It can be very convenient to live near shops, restaurants and so on. It’s easier to get a lot of life’s tasks done and it can be isolating to live in a more remote area – dangerous, too. But let’s face it; traffic, annoying neighbours and basically the noise and hassle of other people living nearby can grate on the nerves. So it’s no wonder that some people choose to live in the back of beyond. Living in a more remote area does complicate life in some ways, but you don’t have to fight traffic, you don’t have to deal with loud or offensive neighbours and you do get some real peace and quiet. It can add to a story’s interest too when fictional characters live like that. When it’s done well, readers get a look at what it’s like to live in an area most of us don’t get to see.
For example, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee lives in a trailer in a remote part of the Navajo Reservation. For most of the series featuring him, he lives there alone. It’s not that Chee dislikes other people. But he’s not interested in having near neighbours. In part that’s because it’s the Navajo way to have a lot of space between homes. Living in the back of beyond also allows Chee to live in the way he chooses. In several of the early novels in the series Chee is studying to be a yata’ali, a Navajo Singer/healer, so he uses the land near his trailer to practice. In Skinwalkers for instance, he gets involved in a case of three mysterious deaths that are all linked to the Bad Water Clinic run by Dr. Bahe Yellowhorse. The clinic combines Western medicine with traditional approaches to healing and has had some real success. Still, some people resent it so it’s not exactly surprising that it’s the focus of a killer. Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police is investigating these deaths when a killer tries to target Chee. Leaphorn and Chee work together to find out who is behind the killings and what the motive is. At one point, Chee has a day off from work, so he decides to practice some of the sand painting that’s a part of the yata’ali’s ritual:
‘He used it [flat land that he’s cleared near his trailer] to practice dry painting the images used in the ceremonials he was learning.
At the moment, Chee was squatting at the edge of this floor. He was finishing the picture of Sun’s Creation, an episode from the origin story used on the second night of the Blessing Way.’
That’s not something a person can easily do who has a lot of nearby neighbours.
Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole also prefers to live more or less away from neighbours although he does live in greater Hollywood. In The Monkey’s Raincoat, we learn that living away from most people gives him among other things a terrific view. Here’s the description of the sights from his deck:
‘The rich black of the canyon was dotted with jack-o’-lantern lit houses, orange and white and yellow and red in the night. Where the canyon flattened out into Hollywood and the basin beyond, the lights concentrated into thousands of blue-white diamonds spilled over the earth. I liked that.’
Of course, Cole doesn’t always get time to enjoy his peace and quiet. In this novel for instance, Ellen Lang hires Cole to find her husband Mort, who’s disappeared and taken their son Perry with him. Cole agrees, mostly to make sure that the boy is safe. He begins looking for Mort but matters get complicated when Mort Lang is found dead. Perry is still missing and now Cole works with his partner Joe Pike to find out what happened to Mort and where Perry is, if he is still alive.
Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest also chooses to live in the back of beyond. She’s an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) who spends most of her time in the Moonlight Downs encampment. As we learn in Moonlight Downs, the encampment is
‘…miles from nowhere. The nearest town, Bluebush, was four hours of rough roads away, Alice Springs another five beyond that.’
But Emily doesn’t mind. She’s not much of a one for big cities and lots of neighbours and she has a deep connection with the land. And in Gunshot Road it’s that understanding of the land that begins to point her towards the truth in the murder of Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. He’s killed one night after a drunken quarrel and the police think that John ‘Wireless’ Petherbridge, with whom Ozolins had the quarrel, is responsible. But Tempest notices some odd things about the land near Ozolins’ shack, and that’s her first indication that this was no heat-of-the-moment killing. So she starts asking questions and in the end, discovers that Ozolins had found out some things some things that were not safe for him to know.
Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon likes to live in the middle of nowhere too. After her husband’s tragic death, Pigeon became a US Park Ranger and now serves in a variety of different National Parks. In Track of the Cat for instance, she’s assigned to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. That’s where one day she discovers the body of fellow ranger Sheila Drury. She and Drury weren’t exactly close friends, but she gets involved in the investigation when the police reports suggest that Drury was killed by a mountain lion. Pigeon has a deep love of nature and is afraid that if word gets out that a mountain lion killed Drury, this will mean that those endangered animals will become targets. So she begins her own investigation. It turns out that Drury had discovered some things she wasn’t meant to know and when Pigeon finds out what those things are, she has to not only catch a killer, but stay alive herself. Pigeon does have a small government-issue home, but it’s not fancy. Still, she doesn’t much care; she’s just as much at home in a bedroll as she is anywhere else.
Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway also enjoys living in the back of beyond. She has a small house on the Saltmarsh on the North Norfolk coast. It’s isolated but she likes living there. As we learn in The Crossing Places,
‘It was research that first brought her to the Saltmarsh, but she doesn’t know herself what it is that makes her stay..’
It’s a lonely place with rough weather and not a lot of what most people think of as lovely scenery. But it’s a haven for all sorts of birds and other wildlife, and although Gallaway doesn’t dislike people, it does afford her the privacy she prefers. What’s more, it allows her to be close to the Roman ruins that interest her professionally (she is an archaeologist). It’s that interest that first gets her involved in The Crossing Places with DCI Harry Nelson. He’s investigating the discovery of a skeleton that may very well be the body of a missing girl whose case he’s been tying to solve for ten years. The skeleton turns out to be ancient, and not related directly to Nelson’s case. But it gets Galloway involved in that case and in the case of another girl who goes missing.
Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind introduces us to Stephanie Anderson, a newly-minted psychologist who lives and works in Dunedin. During a counseling session one of her patients Elisabeth Clark tells her a haunting story. Clark’s younger sister Gracie was abducted years earlier and never found – there wasn’t even a body. This case is eerily like the tragedy that befell Anderson’s own family. Her younger sister Gemma was also abducted and despite a massive search, was never found. Although she knows it isn’t exactly professional, Anderson decides to use what Clark has told her as well as her own memories to try to track down the person who wrought such havoc in so many people’s lives. So she travels from Dunedin to her family home in Wanaka. Along the way she meets Dan, a hunting guide who lives in a remote area and who offers to take her on a hunting trip. Ordinarily Anderson’s not the hunting type, but she finds herself drawn to Dan, so she agrees. Before the trip he invites her to his home for dinner:
‘She almost misses it [the drive], has to reverse and negotiate her way back , then off the highway and into the drive…it’s rough, just loose shingle, and steep, and her heart’s in her mouth because after twenty metres she’s driving almost vertically and the car’s shuddering. The track narrows, she can see the sheer drop below and she has to brake and swerve around a curve and then she’s on a wider drive leading to the house.’
As Anderson soon finds out, Dan likes to live away from a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean he lives in a hovel…
It can be inconvenient, even dangerous at times, but there can be a real appeal to living away from people, even at the back of beyond. At the very least you never have to sit in traffic. OK, your turn: which gaps have I left?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kevin Moyna’s The Back of Beyond.