There are some towns (and districts in large cities) that seem to have been left behind. If you’ve driven through them, or ever lived in one, you know the signs. Dilapidated homes, lots of empty shops and ‘to let’ signs, and more than their share of pawn shops and payday loan places. They can be depressing, and most people who have the option don’t want to live in places like that. But they also have their own personalities and their own cultures. And in crime fiction, they can serve as interesting backdrops to a story.
Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost is the story of Kate Meaney. Ten-year-old Kate is growing up in an economically depressed Midlands town. No-one has a lot of money, and there’s not a lot to do. Many of the local shops have had to close, and plenty of people live in council housing. When a new mall called Green Oaks opens, there’s talk that it will bring more jobs into town, but so far, there’s not a lot of prosperity. Kate isn’t too held back by this bleak situation, though. She wants more than anything else to be a detective, and she’s already started her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends a lot of time at the local mall, because she is sure there’ll be a lot of crime there that she can solve. Although Kate’s content with her life, her grandmother, Ivy, feels she’d be better off going away to school. So, she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams for Redspoon, an exclusive school. Kate goes off for the exams, but never returns. A major search gets underway, but there’s no sign of the girl, not even a body. Twenty years later, Kurt, who works security at the mall, starts to see some strange images on his cameras: a girl who’s about Kate’s age seems to be wandering the mall, especially at night. Lisa Palmer, who works at one of the mall stores, happens to meet Kurt one night, and the two form an awkward friendship. It turns out that Lisa is the younger sister of Adrian Palmer, who was blamed for Kate’s disappearance, and she remembers the girl. Between them, the two go back to the past, so to speak, and find out what happened to Kate.
Eoin Colfer’s Plugged takes place in fictional Cloisters, New Jersey. It’s a run-down sort of town with dirty, gritty bars, loan sharks, and worn-out housing – not exactly the sort of place that inspires tourism. Daniel McEvoy is an Irish ex-pat who now works as a bouncer at Slotz, a sleazy casino/nightclub. It’s hardly a Michelin star restaurant, but McEvoy’s content enough there. Then, one of his co-workers, Cornelia ‘Connie’ DeLyne, is found murdered. McEvoy is a ‘person of interest,’ because he had a sort of relationship with the victim. He knows he didn’t kill his friend, though, and he wants to clear his name. He also wants to find out who is responsible. So, he starts asking questions. He soon finds himself in the crosshairs of some very dangerous people. And that’s to say nothing of the police, who are not at all convinced that McEvoy is innocent.
Brad Parks’ Faces of the Gone also takes place in New Jersey, this time in Newark. Like most cities, Newark has some upmarket areas, but its reputation is very working-class and rough-and-tumble. There are dive bars, drug dealers, quick loan places (don’t ask questions), and poorly constructed housing. Carter Ross is a reporter for the Newark Eagle-Examiner, so he’s seen Newark’s ugly side. One day, his boss sends him to a local vacant lot, where four bodies have been found. The first theory about their deaths is that one of them held up a local bar, and that the owner had them killed as vengeance. That story doesn’t really hold up well, though, and Ross soon begins to believe that there’s more to the story than that. So, he looks more deeply into the story. He finds that a lot of people are not willing to talk to him, and that makes his job more difficult. But he slowly starts to put the pieces together. And that gets him into more danger than he imagined.
One of the settings for Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo is an impoverished council estate in a run-down section of London. Life there isn’t easy to begin with, and there are issues with drugs, gangs, and all sorts of crime. One of the residents is Jane Gresham, a post-doctorate scholar whose specialty is Wordsworth. She’s barely making ends meet, but doing the best she can, and hoping for the chance for a full-time, funded university position. Then, she hears about the possible existence of an unpublished Wordsworth manuscript. If this is true, it could make her career. So, she makes plans to track the manuscript down, with no idea of dangerous that will be. Jane has befriended thirteen-year-old Tenille, who’s grown up on the estate. In Tenille’s story, perceptions, and choices, we see the impact of living in a run-down sort of place. It’s hard on everyone, and particularly difficult for young people who have no direction. Without spoiling the story, I can say that Tenille plays an important role in what happens.
And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police service is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him, he takes probationer Lucy Howard. Tragically, White is killed at the scene; and, as you can imagine, his colleagues are determined to catch the person responsible. The most likely suspect is the burglar, seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who lives in Glenorchy, an economically depressed suburb of Hobart. There are few jobs and fewer prospects, and many of the people who live in Glenorchy rely on government assistance. The police are ready to close the case, write Darren off as hopeless, and send him to prison as soon as possible. At the same time, though, they have to be perceived as being fair and transparent, and considering all possibilities. Glenorchy isn’t the main setting for the story, but the scenes that take place there show the sort of background Darren Rowley has, and they provide an interesting look at the perspectives people have of those who live in such places.
Places like Glenorchy, that have seen better days, are not easy places to live. They’re unsightly and they can be very dangerous. Certainly they don’t do much to buoy hope. Yet, they have their own personalities, and they can serve as effective backdrops for a crime novel. Which have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s No Man’s Land.