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.