Nothing Could be Longer Than that Corrugated Road*

There’s plenty of crime in cities and suburbia. We see it on the news, and we read about it in crime fiction, too. Large city police forces certainly have their hands full, and I’m sure you could list dozens and dozens of big-city crime novels and series.

It’s interesting to contrast that sort of work with the work of a very rural police officer or other law enforcement officer. There’s crime in both cases – sometimes horrible crime – and, like their counterparts in cities, rural law enforcement officers have to do things like file paperwork, interview witnesses, look for evidence, and so on. But there are differences, too.

Rural law enforcement people are often spread thinner, as the saying goes. So, it helps if they’re familiar with the land. In some cases, they also have to be very much aware of weather patterns and other natural phenomena. And they tend to know the people they serve quite well, since there are usually far fewer of them. There are other differences, too. And it’s interesting to see how rural law enforcement plays out in crime fiction.

For example, Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte works with the Queensland Police. But, as fans can tell you, he certainly doesn’t stay in Brisbane. His territory is large, and lots of it is very rural. So, he’s learned to read ‘the Book of the Bush.’ He understands weather patterns, animal traces, and so on. And he gets to know both the Aboriginal groups he meets and the whites who live in the tiny towns and ranches in the area. He’s learned to pay attention, too, to the stories and gossip he hears. Word spreads, so he’s often able to learn about an area’s history and legends. That helps him, too.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest grew up in Moonlight Downs, a very rural Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. She left for school and travel, but returns in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs). And, in Gunshot Road, she begins a new job as an ACPO (Aboriginal Community Police Officer). In both novels, she shows her deep understanding of the land, the weather, and other natural phenomena. We also see how connected she is to the people she serves. She knows, or at least has heard of, practically everyone, even though people are very spread out in her territory. Most of the people in the area know her, too, and trust her, since she’s ‘one of them.’ That relationship means that she’s able to get information that people aren’t always willing to give to the police.

A similar thing might be said of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. They are members of the Navajo Nation. They are also members of the Navajo Tribal Police. Most members of the Navajo community live in a very spread-out, rural area of the Southwest US. Chee and Leaphorn cover an awful lot of territory in their investigations, and some of that land is unforgiving, so both have learned to respect it. They understand weather patterns and other phenomena, and they’re smart enough not to take risks they don’t have to take. Members of the Navajo community know each other, or at least know of each other. In fact, there are complicated links among various Navajo clans. So, there’s less anonymity, even in such a sparsely populated area, than there is in some large cities. And Chee and Leaphorn take advantage of the way word spreads. You’re quite right, fans of Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series, and of Scott Young’s Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak novels. We see a similar situation in Alaska and in Canada’s far northern places.

And it’s not always in the far north of Canada, either. For example, Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s Detective Inspector (DI) Hazel Micallef series takes place in fictional Port Dundas, Ontario. Micallef and her team cover a wide area that’s mostly rural and small-town. It’s not a big department, and they don’t have access to a lot of resources. But they make do, as best they can, with what they have. One of their advantages is that people know each other. For instance, Micallef’s mother, Emily, is a former mayor of Port Dundas. So, she’s well aware of the area’s social networks. So are most of the members of Micallef’s police team. And they use those networks to get information. Things can get awkward, as they do when you work in the same town where you grew up. But Micallef and her team also use that familiarity to their advantage.

So does Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire (oh, come on – you knew I couldn’t do a piece about rural law enforcement without mentioning him). He’s the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. While he’s based in the small town of Durant, he does more than his share of travel throughout the mostly rural county. As fans can tell you, Longmire has learned to be respectful of the weather conditions, natural forces and climate in the area. It can be a harsh place to live and work, especially in the winter. But Longmire knows the tricks of survival. He also knows the value of all of the networks of rural communication. Because it’s a sparsely-populated area, there’s sometimes a lot of travel between places. So, Longmire has learned to make use of those social networks. He knows that people – even people who don’t live close by – congregate at places like the Red Pony (a local bar/restaurant) and the Busy Bee Café. So, he listens to what he hears in those places. That helps him make the most efficient use of his travel efforts.

And that’s the way it is for a lot of rural law enforcement characters. It’s quite a different form of policing to what goes on in large towns, suburbs, and cities. And it’s important work, too. Anyone who says crime doesn’t happen in rural areas hasn’t read much crime fiction (right, fans of Bill Crider’s Sheriff Dan Rhodes novels?)…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Gunbarrel Highway.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Arthur Upfield, Bill Crider, Craig Johnson, Inger Ash Wolfe, Michael Redhill, Scott Young, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman

38 responses to “Nothing Could be Longer Than that Corrugated Road*

  1. Jane Harper’s excellent debut novel, The Dry, set in rural Australia, is another example of this. The rural setting with the lone policeman is very well depicted and adds a lot to the novel.

