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