuable resource on it (e.g. oil or minerals). So, it’s little wonder that there are sometimes disputes over who actually owns a piece of land, or has the right to use it.
Some of those land disputes are relatively minor (e.g. is that tree on my property, or does it belong to the people next door?). In those cases, the dispute can often be settled peacefully, if not amicably. But other land disputes are more far-reaching, and have more consequences. They can cause serious conflict in real life, and they can add tension and plot lines to a novel. For a whodunit crime novel, a land dispute can even add a motive for murder.
There’s an interesting take on land use in Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. In that novel, a group of people gather at a New England property called Cabrioun, the home of Frank and Irene Ogden. The Ogdens own a specialty wood production business with a family friend, Luke Latham. The business depends on a certain sort of wood that’s now no longer available on the Ogden land. The only solution is a piece of land called Onawa, which does have the proper wood. Irene Ogden says that she inherited Onawa from her first husband, Grimaud Désanat, with the proviso that it not be logged for twenty years. With the business in danger, Latham and the Ogdens have decided to hold a séance to contact Désanat and get his consent to log on Onawa. It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem, as far as these people are concerned. Irene is a self-styled medium, and both her husband and Latham believe in the power of the séance. So, all is arranged, and the séance begins. It’s an eerie experience, and frightens several of the people there. Then, later that night, Irene is killed. Now everyone is thoroughly afraid, and the group works to find out who the killer is.
Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of the Thornhill family. In 1806, London bargeman William Thornhill is sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing a load of wood. He, his wife, Sal, and their children make the long journey, and end up in Sydney. William finds work making deliveries along the nearby waterways; Sal opens a makeshift pub. There’s tension between the new arrivals and the Aborigines, who’ve always been there. But things are more or less calm. Then, Thornhill begins to work for a man named Thomas Blackwell, delivering goods up and down the Hawkesbury River. That’s when he discovers what he sees as the perfect piece of land for him and his family. He’s determined to have that land, and of course, that leads to direct conflict with the Aborigines, who have a completely different view of land use. And Thornhill’s not the only one. As settlement in the Sydney area continues, there’s more and more such conflict, and some ugly things are done. Thornhill wants no part of the real ugliness, but he learns that, if he’s to hold on to the land he loves, he’ll have to get his hands bloody, too.
Nicole Watson’s The Boundary takes place mostly in Brisbane. The novel begins with a court case that the Corrowa people have brought. They claim that Merston Park belongs to the Corrowa; local developers and city officials dispute this. Justice Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa, saying that they cannot prove their uninterrupted occupation of Merston Park. Soon after the ruling, the judge is murdered. Then, others involved in the case against the claim are also killed, and a red feather placed near each body. Police officers Jason Matthews and Andrew Higgins investigate the deaths. For Matthews, this is especially difficult, since he is Aboriginal, and has been trying to succeed in a very white world. Still, he is a police officer, and determined to find out who’s responsible. Along the way, he meets Miranda Eversley, the attorney who argued the Corrowa’s case. She has her own issues to deal with, not least of which is that she’s now questioning her competence as a lawyer. Each in a different way, the two get to the truth about the killings.
In Patricia Stoltey’s The Prairie Grass Murders, Willie Grisseljon visits his family’s old home in Illinois. While he’s there, he discovers the half-buried body of a man on the property. As if that’s not enough, he’s soon locked up himself on charges of vagrancy. He contacts his sister, Florida judge Sylvia Thorn, and she immediately travels to Illinois to see what she can do to help. With her intercession, Willie is freed, and the two prepare to leave. But Willie insists on returning to the place where he found the body. When they get there, though, there is no sign of a body, and the land has been plowed over. It’s soon clear that there’s a cover-up, and Sylvia and Willie get involved in a case of corruption, greed, and land dispute.
In James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues, we meet former blues artist Dixie Lee Pugh. Drugs, alcohol, and a prison sentence ended his music career, and now he works as a leaseman. In that capacity, he travels to Montana’s Blackfoot Reservation, where a lease is being prepared that will allow oil drilling on some of the land. One night, Pugh happens to overhear two men discussing two murders they’ve committed. He doesn’t want to get involved, because of his history, so he asks his old friend, New Iberia, Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux, for help. At first, Robicheaux’s reluctant to look into the matter, but he finally starts asking questions. When he does, he discovers that the murders really did happen. This turns out to be a case of greed and corruption that are tainting the drilling and land dispute.
And then there’s R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper. Meg Harris has recently moved to Outaouai, in Western Québec, where she’s living in a house she inherited from her Great Aunt Agatha. Like her great-aunt, Meg wants to develop a good rapport with the local Migiskan people, and so far, has succeeded. So, Migiskan Band Chief Eric Odjik feels comfortable asking for her help in a difficult land matter. There’s a good chance that there may be gold on Whisper Island, which is very near Meg’s new home. A company called CanacGold wants to mine the island, but many Migiskan people object. The only way to resolve the dispute is to determine who, if anyone, actually owns the island. It’s quite possible that Meg herself is the owner, since the island may be part of her great-aunt’s property. But she’ll have to find the paperwork to prove it. As she’s working to do that, the conflict between CanacGold and some of the Migiskin gets more and more heated. And here’s conflict among the Migiskin, too, as some believe that mining will be good for the local economy, and will mean more jobs. Then, there is a disappearance. And then a murder. They may or may not be related to the land dispute, but they certainly impact the area. Meg gets involved in the search for the truth, since the land may be hers, and the woman who’s gone missing is a friend and employee.
Land disputes almost always lead to tension and conflict, sometimes end up in court, and can even end in violence. It’s little wonder, since land and what’s on it can be so valuable. So, it makes sense that we see this plot thread in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The King Blues’ The Future’s Not What it Used to Be.