Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Such a lovely place... *

The traditional image of the small town is of a quiet place where life doesn’t change very much and where the pace of life is slower than it is in cities. There’s also the image of the small town as safer than larger cities. Neighbors know each other, there’s less pollution, schools are better and taxes are lower. It’s no wonder, with that reputation, that so many people choose to live in smaller places and commute to cities. There’s less crime in small towns, too. Or is there? In real life, at least in the U.S., crimes – including murder – happen in small towns just as they do in cities. So it makes sense that many excellent crime novels take place in small towns. In fact, that’s one of crime fiction’s enduring contexts.

One reason that small towns are such effective contexts for a murder mystery is the interesting characters who people them. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple used to say that she learned about human nature from the various characters in her village of St. Mary Mead, and many of the Miss Marple novels are fascinating character studies. For instance, in The Murder at the Vicarage, Miss Marple helps Inspector Slack find the killer of local magistrate Colonel Protheroe, who’s been shot in the vicarage. Inspector Slack focuses on the obvious evidence. Protheroe’s daughter Lettice has been posing for newly-arrived artist Lawrence Redding, and Protheroe objected strenuously to this. Moreover, Protheroe’s much-younger wife, Annie, has been having an affair with Redding, so the case seems quite clear. But Miss Marple knows the characters of Protheroe and the other villagers quite well, and she’s soon able to prove to Slack that the case isn’t nearly as simple as he thinks. In the end, it’s that knowledge of the local characters that proves to be the solution to the crime.

Small-town characters and their interactions are also important in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover series. That series takes place in Bradley, North Carolina, home to several interesting characters. In A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box, we meet Tami Smith, a local beautician who was popular with her customers – until she started drinking. When she’s found murdered with a pair of hair shears, one of her clients, Myrtle Clover, decides to investigate. She’s even more convinced there’s something going on in quiet Bradley when her neighbor and friend, Edna, is murdered, too. In Pretty is as Pretty Dies, we get a look at even more small-town characters when Parke Stockard, a recent arrival to Bradley, is murdered. Among many other things that Parke’s done to infuriate the locals, she’s been given column space in the Bradley Bugle that previously went to other writers – among them Myrtle Clover. As Myrtle investigates Parke’s death (and that of another local, Kitty Kirk), we learn about the people who live in Bradley. For instance, we meet Sloan Jones, the Bugle’s editor. We also meet local politician Benton Chambers and his wife, among others. Myrtle’s a sharp detective, but it’s her knowledge of the local people that helps her as much as her skill at solving puzzles does.

Small towns often have a sense of history, too, that can be harder to find in big cities. When that history involves a network of secrets and “old sins,” this can also make for a very engrossing crime story. Martin Edwards explores this theme in his Lake District series. Those novels feature Oxford historian Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett and their investigations into older and more recent murders. In The Cipher Garden, for instance, they find out the truth behind the murder of Warren Howe, an unpleasant landscaper who was killed by his own scythe. Ten years later, Hannah Scarlett’s Cold Case Review Team re-opens the case – and several old town “wounds.” What makes this novel – and the other Lake District novels – absorbing is the way the small-town characters interact and relate to one another. In fact, in The Cipher Garden, it’s just those relationships and the old secrets the characters keep about those relationships that have led to Howe’s murder.

Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby series also takes place primarily in the small-town setting. In those novels, we see several examples of small-town secrets, relationships and “old sins.” For instance, in A Place of Safety, Inspector Barnaby unearths the secrets of Ferne Basset when he’s called in to investigate the garroting murder of Charlie Leathers. Leathers wasn’t exactly the most popular resident in town, but it seems at first that no-one would want to murder him. However, Barnaby and Sergeant Troy soon find out that Leathers might have known more than he should. One night, he witnessed the drowning of Carlotta Ryan, a young girl already in trouble for petty stealing. With her that night was Ann Lawrence, the curate’s wife, with whom Carlotta had been living. As Barnaby and Troy dig deeper into both deaths, they find out that the key to them lies in the secrets that Ferne Basset residents have been keeping.

Ann Purser’s Murder on Monday is another interesting example of how small towns can hold lots of secrets. That’s the story of house cleaner Lois Meade and her working-class family, who live in the village of Long Farnden. When Gloria Hathaway, a village spinster who sits on the parish council, is strangled one night during a parish meeting, PC Keith Simpson is called in to investigate. Meade has access to many of the villagers, since she cleans their homes, so Simpson enlists her help as he looks for the truth behind Hathaway’s murder. Meade and Simpson soon discover that most of the residents of Long Farnden had reason to dislike Gloria Hathaway, and that most of them are keeping some very dirty secrets.

