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.


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

32 responses to “Well, Life on the Farm is Kinda Laid Back*

  1. Seriously tempted to make a crack about the wind farms featured in WHERE THE SHADOW FALLS by Gillian Galbraith, but I shan’t – and WITNESS is a just a sensational movie, one of my favourite mysteries. Thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – I appreciate the self-restraint :-). And I couldn’t agree more about Witness. I believe it’s a masterpiece on a lot of levels, and I don’t say that about a lot of films. But this one merits it I think.

      • Would the Uncle Abner stories and may even some of the Faulkner stories, and even INTRUDER INT HE DUST, be worthy of consideration in your argument about representations of the farming community?

        • Oh, Sergio, that’s an interesting question. Certainly the rural West Virginia setting for the Uncle Abner stories fits and yes some of Faulkner too. I hadn’t thought of Intruder in the Dust when I was planning this post but there’s no doubt at all that it depicts brilliantly the small Southern rural/farming community. Thanks for this perspective; it really opens up the whole topic.

  2. The Christie and the Marsh are two of my favourites – very good at creating atmospher, both of the sheepstation and farm, and also of the era they appeared in. I’m grateful to be reminded of two such classics!

    • Moira – They are great books aren’t they? They really do evoke the era well, and yes, life on a sheep station and a farm too. In both cases it’s depicted honestly – neither overly ‘peaceful bucolic’ nor overly gritty.

  3. ‘Rural noir’ is quite big in Australia. Some fine examples include Honey Brown’s novels, The Red Queen and The Good Daughter, and Chris Wommersley’s Bereft. All make the most of the harsh Australian rural setting in creating struggle and suspense. Highly recommended.

    And add me to the list of Witness fans. I watched it again just recently and was struck by how much of the story is told without words.

    • Angela – Thank you for those recommendations. One thing I love about Bereft is its wartime – well, postwar – setting. I like historical novels so the combination of that with the rural noir writing adds to the story for me. I’ll admit I’m not familiar with Honey Brown’s work, so I appreciate the recommendation. A new author for me to ‘meet’ and I always appreciate that.
      And about Witness? You are so right about the lack of need for a lot of words. That scene towards the end where old Eli Lapp the grandfather signals to young Samuel as to what to do when the farm is in danger – priceless.

  4. Maintaining a farm is hard work for sure. But I love the idea of setting a murder on a farm. I’ll need to work that in for my next novel – maybe an agricultural student doing research on milk yields is trampled underfoot during a stampede. A tragic accident, or is it?!?!? 🙂

    Also, The Prairie Grass Murders sounds Kafkaesque. *shudder*

    • Peter – Now, that sounds like quite a good murder mystery! You’re right that farming is hard work but as you say – it does make for a terrific setting.
      Actually, The Prairie Grass Murders isn’t nearly as dark as Kafka. It’s a good story that I can recommend.

  5. Margot: Anthony Bidulka’s character, Russell Quant, grew up on the family farm near Saskatoon. I do not want to give details as I do not want to spoil the books but there are a couple of memorable efforts in the series by bad guys to do in Russell with farm vehicles.

    I look forward to your thoughts on Nelson Brunanski’s books which are set just over 90 km from me.

    Staying in Saskatchewan The Joining of Dingo Radish by Rob Harasymchuk is all about agri-business. The mystery thriller features a sleuth whose full name, Dingonaslav Marion Radashonovich, must rival any name for length in crime fiction.

    I have enjoyed watching Witness more than once. I have read the modest Amish were very unhappy about one scene and the subsequent event. It never fit for me in the portrayal of the Amish people. I think it could have been eliminated without harming the story. Hollywood can never be content to just show an excellent story.

    • Bill – Thanks for the reminder about Russell Quant and the farm vehicles. You are right of course about his farm background and it figures in the way his mother Kay is too.
      And I’ll be sure to mention Brunanski’s work as I feel more comfortable doing so. Thanks too for recommending The Joining of Dingo Radish. That’s one worth trying just for the name.
      As to Witness, yes, that scene never ‘fit’ with me either in terms of what I know about the Amish. Overall as I say the movie is excellent and I don’t sing the praises of a lot of films really. That one deserves it. But I think the point of that scene/event could have been conveyed (if it was even really necessary) without that scene. Sometimes Hollywood doesn’t let well enough (and this was far more than well enough) alone.

  6. Thanks, Margot! Here I am stranded in a hotel because my flight back to Denver was cancelled, and I finally got online after a week of only occasional internet access, and see The Prairie Grass Murders in your post. You made my day much more fun than it has been so far.

