Monday, April 26, 2010
In a couple of weeks I'll be going up to Ontonagon in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan, there to stay until mid-October. The county and town of that name are the prototypes of Porcupine County and City in my Steve Martinez whodunits.
The place will have changed, that's for sure. How much is the question.
Last summer the nursing home, one of the town's bigger employers, shut its doors. Over the winter the biggest, the Smurfit-Stone paper mill, closed for good as part of its owner's bankruptcy process. The heat at the plant was shut off, insuring that its abandoned machinery will corrode. As a result, the short line railroad that serves the county -- the Escanaba & Lake Superior -- filed for abandonment of its line to Ontonagon, hurting the city's ability to attract new industry.
Of course all this means that unemployment is sky-high. People of working age are increasingly leaving the county, as they have ever since the timber and mining industries dried up halfway through the last century. Population had been declining by about 10 per cent every census, and it's estimated that the 2010 census will see a staggering 16 per cent drop.
What will all this mean to Porcupine County and Sheriff Steve Martinez?
Everywhere, joblessness and poverty always means increases in petty theft, drug manufacturing and distributing, drunkenness and domestic battery. Homes are foreclosed upon. In wilderness areas break-ins rise as desperate homeless people try to find places to live. Poaching for survival increases.
And there are budget headaches. With fewer people to police, the sheriff's department will have to either lay off deputies or ignore staff vacancies. But fixed expenses won't decline. The jail has to be operated, summonses have to be served and speeders have to be pinched. Equipment, from aging computers to crapped-out cruisers, has to be replaced.
Like any real-life sheriff, Steve's going to have to spend a lot of energy squeezing blood out of his budget. He's not going to have much time to play detective, to follow up on the hunches so crucial to solving mysteries.
This will be tricky so far as Hang Fire, the novel-in-progress, is concerned. Police procedural readers don't care about the fine details of spreadsheet massaging -- instead, they want to know all about the process of catching crooks. It'll be a challenge to show what has happened to Ontonagon/Porcupine County, and how Steve deals with it, without slowing down the narrative.
Some might argue that all this is irrelevant to a novel. The novelist, they might say, can do what he wants with his material without having to consider the actual realities of the setting. That is true, but in some ways -- at least I think so -- my Porcupine County novels are like television reality shows. Those supposedly involve "real" human beings in "real" settings, although events of course are fictional, for they are manipulated behind the scenes. The trick is to make them as believable as possible.
Entertainment is, after all, a kind of deception.