Category Archives: Stephen Booth

The Atmosphere is Electric*

AtmospheresAn interesting guest post on crime writer and fellow blogger Sue Coletta’s site has got me thinking about atmosphere. In part, the post’s focus is on character development, and that’s important of course. But the post also mentioned the larger context – the atmosphere.

Writers, of course, can use context for a number of purposes, far too numerous to discuss here. So I’m going to just mention a couple of ways in which crime writers use atmosphere.

Sometimes, crime writers use atmosphere to serve as a stark contrast to the murder(s) that are the main plot threads of their story. You know the sort of thing, I’m sure: the peaceful, lovely small town that hides secrets.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories are like that. For instance, Hallowe’en Party takes place in the village of Woodleigh Common, a small, outwardly peaceful place. One afternoon, several residents are visiting Apple Trees, the home of town social leader Rowena Drake. They’re helping her to get ready for a Hallowe’en party planned for later that evening. Also among the group is detective story author Ariadne Oliver. During the preparations, twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds boasts that she saw a murder once. Everyone immediately hushes her up, and the assumption is made that she said what she said to call attention to herself, especially as Mrs. Oliver was there. But later, at the party, Joyce is murdered. Now everyone has to face the possibility that Joyce was telling the truth. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common and help find out what happened, and he agrees. When the two of them visit Apple Trees to talk to Mrs. Drake, Mrs. Oliver says,

‘‘It doesn’t look the sort of house there’d be a murder in, does it?’’

And it doesn’t. It’s a neatly-kept, pleasant house in a small, peaceful community. Nothing creepy about it. And that contrasts with what happens at the house, and with what is later revealed about some events in the town.

Ira Levin uses a similar strategy in The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut, hoping to find low taxes and good schools. At first, everything goes smoothly. The town is beautiful, the residents are pleasant, and everyone settles in. But then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t take her seriously. But then, some things happen that show just how right Bobbie was. Levin fans will know that he takes quite a different approach in Rosemary’s Baby, where the apartment building that features so heavily in the novel is depicted as rather eerie right from the start.

Nelson Brunanski’s novels featuring John ‘Bart’ Bartowski often feature the small town of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. It’s a quiet town where everyone knows everyone, and where life is mostly peaceful. That lovely small-town backdrop contrasts with the main murder plots of the stories. For example, in Crooked Lake, the first of the series, the body of Harvey Kristoff is found on the grounds of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The most likely suspect is former head greenskeeper Nick Taylor, whom Kristoff recently had fired. But Taylor claims he’s innocent, and asks Bart to help clear his name. In Frost Bite, Bart gets involved in the murder of Lionel Morrison, a CEO with quite a lot of ‘clout.’ He spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge owned by Bart and his wife Rosie. Later, Bart discovers Morrison’s body under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. Crooked Lake’s peaceful, ‘down home’ sort of atmosphere serves as a really interesting contrast to the murders that happen there.

Of course, some crime writers use a story’s overall atmosphere to add to the suspense. That, too, can be quite effective. For example, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is the story of Mary Yellan. When her mother dies, Mary obeys her mother’s last request and goes to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss, who own Jamaica Inn. The inn is in Cornwall, between Bodmin and Launceston. Before Mary even arrives, she’s warned about Jamaica Inn, but she chooses to continue the journey. And when she arrives, she finds that it’s every bit as dreary and unpleasant as she’d heard. The place is isolated, run-down and creepy. Her uncle is unpleasant and abusive, and her aunt so downtrodden that she does nothing about it. This atmosphere serves as the backdrop for a case of murder, and for some very dark secrets that Mary discovers.

