My Mama Once Told Me of a Place With Waterfalls and Unicorns Flying*

It’s interesting how legends, if that’s what you want to call them, are built up around certain places. The reality seldom lives up to the promise of the legend, and most people know that intellectually. But the allure is often still there. So, people ‘buy into’ those legends. That’s why people can be sold on timeshares, ‘that perfect little place,’ and so on.

In crime fiction, those legends can add an interesting layer of tension as characters discover the truth behind the legend. And there are possibilities for character development, too. And that atmosphere, where reality and legend clash, can make for a solid background to a story.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we are introduced to London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. When she wins a sweepstakes, she decides to use the money to take a trip to Le Pinet, which she’s heard about from clients. Jane’s neither gullible nor unintelligent, but the place does have a mystique about it. She finds, though, that Le Pinet isn’t anything as magical as the legends suggest. And on the flight back to London, she gets mixed up in a case of murder. One of the fellow passengers, a Parisian moneylender who went by the name of Madame Giselle, is poisoned. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight (and, incidentally, quite suspicious as far as the coroner’s jury is concerned!). He works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who would have wanted the victim dead. I agree with you, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

There are all sorts of legends built up around the ‘perfect suburban place, with white picket fence.’ And we see that in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Walter and Joanna Eberhart decide to move from New York City to the small Connecticut town of Stepford. The story is that it’s a lovely town with low taxes and good schools, and they want to be part of that dream, so to speak. They and their two children settle in, and all promises to go well. But soon, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something is wrong with Stepford. Joanna doesn’t believe her at first, but soon some strange and frightening things show all too clearly that Bobbie was right. Some very dark things are going on in the town…

Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move introduces readers to sci-fi novelist Zack Walker and his journalist wife, Sarah. He’s been concerned for some time about the safety of the city where he and his family live. Convinced by the legends of idyllic suburban life, Walker wants to move his family to a new development called Valley Forest Estates. Soon after they arrive, though, it becomes clear that this isn’t the ‘perfect suburban community’ Walker had thought it was. For one thing, the new house needs several repairs. Walker soon discovers, too, that all is not as it seems in this community. Matters come to a head one day when he discovers the body of a local environmentalist in a nearby creek. The more Walker tries to keep himself and his family safe, the more danger he seems to find. The ‘white picket fence’ suburban dream turns out to be nothing like the sales brochures…

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice takes place mostly in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Former school principal Thea Farmer has bought land there, and had a custom-made house built. For her, this is going to be the perfect home in the perfect place. It’s something she’s dreamed of doing. Then, bad luck and poor financial decision-making mean she has to settle for the house next door – a house she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ Worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the home Thea still thinks of as hers. As if that weren’t enough, Frank’s niece, Kim, moves in with him and Ellice. Now, Thea has to cope with the loss of her beautiful home as well as the fact that ‘invaders’ have taken it over. Unexpectedly, though, she forms an awkward sort of friendship with Kim, and sees promise in her. That’s why it’s so upsetting for Thea when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for the girl. When the police won’t do anything about it (they really can’t without clear evidence), Thea decides to take her own measures…

In Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass, pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman, her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi,’ and her partner, Yossi Shalev, move from London to Claire’s native Auckland. For Yossi, New Zealand is an almost ideal setting. He wants to live as far away as possible from the war and conflict he knew in Israel. And he’s excited to start over in what, to him, seems like the perfect place. Roi is happy about the move, too. Her mother has said very little about her background (and Roi’s), and Roi is curious to learn more. But Claire is not at all eager for the move, she had good reasons for leaving New Zealand in the first place. Her father, Patrick, was arrested and tried for the 1970 murder of seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips. Although there was never enough evidence to keep him in prison, plenty of people think he was guilty. Claire doesn’t want to go back to those memories. But, for Yossi’s sake, she goes along with the plan. Everything works well enough at first. Then, one of her patients, two-year-old Rory Peteru, is diagnosed with a tumour on his kidney. Claire wants to plan an operation to remove the growth, but Rory’s parents refuse on religious grounds. The conflict between them gets media attention and before long, Claire’s in the public spotlight. And that’s when some journalists bring up the Kathryn Phillips murder. Now, Claire will have to fight to keep her family safe from the media blitz, and try to do the best she can for her patient.

