Category Archives: Linda Castillo

When the Sun Comes Up on a Sleepy Little Town*

Small TownLook 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.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Jim Thompson, Linda Castillo, P.J. Parrish, Rebecca Tope, Stephen Booth, Tom Franklin

Well, Life on the Farm is Kinda Laid Back*

FarmsErm… 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.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Henning Mankell, Linda Castillo, Martin Edwards, Nelson Brunanski, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Stoltey

It’s Been So Long Since I’ve Been Gone*

Sometimes, people leave home for what they think are very good reasons and when they leave, they think they’re leaving their problems behind them. But going away doesn’t always solve problems; in fact sometimes, it can make them worse. When that happens, there’s sometimes an instinct to go home. Sometimes, too, “prodigals” are drawn home by other circumstances. Of course, going home is often easier said than done as the saying goes. And that tension can add a lot of suspense to a crime fiction story, even if the “prodigal’s return” isn’t the main part of the plot.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder), Simeon Lee invites his grown children and their spouses to join him at Gorston Hall, the family home, for Christmas. For various reasons, everyone accepts, but no-one really wants to go. Simeon Lee is an unpleasant tyrant who’s found ways to alienate everyone. One of his sons is Harry, who’s the family “black sheep.” Harry left the family home twenty years earlier and has done a lot of travelling all over the world since then. He’s gotten in all sorts of trouble, too. When he gets the invitation, he accepts it in part because he hasn’t been able to make a really successful life for himself although we can tell he’s enjoyed trying. On Christmas Eve, Harry Lee becomes a suspect when his father is murdered. He was in the house, he desperately needed his share of his father’s large fortune, and nobody knows much about what he’s been doing in the years he’s been away. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend, and he is persuaded to look into the case. He finds that Harry Lee’s return has engendered quite a lot of resentment, and that makes for an interesting layer of tension in the novel.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we meet the Lawson family. Mallory Lawson and his wife Kate have just inherited a considerable amount of money from Mallory’s very wealthy Aunt Carey. The money will mean that Mallory can leave the teaching position that has burned him out, and he and Kate can pursue their dream of starting a small independent publishing company. The Lawsons inherit Carey Lawson’s home in the village of Forbes Abbot on condition that her companion and friend Benny Frayle have a permanent home there. The Lawsons are only too happy to agree to this since they like Benny and she’s got some publishing skills and good ideas. The Lawson’s twenty-year-old daughter Polly is set to inherit a large sum of money, too, although she has to wait until she turns twenty-one to get access to the funds. Unbeknownst to her parents, Polly has gotten herself into a great deal of financial trouble, so she desperately needs the money she’s set to inherit as soon as possible. Using a trumped-up story, she persuades Mallory to authorise some of the money he and Kate have inherited to pay her debts. And that’s when Polly’s trouble really begins. She thinks she discovers a way to speculate with her parents’ inheritance and ends up in real trouble when everything falls apart. Then she disappears just before becoming a suspect in the murder of Dennis Brinkley, the Lawson family’s financial consultant. Inspector Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate Brinkley’s murder and another murder and as they’re doing so, Mallory Lawson becomes more and more worried about his daughter. He finds her and brings her back to the Mallory home, and it’s interesting to see how everyone adjusts to her return. On one hand, she’s safe and the family is able to start repairing their relationships. On the other, there is a lot of strain and resentment on all sides. It’s a realistic reminder that coming home, so to speak, isn’t always easy.