One criticism of this novel has been that it’s hard to believe a small village would really have so many residents with so many unsavory secrets. That’s actually an important point to raise about most crime fiction that takes place in small-town settings. Still, the contrast between the seemingly idyllic small town and the far-from-lovely things that happen there can make for very compelling crime fiction.

For instance, one of the most famously chilling small-town-with-secrets novel is Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. When Joanna and Walter Eberhart move from Manhattan to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut, everything seems to be just perfect. Walter has a good job as an attorney, and their two children seem happily settled in good schools. Joanna’s even making a transition she didn’t think she’d like, from full-time professional to full-time homemaker. Slowly and eerily, though, Joanna discovers that Stepford is keeping some frightening secrets – secrets that threaten her own life. As a side note (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me), if you aren’t familiar with this novel, I strongly encourage you to read it without basing your judgment of it on the two films that have been based on it. The novel is far more chilling and, in its way, believable than the movies are.

We also see that stark contrast between a “perfect” setting and a very unlovely set of deaths in Robin Cook’s Fatal Cure, which takes place in rural Bartlett, Vermont. David and Angela Wilson have just accepted promising jobs at Bartlett Community Hospital, and they and their daughter, Nikki, are excited to move to Bartlett. The people they meet seem helpful and friendly, and Nikki settles in to a school and classroom she likes. It’s not long, though, before both David and Angela notice a series of unexplained deaths at the hospital. To make matters worse, David is under immense pressure from the hospital to see as many patients as possible and order as few tests as possible for them to save costs. Meanwhile, Angela is being harassed by her randy supervisor. Those job pressures, plus the ongoing deaths, prompt the Wilsons, especially Angela, to start investigating what’s going on at the hospital. As the two Wilsons slowly discover some of the frightening secrets behind Bartlett’s façade, they both become targets, as does Nikki.

There, of course, myriad other examples of "small town" murders that I haven't the space here to mention; I'm sure you could name several. The small-town setting allows for some fascinating character development, a stark and interesting contrast between surface appearances and dark reality, and some interesting “old sins.” On the other hand, small town mysteries sometimes don’t have the quick buildup of tension or fast-paced action that some mystery fans like. Still, this setting is, as I’ve said, and enduring and compelling scenario. What do you think? Do you like the “murder in a small town” context? If you do, which are your favorites?

*Note: The title for this post is a line from The Eagles' Hotel California.


  1. I find I do like the 'murder in a small town' context despite the fact I'd never want to live in a small town again (I am a city girl, spent a couple of years in a small town and it wasn't for me).

    Loking at some of my favourite reads for this year - like the two of Chris Grabenstein's John Ceepak books that I read and Vicky Delaney's VALLEY OF THE LOST and Linda Castillo's SWORN TO SILENCE and Karen Fossum's DON'T LOOK BACK they are all set in small towns. There does seem to be more capacity to explore a group of characters and their relationships with each other, some of which go back several generations which is often where the dark secrets come in, that doesn't work quite so well in big city settings.

    I also think it's a bit easier for authors to get away with having 'civilians' and police or other authorities working together and communicating freely in small town settings because it's more credible that this would happen in a place where everyone knows everyone else than in the big smoke.

  2. Bernadette - I'm so glad you mentioned Sworn to Silence. I thought of that novel when I was writing this, but since I haven't read it yet, I didn't feel that I could comment intelligently on it, so I'm happy that you did. You're right, to, that in a small town, especially one that's not near a city, there are more likely to be family and other relationships that go back for many years - sometimes generations - and that can make for really interesting stories. There are several of Lilian Jackson Braun's Cat Who... novels that bring this point up.

    You're right, too, about having amateur sleuths and other civilians working with police in small towns. That is easier in those settings than it is in a city. Certainly that happens in the Miss Marple mysteries, some of Rita Mae Brown's work, and in lots of others. It is more believable in that setting, isn't it?

  3. Thanks for the mention, Margot!

    I don't think small towns are as appropriate for a thriller, but they're fun for police procedurals and cozies. For a cozy, it makes it much easier for an amateur sleuth to gather information (lots of gossiping.)

