One of the more enduring traditions in crime fiction is the ‘English village murder.’ That sort of novel features a seemingly sleepy village where everyone knows everyone’s business, and where people are (at least on the surface) shocked when murder strikes. Over time, of course, the context has been extended to include villages in many different countries. And there are lots of fictional villages that many crime fiction readers have come to love. I’ve only space to mention a few ‘village series’ here; I’m sure you’ll be able to fill in the gaps though.
Perhaps the most famous fictional village is Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Mead, the home of Miss Jane Marple. Miss Marple claims that she’s learned quite a lot about human nature, just from observing her fellow villagers. And several of the Miss Marple stories focus on life in St. Mary Mead, and on the people who live there. Beginning with The Murder at the Vicarage, readers have come to know the vicar Leonard Clement and his wife Griselda, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly, and lots of other villages too. Interestingly, St. Mary Mead also features in Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, which is not a Miss Marple novel. In that story, we meet Katherine Grey, who’s lived in St. Mary Mead as a paid companion for ten years. Her life changes completely when she inherits a great deal of money and decides to travel. That’s how she gets mixed up in a case of theft and murder. What’s particularly of interest is that Katherine Grey and Miss Marple never meet. It’s not surprising though, since Miss Marple didn’t make her fictional debut until after the publication of The Mystery of the Blue Train.
M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth is the local bobby in the Highlands village of Lochdubh. He’s quite happy with his quiet village life, and has no burning desire to live and work anywhere else. In the course of that series, we get to know the village and its eccentric inhabitants. For instance, there’s occasional poacher Angus Macgregor, there’s village GP Dr. Brodie, and there are the Reverend and Mrs. Wellington. There’s also local news reporter Elspeth Grant, and the ‘well-born’ Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, both of whom are also love interests for Macbeth.
Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen has created the fictional Yorkshire village of Knavesborough. Her sleuth Rhapsody Gershwin is the daughter of Knavesborough’s vicar, and the fiancée of its local bobby Archie Penrose. In stories such as The Cosy Knave and Green Acres, we meet some of Knavesborough’s eccentric residents. For example there’s local mushroom enthusiast Arthur Kickinbottom and his grumpy wife Mildred; there’s Penrose’s boss and football enthusiast DI Mars-Wrigley; and there are Rhapsody’s sisters Psalmonella and Harmonia. This series features plenty of ‘village spite’ and of course, crime, but it’s also got quite a lot of wit.
Both Dicey Deere and Ian Sansom have written series that feature Irish villages. Deere’s sleuth is Torrey Tunet, an American-born translator/interpreter. She travels quite a bit for her job, but always enjoys time at her European ‘home base,’ the Irish village of Ballynagh. The local law is enforced by Inspector O’Hare, who does not appreciate Tunet’s involvement in any investigation. But although Tunet wasn’t born in Ballynagh, she’s been accepted by the locals, and finds it hard to leave matters alone when one of the friends she’s made is threatened. Readers who would rather not catch up on a long series will appreciate that this one only consists of four entries.
Sansom’s series, the Mobile Library Series, features Israel Armstrong, a ‘blow-in’ from London who’s been hired as the librarian for the Tumdrum and District Mobile Library. As we first learn in The Case of the Missing Books, his job is, on the surface, of it, hardly a dream job for a librarian. He drives the area’s rattletrap mobile library bus, which is kept stocked and running only because the law requires that a library be accessible to the locals. But the residents of Tumdrum and the surrounding area love having books available, and as the series goes on, Armstrong slowly gets to know them and vice versa. This series has a slightly more cynical edge to it, if I may put it that way, than some ‘village’ series do. It’s a funny and wry look at village life through the eyes of someone who’s very accustomed to London life.
There’s also Martin Walker’s series featuring Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. This series takes place mostly in the French village of St. Denis, in the Périgord. Bruno is very much ‘one of us,’ as far as the other villagers are concerned. He does his job not just because it’s what he’s paid to do, but also because he knows and cares about the other people who live in St. Denis. This series often links past events and crimes to present-day mysteries. It also features, as do most ‘village’ series, a look at the lifestyle and culture of the area. This series isn’t as light as some ‘village’ series are; there are sometimes ugly crimes and motivations. But it shows the real appeal of life in a village in that part of France.
And I couldn’t imagine a post about ‘village’ murders without a mention of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. This series’ focus is the village of Three Pines, which we first ‘visit’ in Still Life. This isn’t what you’d call a cosy ‘village series,’ although there are plenty of light moments. In some ways, it does have quite an edge. But it’s clear that life in Three Pines can be very good indeed, and the series offers readers an authentic look at its culture and lifestyle. The series includes some beloved characters too, such as bistro/B&B owners Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. There are also for instance artists Peter and Clara Morrow and poet Ruth Kemp Zardo. Among other things, this series is almost as much about those characters and the ways their lives intersect.
And that’s the thing about ‘village’ mystery series. They tell stories of crime of course. But they also show what it’s like to live in a village, and they depict the ways in which the residents’ lives are woven together. There are only a very few crime-fictional villages. Which ones do you like to ‘visit?’
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Pleasant Valley Sunday, made famous by the Monkees.