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.