And that’s the thing about ‘buying into’ stories about perfect places and lifestyles. In real life, and in crime fiction, the reality can be quite different from the ideal. And that can lead in all sorts of dangerous directions.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s Sal Tlay Ka Siti.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Linwood Barclay, Sue Younger, Virginia Duigan

26 responses to “My Mama Once Told Me of a Place With Waterfalls and Unicorns Flying*

  1. Think of the beautiful state of Florida–the flowers, the flamingos, the glorious weather. I think there are more mystery series set there than almost any other state, so apparently murderers and other criminals love a gorgeous setting.

    • I suspect so, Pat. You’re right that there’s an awful lot of crime fiction set there! And it’s interesting that a place that can look so perfect on the surface can turn out to be so dangerous.

  2. Personally, I think any woman who goes to live in an idyllic spot needs her head examined! We all know it’s not going to turn out well… 😉

    It’s a long time since I read Tom Vowler’s What Lies Within, but if I remember correctly Anna and her family have gone to live in a cottage in Dartmoor, partly because its isolation seems so idyllic, and partly because she’s an artist who takes her inspiration from the landscape. Lovely… until a convict escapes from the nearby prison when suddenly the isolation stops feeling idyllic… It’s an excellent book, much deeper and more thoughtful than that little blurb makes it sound.

    • Oh, and what a great example, too, FictionFan! Those ‘lovely small places in the country, far away from the noise,’ can be very isolating. And that can be peaceful, until a convict gets loose, or…or…or…something else dreadful.

      You know, the more I think about it, the more I agree with you. Anyone who reads crime fiction at all ought to know better than to pick an idyllic, out-of-the-way spot. It never works out well. Never. 😉

    • Spade & Dagger

      I grew up in a scenic, rural area – it turned out to be where money from a robbery was stashed, where someone killed their best friend, & for a while the home of someone known on TV for passing on messages of doom they felt came from God. A secure hospital prison was across the fields as the crow flies & there were frequent alerts about escapees. It’s no wonder I grew up interested in crime fiction books – although we didn’t have a library for many miles (or any other useful facilities!).

  3. Margot, I wish you were closer by so I could invite you to join our writer’s group. Some of us are published authors and others aspiring ones. We read our work and get comments and suggestions former fellow writers. Being in a community of other writers is assuring.

  4. Col

    I did enjoy The Stepford Wives. Time to dig out something else by Ira Levin.

  5. Yes, I am beset by those romantic visions of paradise every now and again, but I am sure none of them quite live up to their reputations, as literature proves over and over again.

  6. This post reminds me of the Natalie Holloway story. A gorgeous, Caribbean island like Aruba and a murder that rocked the nation.

  7. Cozy mystery stories are particularly attracted to scenic, supposedly peaceful locales.

  8. I’ve always loved the bit in Sherlock Holmes where Watson says how lovely the countryside is, and that these perfect rural homes cannot be associated with crime. The great detective replies ‘It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.’ That always makes me laugh – especially as he is travelling out of my hometown when he says it!

    • That’s a great quote, Moira. And Holmes is right, too. Those lovely places may look idyllic on the outside, but any crime fiction reader knows better than to trust that surface-level peace and serenity. And it’s interesting how many of the Holmes/Watson mysteries involve them going to those beautiful rural places and uncovering what’s under the rocks…

  9. Kathy D.

    That’s a great quote from the Great Detective Holmes. And true it is. While Nero Wolfe may have found many murders in New York City, there are so many more proportionately in small English villages. Amazing the number of murders that have taken place in those quiet quaint places.
    I think of state parks in the U.S., isolated areas where Anna Pigeon has discovered murders in isolated places.

    • That’s true, Kathy. Anna Pigeon certainly has discovered plenty of bodies out in the wilds. And it’s interesting how a small, quiet, ‘perfect little place’ sort of town or village can hide quite a lot of danger…

  10. Kathy D.

    I must get my fix of the corpulent NYC detective soon. Usually I start off the year with a few Wolfe/Goodwin books and a few Precious Ramotswe. Must do this and turn my reading plans inside out.

  11. Pingback: Writing Links 1/22/18 – Where Genres Collide

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