Several novels in Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache make mention of the old Hadley house. Fans of this series will know that it has a dark history, and that adds to its eerie atmosphere. Even Gamache, who is not a fanciful person, doesn’t like going there. In The Cruelest Month, a murder takes place there. A well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in Three Pines, and is persuaded to hold a séance during her stay. The first attempt doesn’t go well, but another is scheduled during the Easter break, and is to be held at the Hadley place. During that second séance, Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies. At first, it’s said that she was frightened to death. But soon, it’s discovered that she’s been given a lethal dose of a diet drug. In this case, the house’s creepy history and atmosphere add to the suspense and tension.

And then there’s Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, which features DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper. In that novel, two sets of remains are discovered in the Peak District on Pity Wood Farm, which used to be owned by the Sutton family. It now belongs to a Manchester attorney named Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the property after the remains were already there. So the detectives focus on the Suttons and on the people who lived in the area when they owned the farm. The nearest village is Rakedale, and Fry and Cooper are hoping to get some background from the residents. But Rakedale is a close-mouthed, creepy place. Few people are interested in speaking to the police, and even fewer in discussing the Suttons. It makes for a tense sort of atmosphere.

Whether the author chooses to use atmosphere to contrast with a murder (or murders), or add to the tension, it’s hard to deny the importance of atmosphere in adding to a story. Which atmospheres have stayed with you?

Thanks for the inspiration to Sue and her guest, David Villalva! Now, please go visit Sue’s excellent blog. It’s a fantastic resource for crime writers, and a fascinating place to learn all kinds of interesting things.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Little River Band’s So Many Paths.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ira Levin, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Stephen Booth

On With the Show*

Amateur PerformancesLots of places don’t have professional acting or musical groups. So they turn to amateurs for entertainment. There’s a long tradition of church plays, village concerts and amateur drama societies. And if you’re a parent, I’ll bet you’ve attended school productions where your child had a part. Perhaps you’ve been on stage yourself.

Amateur entertainment gives people a chance to see plays and hear music they might not otherwise be able to enjoy. And for those interested in a career in performing, directing, and so on, these productions offer an excellent chance to learn the skills. Even for those who simply have a good time performing, these productions offer the chance to be creative.

There are references to these local performances throughout crime fiction. That’s not surprising, either, when you consider what an effective context they are for a murder mystery. There are the inevitable conflicts, the gathering of disparate people for rehearsals and performances, and a lot more. And that’s to say nothing of the opportunity they provide for all sorts of clues, encounters, and the like.

In Caroline Graham’s Death of Hollow Man, for instance, Inspector Tom Barnaby attends Causton Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Amadeus. Most of the cast and crew, including Barnaby’s wife Joyce, are volunteers. On opening night, Esslyn Carmichael, who has the role of Salieri, picks up what he thinks is a blunt prop knife for the pivotal attempted-suicide scene. The knife turns out to be all too real, though, and Carmichael is killed in what looks like a real suicide. But there are enough questions about that that Barnaby and his assistant Sergeant Gavin Troy start to investigate more deeply. And they find that more than one person (including several of the locals) had a motive for murder.

P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness tells the story of the murder of Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, a member of the senior staff at Hoggatt’s Laboratory in East Anglia. When he is murdered at the lab one evening, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and DI John Massingham investigate. The evidence suggests strongly that Lorrimer was killed by someone he knew, and probably by a work colleague, since there was no evidence of a break-in. Part of the detectives’ task is, of course, to find out what everyone concerned was doing at the time of the break-in. Several interviewees use a village concert at Chevisham as their alibi, and it’s interesting to see how James ties that performance in with some of the characters’ lives. For instance, there are several violinists among the lab staff members; and one character claims that he was playing one half of a hobby-horse in a morris-dancer performance. With all of these connections, Dalgliesh and Massingham have to look into doings at the village hall, too…

There’s an interesting scene set at a village pantomime in Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin. DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry are investigating the murders of two young women whose remains have been found at Pity Wood Farm in England’s Peak District. In one sub-plot of this novel, Cooper has a relationship with SOCO professional Liz Petty; but for the moment, they don’t want it known all over. So while they don’t really hide their romance, they also try to keep it as discreet as they can. One night they arrange to meet at Edendale’s Royal Theatre for the annual Christmas pantomime, since some of Liz’ friends will be performing in it. The production is a (very politically incorrect) version of Aladdin, and Booth uses this date to show the panto tradition.

