Rows of Houses That Are All the Same*

One of the most important socioeconomic changes of the post-WWII world was the growth of the suburb – the commuter town. The suburb was billed as close enough to the city for access, but with lower taxes, more affordable housing, and even better schools. And people moved to suburbs en masse.

Suburban life gave rise to a whole new sort of culture – and a new sort of crime novel. We certainly see it in a lot of contemporary domestic noir novels. But it’s woven into other sorts of crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, for example, much of the action takes place in the suburban town of Woodleigh Common. It’s the sort of place where people come and go (although there are people who’ve been there a long time), and where people tend to commute to their jobs. Christie’s fictional detective story writer, Ariadne Oliver, has been invited there to visit her friend, Judith Butler, and Judith’s daughter, Miranda. During her visit, Mrs. Oliver attends a Hallowe’en party intended for the young people of the area. The party ends in disaster when one guest, thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds, is murdered. Mrs. Oliver isn’t an overly fearful type of person, but the incident leaves her badly shaken. So, she asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. Poirot discovers that, on the day she was killed, Joyce boasted of having seen a murder. Someone overheard that remark and was so afraid of being found out that the only option seemed to be killing the girl. In the process of finding out who killed Joyce, Poirot uncovers a past murder, and some ugly secrets, in Woodleigh Common.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives takes place in Stepford, Connecticut, a suburban town with access to New York City. Walter and Joanna Eberhart move to Stepford with their two children, Pete and Kim. They’re hoping to take advantage of lower taxes, good schools, and better prices on property. At first, all goes well enough, and the children settle in at their school. Then, Joanna’s new friend, Bobbie Markowe, begins to suspect that something is very, very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t agree. But it doesn’t take long, or many incidents, to convince Joanna that her friend is right. As she starts to ask more questions, Joanna learns that there may be real danger in Stepford. Then, a frightening event proves just how much danger there really is in that supposedly peaceful town.

In Ruth Rendell’s To Fear a Painted Devil, we are introduced to Patrick and Tamsin Selby. They live in the attractive suburban community of Linchester, and have settled in there. Then, the Selbys decide to celebrate Tamsin’s twenty-seventh birthday with an outdoor party.  They invite all of the local people, and it promises to be a fun event. During the party, a group of wasps begins to annoy the guests. So, Patrick climbs up a ladder to one of the eaves of the house, where the wasps have built their nest. As he’s trying to get rid of the nest, he’s badly stung.  A few days later, he dies. At first, Patrick’s death is put down to a massive allergic reaction. But, Dr. Max Greenleaf, who treated the victim, isn’t so sure that’s true. So, he starts to ask some questions. As he gets closer to the truth, we learn that the beautiful little suburb of Linchester has been hiding some dark secrets.

Science fiction novels Zack Walker learns how dangerous suburbs can be in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Walker convinces his wife, Sarah, to move from the city where they live to the suburban development of Valley Forest Estates. He’s sure that life there will be more peaceful and much safer than it is in the city. Besides, it’ll be much less expensive. The Walker family makes the move, and, although the children aren’t happy with their new school, everyone settles in. Then one day, Walker goes to the Valley Forest sales office to complain about some problems he’s having with their new house. During his visit, he witnesses a loud argument between one of the Valley Forest executives and local environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker finds Spender’s body at a nearby creek. Against his better judgement, Walker gets drawn into the mystery, and finds a web of fraud, murder and more. Valley Forest Estates certainly doesn’t turn out to be as safe and friendly as it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. Famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson hires LA PI Elvis Cole to find his ex-wife, Karen, and their son, Toby. It seems that Nelson and his wife had parted ways years ago, but now, he wants to be a real father to his son. The only problem is, Karen and Toby have disappeared. At first, Cole is reluctant to take the case. After all, people can have any number of reasons for not wanting to be found. But he’s finally convinced to look into the matter. It doesn’t take a lot of work for him to discover that Karen and Toby moved to a small Connecticut suburb of New York City. When he finds her, he learns that Karen has a solid job in a local bank and no interest at all in reuniting with her ex. Cole also discovers that Karen is working for some very dangerous people who do not want to lose their ‘bank connection.’ Now, Karen and Toby are in real danger, so Cole is going to have to protect them and try to convince them to at least meet with Nelson. He may have a persuasive way, but he’s going to need help from his PI partner, Joe Pike, to go up against the Mob members who are after Karen.

The suburbs may certainly have their advantages. And they can be lovely places to live. But safe? Not as much as you’d think (right, fans of Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows?).


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Pleasant Valley Sunday, made famous by the Monkees.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Ira Levin, Linwood Barclay, Robert Crais, Ruth Rendell

20 responses to “Rows of Houses That Are All the Same*

  1. We all want to know what goes on behind those net curtains, and there is always a story to be uncovered…bit like the Naked City TV series, do you remember that? All those stories and tonight we tell you about one…great story fodder.

  2. My favorite on this topic is BROKEN HARBOR by Tana French. Truly frightening.

  3. I haven’t read the Rendell you mentioned. Really enjoy her writing. Must hunt it down today 😉 Thanks Margot

  4. I remain in awe of your encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. How do you know and remember so much?

  5. Julian Symons had a story collection called The Tigers of Subtopia, and the title story was aimed at showing the dark side of the suburbs. I have to say I found his disdain for the suburban world to be a bit much! I loved his idiosyncratic and opinionated overview of crime fiction, Bloody Murder (without agreeing with all his verdicts), but got on less well with his own fiction.

    • You know, it’s interesting, Moira, how we like some people’s non-fiction better than their fiction. I have to admit I don’t agree with everything Symons says, either. Still, he’s made a lot of contributions. I admit I’ve not read The Tigers of Subtopia, but I can imagine the sort of view he’d take…

  6. Col

    A few mentioned that I’m familiar with. Time to dig out the old Levin book.

  7. Goodness yes, these suburbs are full of seething resentment. Not a crime book, but the one that best describes that feeling of cosy suburbia turned nightmare is ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Richard Yates. And Michelle Davies is a British writer, in whose debut novel ‘Gone Astray’, a family wins the lottery and moves to an exclusive gated community in Buckinghamshire (prime commuter belt land for London), but their troubles are only just beginning.

    • You’re right about Revolutionary Road, Marina Sofia. I haven’t (yet) read Gone Astray, but it sounds like a great example of what I had in mind with this post, so thanks. Interesting how such an idyllic-sounding setting can be the ‘cover’ for all sorts of things…

  8. These crime fiction novelists knew what they were doing when they used the suburbs as locations, nothing causes more terror than awful happenings in a outwardly respectable area.

  9. kathy d

    Glad to see Linwood Barclay here. I’d also add his stand-alones to this list, as all of them involve some innocent guy who lives in the suburbs who gets pulled into the middle of crime — robbery, murders, you name it. It’s the “everyman” in suburbia nightmare.
    Also, I must mention a song that came into my mind when I read this post: “Little Boxes,” by Malvina Reynolds and the Weavers sang it. It goes, “Little boxes on the hillside and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same,” etc. Loved singing it as a kid.

    • That is a good song, Kathy. And you’re right about Linwood Barclay. Several of his novels have that premise of the ‘everyman’ living in the suburbs who gets drawn into something much more dangerous than he imagined.

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