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 Lymstock. 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.


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

37 responses to “When the Sun Comes Up on a Sleepy Little Town*

  1. I read all of Caroline Graham’s books (and have watched much of the TV series). The towns in the TV series always do have some creepy characters. In the Alan Bradley series about Flavia de Luce, the small town of Bishop’s Lacey has way more murders in one year than one could imagine. (I just finished the 5th book, so that one is on my mind.)

    • Tracy – Thanks for mentioning Bishop’s Lacey. It’s a great example the small town that only seems peaceful and quiet on the surface. And of course, Flavia de Luce unearths all sorts of nastiness doesn’t she? Thanks for filling in that gap.

  2. This post has reminded me that I need to get myself a good old-fashioned murder mystery to read! Thanks for an interesting post as always 🙂

  3. You can’t beat a village as the setting for a murder story – Jane Austen said ‘Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on’ for a novel, but what she says holds true for a detective story too. And Agatha Christie really did that well, as you point out, in Moving Finger. Also, Murder is Announced (and quite a few more…)

    • Moira – You and Jane Austen both put it well There’s just something about that small town/village atmosphere isn’t there? And you’re right; that was really a specialty of Christie’s, especially in the Miss Marple novels.

  4. Nice post, Margot, on a topic that does seem to provide rich fodder for crime writers: the tensions of small town life. Another great example is found in Honey Brown’s novel, The Good Daughter, where sexual infidelity fuels tensions and suspicions.

    • Angela – Thank you. That’s the thing about small towns; the fact that everyone knows everyone really can build tension. That’s especially true if, as in your excellent example, there’s an affair involved. Your suggestion reminds me just a bit of Ruth Rendell’s To Fear a Painted Devil, which takes place in a small community (OK, a suburb, but with the same ‘feel’ that villages sometimes have).

  5. I really like small town settings for murder mystery novels—and for any other genre, come to think of it. They do work well for TV series, too, don’t they? I loved all of the UK series Heartbeat, and also enjoyed the Australian police series of the 1990s, Blue Heelers. I read a story that said if there were really that number of crimes, especially murder, in small towns as depicted in these series, the village would have the highest crime rate in the world!

    • Caron – Small towns and villages really do have an appeal, both in novels and on the screen. I wonder if it’s because one gets to know the characters better? Not sure of that of course, but certainly the atmosphere lends itself to some great stories. Of course, there is that little issue with plausibility when it comes to that many deaths… 😉

  6. Margot: I am glad to see you write about small towns as the settings for mystery.

    I do hope you write another post about small town settings for mysteries that are not ‘creepy small towns’. Having grown up on a farm near a very small community and living in what much of the world would consider a small town I put forward that most small towns are not creepy either if fiction or real life.

    My examples will come from Canadian settings.

    I do not think anyone who has read the mysteries of Louise Penny involving Inspector Gamache that are set in Three Pines, Quebec would find the village creepy. I have always wished it were a real place I could visit.

    Nelson Brunanski’s mysteries of small town Saskatchewan featuring Bart Bartkowski are set in Crooked Lake which is a fictional version of Wakaw just 85 km from my home. I will personally vouch for neither Crooked Lake nor Wakaw being creepy.

    The Karl Alberg mysteries of L.R. Wright are set in the real life small town of Sechelt on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. It is a lovely town.

    Small towns can be excellent settings for murder without being creepy.

    • Bill – You’re right that it’s quite possible to have a small-town mystery or series without it being creepy, and you’ve given some excellent examples. Louise Penny’s Three Pines is not at all a creepy place and is the home of some very well-drawn characters. Nelson Brunanski’s ‘Bart’ Bartowski mysteries have such a terrific small-town prairie feel to them, and they too include some great characters. I like the Bartowskis quite a lot. Admittedly I’m less familiar with the Alberg mysteries, but from what I’ve heard, they too have a setting that’s not creepy. Yes, indeed, I will have to do a post about small-town life in mysteries when town is really a pleasant place to live. Thanks for the inspiration.

  7. Small towns definitely lend themselves well to the mystery style – crime novels in big towns often tend to be more about the grittier side of life; drugs, people trafficking, etc. What always surprises me even more than the number of murders in Midsomer, though, is that the sun is always shining…I’d love to know which bit of Britain that happens in! Doesn’t happen in my small town – but thankfully neither do the murders…

    • FictionFan – Yes, there is a lot of sun in Midsomer isn’t there? Hmmm….hadn’t thought about that. You’re right too that there are different kinds of mysteries that take place in small towns to the ones that are more likely to take place in urban settings. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, but I think you have a good point. Interesting…

  8. Col

    I’m looking forward to Franklin’s book when I get to it. I keep forgetting I have it! Thompson’s was an old favourite as well.

  9. It is extraordinary how enduring the appeal of the little secluded village / town is in fiction – or maybe it’s just true in life too! I love the Wrightsville books in particular for their scene setting – thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – It is amazing isn’t it? There is just something about the small town or village that keeps us coming back for more. And I agree; the ‘Queen team’ did a very effective job of evoking that life in the Wrightsville novels. Very well done setting there I thought.

  10. Many of the scenes for the Midsomer Murder series were filmed in the area where we used to live in the UK (Berkshire, Cotswolds), but I am happy to report that we did not suffer any unusual body counts in our small town… I too was going to mention some favourites such as Louise Penny’s Three Pine or M.C. Beaton (Agatha Raisin in a Cotswold village and Hamish Macbeth in a Scottish village). And don’t let’s forget the rest of Europe: Sylvie Granotier with her novels set in the very rural and isolated Creuse region in France; Vargas’ Adamsberg and Simenon’s Maigret often have to go to closed small communities and try to win the locals’ trust and uncover their secrets; and I suppose Montalbano’s Vigata is a small town too. Everyone seems to know each other.