It’s not easy for Sebastian “Seb” Taylor in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Delicious and Suspicious, either. Seb is the son of Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, one of Memphis’ popular restaurants. Seb left Memphis a few years earlier to “make it” in New York, but he’s not had much success. In fact, he’s now got a drug habit and has made some unsavoury associates. So Seb decides to do the difficult thing and go home. He wants to be “just Seb Taylor” again. He goes back to Memphis and begins to work with his mother and his brother Ben at the restaurant. There’s naturally some resentment in the family; Ben sees his brother as irresponsible and selfish, while Seb sees Ben as sanctimonious and domineering. Meanwhile Lulu is doing her best to keep her family united and keep the restaurant as successful as it is. Then word comes that Rebecca Adrian, food critic for The Cooking Channel, will be visiting Memphis to choose the restaurant that will win The Cooking Channel’s best barbecue in Memphis award. Aunt Pat’s will be one of her stops. Everyone gets busy preparing for this visit, and when Adrian arrives, she’s treated to a special meal. But then, only hours after her visit to Aunt Pat’s, Adrian dies of what turns out to be poison. Soon, word begins to spread that the food at Aunt Pat’s is dangerous and that’s why Adrian died. To clear her restaurant and her family from suspicion, Lulu Taylor begins to ask questions about the murder. She soon finds that Rebecca Adrian alienated nearly everyone, so there are several people who are only too happy that she’s dead. Throughout the novel, Seb Taylor’s struggles to “come home” form a solid sub-plot and add a level of interest and realism to the story.

And then there’s Rebecca Martinsson, an attorney whom we first meet in Åsa Larsson’s Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar). Martinsson is originally from the Noorland town of Kiruna. She left home for very good reasons and after studying law, took a job in Stockholm where she’s working when this series begins. Martinsson had a less-than-pleasant departure from Kiruna so she’s in no hurry to return. She works too many hours, but her job pays her bills and she’s not what you’d call unhappy in Stockholm. Then one day, she gets a call from a former friend Sanna Strångard. Sanna’s brother Viktor has been found murdered in a local church and it was Sanna herself who found the body. So she’s understandably both devastated and emotionally shaken. She begs Martinsson to return to Kiruna to be with her. At first, Martinsson demurs, but in the end, she’s persuaded to go. When she gets to Kiruna, she feels a sense of belonging, especially once she settles into her grandparents’ house, where she’s decided to stay. But she also feels a sense of alienation, especially considering what her reasons were for leaving. Then, Sanna Strångard is charged with her brother’s murder. She asks Martinsson to defend her and for several reasons Martinsson finds that difficult. But she takes up the task and in the end, she finds out who killed Viktor Strångard and why. Martinsson’s sense of both homecoming and alienation add a layer of character depth and tautness to this story.

We see a similar sort of conflict in Linda Castillo’s series featuring Kate Burkholder, Chief of Police of the Amish community of Painter’s Mill, Ohio. Burkholder was raised in that community, and she is Amish. In Sworn to Silence, we learn that sixteen years earlier, Burkholder left the community for a very good reason. Years passed and Burkholder became a police officer. When Painter’s Mill finds itself in need of a new police chief, Burkholder is tapped for the job, as it’s felt that her Amish background and police skills will be a good fit for that community. She herself feels that she’s gotten past the reason that she left in the first place. Then, the body of a murdered young girl is found in a snowy field. Burkholder is determined that the murderer won’t strike again, so she goes after the killer. But stopping the killer is going to mean that Burkholder will have to confront her past. Throughout the novel, Burkholder feels the conflict between belonging in this place and what she has to do to catch the killer.

There are plenty of other novels, too, where a character makes the difficult choice to come home, only to find that her or his troubles are just beginning…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Comin’ Home.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Linda Castillo, Riley Adams

This is the Story of a Girl*

Thanks to Pop Culture Nerd, My Life as a Book is back! It’s a fun meme in which players complete sentences about themselves with titles of books. I had a lot of fun being a part of last year’s meme, and now that the 2011 edition is out, I’ve decided to jump in again :-). So here goes!