    • That’s such a fine example, Christine, for which thanks. It fits in perfectly with what I had in mind for this post. And you’ve reminded me of Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road – same sort of rural setting. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  2. Pingback: Nothing Could be Longer Than that Corrugated Road* | picardykatt's Blog

  3. At the beginning of William Kent Krueger’s Minnesota series, Cork O’Conner is an ex-sheriff. Lots of those stories take place in the backwoods or the wilds of nature.The most recent (to be released in August) takes place in Arizona, near the Mexican border. Cork is not a lawman there, but he does a lawman’s work wherever he goes.

    • That’s a great example, Pat, for which thank you. I haven’t read Krueger’s O’Conner series, but I have read his work and liked it. And that sounds like exactly what I had in mind with this post. A new series for me to explore…

  4. Anne Hagan

    I write a mystery series set in a fairly rural county in Ohio. The sheriff lives in a small village. I take my writing cues from things that go on around the small village in the equally rural county I live in that the local Sheriff and his deputies have to deal with. When I mentioned at a writing conference recently that a traffic jam in my stories meant a long line of cars snaking behind an Amish Buggy and that my Sheriff dealt more with moonshiners and poachers than narcotics dealers and armed robberies the audience laughed and thought I was teasing but it’s a reality here and my books reflect it.

    • Thanks very much, Anne, for sharing the way you portray rural law enforcement in your series. I grew up next to a very rural place, where following an Amish buggy was not an unusual thing at all. So I know what you’re talking about. Moonshiners and poachers are, indeed, realities for rural sheriffs, and it’s interesting that you weave that into your stories. I appreciate your perspective.

  5. mudpuddle

    another Indian detective i’m sure you’d enjoy is Charlie Moon. James Doss, the author, describes Charlie as a ranch owner with a feisty aunt and a sometime niece and the local sheriff and some ranch hands as friends… Doss has an unusual writing style which i found very entertaining; Doss died recently and i’ve read all of his novels(about fifteen, i think)with a lot of enjoyment… try it; you’ll like it…

  6. I’m a big fan of Johnson’s “Longmire” series. I also grew up loving Roy Rogers and his small town western adventures. Most had a “mystery” theme (whodunnit) if you think about it. Also, the TV series “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon” was about as rural as you could get. My favorite mystery series is Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels set in not-so-rural Los Angeles/So. CA. Just goes to show . . . hmm, what? 🙂

    • Some of those TV adventures really are fun, aren’t they, Michael? Thanks for the reminder of them. And if you like the Lew Archer mysteries, too, well, to me, that just shows you’re eclectic. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. 🙂

  7. Col

    I’ve not yet tried anything by Craig Johnson, or from the Bill Crider Rhodes series. Thanks for the reminders.

  8. I’m actually currently reading a small town book The Killer on the Wall by Emma Kavanagh and it’s brilliant. It’s set at Hadrian’s Wall and in winter when it’s cold and damp. It has a very bleak feel to it. Loving it.

  9. Margot: I thought of three books set in the Canadian Arctic. Canadians think those vast areas are too empty and too isolated to be considered rural.

    They are Murder in a Cold Climate by Scott Young (Northwest Territories) and An Arctic Blue Death by R.J. Harlick and Darkness at the Stroke of Noon by Dennis Murphy (Nunavut).

    • Thanks, Bill. It’s really interesting, too, the way people conceive of ‘rural.’ There is a difference between an area with few people in it, and an area that’s uninhabited. That’s interesting ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks.

  10. kathy d.

    Glad you brought up Emily Tempest. Have been missing her, and wish Adrian Hyland would write more about her. Glad Jane Harper’s The Dry and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road came up, too.
    There are so many rural sheriffs and detectives though. How about Julia Keller’s West Virginia series with a sheriff, a prosecutor, maybe another law enforcement person.
    There are a lot of these books set in the U.S. in different states. There was a series set in rural Indiana with a woman sheriff by P.M. Carlton that I read years ago.
    And then there are the park rangers, like Anna Pigeon in Nevada Barr’s series, who often goes solo to solve crimes, as in the latest, Boar Island where is teamed with a sheriff or police officer for part of the book. But she’s often alone in a state park or working with a very small sheriff’s department.

    • You’re right about Anna Pigeon, Kathy. I’m glad you mentioned her; she certainly does do her job in some very rural areas. And Julia Keller’s books are well-written, too.

