My Little Town*

Communities within CommunitiesFor a lot of people, it’s important to belong to a community. It can be very comforting to be among people who share your culture, language, lifestyle, or something else. That’s why very often, even in large cities, you’ll find smaller groups of people who have some sort of bond. Those smaller communities, even when they’re not closed off (e.g. a cloister) can be very interesting to explore. And they make for interesting contexts for a novel.

There are all sorts of possibilities in terms of plot and character development when the author explores smaller communities within larger ones. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction. I’m quite sure you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we are introduced to Hercule Poirot, a former member of the Belgian police who’s had to escape to England. He and a group of fellow Belgians have settled in the village of Styles St. Mary and are trying to pick up their lives as best they can. They were sponsored and helped by wealthy Emily Inglethorp, and all of them are very grateful to her. So when she is poisoned, Poirot takes a very particular interest in solving the murder. We don’t get a very deep set of insights into the inner workings of this small Belgian community, but we do learn that they’ve been more or less accepted by the locals. In fact, one of them mentions that while he’s not overly fond of foreigners, he doesn’t mind the Belgians.

London is of course home to many different smaller communities. For example, Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters takes place in Jerusalem Lane, one of London’s historic districts. Among the other people who live in that small community are Meredith Winterbottom and her sisters Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe. They’re the great-granddaughters of Karl Marx, who actually lived in that area at one point. A large development company wants to buy up Jerusalem Lane to turn it into a shopping and entertainment district. One by one, the various residents sell up, but Meredith Winterbottom refuses. Then, she dies, apparently a successful suicide. But when DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla look into the case, they notice small things that don’t quite add up to suicide. So they begin to investigate more deeply. It turns out that along with the development company and its representatives, there are other people in whose interest it was to get Meredith Winterbottom out of the way. As Brock and Kolla look into the case, we get an ‘inside’ look at Jerusalem Lane and the network of relationships among its residents.

There are also many smaller immigrant communities in London. Anya Lipska’s DC Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka novels explore one of them: immigrants from Poland. Kiszka is a veteran of the uprising against the former USSR that began in the Gdansk shipyards. He’s settled into London, but is still tightly connected to the Polish community there. In fact, he’s known as a ‘fixer’ among his fellow Poles – someone who can get things done. Since the imigrant Polish community is tight-knit, there aren’t many degrees of separation between Kiszka and any one other member of that group. That’s part of what makes him very useful to Kershaw when she investigtes crimes that affect London’s Polish community. Kiszka and Kershaw meet in Where the Devil Can’t Go, when he is a suspect in a murder she’s investigating. From both of their perspectives, readers get the chance to see how a smaller community functions within a larger one, and how each impacts the other.

New York is also composed of many, many different smaller groups of people. One of them for instance is its Russian community. There are lots of crime novels that focus on Russian-born and Russian-heritage New Yorkers. One of them is Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House. When US Congressman Paul Latham is found dead, it’s thought at first that he committed suicide. But that’s not by any means the only possibility. So when Georgetown University Law School Professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith learns of the case from a former student, he agrees to look into it. He finds a connection between Latham’s death and the economic climate that emerged in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. At one point in the novel, one of the characters travels from his home in Russia to New York, where he’s been told to wait for further instructions. He’s taken in by a former countryman and we see how the members of New York’s Russian community have created their own small world-within-a-world.

Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street explores smaller communities based on socioeconomic status. One warm night, Valerie ‘Val’ Merinao and June Giatto get on a pink rubber raft to take a ride on the bay near their home in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Early the next morning, local teacher Jonathan Sprouse finds Val, injured but alive. June has disappeared. As we learn about the impact this has on the people who knew her, we see that there are really two small communities here. One is mostly middle-class, ‘respectable’ and largely Roman Catholic. The other is working poor/unemployed, mostly non-White, and more on the fringes of society. June’s disappearance and the investigation into it show how small communities can be formed around common economic situations and ethnic culture as well. And what’s interesting here is that these two groups live very close to each other; yet until June goes missing, they don’t really interact very much.

But proximity can matter a great deal in creating a small community within a larger one. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a Roman-style Melbourne building called Insula. The people who live and work there are disparate in some ways, but they’ve formed their own small group and they take care of each other. In this case, what started out as more or less being thrown together in the same place has evolved into a close-knit community.