Of course, school productions are among the most common sorts of amateur performances, from very young children reciting a line or two, to university acting groups. We see this in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s The Nesting Dolls, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack attend a concert one evening at their daughter Taylor’s high school. Afterwards, as everyone’s leaving, a woman approaches Taylor’s friend Isobel and hands her a baby. A note with the baby explains that the mother, Abby Michaels, wants to give him up and wants Isobel’s mother Delia to have full custody. It’s a complicated situation, made all the more so when Abby is later found murdered in her car…

In Christine Poulson’s Stage Fright, literature scholar Cassandra James gets involved in a deadly stage production. She is head of the English Department for St. Ethelreda’s College, Cambridge, and a new mother; so her life is quite busy enough. But when director Kevin Kingsleigh asks for her help with a new production he’s directing, she agrees. He and his wife, actress Melissa Meadows, will be doing a stage version of the Victorian novel East Lynne, and they want Cassandra to adapt the script. Rehearsals get underway, and opening night gets closer. Then, Melissa calls, claiming that someone is stalking her. Cassandra goes to the house and does her best to allay Melissa’s fears. But the next day, when Melissa doesn’t show up for rehearsal, it’s quite clear that something is very wrong. She seems to have completely disappeared, even leaving her infant daughter Agnes behind. As time goes by and she doesn’t return or contact anyone, the police begin to believe she’s been murdered. And one of their suspects is Cassandra. Partly to clear her name, and partly because she’s really worried about her friend, Cassandra starts asking questions, too.

And then there’s K.B. Owen’s Dangerous and Unseemly, the first of her historical mysteries featuring Concordia Wells. Concordia teaches at Hartford Women’s College in the last years of the 19th Century, a time when young ladies are not expected to have a career once they marry. Certainly they’re not expected to take an interest in crime, let alone investigate it. In this novel, Concordia agrees to help with the school’s production of The Scottish Play, but ends up doing most of the direction. The main plot thread in this novel is the murder of Bursar Ruth Lyman, and Concordia’s search for the truth about the murderer. But readers also get the chance to go ‘behind the scenes’ as the students put their production together.

Village concerts, plays and pantos, and school-related productions, are all interesting in that they involve ‘regular’ people who also perform. The people on stage could be accountants, lab assistants, aspiring chemists or just about anything else. This lets the author pull in characters’ personal lives as well as the personas they have onstage. And that can make for an absorbing story.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business.


Filed under Caroline Graham, Christine Poulson, Gail Bowen, K.B. Owen, P.D. James, Stephen Booth

But They’re Back Again*

Returning to Old CasesSometimes a present-day murder case is integrally related to a past – even a long-ago – murder. When the police are faced with a case like that, it’s often useful to get information from the police who worked the original case. That’s not always possible, and it certainly doesn’t always go smoothly even if it happens. But tapping the knowledge of those who investigated the original case can give the police a really useful perspective. There are many, many examples of how this plays out in crime fiction; space only allows me a few. But if I know you good people, you’ll come up with more than I ever could anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to prove her mother innocent of murder. Sixteen years earlier, her mother, Caroline Crale, was arrested, tried and convicted in the poisoning death of her husband (and Carla’s father) Amyas Crale. There was plenty of evidence against her, but Carla has always believed her mother was innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the case again. One of the people he speaks to is ex-Superintendent Hale, who was in charge of the case at the time. Like most of the other characters, Hale believes that Caroline Crale was guilty. He’s not particularly pleased, either, at what he sees as the insinuation that he and his team acted incompetently. Quick to reassure him, Poirot says,

‘I know you for what you are, an honest and capable man.’

