I am currently reading Lifeless by Mark Billingham. It was first published in 2005 but it is as relevant today as it was then. It is about homeless people being murdered on the streets of London and a detective going underground to try and solve the crimes. Having lived in London, I know the places in the book. Not only that, but a few years ago I attended a writers' event in the West End and was intrigued to see how many people chose to sleep in the doorways of theatres (as the protagonist in the novel) or in sheltered doorways around Covent Garden. I suppose it makes sense to pick a quiet but well-lit spot.
You can substitute London for Paris or any big city. Last weekend I was in Frankfurt. The suburban train tunnel around the city centre was closed for much-needed repairs which meant I had to take quite a detour to get to where I wanted to go and I got to see a lot of the inner city. Frankfurt has its fair share of homeless. They frequent the main shopping area, Zeil, which some people say is the most expensive mile in Europe. Be that as it may, for writers like me, it was rich in interesting detail. I saw a man sprawled in the middle of the pedestrian zone, totally oblivious of the sun on his face (and it was getting to be pretty hot by 10 o'clock in the morning), he rolled over and woke up as I moved past him and I was surprised to find that he looked well dressed for someone on the street. Maybe he'd been out on a binge. I saw a young lad with two plump little dogs who looked altogether in better shape than he was, several professional beggars and the inevitable addicts hoping to get enough for their next fix, tired people, people who stared at us from expressionless eyes. I found myself wondering what they thought of all the luxury in evidence in the big stores and expensive boutiques around them.
I arrived late and had to change trains at the main railway station - never a healthy place to be on your own late at night. The city is a different place at night when the office workers are safely at home in suburbia and the street dwellers take over. I saw people rummaging in refuse bins for thrown-away food, one old lady who discovered a cigarette butt and looked at it with obvious delight, another woman sitting on a bench and having an earnest conversation with an invisible person next to her. A man gave vent to his inner rage and shouted abuse at everyone who walked past him.
Where do they all come from the Beatles asked in their song All the Lonely People? It would have been good to sit down and talk to some of them and hear their stories. I couldn't help thinking that Mark Billingham had got it absolutely right in his novel Lifeless. In the acknowledgements he thanked some of those he had spoken to and certainly his descriptions are true to life. Not only does he tell a good story, he also shows compassion for the street people and is never the slightest bit judgemental in his writing. While negotiating the tram or the train late at night in Frankfurt, I was often reminded of his novel.
My novels are set in the Irish countryside. There are no street people. But there are lonely people, people with problems, people who kill. I try to bring these elements to my Sergeant Alan Murray mysteries.