Oh, Those Small Communities*

In a recent post, Bill Selnes, at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, describes a small town coming together and supporting a family who’s suffered real tragedy. He makes an interesting point about small communities where members support one another. And, if you’ve ever lived in that sort of small town, you know that people do come together when there’s a need.

We see that sort of support in crime fiction, too. And that plot point can shed light on a local culture and on people’s perceived characters. For example, in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, the local community of Clanton, Mississippi comes together, at least at first, when ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped and beaten, and left for dead. Her family’s church community immediately begins to provide meals and other support, and even local people who don’t attend that church do what they can to help. There’s a lot of sympathy for her and for the Hailey family. As you can imagine, Tonya’s father, Carl Lee, is devastated by what’s happened. In his fury, he takes a drastic step. He waits in ambush for Tonya’s attackers, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, and shoots, killing them and wounding a sheriff’s deputy. That changes everything. For one thing, the Hailey family is black and the two rapists were white. So, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is interested. And there’s the fact that, whatever his race or his motivation, Hailey killed two people in an episode of vigilantism. Still, he has plenty of supporters (fathers: how would you feel?) Soon the town is torn by the competing interests. Local lawyer Jake Brigance takes Hailey’s case, and it’s interesting to see how outside interests try to pursue their own agendas.

Fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will know that those novels take place in the small, rural Québec community of Three Pines. The members of the community all know each other, and they are supportive of each other. Something that happens to one impacts everyone. We see that in Still Life, when the community comes together to mourn the loss of beloved former teacher Jane Neal, when she is murdered. We see it in A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) when a group of the Three Pines residents go into Montréal to support resident poet Ruth Zardo when she has book released. There are plenty of other examples, too, throughout the series. Yes, there are misunderstandings, and sometimes worse. But in Three Pines, people know they can depend on each other, and that permeates the novels.

So can the small Périgord community of St. Denis, which we get to know in Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series. Bruno is the local police chief, and knows just about everyone in town. Through his eyes, too, we see how the community itself comes together. When there’s a funeral, everyone attends. When there’s trouble, everyone does something to try to help. Bruno himself makes the most of his membership in the community. Rather than see him as an adversary, most of the people in town understand that he’s just doing his job, and they respect him for it. He’s welcome just about everywhere. In return, he acts with a real understanding of the town; he considers the consequences for this family, that business, and so on, before he takes action whenever he can.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman lives and has her bakery in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Of course, Melbourne is a large, cosmopolitan city. But in it, there are smaller communities within which people help and support each other, and can count on one another for help. That’s certainly true of Insula. As fans of this series know, the various apartments in Insula are occupied by a diverse group of people. They all know one another, and help one another when it’s needed. They get together for impromptu snacks-and-drinks parties, they support each other during emergencies, and they know they can count on each other. That network is one of the important threads that runs through this series.

There’s also the small Scottish community of Lochdubh, in which many of M.C.Beaton‘s Hamish Macbeth novels take place. Macbeth is the local bobby, and has gotten to know just about everyone in Lochdubh. There are certainly some eccentric people in the village, and there are disputes among them at times. But they support each other. Townspeople show up for funerals, help each other in times of need, and so on. Macbeth’s woven into that fabric, too, and it’s interesting to see how his relationships with the other people in town play roles in the novels.

We also see that in one plot line of Peter May’s Entry Island. When James Cowell is murdered on Entry Island, Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec is assigned to help investigate. He’s never been to the place before, but almost as soon as he arrives, he begins to have a sense of déjà vu, that only grows stronger as he continues. At the same time, he begins to have vivid dreams about stories his grandmother told – stories about his Scottish ancestor, also named Sime, who immigrated to Canada in the mid-19th Century. Through those dreams, and through that Sime’s diary, we see what life was like in the village where Sime grew up. Everyone sticks together. The men hunt together; everyone pitches in when someone is ill, gives birth, or needs a hand with the harvest; and people look after each other’s children. That sense of community helps to give character to the community.

And then there’s Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw novels. Shaw’s a professor at the small North Carolina institution, Kenan College. The town of Kenan is small, and people know one another. So, when there’s a funeral, a wedding, or other occasion, everyone does a share. It doesn’t mean that there are no conflicts or disagreements in town. But there’s a sense that everyone’s responsible for everyone else.