And that’s why Poirot depends on Hale to give him the facts of the case and the evidence that the police amassed. Hale’s input doesn’t solve the case, but it provides Poirot with important information.

Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel helps to provide information about an old case in Recalled to Life. Cissy Kohler was in prison for years for the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrup. Now she’s been released after serving her sentence. There are some not-very-flattering allegations that she was innocent, and that the investigator of record, Wally Tallentire, knew that, and tampered with evidence to that effect. Dalziel bitterly resents that. He was there at the time (Tallentire was his mentor), and is convinced that Tallentire handled the case appropriately. So he decides to look at the case again, more to prove his mentor right and clear his name than for any other reason.

In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper investigate when two sets of remains are discovered on the property of Pity Wood Farm, in the Peak District. As one of their starting points, the police try to establish who owned the property at the time of the deaths. The farm used to belong to brothers Raymond and Derek Sutton, although it was recently sold to Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin. One of the avenues of exploration for the police is the nearby village of Rakedale. But very few people there are willing to talk to the police, and certainly not to talk about the Sutton brothers. So Fry and Cooper turn to Dave Palfreyman, recently retired from his job as the village bobby for Rakedale. He knows everyone in the area, and knows the history of Pity Wood Farm and of the Suttons. Palfreyman doesn’t return to official active duty in this novel, but he does give Fry and Cooper information, ‘copper to copper.’

In Jan Costin Wagner’s Silence, Sinikka Vehkasalo rides her bicycle to volleyball practice one afternoon, but never makes it. Her bicycle is later found, covered in blood and with the handlebars twisted the wrong way. Inspector Kimmo Joentaa takes the case, and he and his team get to work. One of the eerie things about this case is that the bicycle was found in the spot where, in 1974, Pia Lehtinen’s body was discovered after she’d gone missing. Joentaa himself didn’t work on that case, but recently-retired police detective Antsi Ketola did. Joentaa thinks that the two cases are connected, so he asks for Ketola’s help as he tries to make sense of this new case. It turns out that he’s quite right, and that someone has been keeping some dark secrets for many years.

Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus has recently returned to active duty in Saints of the Shadow Bible. And in one plot thread of that novel, he looks again a former case. It comes out that prominent business leader Stefan Gilmour may have participated in obstruction of justice in a case of murder more than thirty years old. At the time, Billy Saunders was arrested for beating Douglas Merchant to death. The case fell apart though, and Saunders never went to jail. Now, Internal Affairs officer Malolm Fox wants to look into this case again. He wants to show that the police involved in the investigation (and that includes then-Constable Rebus) colluded to keep Saunders from being imprisoned, because he was a snitch, more valuable to them ‘on the outside’ than behind bars. It’s an interesting case of a looking at a past case through the eyes of a copper who was there – and who may have helped to obstruct justice.

And then there’s Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill. When the body of Yvonne Jenkins is discovered in the Wilton Hotel, Bampton, the police think at first that it’s a straightforward case of suicide. But there’s more to it than that. A discovery is made that links the death to a terrible 1978 case. One day, Sophie Jenkins and Rachel Jones walked to school together as usual. But only Rachel returned. A search was made for Sophie, but she was never found. If this death is linked to that 1978 case, then DI Francis Sadler and his team want to know as much about that case as possible. For that, Sadler turns to Superintendent Llewellyn, who was a part of that investigation. Llewellyn’s help turns out to be key in finding out what really happened to Sophie Jenkins, and how it’s connected to the present-day death. Admittedly, Llewellyn isn’t retired, but it’s interesting to see how his insights help to drive the investigation.

