Moving Is My Stock in Trade*

Whether it’s a house, apartment, or someplace else, most of us have a fixed place to live. In fact, in many places, you’re required to have an address to register children for school, to do banking, to get government ID, and more. A fixed address is that integral to a lot of modern life. Still, there are plenty of people who don’t live that way. I’m not talking here about people who are homeless because of finances or mental illness, for instance. Rather, I mean people who live in communities that move around. Those communities have their own ways of life that simply aren’t tied to one place. That can be difficult to understand for those of us used to addresses and fixed homes. But it’s the way of life for some people, and it’s interesting to see how those communities are treated in crime fiction.

Some people travel around because they’re migrant workers; they go where the jobs are. Often, it’s for agricultural work. We see that, for instance, in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Not everyone thinks of this as a crime novel, but if you think about it, there’s an argument that it is one. As the novel begins, migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Small are on their way to a new job. They were forced to leave their last jobs because Lennie was accused of attempted rape when he wouldn’t let go of a young woman’s dress. He’s of limited intelligence, and just wanted to stroke the dress because it was soft. But his accuser didn’t see it that way. Lennie and George arrive at their new place of employment and are assigned bunks and jobs to do. They’re also introduced to the boss’ son, Curly, who’s malicious, spiteful, and egotistical. He makes their lives miserable, but they do the best they can. But when Curly’s notoriously flirtatious wife makes an appearance, George senses that there could be trouble. He’s right, too, as her flirting turns out to be a central point in the story. In the end, George’s and Lennie’s attempts to fit in and do their jobs turn tragic.

The Roma people have a long history of moving around, originally the result of xenophobia and suspicion. They were often barred from owning property and taking permanent jobs, so they became wanderers. We learn about their lives in Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones. A Roma man named Leon Wood hires PI Ray Lovell to find Wood’s daughter, Rose. It seems that Rose disappeared some years ago after marrying Ivo Janko. Now, Wood wants the truth about what happened to her. He’s hired Lovell chiefly because Lovell is half-Roma, and the people involved in the case are also Roma. Wood thinks they’ll be more likely to talk to someone who’s ‘one of us’ than to the police. Lovell takes the case and starts asking questions, beginning with Wood himself. After all, why did he wait so long to seek out answers? But there are other possibilities, too, including Ivo Janko and his family. As the novel goes on, Lovell slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together. As he does, readers get an ‘inside look’ at the Roma life.

The culture of the Travellers of Ireland and the UK is also nomadic. The Traveller community is tight-knit and has its own cultural norms. ‘Outsiders’ are not easily trusted, especially if they are the police. And, as you can image, the feeling’s often mutual. We see a bit of the Traveller life in Kate Ellis’ The Merchant House. In one plot thread of that novel, Detective Sergeant (DS) Wesley Peterson and the Tadmouth CID begin an all-out search when Jonathon Berrisford disappears from the yard of the summer cottage where he and his mother are staying. Part of the trail leads to a group of Travellers who’ve been staying locally. Peterson is well aware that he won’t make much headway in getting any answers from that group, so he teams up with a social worker they know. As they visit the Travellers and get involved with them, we see how the modern Traveller community works.

Some communities, such as many of Australia’s Aboriginal communities, have a special relationship with the land. As they see it, the land takes care of them, and they take care of the land. This means communities that don’t really look like the communities that non-indigenous people are accustomed to seeing. It also means that members of these communities move around on their land as it’s necessary, and they are deeply familiar with life in the Australian bush. There are non-indigenous people, too, who’ve adopted this lifestyle. We see this in more than one of Arthur Upfield’s books. For example, in The Bushman Who Came Back, Queensland police detective Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte investigates the disappearance of a young girl, Linda Bell. She went missing from the homestead of a man named Mr. Wootton after her mother, Wootton’s housekeeper, was murdered. The assumption is that a bushman named Yorkie abducted the child, but some of the evidence calls that into question. Bony knows that if anyone knows where the child is, or has seen her, it’s likely to be a member of the local Aboriginal community, as they know the land very well. So, he travels to their encampment and gets their insights on what happened. He’s more or less accepted among them, because he’s half Aboriginal himself, and reads ‘the book of the bush’ fluently. In the end, that knowledge, and his interactions with the Aboriginal community, help Bony find out what happened to Linda.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels also shed some light on life among some Aboriginal communities. In Moonlight Downs/Diamond Dove, Emily returns to her home in the Moonlight Downs encampment after some years away. She gets drawn into a murder investigation when her best friend Hazel’s father is murdered. Later, in Gunshot Road, she becomes an Aboriginal Community Police Officer. Her first major case is the murder of a geologist, ‘Doc’ Ozolins. In both novels, she connects with the Aboriginal communities, and readers see how moving around fits in with their lifestyle, and how they view the land.

There are other groups, too, who don’t have what most of us would think of as fixed homes. Instead, they move around to different places. It’s a different way of life, and it can make for a really effective backdrop for a novel.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s (That’s What You Get) For Lovin’ Me. There are lots of recordings of this song to choose from; I like the Peter, Paul, and Mary version, but listen to a few and see what you think.