  11. Ah, yes, Longmire and Tony Hillerman were the ones that came to mind when you said rural law enforcement. I recently read an anthology of mainly American authors writing about law enforcement, and it was surprising how many sheriffs and park rangers there were featured, as well as lots of crimes involving cattle stealing or poaching. Seems like the Wild West legacy is still around…
    In terms of rural France, of course, I might mention Martin Walker’s Bruno series set in the Perigord area, and Adrian Magson’s Lucas Rocco series set in the Picardie region. Love them both for the local atmosphere.

    • Oh, those are both excellent examples of rural France, Marina Sofia. Thanks for filling in that gap. What I like about them (among many other things!) is that they show how different life is in the country to what it is in a larger city. You make an interesting point, too, about the Wild West legacy. It’s still alive in several ways, I think, so I’m not surprised you noticed a lot of sheriffs and rangers in it. I hadn’t thought about that when I was putting this post together, but it’s a well-taken point. Thanks for the’ food for thought.’

  12. Trying to think of some rural Scottish crime fiction, though most of what I’ve read is very much city based. However there’s MC Beaton’s Hamish McBeth series, and I suppose Peter May’s Lewis trilogy is sort of rural, though somehow I never think of the islands as ‘rural’ exactly – too windswept and rugged, maybe!

    • You know, I thought of Peter May’s work, FictionFan, wondering if I should include it. In the end, I didn’t, and I’m wondering if it’s the rugged/windswept thing or something else. Hmmm…… I do agree with you about Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series. That’s certainly more rural, and I’m glad you brought it up.

  13. Some intriguing books, Margot. I’m a huge fan of Hillerman and Johnson’s writings, but you’ve given me several new ones to check out. Like FictionaFan, I thought of Beaton’s Hamish McBeth series as he is on his own so to speak.

    • He is, indeed, on his own, Mason. And he certainly has to be aware of things like dangerous weather patterns, natural phenomena and so on. I’m very glad you and FictionFan mentioned him, as he’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post.

  14. Margot, as an aside, police in rural India, especially in villages, still use bicycles to move about though I’m not sure if they’re trained enough to solve complex cases. Craig Johnson is on my wish-list.

    • I didn’t know that, Prashant. Thanks for mentioning it. I always like learning about how policing is done in different places. And as to Craig Johnson? I really think you’d like his work.

  15. Patti Abbott

    Heartily recommend WKK. He is really one of the greats. Also a big fan of THE DRY. I haven’t read Anne Hillerman, but I loved her father’s books. Should see if she captures the same magic.

    • I like Krueger’s work, too, Patti, although I admit I haven’t read a lot of it. And I wonder what you’ll think of Anne Hillerman’s work. It’s got to be hard to follow in those footsteps.

  16. I’m a big fan of crime novels set in rural areas. It’s always fun to see the different ways authors handle the investigation. Love “the Book of the Bush” idea. Sounds fascinating. I may have to add that one to the pile.

  17. kathy d.

    I realize that I usually stick with big-city detectives, private and public. But when I have the opportunity to read a rural-set book, I usually enjoy it.
    I also thought of Larry Sweazy’s character, Marjorie Tremaine, who lives in the Dakotas, and although she is not a law-enforcement officer or private detective, she gets pulled into a murder investigation.
    And the sense of place with rural farmlands and dust storms is quite good in these books.

    • Thanks, Kathy. That’s a really helpful example of exactly what I had in mind with this post. And I agree: weather issues such as dust storms and other sorts of storms can really add to a story’s tension. It’s one of those things that can work quite well in a rural setting.

  18. kathy d.

    It’s fascinating to read these weather descriptions set in rural areas. I love the country, went to college in Vermont’s green fields near mountains and with pine forests on campus.
    However, in the long run I am a city person and love people-watching and meeting people (and dogs), so I think I could not take rural life in the long run.

  19. I’ve come late to this post – in my defence it’s peak gardening season – but I’d add Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series, although some of the later ones are more urban. Also Martin Edwards’ Lake District series, and W J Burley’s Wycliffe series set in Cornwall, though they now seem rather slight compared to the length of more modern writers.

    • There’s no such thing as late here, CC. The party never stops. And you’ve added some talented authors and fine examples to the discussion, for which thanks. They’re all set in different parts of the country, and I think that adds to their distinctiveness.

  20. Another game warden – practically law enforcement – is Joe Pickett from CJ Box’s excellent series. I very much enjoy his wanderings round Wyoming.

    • I do, too, Moira. He has to be just as attuned to the elements and natural phenomena as he does to the people he deals with. And I like Box’s descriptions of the places Pickett goes, as well as the cases he solves.

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