Beginning with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century, manufacturing became a critical part of the world economy. And in many countries, factories are still important sources of employment and the nation’s economy. After all, every time you order something online, that something ultimately comes from a factory, unless you’ve ordered a handmade item from an individual. And, if you think about it, factories are also important socioculturally. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that we see factories in crime fiction, too.
Rhys Bowen’s For the Love of Mike takes place at the very beginning of the 20th Century. Molly Murphy has emigrated from Dublin and is now living in New York City. She’s inherited a PI business from her former mentor. It’s not easy to break into that business, especially for a woman, but she’s gotten a few cases. One day, she gets a different sort of case from clothing designer Max Mostel. He believes that someone at his clothing factory has been stealing his designs and selling them to his biggest competitor. He wants to find out who the mole is, so he hires Murphy to go undercover at his factory to learn the business. Then, she’ll go undercover at the other factory to find out who is responsible for stealing the designs. It turns out to be a far more dangerous case than either had imagined. Among other things, the novel gives a sense of what factory life was like at that time, before there were laws about working hours, meal breaks, safety, and so on. Factories often have their own cultures, and that’s explored here, too.
During World War II, factories in many countries became essential to the war effort. So, plenty of factories were converted for wartime production. They hired many people, stayed open around the clock, and kept their focus on munitions and other things needed for the war effort. Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins had a job in one such factory – a Los Angeles-based airplane factory. After the war, production dropped, and many factories scaled back operations or closed completely. Their employees ended up furloughed. That’s exactly what happened to Rawlins. As a result of being laid off, Rawlins was left at loose ends, and in need of money. In Devil in a Blue Dress, he finds a way to earn money when he is hired to find a missing woman. He ends up being good at finding people and becomes a PI. And it’s interesting to see how the story of wartime factories is tied in with Rawlins’ own history.
Manufacturing is still a very important sector of many nations’ economies, and contemporary crime fiction reflects that. For instance, in Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly, Venice police detective Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates the death of Georgio Tassini. The dead man worked as a night watchman in a glass blowing factory owned by Giovanni de Cal. From all appearances, he died as a result of a tragic accident with one of the machines. But Brunetti isn’t so sure this was an accident. For one thing, there are some signs that Tassini might have been murdered. For another, Tassini had publicly claimed that several of the glass blowing factories were polluting the local water; in fact, he blamed that toxic waste for his daughter’s host of special needs. It’s certainly possible that he was murdered to keep him quiet. That’s not the only possibility, though, and Brunetti has to look into the factory’s operations to see what might have led to Tassini’s death.
Natsuo Kirino’s Out tells the story of a group of women who work nights at a Tokyo factory that makes bento boxes – boxed lunches. One of them, Yayoi, is married to an abusive husband who’s gambled away most of the couple’s money. Now, Yayoi is left with a heavily mortgaged house and other debts, and no real way to pay them off. In a rage, she strangles her husband with her own belt. Now, she’s free of her husband, but she’s left with the problem of what to do with the body. That’s not to mention she’s very likely to be tried for murder if she can’t cover up the crime. She turns for help to her co-workers at the factory, and the women form a plan. But things don’t go as expected, and the women’s choices draw them into a very dark, dangerous web. Among other things, this novel shows the bonds that can be formed among people who work in a factory, often sitting or standing next to each other for long hours.
And then there’s Martin Walker’s Black Diamond. One plot thread of the novel concerns a local sawmill that has been in business for many years. It’s an important part of life in the small French town of St. Denis. But times have changed, and the factory is facing closure. New EU pollution regulations have been enacted, and that will profoundly impact the factory, even though it already takes anti-pollution measures. It doesn’t help matters that a local group of environmentalists are protesting the factory. It all erupts into violence when the protestors try to get the factory to close. Chief of Police Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrège has his hands full, what with the aftermath of the protest and with a case of smuggling – and the murder of a friend. And this plot thread shows how factories are challenged as rules and economies change. It’s especially challenging when a factory is an important part of the life of a local town.
Factories have been essential to the development of most economies, and still are in many cases. They have their own cultures, their own social structures, and their own challenges. Little wonder that they show up in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Factory.