    I do think I'm going to have Myrtle take a road trip for the next book I write. Got to worry about the number of victims in a small town. I thought Louise Penney did it well with "Brutal Telling"--she pointed out the fact that the town attracted murder.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - Oh, my pleasure - Myrtle is a terrific character, and your plots are engaging.

    You're right that thrillers don't work well in small town settings. Neither do "hardboiled" detective stories. They are great settings, though, for other kinds of novels, and cozies are certainly one of those genres.

    I like your idea of taking Myrtle on a "road trip." Funny thing - in my WIP, Joel Williams is going on a road trip... There is, after all, a limit to how many bodies you're going to have in a college town, too ; ). And thanks for mentioning The Brutal Telling. I thought of Three Pines when I was writing this post, but posted it witihout remembering to include Penny's work. I'm glad you mentioned it : ). She does do a good job of dealing with that issue.

  5. I think the small town works better because it is easier to have linked characters and really draw relationships between them. In the city when questioning witnesses, who knew the person who died (anyone going to admit it). They could be your neighbour and you probably don't know their name.

  6. Cassandra - That's an excellent point. In cities, there's little opportunity for people to really get to know each other. I can just see where a detective might go knocking on apartment doors and nobody would know the murder victim who lived across the hall. In smaller towns, people do know each other better, so there is, indeed, a network of relationships that are very useful as the sleuth investigates.

  7. You have mentioned several of my favourites already: Miss Marple, Myrtle Clover (I am envious you have read the first, by the way), Daniel and Hannah, Tom Barnaby.

    Another favourite of mine is Andrew Taylor´s Lydmouth series.

  8. Dorte - There are definitely some "small-town" series that are delightful to read. I'm glad you've mentioned the Lydmouth series; I'm not as familiar with it as I am with some others, but it's certainly a terrific example of how authors use the small town as a background for all kinds of mayhem.

  9. I like murder in a small town. You get to know lots of characters and they come back book after book. When I think of murder in a small town, I think of the Jessica Fletcher character and how I'd love to be her friend, but a little scared at the same time since she's always finding dead bodies.

    Depending on how small the author makes the town, sometimes the protagonist does have to go on road trips to find their bodies.

  10. Mason - I agree; with books and series that take place in a small town, one does get to know the characters very, very well, and the author can provide some depth to those characters.

    It's funny you should mention Jessica Fletcher and Murder, She Wrote. One criticism of that show (and of series that take place in tiny, tiny towns) is that it's not realistic that there'd be so much murder in one small place. That's why, as you say, "road trips" can be a useful strategy. Of course, murder seems to follow Jessica Fletcher wherever she goes. Agatha Raisin, too. And Hercule Poirot.. Hmmmmm....I think there's a pattern. ; )

  11. I often enjoy small-town mysteries too, and the point about the relationships is a good one in this regard. I can't say I am that keen on "cosies" in general, where small towns seem to feature quite regularly. (I haven't read M C Bentley but I think she's an example, as is Ann Grainger who I have read - her Costwold mysteries, that is, which I enjoyed a lot but felt that they could have been developed a bit after the first 10 or so! She also wrote some edgier books about a character called Fran Varaday but they were more big town (seedy London underbelly if memory serves))

    I agree, Margot, that The Stepford Wives is an excellent novel - I've enjoyed all of Ira Levin's books and plays. One author who writes well about small towns is Thomas H Cook, in particular Red Leaves which I think is my favourite of the books by him I have read so far, though The Murmuring Stones (have I remembered the title correctly?) is also very good and in this small-town sense is to do with how the protagonist is gradually viewed with more suspicion by people (eg doctors) who have known him for years.
    I have only read one of Louise Penny's "Grenache" novels set in a Canadian small town (a "crafts village") - although the novel was very good its genre is not exactly my taste- but certainly for those who like these types of book she's an excellent exponent.

    One author who wrote an excellent small town book is Martin Walker, whose "Bruno, Chief of Police" is a delightful depiction of live in Provence, as the traditional ways come up against the "thought police" - some of the tricks the locals get up to are very funny. (But it is a good, and serious, murder mystery also.) I reviewed this book for Euro Crime and do very highly recommend it as a highly readable and charming novel - the author was for many years a foreign correspondent for the BBC and has written historical non-fiction. This experience really adds to the enjoyment of "Bruno", the author's first novel. (There is a second which is on my shelf waiting to be read!)