There are many other examples of stories and series that explore these communities-within-communities. I’m thinking for instance of the Asian community in Los Angeles, which we read about in Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons. There’s also Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series, which features New York’s Chinatown. Which of those communities has stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Barry Maitland, Henry Chang, Ivy Pochoda, Kerry Greenwood, Margaret Truman, Michael Connelly

22 responses to “My Little Town*

  1. One of the more memorable communities I’ve encountered may be found in Gladys Mitchell’s very funny (and occasionally very dark) mystery, A Hearse on May-Day. It is a small, out-of-the-way English village named Seven Wells, whose residents are, er, a bit odd. Fenella Lestrange, the neice of Mitchell’s sleuth, Mrs. Bradley, is driving through the town one day when her car mysteriously breaks down. She is offered a room for the night at the local pub – but the pub’s owners warn her to remain in her locked and bolted room during the night, because “no maiden is safe in the village at Mayering.” Fenella, of course, ignores the instructions – and witnesses all sorts of odd events and rituals that are very much unique to Seven Wells – rituals that have been enacted for hundreds of years in the village and that involve human skeletons…

    • Les – Oh, that’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post. And Gladys Mitchell certainly had a really original approach to creating mysteries…

  2. Really interesting topic, Margot. An example that comes to mind is Harry Kemelman’s series featuring Rabbi David Small and the Jewish community in Barnard’s Crossing. Also Tony Hiilerman’s novels set New Mexico with detectives who work in a Navajo reservation. They are both excellent and part of the pleasure of reading them is finding about these communities, their values and beliefs.

    • Thanks, Christine. I like those series myself, and I agree with you that they portray those smaller communities in an authentic way. You feel like you know a bit about the group of people; yet, they aren’t displayed as curiosity objects.

  3. tracybham

    Henry Chang’s CHINATOWN BEAT and S. J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin/ Bill Smith series feature New York’s Chinatown. It is an interesting place to read about.

  4. I linked to YouTube and listened to Simon and Garfunkle’s My Little Town. Nice choice of music for a Friday evening! πŸ™‚

  5. Margot: In Canada William Deverell (Vancouver) and Robert Rotenberg have set their books in the legal communities of the respective cities with continuing characters. You get a sense of the connections shared by lawyers.

    Another author who has used the Red Hook area of Brooklyn brilliantly is Gabriel Cohen. I have read two of his books set there – Red Hook and The Graving Dock. Each is rich in the atmosphere and history of the neighbourhood.

    • Bill – You bring a really interesting perspective to this theme of communities within communities. There are of course professional communities such as the legal community; people know each other and have a unique understanding of one another’s work. So it’s natural they’d forma a group. Thanks too for mentioning Cohen’s work. I like it when authors bring an area alive, as the saying goes.

  6. Well I didn’t know that was how the life of Poirot had started. Really interesting. It’s a book I might pick up. Thanks Margot.

  7. Great topic, I love books set in small communities and you have some great examples. One of the Dandy Gilver books by Catriona McPherson is set in a small community: it’s The Burry Man’s Day, and deals with a folk tradition in this small town in Scotland. Something like the Gladys Mitchell mentioned above…

    • Interesting, Moira! What I find fascinating is that just about any small group like that can form a sort of community. It might be geographic, or ethnic, or professional, or something else entirely… Thanks for that great Dandy Gilver example. Of course, the fact that I like those novels has nothing whatever to do with it. πŸ˜‰

  8. It’s an interesting post, Margot. I belong to a singing community and it’s meant that wherever I’ve lived I’ve found like minded people. Although that’s been true to a certain extent with books too, through reading groups etc, I’ve found singing to be a means to make friendships very quickly. I think it’s because you really do get people from all walks of life who like to express themselves through singing.

    • Thanks, Sarah. And I think the singing community is a great example of how there can be smaller communities within communities. Sometimes those groups form because of geography, but often because of common interest. A bit like the crime fiction community…

  9. Col

    I quite liked Thatcher’s Robinson’s White Ginger book which involved the Chinese community in San Francisco (and Canada). I can also recall Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars which dealt with a death and focused on tensions between the Japanese and American communities.

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