Well, I Was Born in a Small Town*

SmallTownI don’t usually stay on the same topic over two days on this blog, but an interesting comment exchange has got me thinking even more about how small towns are portrayed in crime fiction. There are of course plenty of creepy small towns and villages in the genre. But there are also many very pleasant small towns. Yes, murders happen there or affect the people there, but the towns themselves are good places to live, with good people. So let’s turn the topic on its head today and look at some of the nicer small towns in crime fiction.

There’s an interesting little town Market Basing depicted in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings visit Market Basing when Poirot receives a letter from Emily Arundell, asking for his assistance in a delicate matter. She doesn’t specify the problem, and by the time Poirot and Hastings get to Market Basing, she has already died of what seems to be liver failure. It turns out that she was poisoned though, and Poirot and Hastings begin to investigate. There are several suspects, too, since Emily Arundell was a wealthy woman with some financially desperate family members. The village of Market Basing is a sleepy sort of place with its share of eccentric characters. For instance, there’s Miss Caroline Peabody, an outspoken and witty elderly lady who provides Poirot and Hastings with some valuable information. And there are sisters Julia and Isabel Tripp, who have all sorts of eccentricities. But none of the local characters is portrayed as sinister, nor is the village depicted as a group of people all hiding an awful secret. It’s just not an eerie place.

Neither is Trafalgar, British Columbia, home to Vicki Delany’s Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith. It’s got appeal as a skiing and winter holiday destination (Check out Winter of Secrets for more on that) and as a place to enjoy the area’s natural beauty (In the Shadow of the Glacier and Valley of the Lost have more about that). But it’s a quiet, peaceful small town. Smith was actually born and raised in Trafalgar, and everyone there knows her. In fact that sometimes makes it a little awkward for her when she’s trying to do her job. But the people of Trafalgar are basically good people. They don’t always agree on things of course, and sometimes that leads to real dissent. But at the heart of it, Trafalgar is a good place to live and work, and its residents do generally care about one another.

That’s also true of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan, the home of Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. Everyone knows everyone in Crooked Lake, and people work together and help one another. It’s that sort of town. So in the first Bart Bartowswki novel Crooked Lake, it’s a real shock to the community when Harvey Kristoff, who’s on the Board of Directors of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course, is killed. The chief suspect is former Head Greenskeeper Nick Taylor, who’s recently been terminated. Taylor is understandably furious and upset at losing his job, but he claims he didn’t kill Kristoff. Bart wants to believe his friend, so when Taylor asks him to clear his name, Bart agrees. As he talks to people and follows up on leads, we see what the town of Crooked Lake is like. People know one another and care about each other. The town itself is a safe, good place to live and that actually adds to the distress everyone feels at the murder and at what happens as Bart asks questions. This is definitely not one of those ‘sinister towns with a smiling façade.’

Louise Penny fans will know that Three Pines, a small Québec town, is also a good place to live. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec learns that in Still Life. He and his team go to Three Pines when beloved former schoolteacher Jane Neal is found dead, apparently from a tragic hunting accident. The evidence soon suggests that she was murdered though, and Gamache and the team set up an investigation. As they look into the victim’s history and relations with others in the town, we see what a pleasant community Three Pines is. The residents really do care about each other. They all have flaws and histories, and they’re hardly perfect people. But they’re also not sinister people who are hiding awful, awful secrets. And I certainly wouldn’t mind eating at the bistro. 🙂

Rhys Bowen’s Constable Evan Evans lives and works in the Welsh village of Llanfair. He’s attached to the people of Llanfair and the feeling is mutual. It’s a small, quiet place where people really do care about one another. That’s part of the trouble in Evanly Bodies, when Evans is named to a new Major Incident response team that’s to be ‘on call’ in case of an emergency. The team is called into action to investigate a series of shootings, and Evans is hard at work on that case. But trouble is brewing at home. The Khan family has recently arrived from Pakistan and set up shop in Llanfair. Their sixteen-year-old daughter Jamila strikes up a few new friendships, including one with Evans’ wife Bronwen. She has adapted well to the local ways and wants to stay in Wales, but her parents’ plan is to send her back to Pakistan to get married. When Jamila disappears, her family blames the locals, and in particular Bronwen Evans. In order to help Jamila if he can, Evans returns to Llanfair and looks into the girl’s disappearance. As he does so, we can see how much he values the village and the people who live there. And as the truth comes out, we see that Llanfair is really a good place to live and work, and not at all a sinister ‘evil in the heartland’ kind of place.

You could say the same thing about Tumdrum, Ireland, which we get to know in Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library series. When librarian Israel Armstrong first arrives in Tumdrum in The Case of the Missing Books, he’s not at all prepared for the village and its distinctive ways. In fact at first, he doesn’t like the place at all. And when he discovers that the fifteen thousand books he’s supposed to have charge of have been stolen, matters only get worse. But as Armstrong investigates, he also gets to know Tumdrum better. He finds that it’s actually a rock-solid village with people who may be eccentric but are actually good neighbours.