And that’s the thing about former detectives, and those senior detectives who go back to work on old cases. They are often rich resources, and can do much to aid an investigation. For them, doing so can provide a valuable opportunity for closure.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Carpenter and John Bettis’ Yesterday Once More.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Jan Costin Wagner, Reginald Hill, Sarah Ward, Stephen Booth

If You Think I’m Feeling Older and Missing My Younger Days*

RetiredCopPolice officers see and learn a lot over the course of their careers. So when they retire, they’re often treasure troves of information about different cases and often, about the history of an area. Their perspectives can be helpful and certainly they can add richness to a crime novel. When retired cops are consulted, they can give the fictional sleuth a lot of insight and, provided they are well-drawn, can be really interesting characters in and of themselves. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of more than I ever could.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that Hercule Poirot works with Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence on more than one case. By the time of Hallowe’en Party, Spence has retired to the village of Woodleigh Common, where he lives with his sister Elspeth. Poirot knows the value of Spence’s experience and wisdom. So he pays Spence a visit when a village girl, thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds, is murdered during a party. On the afternoon of her death, Joyce boasted that she’d seen a murder, but wouldn’t give any details about it. The fact that she’s now dead leads Poirot to believe that she might have seen something. So he asks Spence about the history of the area, and Spence is able to give him some valuable input. And in fact, Joyce’s murder has everything to do with past history and past crime.

In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper investigate when the remains of two women are found on the property of Pity Wood Farm in the Peak District. The farm was owned for many years by brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek has died but his brother is still alive and living in a care home. The police interview him, but he can’t add much to their investigation, as he sold Pity Wood Farm before the bodies were buried there. The current owner is Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the land for development, and has no connection to it or to the area. While the Suttons and Goodwin aren’t completely crossed off the suspect list, Fry and Cooper do see that they’ll need to look into the history of Pity Wood Farm and the nearby village of Rakedale. They soon discover though that Rakedale is a very insular community. No-one seems willing to talk to outsiders, and certainly not about any of the local ‘dirty laundry.’ But there is one person who’s lived there a long time, and who may be able to help. He is ex-PC David Palfreyman, who was the local bobby for thirty years before he retired. Cooper and Fry pay Palfreyman some visits, and it’s interesting to see what his perspective adds to the story. He gives them some background information on the Sutton family and about Rakesdale, and it’s clear that as they talk, he enjoys being part of an investigation again and that he’s missed his ‘police’ role.

Jan Costin Wagner’s Silence features detective Antsi Ketola. After years with the Turku police, Ketola has retired and is just beginning the next phase of his life. But he is still obsessed with one case that he never solved. In 1974, Pia Lehtinen disappeared and later was found in a field, raped and murdered. Ketola followed all the leads, but was never able to catch the criminal. A new case comes up when Sinikka Vehkasalo rides her bicycle to volleyball practice one day and never makes it. Her bicycle is later found, covered in blood and with the handlebars twisted round, in exactly the spot where Pia Lehtinen’s body was found. Inspector Kimmo Joentaa soon suspects that the same killer is responsible for both murders, so he decides to seek Ketola’s help in finding out who killed these two girls and why. And it turns out that Ketola’s knowledge of the old case and the area are very helpful in getting to the truth.

Reginald Hill’s novella One Small Step takes place in the future (well, it was the future when Hill wrote it in 1990). In this story, Superintendent Andy Dalziel has retired, and Peter Pascoe is now the Commissioner of the EuroFed Police. An international team of scientists and astronauts is conducting research on the moon, when one of them, a French astronaut, is murdered. Pascoe takes charge of the investigation and benefits greatly from the input and help he gets from Dalziel. This may not be regarded as Hill’s finest work, but it’s an interesting look at how he imagined the future might be.

