When our formerly homeless friend Frank heard we were writing an article about the prevalence of homeless characters in mystery novels, he quipped, "Of course! Where else would we beromances?" Anitra readily replied, "Yes Beggars Choice by Patricia Wentworth."
For this piece we have done our research; weve read at least 30 novels by 15 or more writersthe good, the bad, and the ugly. With the help of DorothyL, an on-line mystery book discussion list that includes many writers and bookstore owners, we have identified more than 50 mystery writers who have incorporated homeless characters in their books.
This trend hit its peak in the mid-to-late 1990s, and is still growing, as homelessness itself is growing and becoming more prevalent. No other genre gives this much attention to homelessness. Like any good detectives, we set off to discover why.
Writers need to observe people and their environments in order to write realistically. Writers also tend to identify with misfits, outsiders and underdogs. Mystery writers especially the hardboiled ones, who focus on the underbelly of society as we now know it tend to be tuned into social trends, and that involves lots of people living and dying on the streets.
What a happy mix, then, to be able to focus on the misfits and a quest for justice by using homeless characters.
We have detected four strong patterns among mystery novels that use homeless characters, but confess these categories are somewhat arbitrary and overlap.
Just as in modern movies and TV shows, homeless characters in mysteries are often introduced to set a scene, establish atmosphere. A shabby, wild-eyed man looming up suddenly and shouting disconnected phrases creates a sense of danger and anxiety; our narrators compassion for the neighborhood baglady tells us he is a Good Guy; the suspects rudeness to the street vendor is a clue to his villainy.
Starting in the mid to late 80s, both Sarah Paretsky and Barbara Wilson set their mysteries in downtrodden urban neighborhoods. In Paretskys Burn Marks and later in Tunnel Vision she uses homeless women who live in the subway tunnels beneath Chicago as a main focus. Wilson, a local, sets Sisters of the Road in Pioneer Square and focuses on homeless youth. Her protagonist, Pam Nilsen, also travels to Portland, to the title cafe, in order to find one of the disappeared youth.
In only one of the novels we read Malloys Subway, by Robert W. Campbell was the homeless character the perpetrator. This is not a mystery, but rather a novel of suspense in which you watch as the crimes are committed, and the investigator and the murderer steer a collision course. But even here, the novelist shows the killer as an outcastabused and damaged. Eventually we know him as a victim, too.
More frequently, homeless characters are wrongfully accused in the beginning of an investigation, and are used as easy scapegoats. One of the moral quests of the detective is to exonerate the innocent.
Laurie R. Kings To Play the Fool is one of the best examples of these. A prophesying homeless man nicknamed Brother Erasmus, who lives in Golden Gate Park, is accused of the murder of another homeless man, and then goes missing. Police detective Kate Martinelli investigates his history much to his chagrin, using computerized tracking systems much like Safe Harbors to invade his privacy.
In the first book of Lora Roberts "Liz Sullivan" series, Liz is living in her VW van as a "vagabond." She has a hard time describing herself as homeless. Although she knows and cares for the homeless people of her community, she does not identify with them. Then, one of her acquaintances is found dead beneath her home, and she is accused of the crime, which forces her to take a more active part in both the homeless and non-homeless communities.
"Homeless person as victim" seems such a natural role to the unenlightened, and that is how their characters are used at least in the beginning of many novels. Some novels transcend that beginning and show other homeless characters much more deeply.
Some books, like And Your Little Dog, Too by Melissa Cleary and John Grishams The Street Lawyer, say nice things, ultimately, about their dead homeless characters, but give little insight and have little emotional impact. Remember Me, Irene, by Jan Burke, on the other hand, portrays a much more complex picture, showing homeless alcoholics and rich alcoholics, both rich and poor families under stress and torn apart. Homeless characters come from a variety of backgrounds. Her book demonstrates not just says that all human beings are both unique and much alike.
G.M. "Gerry" Ford has a special place in this trend. In Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca, his first book, we are introduced to private detective Leo Waterman, who numbers among his friends many chronically homeless alcoholic men and women. Waterman uses his homeless friends as surveillance operatives in all six of Fords Waterman novels, his own personal Baker Street Irregulars. In Wanda Fuca, one of the ops Buddy is brutally murdered early on. Word spreads quickly on the streets, and soon 37 homeless men and women join the investigation in order to get justice for Buddy.
The most recent and most empowering trend in homeless mysteries is the homeless detective. Besides the homeless ops in Fords fine novels and Lora Roberts Liz Sullivan, there is Rosemary Auberts Judge Ellis Portal in Free Reign. Portal now lives in a packing crate shack outside Toronto, and begins an investigation after he finds a severed hand in his greenbelt garden.
George Dawes Greens The Cavemans Valentine features a homeless man accused of being schizophrenic, whose paranoid, hyperactive voice is firmly intact throughout the novel as he seeks justice for the young man whose dead body is dumped outside his cave. Greens book is excellent; it works on every level and to its suspenseful, moving end honors absolutely the integrity of his character, Romulus Ledbetter. Highly recommended!
But what does it all mean? We think that it means that mystery writers are naturally attracted to the mystery of homelessness although of course homelessness is not as easily solvable as the body in the bathtub. Writers who strive for realism naturally include the reality of homelessness in their novels, and writers whose theme is the pursuit of justice are turning their attention to justice for homeless people.
Part of that justice is revealing the unrevealed, squarely facing fear of the unknown. Detectives tend to be courageous, and often have a crazy-seeming persistence in focusing on what other people would rather sweep under the carpet or avoid.
Thanks to the members of DorothyL and to Bill Farley, founder-owner of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, for their invaluable help.
A bibliography of
mysteries with homeless characters
Interview with G.M. Ford
Mystery Readers Ring & Book Discussion List