And then there’s M.C. Beaton’s Lochdubh, a small Highlands town in the police care of Constable Hamish Macbeth. Macbeth is quite fond of his peaceful life; in fact he’d rather be fishing than detecting. The town itself is peaceful and quiet, and it’s easy to see that it’s basically a good place to live. Macbeth cares about the people of Lochdubh, so when the need arises, he turns out to be a shrewd, skilled detective. You can see the way the residents of the village feel about each other in Death of a Bore. In that novel, well-known screenwriter John Heppel moves to the Lochdubh area and announces a series of writing classes. Several of the local residents are writers with aspirations, so they’re eager to sign up. At the first class session though, Heppel denigrates the students and their work. Everyone’s upset and dismayed and of course, Macbeth hears about it. He pays Heppel a friendly visit and suggests that he be more supportive of the members of the class. Heppel won’t listen though and the second class goes, if possible, worse than the first. Now there’s real anger against Heppel and Macbeth can see why. When Heppel is murdered, Macbeth has the thankless job of finding out who hated Heppel enough to kill him. It’s not easy, since he feels a real connection to Lochdubh and its people.

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series and of Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret series will know that those two detectives often spend time in quiet, small villages and towns. And those places are not at all sinister.

That’s the thing about small towns. A lot of them are genuinely friendly places with good people. Thanks to Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan and to Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write for reminding me of that. Now, may I suggest you do yourself a favour and go visit their excellent blogs. Both well worth a prominent place on your blog roll.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp’s Small Town.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Fred Vargas, Georges Simenon, Ian Sansom, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Nelson Brunanski, Rhys Bowen, Vicki Delany

17 responses to “Well, I Was Born in a Small Town*

  1. Thank you for the mention, Margot. Great to hear the other side of the story as well. I just like the way the small town setting can be used for good and bad. Perhaps it’s an age thing. I used to be a complete big city addict (both in life and in crime fiction), but I’m now quietly content in a very rural area (but still within shouting distance of a city, even a quiet one like Geneva).

    • Marina Sofia – My pleasure. You really are right about the power of the small town setting. It can most definitely either contribute to a story’s creepiness if that’s the author’s goal, or it can offer a lovely, peaceful setting. Now, that’s flexibility. And it’s funny you’d mention your growing preference for small-town life. The older I get, the less noise and haste and fast pace I like. I can see why you prefer living in a smaller area.

  2. I loved the small town in Terry Shames debut last year, A Killing at Cotton Hill, the one in books by Justin Scott such as Hardscape and Stonedust, and the one that crops up in the last Sarah Caudwell book, The Sibyl in her Grave. All places you can imagine enjoying living in, despite the murders…

    • Moira – Oh, you’ve mentioned some terrific examples. And you’ve reminded me that I’d like to read A Killing at Cotton Hill. I heard it was excellent. And yes, I could imagine living in that small town in The Sibyl in Her Grave. It’s a lovely place.

  3. I salute your commitment to balance, Margot, and your shout out to John Mellencamp 😉

  4. Well, I’m most relieved! After yesterday’s post I was going to put my small-town house on the market…but now I feel safe again… 😉

  5. Margot: Thank you! I can rest easier tonight with some fine examples of small towns in mysteries you would want to visit or even make your home.

    As you may remember I wrote a post asking whether rural mysteries are more unique than big city mysteries. I think the best rural mysteries make use of their setting as part of the plot.

    I would add to your list the village of Chukchi on the Northwest Coast of Alaska in the Nathan Active series by Stan Jones, the town of Durant, Wyoming in the Walt Longmire books by Craig Johnson and some of the small towns visited by Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte in the series by Arthur Upfield. (It is a series with small towns both friendly and unfriendly.)

    • Bill – No need to thank me. You and Marina Sofia inspired this post. I remember your post about rural mysteries. And you have a well-taken point about the way the small-town setting can be used to further a well-written plot. When that happens it can make the story more realistic.
      I’m also glad you mentioned Chuckchi, Durant and some of the towns in Upfield’s series. They are good examples of small towns that are not at all sinister. I appreciate your filling in the gap.

  6. Thanks, Margot, this post and the comments have given me some good fictional places to visit. And both Bill’s and Marina’s blogs are also great to visit, frequently.

    • Tracy – There are some wonderful small towns in crime fiction – places you really would want to visit or live in permanently. And I consider both Bill’s and Marina SOfia’s blogs to be absolute must-vists.

  7. Col

    I can vaguely remember some Mario Balzic books by KC Constantine. I wish I had read more of them.

  8. Pingback: Well, I Was Born in a Small Town* | Confessions...

  9. I’m also a fan of small town and rural mysteries, stories from Native American reservations, backwoods stories. Authors such as Mark Stevens (the Allison Coil books set in Colorado), Sandi Ault, Margaret Coel (even though she ventures into Denver a lot), Craig Johnson, C.J. Box, etc. etc. have wonderful settings and great characters. I guess you can tell I love the tales from Colorado and Wyoming.

    • Pat – They are great stories aren’t they? And the authors that you’ve mentioned have a really well-developed skill of creating a sense of place and culture. I always get a sense of really being there, if I can put it that way, when I’m reading one of their books.

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