    • Marina Sofia – I’m very glad to hear that you didn’t trip over any bodies during your time in the UK. I’m glad that you mentioned Beaton and Granotier; both do a great job of creating village life. And yes of course both Adamsberg and Maigret work cases in small communities. It’s funny, too; I hadn’t thought of Vigàta as a small town, but it does seem to be one of those places where everyone knows everyone.
      And you’ve mentioned some fictional small towns that aren’t at all creepy. Yes, I definitely need to expand this topic and look at fictional smaller communities that aren’t ‘creepy little villages.’ Thanks to you and Bill for the inspiration.

  11. Great post as always Margot.

    There’s quite a bit of Aussie crime fiction set in small towns…the most recent I’ve read is Garry Disher’s BITTER WASH ROAD – captures the creepy thing very well I think…but then I’m a city girl through and through – I think the entire idea of living in a small town is terrifying 🙂

    I sometimes think even urban series are really small town books in disguise…they manage to create a sort of “closed” setting with a set number of characters – like Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series which turns an inner Melbourne apartment building into a kind of urban village

    • Bernadette – Thank you. And I have Bitter Wash Road on my TBR; I am very much looking forward to reading it. I think it’s interesting too how some people are ‘city types’ and some aren’t. I’ll bet there are just as many small-town/village people who are frightened at the thought of going near a big city.
      I think you’ve got a well-taken point about the small community within a larger one. I love the ‘family’ that Kerry Greenwood has created in the Corinna Chapman series. All city folk yet you can see that they’ve got a small community there. It’s that way with Peter Temple’s Jack Irish, who’s a part of the Fitzroy supporters community at his local. That group ‘feels’ like a small town community even though everyone lives in an urban area. Interesting…

  12. Great post as usual, Margot. Thanks for the mention 🙂

    I see a couple of authors/titles I need to track down so thank you! Love Jim Thompson’s work (however uneven it is).

    Have you read any of Donald Harstad’s books? They’re set in the small town of Nation County, Iowa and follows Deputy Carl Houseman. I’ve read one book in the series (four total) and it was pretty good if I say so myself that is if you enjoy police procedurals. I know you can’t list every last book that has a small town setting but thought I’d mention that one.

    I need to reread Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter one day just for my own edification because I didn’t really like it even though the writing was well done. Parts of that book was brilliant and other parts gave me fits but it’s a well written story set in the South.

    • Col

      I read the first Harstad/Houseman book years ago and need to get back to him – title escapes me, but cheers for the reminder Keishon – just when I think I’m running out of things to read……..not!
      Margot – sorry for butting in, how very rude!

    • Kesihon – No need to thank me; I appreciate the inspiration.
      I have to admit that although I’ve heard of Harstad’s work I’ve not yet tried it. I’ll have to do that as you’re not the first to say they’re good books. Thanks for the suggestion.
      I don’t know if you’ll feel differently about it if you re-read Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Sometimes people do look at novels differently the second time round and sometimes…. not. If you do, I’ll be interested in what you think.

  13. Really admired the Franklin book especially. Anxious to read the one he’s written with his wife, Beth Fennelly, a poet. Looks great. Read the Badger Creek by Graham and liked it a lot. Those towns in England sure have a lot bubbling beneath the surface.

    • Patti – Some of those little villages certainly do have a lot more going on than it seems on the surface. Thanks for mentioning The Tilted World. I haven’t read that one, but it does look good.

  14. I must admit the first thing I thought of when I started reading this post was Cabot Cove, Maine where Jessica Fletcher solved so many murders. I’ve lived in a small town in Maine and while it wasn’t creepy on the surface , as an outsider who was a city person I often felt an undercurrent of old grudges and suspicions. I still haven’t read the Franklin book although it has been on my wish list forever. Ah well, some day.

    • Barbara – Oh, that’s interesting that you lived in a Cabot Cove sort of a town. I’m sure it must have felt a bit different to you, being from ‘outside.’ I know in a few places I’ve lived, if you haven’t been there for at least a generation or two, you’re not really local. I hope you do get the chance to read the Franklin novel at some point. There’s a lot there.

  15. Pingback: Well, I Was Born in a Small Town* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  16. Few fictional small towns are as creepy as the one Miles Burton created in his 1931 novel “The Secret of High Eldersham.” The town has a number of secrets shared by many of the residents – and jealously guarded from outsiders, who are at best shunned. It’s not the best place to stop off for a quick pint in the local pub – and, in fact, the pubkeeper winds up murdered quite early in the novel. The investigation turns up some rather unpleasant and truly horrifying secrets; believe me, you don’t want to move there!

    • Les – Oh, that does sound awfully creepy. And with all of those ugly dark secrets, yes, I can imagine it wouldn’t be a place you’d want to consider for relocation. That and the small town featured in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

  17. Margot – Another great post. I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and yes, the small-town atmosphere is great fodder for a mystery. A couple of examples I think of are: Lilian Jackson’s Braun’s Cat Who series – so cozy, in an American sort of way 🙂 And Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, which again reminds us that all sorts of evil can lurk beneath the placid surface. Then there’s John Straley’s Cecil Younger mysteries, which take place in Sitka, Alaska, a small town with lots of folksy feeling and quirky characters.

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. And thanks for those excellent suggestions. You make a very strong point that small towns make for excellent crime-fictional settings. As you say, there are some quirky characters, there’s the fact that everyone knows everyone, and in some of them, there really is nastiness under it all. In others of course (and I’m glad you mentioned Braun’s series) the town is a good place to live with good people.

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