The publication of John Grisham's The Street Lawyer (Doubleday, 1998) underscored a literary trend that has been building for the past few years: that of the "homeless mystery" genre. Besides Street Lawyer (see review in Real Change 5/98), this year has also seen the publication of Wed and Buried by Mary Daheim (Avon Books) and now Ghost Country by Sara Paretsky.
Add to these Tunnel Vision, also by Paretsky (Delacorte, 1994); To Play the Fool, by Laurie R. King (Bantam, 1996); Sisters of the Road, by Barbara Wilson (Seal Press, 1986); and A Novena for Murder, by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie (Dell, 1984), and you have, well, a mystery. All these books, with varying degrees of sensitivity (or in the case of Wed and Buried, insensitivity), rely on the homeless for story lines. Why?
I talked to several homeless women who, like me, read mystery novels to escape. Their answers were dark, but on target: "Well for one, a lot of homeless people end up dead."
In Sara Paretsky's Ghost Country, two homeless women are dead by the end of the novel. Ghost Country is not a true mystery, but revolves around the mystical appearance of what may be the blood of the Virgin Mary seeping from a parking garage wall in Chicago. Madeleine, a homeless woman, begins holding a vigil at the wall; due to guest's complaints the hotel attempts to drive her off first by hosing her down, then by hiring an attorney. All hell breaks loose as more homeless women and members of the wider community join the vigil convinced the wall has healing powers. Madeleine's suicide midway through brings the story to a head; shortly thereafter a mysterious homeless woman known only as "Starr" begins performing miracles, and all of Chicago is caught in conflict between allowing the vigil to continue, or destroying a group of women they consider to be a threat.
Paretsky writes from many points of view, notably of two women who unexpectedly become homeless-one, an alcoholic opera diva, and one an angry adolescent girl who leaves home due to its repressive environment. This book is a striking departure from the genre that made Paretsky, and her tough-gal detective character V. I. Warshawski, famous.
But mystery writers are predisposed to writing about the search for truth, digging out facts and details that lie deep beneath the surface. They often struggle to defend the underdog, and have sympathy for undeserving victims. Mysteries are all about shedding light on what would be invisible without our hero/heroine on the case.
And that, probably, motivated Paretsky as she did copious research among homeless people in Chicago to prepare for this book. "It's an anonymous lifestyle [homelessness]," said a homeless woman pondering this new trend: Paretsky set out to make the lifestyle visible. "I'm only homeless and black: you can't be more invisible than that in America," says one of her characters.
But despite its well-drawn characters, the book falters towards the end. The ending itself is too quick, too melodramatic: it relies on miracles and the appearance of "Starr," a fantastic character who is either nuts, has healing powers, or both.
I liked the book anyway. Paretsky's research paid off; her depiction of individuals afflicted with homelessness or mental illness is respectful and compelling; her assessment of the reasons for the increasing numbers of homeless people is astute: managed care's adverse impact on providing real care, the economy, and our all-too-human tendency to scapegoat entire classes of people and then dismiss them.
As far as the deus ex machina ending: Miracles are easy-they are miracles precisely because it isn't hard work that makes them happen. Solving homelessness isn't easy. Unlike the typical device of mysteries-one guilty party-with homelessness you can't pin the crime on just one person. That is why the genre doesn't quite fit the problem.
But perhaps best-selling authors writing about homelessness with depth, perception, and compassion-as Paretsky does in Ghost Country-is a good first step towards that miraculous day when there are no more homeless people.