    I got a chuckle from Peter’s comment about PGM sounding Kafkaesque. Perhaps my dark side was showing. 😀

    • Pat – Oh, I am so sorry to hear about your flight. What a nightmare! I hope everything goes smoothly now. And it’s my pleasure to mention The Prairie Grass Murders. You know, your work’s not of course Kafka-esque,but it’s not exactly frothy either. I actually like it that this novel and The Desert Hedge Murders have some streaks of dark to them. They’re murder mysteries…

      • I forgot to mention that the hotel I’m staying at is about 30 minutes away from the setting of The Prairie Grass Murders. So far the evening has been peaceful and I’ve found no bodies.

        • Pat – LOL! Well, that’s good, anyway. It’s always a plus when a stay in a hotel does not include finding a body in a field, a bathtub, or anywhere else. 😉

  7. Farms do make for interesting settings, don’t they? A little remote, cut off. Lots of potential weapons there, too. 🙂

    • Elizabeth – You have a good point about the potential weapons you can find on a farm. And as you say, farms are a little remote and there are lots of good hiding places for a body… Nice to know I’m not the only one who thinks this way. 😉

  8. I have a question and a comment…

    Question: Some reviews have indicated that Castillo’s Amish series features a lot of violence and the protagonists have a lot of angst. I have also read that they are very good thrillers. What do you think? Should I give them a try? (when I have time to fit them in?)

    I did see Witness many years ago and liked it. Don’t remember Viggo Mortensen in it at all, so maybe I should watch it again.

    • Tracy – There is violence in Castillo’s series and some of it is ugly. But at least for me, it doesn’t overshadow the plots which are indeed (in my opinion) very good thrillers. I really like Castillo’s character development and evocation of place too. There are a few ‘peek through the fingers’ parts of those novels but honestly I recommend them.
      And yes indeed Viggo Mortensen makes an appearance in Witness. He’s not a major character but he’s there…

  9. I think there is an entire series set in Amish country. And a lot of the darkest stuff comes from rural backwoods like Daniel Woodrell, Frank Bill, etc.

    • Patti – Do you perhaps mean P.L. Gaust’s Ohio Amish Mystery series? If you do, thanks for the reminder. You’re right about that and I hadn’t thought to mention it. And yes, there are a lot of dark ‘backwoods’ novels. And people say that cities are the most dangerous places…

  10. I’ve read Stoley and Martin’s farm mysteries and one of the reasons I love them so much is because of the setting. It’s an isolated place where generations of pain and misery can build up, leading to murder. I also liked The Crow Trap by Cleeves for a farm setting.

    • Clarissa – Oh, I’m very glad you mentioned The Crow Trap. That is a terrific example of the use of an isolated farm area as a great setting. And you’re right that Stoltey and Edwards do a terrific job of placing the reader.

      • You two are so sweet. I think it helps to be familiar with a setting, to have at least visited the area if not lived there. That helps the writer soak up the sounds and smells and colors and translate them into words. I’ve tried to write about places I’ve never been using book or internet research, and it’s just not the same.

        • Pat – You’ve got a really well-taken point there. It’s very hard to convey a sense of place when one hasn’t spent some time, well, in that place. Internet research and even personal stories from people who’ve lived there just don’t cut it. Too bad most writers’ budgets don’t allow for six months or a year of living in some really cool place before writing about it…

  11. kathy d.

    This is an interesting topic to discuss regarding crime fiction. I had not thought that I read too many books set in farming communities. However, I realize that I read several of Judy Clemens’ series featuring Stella Crown; they’re set on a Pennsylvania dairy farm.
    I am very eager to read The Prairie Grass Murders since reading the above post and actually “meeting” the author right here.
    “Witness” was a good movie, although i saw it so long ago I must rewatch it.
    These posts really challenge the gray matter to remember books read long ago.

    • Kathy – Thanks for the kind words – and the reminder of the Stella Crown series. I must re-familiarise myself with them. And for me, a re-watch of Witness is never time ill-spent…

  12. Ms. Kinberg, I never realised there were so many mysteries set in and around farming and you and my fellow commentators have mentioned some fine examples. I have, of course, occasionally read about the discovery of a dead body in a barn or a crime suspect hiding out on farmland but not in crime-fiction, I don’t think so. Can’t be healthy for the agrarian economy now, can it?!

    • Prashant – No, it probably isn’t healthy for the agrarian economy to have a lot of dead bodies turning up on farms. But they really can be effective settings for murder mysteries. And thank you for the reminder that there’ve been cases of farms playing a role in real life crime stories too.

  13. Some great examples here Margot. I love ‘Died in the Wool’ and the Mankell. Farms can actually be quite spooky places and I think they make an excellent setting for a murder. I’m not sure if it’s a farm, but Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ always gives me the shivers when I think about the location.

    • Sarah – Thanks for the kind words, and yes indeed, the setting for what happens in In Cold Blood is a farm and it is chilling. I appreciate your filling in that gap I left. You’re right too that Mankell’s farm settings are effectively eerie. Farms can be far from peaceful…

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