Erm… Not always. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I did grow up near some of the most fertile land in the U.S. so farms were a big part of the scenery. And if you stop to think about it, farming is a fairly important part of life whether you live anywhere near farm country or not. Besides the delicious fresh food, one of the best things about farms from my perspective (I have never claimed to have a psychologically well-adjusted view ) is that they make terrific settings for murder mysteries. They are filled with good hiding places for bodies, and farm communities tend to be smaller and more close-knit than some other communities, so there are all kinds of opportunities for murder motives. And then there’s the fact that some farms are isolated, so all sorts of things can happen there…
The farm belonging to Rowley Cloade figures in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). Cloade is trying to manage the farm in the financially straitened years during and immediately after World War II and he’s just getting by. He’s not as worried about money as some farmers are though because his wealthy uncle Gordon Cloade has always promised to take care of the family financially. Then, to everyone’s shock, Gordon Cloade marries a young widow Rosaleen Underhay. Before he can alter his will to protect his family, Cloade is tragically killed in a bomb blast. Now Rosaleen is set to inherit all of her husband’s considerable fortune, leaving his family with nothing. Then a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to the area. He drops hints that Rosaleen’s first husband didn’t die as she’d always said but is alive. If that’s true then she can’t inherit. So the Cloades have every interest in finding out whether Arden’s story is true. When he is killed one night, Rowley Cloade and the rest of his family are caught up in both a family squabble and a murder investigation. Hercule Poirot has already heard the story of Cloade’s marriage and of Rosaleen’s first husband, so when two members of the Cloade family approach him to investigate, he’s interested in doing so.
In Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool, New Zealand MP Flossie Rubrick finds out just how deadly farms can be. She goes to an isolated sheep pen on her husband’s farm to prepare an important speech, but doesn’t return. Three weeks later, her body turns up inside a bale of wool. Rubrick’s nephew writes to Inspector Roderick Alleyn asking him to investigate and since this could very well involve matters of national security Alleyn travels to New Zealand to look into the case. When he arrives, Alleyn gets to know the various members of the victim’s family and he finds out that more than one member had a good reason to want her dead. In the end, the murder turns out to be related to an important secret that Rubrick had discovered about one family member in particular.
Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers also shows how deadly farms can be. Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria have a small farm not far from Ystad. One night they are brutally murdered. Ystad detective Kurt Wallander and his team are called in immediately. It’s too late to save Johannes, but Maria lives for a short time. She recovers consciousness just long enough to say the word foreign before she too dies. There is already simmering anti-immigration sentiment in the area and when the press learns what Maria Lövgren said just before she died, the situation gets even more inflamed and another murder is committed. Now Wallander has to deal with multiple murders as well as the threat of more violence. This case turns out to be simpler than it seems on the surface and one of the clues to the case turns out to be on the farm.
Linda Castillo’s series featuring police chief Kate Burkholder takes place in and around the Amish farming community of Painters Mill, Ohio. In Sworn to Silence, we learn that Burkholder was a member of the Amish community herself until she left it, for very good reasons, sixteen years earlier. Shortly after her return, the body of a young girl is found in a snowy field on a farm belonging to Isaak and Anna Stutz. Then another body is discovered. And another. These murders turn out to be connected to the reason that Burkholder left Painters Mill in the first place, so if she’s gong to catch the killer, Burkholder is also going to have to confront her own past. Besides the murder investigation, this series also gives readers a look at Amish farms and life in an Amish community.
Still interested in Amish farms? I don’t usually discuss films very much on this blog, but do see Peter Weir’s 1985 film Witness. It’s a suspenseful mystery and much of it takes place in the Amish community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In my opinion (so feel free to differ with me if you do), it’s an excellent portrayal of the Amish lifestyle as well as a solid mystery. Oh, and did I mention it features both Harrison Ford and Viggo Mortensen??
Oh, right. Farms. Farmland turns out to be very important in Patricia Stoltey’s The Prairie Grass Murders. Former Vietnam veteran Willie Grisslejon pays a visit to the Illinois farming community where he grew up. He discovers the body of an unknown man in a field and tries to notify the local sheriff. That’s when he’s locked up as a vagrant and ordered to have a psychiatric evaluation. Willie calls his sister Sylvia Thorn, who at the time of this novel is a Florida judge, and she travels to Illinois to arrange for her brother’s release. When Willie insists on returning to the site where he found the body, they find that it has disappeared and there’ve been obvious attempts to cover up any trace of the dead man’s existence. Now Sylvia and Willie get involved in a mystery involving land disputes, corruption and greed – and a farm that seems to be the focus of a lot of what’s going on. Much of the novel takes place in the beautiful prairie farmland of Illinois.
In Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood, we meet Orla Payne, who works at St. Herbert’s, a residential library in the Lake District. Twenty years earlier, her brother Callum disappeared and was never found, but Orla has always believed he was murdered. She wants DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team to investigate, but at first Scarlett doesn’t take her request seriously. And it’s hard to blame Scarlett for her reluctance. Orla Payne is unstable at the best of times and when she contacts Scarlett she’s been drinking so Scarlett doesn’t make it a priority. Then, Orla Payne’s body is discovered buried in a silo on Lane End Farm. There’s no way to tell at first whether she was murdered or committed suicide, so now, Scarlett and her team have a very new case to solve as well as the cold case of Callum Payne’s disappearance. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett discovers the truth about the farm, the history of the area and its families, and what really happened to Orla and Callum Payne.
Farming is a way of life for a lot of people and farms are an important part of the economy. They’re also really interesting settings for murder. I know I haven’t mentioned all of the great farm-related mysteries out there (for instance, I’m only getting acquainted with Nelson Brunanski’s Saskatchewan prairie/farmland novels, so I’m not really equipped to comment on them yet). Which ones have you enjoyed?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Denver’s Thank God I’m a Country Boy.