Fans of Håkan Nesser will know that at the beginning of his Maardam series, Inspector Van Veeteren is a homicide detective who leads the investigating team. But after decades on the force, he has plans to move on with his life. In the course of the series, he leaves the force and becomes part owner of an antique bookshop. He enjoys his new life, but he still misses solving investigation puzzles. And for their parts, his former team-mates miss working with him and getting the benefit of his experience and his skill at detection. So in stories such as The Unlucky Lottery and The Weeping Girl, his former colleagues informally consult with him on their cases. In the former, Intendant Münster taps Van Veeteren’s wisdom as he solves the murder of retiree who’d just won a lottery. In the latter, Inspecter Ewa Moreno gets involved in the investigation when eighteen-year-old Mikaela Lijphart disappears. Moreno met the girl once and hasn’t been able to forget her. She finds that Makaela’s disappearance is connected with the disappearance of her father and with two murders.

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls concerns two murders that took place in 1978. One is the murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. The other is the murder of sixteen year-old Kelly McIvor. The police investigated both deaths, but were never able to solve them. Now, journalist Erin Fury is making a documentary on the effect of murders on the victims’ families. As part of the film, she wants to interview Angela’s family members. Her parents are no longer alive, but her cousins Jane Tait and Jane’s brother Mick Griffin are. So are Jane and Mick’s parents Doug and Barbara Griffin. Doug is a retired police officer who could likely shed a great deal of light on the case and Erin wants very much to interview him. The problem is that he’s been diagnosed with possible dementia. He’s not spoken in a very long time, and seems to be losing his connection to the outside world. So he’s now living in a care home and there’s very little likelihood that Erin will be able to interview him. She finds her own way to gain access to him though, and we learn a surprising amount from what he has to say.

And that’s the thing about retired cops. They’ve seen a lot and been through a lot. They may be ‘straight arrows’ or ‘bent,’ and they may be willing or unwilling to talk about old cases. But they all provide a fascinating perspective on policing, and they often can give some very good insight and advice. Which retired police characters have stayed with you?

In Memoriam

This post is dedicated to the memory of Warren Clarke, who brought Superintendent Andy Dalziel to life on the small screen. He will be much missed.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Keeping the Faith.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Jan Costin Wagner, Reginald Hill, Stephen Booth, Wendy James

When the Sun Comes Up on a Sleepy Little Town*

Small TownLook at any picture postcard and you’ll see that the image of the village or small town is supposed to be peaceful, quiet and inviting. But beneath the surface of small-town hospitality and pleasantness can lurk an awful lot of nastiness. In a way that’s not surprising. After all, people in small towns tend to know each other well. That means all sorts of resentments can build up. And small towns and villages can be insular – outsiders not welcome at all. Add to that the history that small-towners can have together and it can make for a very effective context for a murder. There are many examples of the ‘creepy small town’ sort of crime novel. I’ll just give a few of them here.

Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger takes place in the village of Lymstock. Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna have recently moved there so that Jerry can recover from a wartime injury. They’re not there long when they receive a vicious anonymous note that suggests that the Burtons are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, they discover that they’re not the only victims. Several other villagers have gotten awful anonymous notes, and soon, some very ugly rumours begin. Then, a letter to the local solicitor’s wife results in a suicide. Then there’s another death. The police investigate, but the local vicar’s wife thinks Miss Marple will be far better suited to find out what really happened. Miss Marple is very familiar with village histories, animosities and so on, and is in a good position to make sense of what she hears. It turns out the network of relationships among the villagers has a lot to do with the letters and the deaths.

Central City, Texas is the setting for Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. It’s a quiet, peaceful town on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that bucolic tranquility. When a local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is badly beaten, deputy sheriff Lou Ford investigates. He’s what most folks think of as the ‘nice but dull,’ plodding sort, but he’s not stupid. And he’s hiding something most people don’t know about – something he calls ‘the sickness.’ He’s looking into the attack on Joyce Lakeland when there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that something sinister is going on in the town and that things are not nearly as peaceful and pleasant as it seems.