 

One time at band/summer camp, I: Buried Strangers (Leighton Gage)

 

Weekends at my house are: Total Chaos (Jean-Claude Izzo)

 

My neighbour is: Thirteen Steps Down (Ruth Rendell)

 

My boss is: The Man in the Brown Suit (Agatha Christie)

 

My ex was: The Merry Misogynist (Colin Cotterill)

 

My superhero secret identity is: Nemesis (Agatha Christie)

 

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry because: Vengeance is Mine! (Mickey Spillane)

 

I’d win a gold medal in: Triple Jeopardy (Rex Stout) – Certainly not in any athletic events – trust me!

 

I’d pay good money for:  The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins)

 

If I were president, I would: Pray for Silence (Linda Castillo)

 

When I don’t have good books, I:  Die a Little (Megan Abbott)

 

Loud talkers at the movies should be: More Work for the Undertaker (Margery Allingham)

 

 

How about you? Wanna play? All you need to do is complete the sentences in your own way, with your own title choices. Then, just post a comment at the meme site. Come on! Let’s have some fun :-)!

 

Ps  The ‘photos? Yes, those are of me; they are from a very long  time ago ;-).

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nine Days’ Absolutely (Story of a Girl).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Cotterill, Jean-Claude Izzo, Leighton Gage, Linda Castillo, Margery Allingham, Megan Abbott, Mickey Spillane, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell, Wilkie Collins

You Got to Have a Membership Card to Get Inside*

In real life and in crime fiction, a murder can happen nearly anywhere and among nearly any group of people. When murder takes place in a private community, or a community that sets itself apart, the sleuth has two jobs, really. One is, of course, to find out who the killer is. The other is to penetrate that community and get an understanding of it. That’s not always easy to do. In some crime fiction, the issue is resolved because the sleuth is a member of that community (although that, of course, brings its own challenges). In other crime fiction, the sleuth isn’t a member of the community but has gained the trust of at least some people in that community. Either way, an “inside look” at a private community can add a real layer of interest to a crime fiction novel.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t an “official” member of the community of England’s “well born.” In fact, he sometimes makes very effective use of his status as a foreigner and somewhat of an outsider. And yet, he’s gained what you might call “honorary membership” in the community because he’s solved cases for some important members of that community. Poirot knows that it’s a small community, so word gets around and names get passed along. For example, in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Poirot solves the poisoning murder of beloved clergyman Stephen Babbington, who suddenly dies at a cocktail party that Poirot is attending. Also present at the party are Lady Mary Lytton Gore, a member of the gentry, and her daughter Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore. Poirot solves the mystery of Babbington’s death and the deaths of two other people, and gains Lady Mary’s trust. In Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) that trust provides Poirot with a “ticket” into the world of Meredith Blake, who owns Handcross Manor. Blake and his brother Philip were present at a nearby estate, Alderbury, on the day when its owner Amyas Crale was murdered. So Poirot wants an account from each of them as to what happened that day. At first, Meredith Blake is reluctant to talk to Poirot; he’s uncomfortable discussing the murder as it is, and Poirot is a foreigner – not “one of us.” Lady Mary’s letter, though, breaks down some of Blake’s resistance and helps Poirot get the information he wants. In the end, he uses accounts from the Blake brothers and the other people who were “on the scene” when Crale died, and finds out who the killer is.

We learn about a few private communities in Donna Leon’s books featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. For instance, in The Girl of His Dreams, Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich, a member of Venice’s Rom community. At first, it looks as though the girl died from an accidental fall into a canal while she was robbing an apartment. But it soon turns out that her death doesn’t have that simple an explanation. In order to find the answers, Brunetti has to “get into” the Rom community, and that’s not as easy as it seems. For many good reasons, the Rom don’t trust the Venice police and Brunetti has his own prejudices. But Brunetti is determined to find out who killed Ariana Rocich, so he (and the reader) slowly “get inside” the Rom community. Brunetti also has to use his membership, if you will, in Venice’s upper-class community (his wife Paola Falier is a member of the aristocracy). Readers get to see inside both private communities as Brunetti solves this case.