 


18 thoughts on “Moving Is My Stock in Trade*

    1. Thanks, KBR! You know, you have a well-taken point about the way itinerant people are viewed in GA novels. They’re the ones the locals always gossip about (‘He dunnit! He’s the type! You know how they are!’)…

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  1. One of the Maisie Dobbs’ instalments, An Incomplete Revenge, deals with her Roma heritage and their way of life. Sadly this doesn’t seem to have been developed in subsequent books as it was fascinating. I’ve only read Steph Penney’s ‘ A Tenderness of Wolves’ and haven’t heard of The Invisible Ones’. I’ll be looking that up immediately as I really liked her first book.

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    1. Thanks for the reminder of An Incomplete Revenge, Cath. I’d like to know more about Maisie’s Roma heritage, too; it’s an interesting part of who she is. I do recommend The Invisible Ones. In my opinion, it’s a very well-written story with some real insight into the modern Roma way of life.

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  2. All of these books sound good, Margot. I have read Of Mice and Men, but it has been a long time. I could read it again.

    I will be reading A Tenderness of Wolves by Penney soon, but haven’t read anything else by her. And I would really like to read Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels.

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    1. Oh, I do hope you get the chance to read Adrian Hyland, Tracy. In my opinion, he does an excellent job of depicting life in th Australian Outback, and the stories are engaging and suspenseful. And I’m glad you’re planning to read A Tenderness of Wolves; I think Penney is very talented. As for Of Mice and Men, I could re-read that one, too…

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  3. A recent Larry D. Sweazy novel set in the 30s, Winter Seeks Out the Lonely features a travelling circus. A murder happens and guess where the finger is pointed?

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  4. Since I just finished it yesterday I’ll add Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott into the mix. Another one that isn’t really thought of as crime fiction, but the story kicks off when a man is murdered by smugglers and a small child disappears. There were gypsies in the area at the time and they naturally fall under suspicion of abducting the child, but they’ve moved on and no one knows where they are. But then perhaps the smugglers took him – they also move around by sea so are not easy to track. Or perhaps the child was killed because he witnessed the murder and his body disposed of in the sea. Sounds like a crime novel, doesn’t it? And it all gets resolved many years later when the truth about the child’s disappearance is revealed.

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    1. You know, that really does sound like a crime fiction story, FictionFan! Doesn’t matter if it’s usually considered ‘literature.’ And it’s not surprising that both the gypsies and the smugglers fall under suspicion. They’re just the sort of groups who would be considered highly likely to do something like abduct a boy. It’s a really good example of what I had in mind, so thanks! I’ll be interested in what you thought of the story !

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  5. My mum was always interested in travellers’ rights, Irish travellers as well as Roma. At the time I was growing up in with my mum, stepdad and much younger brother and sister from my mum’s second marriage, and regularly visiting my dad and his second wife and my sister and brother in a different part of the same postcode area. Since 1989 many more European Roma have moved hereto escape governments and people who are even more bigoted and reactionary than many people here – in Poland, Hungary, Romania etc. I live in London and when Nigel Farage said “would you like Roma living next door”? I thought they’re not actually next door but there are definitely several Roma families in the area and I have had near neighbours. One of our local children’s centres had a special Roma Stay and play group, though the photos suggested that non Roma families were also regulars, given the racial diversity shown.

    We had several children’s books by Patricia Lynch who my mum had also grown up with in the 1950s.

    Have you read Bury Me Standing, a non fiction account of Roma lives in a number of European countries, or The Stopping Places, a memoir by an English Roma guy whose family is mostly based just south of London in Kent and Surrey?

    Louise Doughty is an English writer with some central/Eastern European Roma heritage, and she has written at least two novels which draw from her own family’s experiences of WWII (I think she’s a few years older than me).

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    1. Thanks, Elkiedee, for sharing your growing-up experiences. I’m sure you learned a lot from your mother’s views on Travellers’ and Roma’s rights. You make some well-taken points, too, about the way prejudice has impacted both groups of people. It’s one of the important reason they have to move on – because they are made so unwelcome.

      I’m very glad you mentioned Patricia Lynch’s work; how great that your mother grew up with her! As for Bury Me Standing and The Stopping Places, I’ve not (yet) read them, but they sound absolutely fascinating, and I’ll definitely have to look them up. I need to catch up with Louise Doughty, too. I appreciate the suggestions.

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  6. Margot: An interesting post with interesting comments. I thought of the two Matteesie Kitologitak’s mysteries by Scott Young. Matteesie grew up in the Arctic as the Inuk transitioned from a nomadic life to a semi-nomadic life for those who maintained a traditional lifestyle. As a boy his family moved over large areas. When they moved to a settlement they still went out from the settlement to hunt and trap and fish for extended periods. The traditional to semi-traditional lifestyle of many Inuk is a part of the fabric of both books. I continue to regret that Young, a prolific writer, did not write more mysteries featuring Matteesie.

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    1. Thanks, Bill. And thanks for mentioning Matteesie. He’s a good character, and you’re right about the way the Inuik live. They’re another group that moves around and goes out for hunting and fishing and so on, even if they are in settled places. I like the way those books depict the lifestyle. Folks, do try Scott Young’s Murder in a Cold Climate and The Shaman’s Knife if you get the chance. I, too, wish there’d been more than just those two books.

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