I couldn’t do a post on this sort of community without mentioning Peter Weir’s 1985 film, Witness. In it, a Philadelphia police detective, John Book, spends time within the Amish community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when an Amish boy witnesses a murder. Throughout the film, starting from the beginning, we see how the members of this local Amish community watch out for one another, stick together, and depend on one another. For my money, the scene that shows that most clearly is a scene where everyone gets together for a barn-raising. I recommend the film highly, by the way, if you’ve not seen it.

As you can see, Bill’s right. Small communities have ways of standing together and helping one another. Even in crime novels. Which ones have stayed with you?


Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest that your next blog stop be Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan? Thoughtful, well-written reviews, discussions, and more await you there.


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


Filed under John Grisham, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Martin Clark, Peter May, Sarah R. Shaber

38 responses to “Oh, Those Small Communities*

  1. Small communities? Hmmm. I think of some series and gasp at the crime rate needed to sustain the series. Too many crimes for such small enclaves. Creepy!

  2. I love me some crime in small communities. Just recently read two very enjoyable ones – for very different reasons. Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker takes place in small-town America, where everyone seems to know each other, and start being suspicious of each other when a little boy goes missing. And then there is Andree Michaud’s Boundary, a summer holiday home community on the border between the US and Canada. The bilingualism gives it an additional point of interest.

    • Oh, those do sound interesting, Marina Sofia! And it’s interesting, isn’t it, how small communities can stick together in some ways. That is, people support each other when there’s trouble, they help at births, they’re there at weddings, and so on. But that solidarity does change when there’s suspicion. That adds tension to a novel, I think.

  3. Col

    A few mentioned that I need to investigate – Grisham’s book for one and also the film you mentioned, I don’t believe I have ever seen it.

    • I recommend Witness, Col. It’s a taut story, in my opinion, and some solid acting. And as for the Grisham, I recommend that one, too. It’s suspenseful, and has some solid character development.

  4. This is a really thought-provoking post, and it made me realize that the mysteries I love the most are the ones set in small towns and communities. The environment of ‘everyone knows your business’ is ripe for mystery it seems 😉

  5. No one does small town Minnesota better than John Camp (John Sanford). who received a Pulitzer prize for his local coverage of the farm crisis while writing for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press.

    • Thanks, Almost Iowa. A new author for me to explore (heard of him, but not read his work – shame on me). And you’re reminding of William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, which also explores small-town Minnesota.

      • Ordinary Grace is an exceptional novel and Krueger does a beautiful job of portraying the Minnesota River town.

        The best of Sanford are his Virgil Flowers novels.

        I should also reveal that Sanford’s detectives work for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a place where I worked for eighteen years, not as agent though, an IT guy.

        • Thanks for the suggestion about Sanford’s work, Almost Iowa. Definitely something I want to track down. I didn’t know you’d worked for the BCA – interesting!! I’m sure that gives you an added connection as you read Sanford’s work. And I agree that Ordinary Grade is a very well-written novel.

        • Law enforcement staff is divided into two groups, sworn and sworn at. I worked for the MPD for ten years and the BCA for eighteen….as a member of the second group. 🙂

        • 😆 – I love that description! And I can imagine just what you mean!

  6. Very interesting post, Margot. Right down the alley for my fictional town of St. George, Florida, but with a twist. In the first book of my mystery series, my protagonist, recently retired from the Marine Corps, happens upon a small fishing/artsy village where townspeople regularly stab one another in the back (figuratively speaking, mostly), while a corrupt police chief plays favorites with whoever (I hate “whomever”) pads his pockets the fullest. Corruption, betrayal, crime, and family secrets are the order of the day.
    I’ve seen Witness–great movie. Grisham’s book hints of To Kill a Mockingbird with a reversal of racial roles.
    And by the way, as a father of daughters, I’d do my best to take out the SOBs, but not get caught. (The old Marine grunt in me speaking.) 🙂

    • I can’t blame you, Michael, for your feeling about those rapists in A Time to Kill. And I think that’s part of what makes Carl Lee Hailey a memorable character; we can understand his devastation and desire for revenge, even as we know that vigilantism is wrong.

      Thanks for mentioning your fictional town of St. George. It sounds like one of those small towns that are full of seething things just under the surface (and not always that far under). It’s a very effective context for your ‘Mac’ McClellan series.

      And about Witness?? It’s on my list of top 20 films (perhaps even top 10) that I’ve seen. Really well done, I think.