Sometimes, sleuths are (or were) members of a private community. This gives them an advantage in the sense that they understand the community and often have background knowledge about the community. That’s what happens in Tony Hillerman’s  Skinwalkers. Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police is investigating three seemingly unrelated killings. Then there’s a fourth attempt; this time, the intended victim is Jim Chee, also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police and an aspiring yata’ali, or Navajo singer/healer. Leaphorn and Chee are both members of the Navajo Nation, but Chee is the more traditional of the two, and he understands Navajo healing ceremonies better than Leaphorn does. So Leaphorn works with Chee to find out what connects the murders. It turns out that the link among them is that the victims were all associated in some way with the Badwater Clinic, where both Western and traditional Navajo medicine are practiced. In the end, Chee’s membership in the private community of Navajo healing and Navajo life are crucial in solving the murders. As Hillerman fans know, Skinwalkers is by no means the only novel in which Chee’s (and to a lesser extent, Leaphorn’s) membership in the private community of Navajo life are helpful when they’re solving cases. And Hillerman’s novels give readers a fascinating look at this community.

We get an “inside look” at the private community of Sweden’s Lapland province in Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson series. In Sun Storm, the first Martinsson novel, Viktor Strandgård is found brutally murdered in the church of The Source of All Our Strength in Kiruna, where Martinsson grew up. Strandgård’s sister Sanna finds his body and the next morning, calls her friend Martinsson, now a Stockholm tax attorney. Sanna begs Rebecka to come back to Kiruna and help her deal with the necessary police interview and with getting Sanna’s two children Sara and Lova through the ordeal. Sanna’s always been fragile and needy, and it doesn’t surprise Rebecka in the least that she has asked for help. Rebecka has her own reasons for not wanting to return to Kiruna but Sanna persuades her, very much against her will, to go. Martinsson feels a strong connection to Kiruna and her trip there reminds her of some of the things she loved about growing up in that area. This sense of being a member of that private community makes investigating Strandgård’s death extremely difficult for Martinsson since it involves people from her own past and her own community. The search for Strandgård’s murderer also forces Martinsson to deal with the incident that made her leave Kiruna in the first place. In this novel, not only do readers get a look inside the Lapland community but also, a look inside the private church community.

Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder novels give readers a look inside the private Amish community of Ohio. Burkholder is the Chief of Police in quiet Painters Mill, where she herself grew up Amish. Burkholder left the community years ago but has now returned in her new role.  Burkholder uses her “inside” knowledge” to find out the truth behind the murders she investigates and as she does so, readers get an “inside look” at the lives of the Amish.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s Jim Qwilleran moves from the city to the quiet, private Moose County community of Pickax, “400 miles north of nowhere.” At first, he’s somewhat of an outsider and not really a member of the community. But he soon makes a place for himself among the locals. He’s a journalist, and his weekly column wins him many fans and friends. He’s also the heir to a very large fortune and he uses his inheritance to support the community in a lot of large and small ways. So you could say that Qwilleran earns membership in that community (although to be fair, he doesn’t buy that membership through bribery). Through Qwilleran’s eyes, we get to know the members of the Pickax community. That “inside look” at Pickax has won Braun millions of fans and it helps Qwilleran solve cases.

Whether it’s a religious, cultural or geographical community, the ability to “get into” private communities can be very useful when a sleuth is on the case, and it can make for fascinating layers and sub-plots in crime fiction novels. I’ve only mentioned a few examples; there are lots more. But what’s your view? What do you think of this sort of plot? If you’re a writer, do you use that plot point of the closed/private community?

 
 

In Memoriam

This post is dedicated to the memory of Lilian Jackson Braun, who was instrumental in the development of the modern cosy mystery and whose Cat Who…novels were beloved parts of millions of libraries. She will be missed.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Five Man Electrical Band’s Signs.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Donna Leon, Lilian Jackson Braun, Linda Castillo, Tony Hillerman