  12. Maxine - I know what you mean about character development. Especially when one's writing about small towns, one expects some of the characters to be developed after more than a few novels. That's one of the challenges that authors of cozies face, I think, and it's something I'm trying to keep in mind as I write.

    Thanks for your recommendation of Bruno, Chief of Police. Folks, Maxine's excellent review of the novel is here. It sounds like a terrific read, and certainly shows exactly the kinds of appeals that "small-town" novels can have.

    I like Thomas H. Cook's work, too. I haven't read Red Leaves, but I enjoyed The Murmur of Stones ; I'm glad you mentioned that one, as it, too, is a good example of what I'm getting at in this post.

    It's also interesting that you bring up Louise Penny's work. She's got a very effective blend of small-town "feel" and, as you put it, edgier aspects, too. I think that's part of her appeal; at least it is for me.

  13. Thanks for so kindly taking the trouble to link to my review of Bruno, Margot. I didn't do it myself as I was uncertain of the "etiquette" of self-referral! I suggest that if you enjoyed The Murmer of Stones (thanks for the correct title) you will very much like Red Leaves which is an excellent depiction of small town life, in which the plot is driven by the narrator's young son being accused of a crime - and even the father is not sure if he is guilty, leading to psychological angst.

    It is funny, this definition of "cosy", isn't it? For example, Colin Cotterill is defined as such, but as he himself has very amusingly pointed out, he doesn't understand why given some of the grim and upfront aspects of his books and the crimes therin. Maybe this is food for a future post here?! I think my main reason for not enjoying them as much as some other genres is that they are often rather predictable once you've read a few of a series. But if they aren't, they can be extremely effective. Some people have alluded to Camilla Lackberg in this regard as being rather "cosy" like - I enjoy her novels very much and based on the 2 I've read so far, there is certainly character development.

    Small-town novels with more of a thriller element can be very effective, eg some of Harlan Coben's books, and recent bestsellers by Linwood Barclay.

  14. Maxine - Isn't it interesting how people describe cozies differently and characterize books differently? I agree with Cotterill that I wouldn't call his work "cozy," although I know people do. There's a similar disagreement about Louise Penny, although I think more people think of her as a "cozy" author than think of Cotterill that way.

    Thanks for your endorsement of Red Leaves It's now firmly on my TBR list : ).

  15. Small town mysteries depend on the willing suspension of disbelief. No one town is going to be that much of a hotbed of murder, betrayal, blood lust, etc. I think everyone who reads this type of mystery understands that. They're fun to read because they're populated with quirky characters and usually have a large note of comedy.

    Yes, it would be more realistic for the amateur sleuth to move about. However, tis the nature of the beast that the poor sleuth is condemned to bring murder and mayhem along with them. If it was real, that poor person would probably be shunned; or at least, in therapy. After all, how would you feel if you kept having dead bodies erupt in your life?

    Most people read murder mysteries for escape and entertainment. They don't want the gritty reality, in fact many shy away from mysteries with too much realism. Small town mysteries have been around from the beginning. They'll always be around. No mystery there.


  16. Elspeth - You've got such a strong argument for small-town mysteries! You're absolutely right that we read them for escape - for fun. We don't read them necessarily for facts or to be reminded of what life is really like. So, while it's important that characters seem authentic and behave the way people likely would, it's just as important, as you say, to suspend disbelief. For that reason, if for no other, I agree that small-town mysteries aren't going anywhere.

    Patti - Thanks : ) I wish you and those you love the very best for 2010.

  17. I absolutely agree with what Elspeth writes about small-town mysteries. However, I do think that some readers do enjoy gritty realism and there are also plenty of books in that genre for them to read. The crime-fiction universe is so delightfully varied that the reader can enjoy all kinds of delights, from those that Elspeth describes in the small-town genre, to the hard noir that is the preference of other readers - or eclectic readers can enjoy bits of both, and many other genres of crime fiction.

    Happy new year to you, Margot, and everyone.

  18. Maxine - Thanks for the good wishes - I wish the best for you and yours in the new year, too.

    You're right that one of the beauties of the crime fiction genre is that there is such a variety. Whether one's preference is the noir, the small-town cozy, the "hardboiled" novel, the psychological thriller, or something else, there's something out there to enjoy. What's more, there are plenty of novels that "cross lines" and could be considered parts of more than one genre.