The December 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

The Poor Will Perish Without Housing

We Accuse the US Government

The Works of Mercy: Thoughts on the Death of a Homeless Man

Greed Fuels Oakland Condo Conversion Law

Berkeley Food and Housing Project

Happy Holidays: Berkeley Targets the Homeless

Claire Burch Documents Life on the Streets

St. Joseph the Worker Needs Support

94 Years Old and Still Homeless

Judge Orders Fresno to Uphold U.S. Constitution

Stranded in the Season of Giving

Stories of Street Survival

A Criminal of Poverty

New Media Offensive for Iraq War

Poor Leonard's Almanack on Religion

AIDS & Poverty: A Deadly Link

Mysteries in Our Own Back Yard

December Poetry of the Streets


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Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Murder Mysteries Set In Our Own Back Yard

These mysteries are peopled with all sorts of characters: poor and homeless folks, single mothers, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, and detectives who are human, not superheroes.

by Lydia Gans

A lot of important books are out there for those of us who care about keeping informed about political and cultural issues. Many are good literature; while others are exciting exposes of stupidity, corruption, and various wrongdoings of people in the limelight. But sometimes we need a break from the heavy stuff.

I, for one, am addicted to murder mysteries. My father was too, and we used to read them together years ago. But the genre has changed radically since his day.

Those little pocketbook mysteries of yesteryear were full of bad guys and bloody corpses with just a bit of sex thrown in. The murders were solved by the tough, wise-cracking detective, usually male. Before it was all over, he would get himself into a hair-raising, death-defying struggle which, even though bruised and bloody, he would win in the end.

Since my dad's generation, new voices in mystery novels have come forth. Women are writing about different kinds of murders in different settings and with different heroes -- and heroines. Instead of reveling in the blood and gore, they often have a different agenda.

The stories are peopled with all sorts of characters: poor and homeless folks, single mothers, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, and detectives who are human, not superheroes. And often the authors manage to tweak their readers' awareness of important social issues, even while entertaining them.

Not surprisingly, some of these clever women novelists live in the Bay Area and write about the scene. Laurie King has a series of murder mysteries set in San Francisco featuring tough, but sensitive, lesbian cop Kate Martinelli. The murder victim in the book To Play the Fool is a homeless man living in Golden Gate Park.

In developing the story, the author gives a sympathetic portrayal of the kinds of people whose only home is the park. There are the delusional folks and the weird-seeming strangers, along with people who have suffered temporary setbacks or terrible traumas. But the reader is likely to end up with a more compassionate attitude toward these troubled characters.

For example, in one scene Kate is questioning three shabby-looking men carrying their meager belongings, very drunk, about the whereabouts of a park regular. She tempts them with a five-dollar bill, but they aren't able to give her any useful information.

The author writes, "She gave them the five dollars anyway and left them arguing over what to do with it, spend it now or save it until tomorrow. All three had looked to be in their sixties but were probably barely fifty.

"She turned to look at them over the top of her car, three drunk men haggling in slow motion over a scrap of paper that represented an evening's supply of cheap wine. 'Where did you serve?' she called on impulse. They looked up at her, blinking. The third man drew himself up and made an attempt at squaring his shoulders. 'Quang Tri province mostly. Tony was in Saigon for a while.'"

Kate wished them good luck before she drove off. But this seemingly casual interchange suddenly transforms the reader's view of these men. They may be written off by most observers as basket cases; but Kate's question reveals that they served their country, like so many homeless military veterans, and the reader is left to ponder how the traumas of war may be implicated in their current plight.

Susan Dunlap writes murder mysteries that are set in Berkeley. Her books feature a cop named Jill Smith and lots of characters remarkably similar to some familiar people around town.

People's Park plays a role in her stories, and when there is a police stakeout to nab a suspected murderer, detective Smith hides out in the freebox. Maybe University of California officials and Willard neighbors should take note that the freebox can serve a useful purpose. Besides providing needed clothes for poor, cold, homeless people, it's a great hiding place for a cop trying to catch a murderer.

These are just a couple examples of the commingling of exciting mystery plots with interesting social issues. Lots more great paperbacks are available to borrow from the library or buy used for a quarter. Easy to carry around, easy to read when you need a change from serious thinking. And many even carry a message!


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