  7. I like books set in small communities. It’s kinda like an extension of the country house novel in a way – limited cast of characters, everyone connected and so on. I always liked the way Reginald Hill incorporated the small tight-knit Yorkshire communities into his books, either the mining towns or more rural villages, like Enscombe where Wieldy ended up living. I love the film Witness too. 🙂

    • You draw an interesting parallel, FictionFan, between small communities and country houses. I hadn’t thought of that, but it makes a lot of sense. I agree with you about Hill, too. I like the way he depicts communities like the one in Underworld. You really see in those novels how those people interact, support each other, and the like. Enscombe’s a good example, too. And, yes, Witness is fantastic, isn’t it?

  8. Margot: Thanks for the kind words and mention of my blog. I appreciate your generosity.

    I have read many of the authors mentioned in your post and greatly enjoyed Witness. Sharon and I have seen the movie several times.

    Your post adds to my thoughts on the close relationships in small towns. It is in your nature to recognize the positive side of life. It is somewhat ironic we love murder mysteries.

    • It is ironic, isn’t it, Bill. And it’s my pleasure to mention your excellent blog. I appreciate the inspiration. As to Witness? It’s the sort of film you really can watch a number of times. There are nuances in it, so that you see something a little different every time you watch.

  9. Small towns add a whole different layer to a story. There can be so much back-biting and gossip going on, but let something happen to one of their own and they come together. Done right, a small town atmosphere makes a story more realistic. Great post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Mason. And you’re right about small towns. Yes, there can be backbiting, gossip, or even worse. But, as you say, let something happen to someone, and everyone pitches in to help. It can be a really effective premise for a crime novel.

  10. The first book that popped into my head is not technically a mystery, Margot, but it has a dark secret in the plot that definitely qualifies it as suspense. The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas is set in a small farming community in Kansas in the 1930s.

  11. There’s an interesting book by Susan Pinker, “The Village Effect” that basically says we’re happier in groups with face-to-face contact, as in small communities. I’ll always remember Tony Hillerman’s Navajo reservation – which is a long way from Christie’s St Mary Mead.

    • It is indeed, Country Crime. But there’s still that ‘small community’ feeling about it, isn’t there? And thanks for the interesting information about the Pinker book. Plenty of ‘food for thought’ there, which I appreciate!

  12. I have two thoughts on this. Although Midsomer Murders covers a lot of area, each episode usually revolves around one small village and its inhabitants. I like that part of it, but usually we are seeing the bad side of the village. Also, one of my favorite Christie books (so far) is The Moving Finger, set in a small village with problems with poison pen letters, which stirs up all sorts of bad feelings and gossip.

    • You’re quite right, Tracy, about The Moving Finger. That’s a very clear example of the sort of village where everyone knows everyone so everyone knows everyone’s business. At first, as you say, it’s all well and good. But the minute there’s suspicion, that changes everything, doesn’t it? And I’m glad you mentioned Midsomer Murders. There are certainly some interesting villages and small towns in that series!

  13. kathy d.

    I was meant to live in Insula in Melbourne. Somehow fate landed me in the wrong continent. Great community of tenants in addition to Corinna Chapman and assorted humans and animals. Delightful.
    Also, not only Entry Island, but Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy is about a community that lives on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Finley MacLeod seems to know everyone and the trilogy brings a reader from his childhood and first crush through his job with the police as an investigator. His stories involve characters he has known for years.

    • Insula is a great community, isn’t it, Kathy? And Greenwood does the characters so very well, I think. Thanks, too, for mentioning the Lewis trilogy. That, too, is a really vivid portrait of life in a small community where people know each other and stand up for one another – most of the time.

  14. kathy d.

    And where would Agatha Christie, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and so many other English writers and detectives be without the village mysteries? Limited number of suspects. Solved usually in a mansion — although Poirot branches out to other countries, trains, etc.

  15. I love crime novels set in small town communities. I’m reading Protecting Melody, which starts out in a small community, then travels across the US as the main character tries to save his online friend from a stalker. Yet, because the story revolves around Navy SEALs the entire story has that small-community feel.

    • Oh, that one sounds interesting, Sue. And I can imagine what you mean about the small-community feeling in the story. The SEALS are a tightly-knit community, and as far as I know, they look out for one another.

  16. Jane Austen – not, obviously, a crime writer – said that ‘3 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on’ when planning a book. What a good beginning for her, for so many crime writers, and for so many of us readers too…

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