Look at any picture postcard and you’ll see that the image of the village or small town is supposed to be peaceful, quiet and inviting. But beneath the surface of small-town hospitality and pleasantness can lurk an awful lot of nastiness. In a way that’s not surprising. After all, people in small towns tend to know each other well. That means all sorts of resentments can build up. And small towns and villages can be insular – outsiders not welcome at all. Add to that the history that small-towners can have together and it can make for a very effective context for a murder. There are many examples of the ‘creepy small town’ sort of crime novel. I’ll just give a few of them here.
Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger takes place in the village of Lymestock. Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna have recently moved there so that Jerry can recover from a wartime injury. They’re not there long when they receive a vicious anonymous note that suggests that the Burtons are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, they discover that they’re not the only victims. Several other villagers have gotten awful anonymous notes, and soon, some very ugly rumours begin. Then, a letter to the local solicitor’s wife results in a suicide. Then there’s another death. The police investigate, but the local vicar’s wife thinks Miss Marple will be far better suited to find out what really happened. Miss Marple is very familiar with village histories, animosities and so on, and is in a good position to make sense of what she hears. It turns out the network of relationships among the villagers has a lot to do with the letters and the deaths.
Central City, Texas is the setting for Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. It’s a quiet, peaceful town on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that bucolic tranquility. When a local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is badly beaten, deputy sheriff Lou Ford investigates. He’s what most folks think of as the ‘nice but dull,’ plodding sort, but he’s not stupid. And he’s hiding something most people don’t know about – something he calls ‘the sickness.’ He’s looking into the attack on Joyce Lakeland when there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that something sinister is going on in the town and that things are not nearly as peaceful and pleasant as it seems.
Caroline Graham wrote seven Inspector Barnaby novels, but as anyone who’s watched Midsomer Murders knows, those few novels inspired a television series that’s been on the air since 1997. In the novels, Graham takes a look at the hidden lives of villagers and the sometimes ugly things beneath the surface of an ‘ordinary English village.’ In The Killings at Badger’s Drift for instance, Emily Simpson suddenly dies of what looks on the surface like a heart attack. But her friend Lucy Bellringer thinks otherwise. In fact, Miss Bellringer is so insistent that this is a case of murder that the police make an investigation. It turns out that the victim was poisoned with hemlock. As Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate, they discover that there is a lot going on beneath the surface of the quiet village of Badger’s Drift, and that Miss Simpson found out more about it than was safe for her to know.
Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin takes place in the Peak District near the village of Rakedale. A skeleton is discovered at Pity Wood Farm not far from the village, and DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper begin the investigation. Then another skeleton is found, and the investigation moves into high gear. The current owner of the farm is Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the land for development and doesn’t know much about the farm or the area. So Fry and Cooper try to get information about the farm’s former owners, brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek Sutton has died, but Raymond Sutton is still alive and in a nursing home. He claims to know nothing about the bodies and in fact, forensic evidence suggests that the remains were buried after Sutton sold the farm. As a part of the investigation, Fry and Cooper try to talk to the people who live in the area, but the Rakedale villagers are not interested in talking to outsiders, especially if they’re police. In fact there’s a very telling scene in which Fry goes into the local to try to get some answers. It’s very clear that Rakedale keeps itself to itself as the saying goes. That insularity adds a layer of tension to the novel, and so does the set of old traditions, beliefs and superstitions that the detectives uncover as they find out the truth about the deaths.
In P.J. Parrish’s Dead of Winter, police detective Louis Kincaid takes a new job in the small town of Loon Lake, Michigan. Loon Lake is popular with hunters, anglers, and those who like ice fishing, so there are lots of ‘getaway’ cottages and homes in the area. But the town itself is small and on the surface of it very peaceful. Soon after he arrives, Kincaid discovers that he was hired to replace Officer Thomas Pryce, who was recently murdered in his own home. Kincaid has some questions about the official police theory, and his boss Brian Gibraltar gives him permission to pursue the investigation. Bit by bit, Kincaid finds that Pryce was keeping some secrets; finding out what they are will be critical to solving his murder. But there are several other people in this supposedly peaceful community who also aren’t telling everything they know. So Kincaid doesn’t get much help on the case, even from people in whose interest you would think it would be to find the killer. Along with Kincaid’s sense of increasing isolation as he investigates, there’s also a sense of lingering racism in this community. Certainly anyone who’s ‘different’ is considered odd. That atmosphere adds a layer of tension to this story.
And then there’s Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which features the lives of the residents of Chabot, Mississippi. After twenty-five years of absence, Silas Jones returns to Chabot to serve as its constable. Soon, he finds himself investigating the disappearance of Tina Rutherford. Everyone assumes that local ‘oddball’ Larry Ott is responsible and in fact, he’s attacked in his own home by a vigilante. Ott’s the most likely suspect because years earlier, he took Cindy Walker out on the only date he’s ever had, and she never returned. No-one could prove what happened to her, but everyone thinks Ott’s guilty of murdering her. Jones finds that as he investigates the Tina Rutherford case, he also has to face the town’s (and his own) past and find out what really happened to Cindy Walker.
There are other series too that uncover the hidden layers of nastiness in small towns and villages. For instance, Ellery Queen visits the small town of Wrightsville in three Queen novels: Calamity Town, Ten Days Wonder and The King is Dead. There’s also Rebecca Tope’s Thea Osborne series, and Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series. There are also lots of small-town series for those who prefer cosy mysteries. Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting series is just one example. Who said small towns are the safest places to live???
Thanks to Keishon at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog for the inspiration. Go pay that terrific blog a visit; you’ll find some excellent crime fiction reviews there.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doobie Brothers’ China Grove.