As you’ll no doubt know, there are a lot of important regional differences in the US. You can hear it in the way people speak, and you can see it clearly in the way people live their lives. One of the very distinctive regions in the US is the American South. Of course, there are differences even among various parts of the South. That said, though, there are certain things that the different areas of the South seem to have in common. There’s plenty of crime fiction set in different places in the American South, and those novels reflect the various aspects of Southern culture.
One important element that we see in crime novels that take place in the South is a focus on the local (rather than, say, on the regional or national). For instance, in novels such as John Grisham’s A Time to Kill and Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob, there’s a real emphasis on local judges, local authorities and so on. In A Time to Kill (which takes place in Mississippi), local attorney Jake Brigance takes the case of Carl Lee Hailey, who’s been arrested for murdering the two men responsible for beating and raping his ten-year-old daughter. The case gets a lot of state and even national media attention. There’s talk, too, about ‘importing’ attorneys on both sides of the case. What’s interesting is that almost no-one in town wants outsiders involved. There’s plenty of feeling on both sides of the case, but one thing everyone seems to have in common is that it’s a local matter that should be handled that way. It’s a clearly-articulated bias.
That focus on the local is also clear in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. In one plot thread of that novel (which takes place twenty years after the events of Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird), there’s a discussion of the NAACP. Even those characters who aren’t fanatically racist are concerned about national-level groups and authorities getting involved in local affairs. There’s a sense that people who don’t know anything about life in that area are trying to dictate what will happen there.
Lee’s novels also reflect a very clear social structure. Blacks and whites live in completely different worlds, and their experiences are quite distinct. So do wealthy whites and those whites who live in poverty. We see that also in Attica Locke’s novels Black Water Rising and Pleasantville. Both of these novels feature Houston-area attorney Jay Porter, who is black. In one plot thread of Black Water Rising, for instance, Porter works with his father-in-law on a case involving local longshoremen. One union, the Brotherhood of Longshoremen (BoL) represents black longshoreman. The other, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) is white. The BoL wants pay and other parity with its counterparts in the ILA, and the matter has escalated into violence. If this issue isn’t resolved soon, then both groups will be at a serious disadvantage in an upcoming strike that’s being planned. Somehow, Porter has to find a way to get the groups to cooperate.
In this novel (which takes place in 1981), and in Lee’s work, we see how the South is trying to face its history of racism. It’s a slow, painful, sometimes ugly process. We see that legacy and that difficult process in Deborah Johnson’s The Secret of Magic. In that novel, which takes place just after World War II, Regina Robichard travels from New York, where she works for the Legal Defense Fund, to Revere, Mississippi. She’s drawn there by a letter from a reclusive author who’s asked for someone to investigate the murder of a black veteran, Joe Howard Wilson. As she looks for the truth, Robichard learns that racism is complex, and that it’s not just a ‘Southern problem.’ She also learns that people are multidimensional, too, and not ‘all good’ or ‘all bad.’
Barbara Neely’s Blanche White novels also reflect a clear social structure. Blanche is a black professional housekeeper; most of her employers are white. As she works in different households, we can see that she and her employers move in different worlds. Blanche has social connections among other blacks in the area, and has created her own supportive network, independent of her white employers. What’s important to note here, too, is that it’s not just race that divides people; it’s also socioeconomic status. Wealthy whites move in very different circles to those who are not.
In several of the novels I’ve mentioned, churches are shown as critical parts of social life in the South. And they’re not just places of worship (although they are that, of course). In both A Time to Kill and Black Water Rising, they are also sources of support, places of political and social activism, and more. In fact, when a family is in need, it’s often members of the local church who help out, whether it’s bringing food, helping to rebuild a burned-out home, or consoling people after a bereavement.
Along with the focus on the local, and the social connections, many crime novels set in the American South reflect the smaller-town tradition of everyone knowing everyone. Of course, that doesn’t apply in large cities such as Atlanta. In many novels, though, it’s very clear that there’s a focus on people’s relationships with each other. Julia Keller’s Bell Elkins series, for instance, takes place in the small West Virginia town of Acker’s Gap. People shop at stores owned by acquaintances, friends and relatives. The person who sells you your car might be your best friend’s brother-in-law, and so on. Those connections are an important part of life, and nearly everyone is woven into the social fabric. You see that, also, in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s series featuring retired English teacher Myrtle Clover, and in her series featuring art expert Beatrice Coleman.
Sometimes those connections go back a very long way, too, so it’s not surprising that many crime novels set in the South focus on past/present links. That’s certainly true of Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw novels. Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, who’s chosen to teach at Kenan College, a small school in North Carolina. The mysteries he investigates link past events and relationships to the present. And we see how, in some places, the past, even from over a century ago, is never very far away.
We also see that mix of past/present connections and local social networks in Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. In that novel, an event from twenty-five years ago still impacts local opinion in the small town of Chabot, Mississippi. Silas Jones grew up there, but left years ago. Now he’s back as the town’s constable, and is drawn into the case of a young woman who’s disappeared. The most likely suspect is Larry Ott, whom many people blame for another disappearance that took place twenty-five years ago. The past plays a key role in the way people feel about Ott, and in the way they feel about Jones, too.
There are many other crime novels set in the South (I know, fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series – sorry!). I’ll bet you could list more of them than I ever could. It’s a unique place, with a lot of history, and it’s been the setting for a lot of fine crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe.