It Was the Third of June, Another Sleepy, Dusty Delta Day*

Some Sothern Crime FictionAs 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.

38 Comments

Filed under Attica Locke, Barbara Neely, Deborah Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Elmore Leonard, Harper Lee, James Lee Burke, John Grisham, Julia Keller, Sarah R. Shaber, Tom Franklin

38 responses to “It Was the Third of June, Another Sleepy, Dusty Delta Day*

  1. Col

    Great post, I’ve read some fantastic books and authors from the Southern states. One of my favourite settings with an abundance of variety.

  2. I just recently read Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, set in New Orleans after Katrina, and it was such an atmospheric read. I love that city sight unseen and will always regret not going there when I was in the US (I was working too hard and didn’t want to take a long weekend off).

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia, for mentioning the Gran. It’s such a great example of the atmosphere and the types of characters that you find in crime fiction from the American South. I truly do hope you get the chance to visit New Orleans someday. It’s an endlessly fascinating city with such atmosphere and history. And world-class food. And jazz.

  3. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Must read! Margot Kinberg’s post on Southern Crime Fiction. Don’t miss it!

  4. Margot, another intriguing post. A small town setting, especially Southern small towns, can add so much to a story that the community as a whole becomes a character. While everyone in town knows everyone’s business, there are still many secrets to be found.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mason. And you put that very well about the town itself becoming a character in itself in those small-town Southern mysteries. Everyone knows everyone, but as you say, everyone has secrets, too. And there’s so much history that it all can make for a really effective mystery context.

  5. Excellent post, Margot. I was born in the South and have lived all my life here except for a few months when I moved to California after my discharge from the military. Glad to see you made it clear from your examples how racism isn’t exclusively Southern. Our schools integrated peacefully my senior year of HS in 1966. I believe it was 1974-76 that the Boston race protests and riots occurred when the school system was ordered to integrate through a school busing system. I copied the following from Wikipedia:

    <>

    There were also instances of blacks attacking whites. I’m thankful our area didn’t have such extreme problems.

    I do remember separate white and black drinking fountains & restrooms, and blacks sitting in the balcony at the local theater. That was, of course, wrong and shameful. But all in all the Florida panhandle wasn’t a place where the race card was played.

    Very informative post. Thanks!

    • I see my copy/paste from Wikipedia was deleted. What it said, essentially, is that a group of white men or youths attacked a black lawyer as he was leaving a courthouse in Boston. He was badly beaten. One of the attackers used an American Flag in the attack by swinging it at the victim. Shameful!

      • Thanks, Michael, for adding that in. It is indeed, truly shameful. There is no excuse, in any part of this (or any) country for that sort of attack. Situations like that are sad reminders that we have much work to do. Admittedly, that’s not a very recent incident, but there are plenty of recent ones that make it clear that: a) racism is still, sadly, alive and well and we need to have a painful, honest look at it; and, b) it’s a national problem, not a problem that’s exclusive to one state or region.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Michael, and for your insights, being from the South. I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. It’s good to hear that where you went to school, integration was a peaceful process. As you say, racism is a shameful and truly devastating blot on our country’s history. And yes, it happened in the South (still does). But I do think it’s important, if we’re going to make progress and heal some wounds, to remember that it is a national challenge, not exclusively a Southern challenge. Hopefully we can all work together to have the conversations we need to have to deal with it honestly.

  6. I haven’t read many books set in the South, but I’ve found them fascinating when I have, for all the reasons you mention. It’s such a contrast to books set in New York, say, or Washington. In our tiny country, the contrasts are also much smaller – I guess you need plenty of space to develop quite such separate cultures within one overarching nation. Black Water Rising has been on my TBR for so long! One day… *sighs*

    • I think you’re right, FictionFan, that geography plays a major role in the kinds of (and amounts of) regional differences you find in a country. In the case of the US, there’s enough land, and enough differences in climate and geography, that you find really clear cultural and other regional differences. And the South is one such distinctive region. Oh, and trust me, I know all about books that stay on the TBR for a long time *equally heavy sigh.* I’d be embarrassed to admit how many books await me – books I meant to read a few years ago. I will get to them. I will, I will, I will!

  7. Tim

    When regionalism in American literature was in full swing — late 19th and early 20th century — the South shared the spotlight with other area; now, though, I think (though someone could correct me) the South might be the last clearly distinct regional focus for American authors; yes, the southwest has its authors but the South remains king of the hill. Now, folks, go ahead and correct me. (BTW, I would add that those who do not know the South because of not living there but merely reading about or visiting it are missing some of the many nuances in Southern crime fiction; again, argumentative curmudgeon that I am, I remain, in spite of myself, prepared to be corrected).

    • I think you make some very valid points, Tim. There are, indeed, many nuances in Southern crime fiction that readers won’t necessarily pick up unless they’ve lived there. I’d suspect that’s true of books about many different places. It takes really knowing a place and having lived there to have that deep sense of culture and lifestyle.

      You also make an interesting point about the South being such a distinctive region for authors’ focus. Whether or not it’s objectively true that the South is the last such place, there’s no doubt at all that writers from the South, or who’ve lived there, have a unique perspective, and have shared memorable stories that have that region’s distinct identity.

  8. Keishon

    Great article Margot. You mentioned Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw books. I have a few them and need to read them. I like books set in the South but often times they can leave me quite emotional like say In the Heat of The Night by John Ball, partnering a bigoted white cope with a black homicide cop. Excellent story as you know (and the movie as well).

    • Thanks, Keishon. I like Shaber’s series; it offers, in my opinion, a solid look at academia, a solid Southern context, and some well-drawn characters. If you read those novels, I hope you’ll enjoy them. Not quite as dark as you sometimes go, but I think you’d enjoy them. I agree with you, too, that some books about the South (and In the Heat of the Night is one) are indeed very emotional, and get at deep and painful issues. The film adaptation is really well done, too. Folks, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it.

  9. Nice post, Margot. And don’t you think ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ is one of the best ever crime stories in a song?

  10. Margot: Let me add another legal mystery to the mix with The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson. The murder of a black war hero on his return home after WW II has Thurgood Marshall send young black lawyer, Regina Mary Robichard, to investigate the murder. There is an intersection of the national civil rights movement with local life in the South.

    • You’re quite right about that one, Bill. It has a really solid look at life in Mississippi at that time. And it shows the complexity of life and relationships in small towns. Thanks for mentioning it.

  11. As a small town girl from West Virginia, I would just like to touch on the issue of mistrust that so often goes on toward “outsiders.” I know that for us it really has to do with the socioeconomic aspects of our culture. Generations of families taken advantage of, in regard to mineral rites, etc, in places where people were poor and uneducated, by “big city” companies from the “outside,” led to a general mistrust handed down over generations of anyone not from home. Just another reason as to why these things sometimes happen. Great article btw.

    • Thank you, Chasingagatha, for your kind words and your insight. It’s completely understandable that a community wouldn’t trust ‘outsiders,’ especially wealthy and powerful ‘outsiders,’ to have its interests in mind. And we see that in several novels based in the South. Attica Locke, for instance, touches on that in both Black Water Rising and Pleasantville. There are other examples, too. And I think it is a logical motivation for the sort of mistrust you mention.

      Late addition to the comment: John Grisham’s Gray Mountain also shows this beautifully.

  12. This is fascinating particularly as I come from the UK and now live on a really tiny island – we don’t have the distinct cultures that you describe here so much and although we read To Kill a Mockingbird at school (one of my favourite set reads of my entire school-life) I think it was only later when my brother did a year of his university degree in the South that I really understood the context – I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman because I didn’t want that book to rub the shine off a much loved one but as they say; never say never!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Cleo. And I like your point about ‘never say never.’ If you do read Go Set a Watchman at some point, I wonder what you’ll think of it. It’s interesting, too, that you mention the context within which To Kill a Mockingbird is set. I think that’s one thing that travel really gives one: a chance to see just a bit of a context. It’s so much easier to understand the nuances of what we read when we know the setting well. Your brother was fortunate to be able to put that ‘face’ on the book.

  13. Interesting post, Margot. I think the American South has long fascinated readers everywhere. I have particularly enjoyed reading about the South in frontier fiction, especially novels set in and around south of the Mississippi river.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Prashant. I’m glad, too, that you mentioned frontier fiction. It gives readers a sense of history as well as the character development and plot and so on.

  14. kathyd

    As you said in your post, The Secret of Magic is an excellent book, and it gives the feeling of the profound racism of the South in 1946 against a U.S. soldier who’d just fought in WWII. I hope more people are reading this important book.
    Also, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is excellent. It shows the terrible effects of racism on people related to each other, but also the mistreatment of Black women at the hands of their employers.
    Another good book on the history of racist violence is John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, set in Mississippi. It also has a lot of interesting, likeable characters, including Jake Brigance, of A Time to Kill; it
    is a easy book to read
    Blanche Neely’s books are excellent, too.

    • You’re quire right, Kathy. Both the Franklin and the Johnson are well-written book that explore the past, the present, and the complex nature of human relationships. And yes, they both discuss racism and its impact. So do several of Grisham’s novels.

  15. Daniel Woodrell’s The Maid’s Version is the most wonderful Southern book, set in Mississipi, and I’ve been meaning to read more by him ever since..

  16. tracybham

    Although I am from the South, I have not read many of the books by authors you have mentioned. A little too close to home for me. I am interested in reading Deborah Johnson’s The Secret of Magic and also trying Attica Locke’s novels.

  17. Pingback: Story Of a Crime* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

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