Slums and crime fiction

In Taken At Night, some of the story is set in The Rocks, which was one of the poorest and most run down areas of Sydney.

Image result for lady slum visitor victorianSlums often featured in crime fiction in the nineteenth century. One of the most famous examples is The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by New Zealand author Fergus Hume, set in Melbourne in the 1880s.

There is a scene where the detective Kilsip guides the lawyer Calton behind the ‘brilliant and crowded scene’ of respectable Bourke Street, and reveals another world in the slum alleys of Little Bourke Street where a ‘weird light’ shines.

They perceive in the gloom ‘a man cowering back into the black shadow, or on the other [side] a woman with disordered hair and bare bosom, leaning out of a window trying to get a breath of fresh air’, children whose cries mingled with a ‘bacchanalian’ song of a drunkard, and silent rows of Chinese, whose faces showed only ‘stolid, Oriental apathy’. Calton ‘wondered how human beings could live in such murky places’.

The symbolism of two spheres, rich and poor, in the metropolis had been used many years before by English ‘travellers among the poor’ who discovered in London ‘two nations, East and West’. Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and the London Poor, called himself a ‘traveller in the undiscovered country of the poor’ and recast the slum dwellers as ‘tribes’ who might be observed in an anthropological manner.

While Melbourne had its Little Bourke Street, Sydney journalists were inspired by the official tours preceding slum clearances in the 1880s. ‘It would surprise many’, a journalist accompanying official tours of Sydney’s backstreet slums  wrote, ‘to see some of the rookeries which are to be found in many of our leading and most fashionable thoroughfares’ (Daily Telegraph 9 February 1889). The writers described the inhabitants as primitive or animalistic, and their homes as lairs, dens, rabbit warrens and rat burrows.

Yet these images of the slum promoted the progress of the colonies and their economic wealth. No great city was complete without a slum.

What are the slums in modern crime fiction? Or have we done away with them altogether?


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