Caroline Graham wrote seven Inspector Barnaby novels, but as anyone who’s watched Midsomer Murders knows, those few novels inspired a television series that’s been on the air since 1997. In the novels, Graham takes a look at the hidden lives of villagers and the sometimes ugly things beneath the surface of an ‘ordinary English village.’ In The Killings at Badger’s Drift for instance, Emily Simpson suddenly dies of what looks on the surface like a heart attack. But her friend Lucy Bellringer thinks otherwise. In fact, Miss Bellringer is so insistent that this is a case of murder that the police make an investigation. It turns out that the victim was poisoned with hemlock. As Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate, they discover that there is a lot going on beneath the surface of the quiet village of Badger’s Drift, and that Miss Simpson found out more about it than was safe for her to know.

Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin takes place in the Peak District near the village of Rakedale. A skeleton is discovered at Pity Wood Farm not far from the village, and DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper begin the investigation. Then another skeleton is found, and the investigation moves into high gear. The current owner of the farm is Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the land for development and doesn’t know much about the farm or the area. So Fry and Cooper try to get information about the farm’s former owners, brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek Sutton has died, but Raymond Sutton is still alive and in a nursing home. He claims to know nothing about the bodies and in fact, forensic evidence suggests that the remains were buried after Sutton sold the farm. As a part of the investigation, Fry and Cooper try to talk to the people who live in the area, but the Rakedale villagers are not interested in talking to outsiders, especially if they’re police. In fact there’s a very telling scene in which Fry goes into the local to try to get some answers. It’s very clear that Rakedale keeps itself to itself as the saying goes. That insularity adds a layer of tension to the novel, and so does the set of old traditions, beliefs and superstitions that the detectives uncover as they find out the truth about the deaths.

In P.J. Parrish’s Dead of Winter, police detective Louis Kincaid takes a new job in the small town of Loon Lake, Michigan. Loon Lake is popular with hunters, anglers, and those who like ice fishing, so there are lots of ‘getaway’ cottages and homes in the area. But the town itself is small and on the surface of it very peaceful. Soon after he arrives, Kincaid discovers that he was hired to replace Officer Thomas Pryce, who was recently murdered in his own home. Kincaid has some questions about the official police theory, and his boss Brian Gibraltar gives him permission to pursue the investigation. Bit by bit, Kincaid finds that Pryce was keeping some secrets; finding out what they are will be critical to solving his murder. But there are several other people in this supposedly peaceful community who also aren’t telling everything they know. So Kincaid doesn’t get much help on the case, even from people in whose interest you would think it would be to find the killer. Along with Kincaid’s sense of increasing isolation as he investigates, there’s also a sense of lingering racism in this community. Certainly anyone who’s ‘different’ is considered odd. That atmosphere adds a layer of tension to this story.

And then there’s Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which features the lives of the residents of Chabot, Mississippi. After twenty-five years of absence, Silas Jones returns to Chabot to serve as its constable. Soon, he finds himself investigating the disappearance of Tina Rutherford. Everyone assumes that local ‘oddball’ Larry Ott is responsible and in fact, he’s attacked in his own home by a vigilante. Ott’s the most likely suspect because years earlier, he took Cindy Walker out on the only date he’s ever had, and she never returned. No-one could prove what happened to her, but everyone thinks Ott’s guilty of murdering her. Jones finds that as he investigates the Tina Rutherford case, he also has to face the town’s (and his own) past and find out what really happened to Cindy Walker.

There are other series too that uncover the hidden layers of nastiness in small towns and villages. For instance, Ellery Queen visits the small town of Wrightsville in three Queen novels: Calamity Town, Ten Days Wonder and The King is Dead. There’s also Rebecca Tope’s Thea Osborne series, and Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series. There are also lots of small-town series for those who prefer cosy mysteries. Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting series is just one example. Who said small towns are the safest places to live???😉

Thanks to Keishon at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog for the inspiration. Go pay that terrific blog a visit; you’ll find some excellent crime fiction reviews there.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doobie Brothers’ China Grove.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Jim Thompson, Linda Castillo, P.J. Parrish, Rebecca Tope, Stephen Booth, Tom Franklin