Agatha Christie didn’t have a lot in common with Grace Metalious of Peyton Place fame, but both ladies understood one thing well: the placid surface of a small community can hide some wickedly entertaining secrets. Christie ensured her own immortality by adding murder to this eternally intriguing milieu.
We may joke about Cabot Cove syndrome – an astronomically high murder rate in a tiny community such as Jessica Fletcher’s home in the Murder, She Wrote series – but readers are more than willing to suspend disbelief in exchange for likable characters, an appealing setting, and lots of juicy small town secrets.
“If I had to choose a favorite sub-category in the mystery field, it would have to be small town mysteries,” DorothyL regular Kaye Barley told me. “I get completely caught up in the intricacies, entanglements, and complexities that exist under the surface in simple, small town living. And if it happens to be a small town in the south -- oh my, that can only ratchet things up. I'm a complete push-over for eccentric southern characters found in small town mystery novels.”
The village has always been a favored site for British mysteries, and M.C. Beaton and others continue that tradition, but U.S. and Canadian cozy writers are probably more successful at making readers fall in love with their settings. From coast to coast, North America is dotted with tiny fictional communities so charming that readers long to set up residence despite the crime rate. “If I thought for one minute that this place really existed,” a reviewer wrote of Louise Penny’s Three Pines, Quebec, “I’d be packing the car.”
Most small towns in mysteries are invented, but writers inevitably draw on their fond memories of actual places. "I've set the Orchard Mysteries in a small town that is based on a real one I know, although I take liberties with some details like where the highway is," says Sheila Connolly, whose protagonist winds up in rural Maine after she inherits an apple orchard. "Using this place helps me visualize the story, but I chose it primarily because it is a classic New England town (a town green, big white church, old houses), and the town itself plays a major ongoing role in the books. Now I'm having fun populating the place, a few characters at a time. This parallels my newcomer heroine's process of getting acquainted with her neighbors. So far I haven't created any evil residents--in fact, the ‘real’ police chief wrote me to say he was flattered by my depiction."
Lorna Barrett, author of the New Hampshire-based Booktown Mysteries with a bookseller protagonist, has also consciously created a setting that readers will find welcoming and soothing, even in the middle of a murder investigation. “My little village of Stoneham is like a character itself,” Lorna says. “From its brick storefronts to its little park with gazebo, it’s a throwback to better times.”
The physical charm of the place is only one plus for writers and readers, though.
“The benefits of a small town setting are bountiful for a cozy-style mystery,” says Mary Ellen Hughes, author of the Craft Corner series, set in Maryland. “The suspects are, for one thing, right there, conveniently available to be questioned or watched. Then, your on-going characters get to be familiar and (hopefully) enjoyed, which can bring interested readers back for updates on their lives.”
Denise Swanson, author of the Scumble River series set in Illinois and featuring school psychologist Skye Denison, loves to explore what lies beneath the pretty surface. “In most small towns there is a tacit agreement to live as an insular society,” Denise says. “Vital components of this agreement are the secrets, assumptions, and shared background knowledge of the citizens. The interrelationships are more intense, because often entire extended families live within the town's boundaries. For story telling, this setting provides both the mystery and the solution. There is a golden opportunity for a story within a story plot, and the public versus the private details are an ideal way for the amateur sleuth to be a credible part of the investigation.”
In these days when many people don’t even know their next door neighbors, there’s a certain nostalgia in reading about residents of a community going through a crisis together. The impact of murder in a small town creates an immediacy that is often missing in big city settings. “It’s a place where everyone knows your name, knows what you’re up to -- and talks about it,” Lorna Barrett says of her village of Stoneham. “When something like a murder happens, the citizens take it personally, whereas murder in an urban area is just a fact of life.”
To emphasize the unique qualities of a small community, many mystery protagonists are outsiders -- either newcomers to the area or natives returning after a long absence. Some series, such as Julia Spencer-Fleming’s, have both. These characters can view a place with fresh eyes and provide perspective for the reader.
Setting a story in a small community allows the writer to focus more on human relationships and less on technical details. If the police force is small, the investigating officer is likely to know both victim and suspects and may be caught in the emotional crossfire. If there’s no forensics lab on site and evidence has to be sent elsewhere for testing, developments can be driven by personal revelations before the lab’s report comes in.
Cozies may come to mind first when we think of crime novels set in small places, but authors like Julia Spencer-Fleming, Margaret Maron, and Nancy Pickard, whose traditional mysteries have more of an edge, also mine the riches of communities where both loyalties and enmities have deep roots.
Then there are the small towns where no reader in her right mind would want to visit, much less settle down. Karin Slaughter’s dark, violent Grant County series, which has a police chief and a medical examiner as protagonists, uses a fictional Georgia setting far from the bustle of Atlanta. Gillian Flynn’s brilliant and disturbing debut, Sharp Objects, takes place in a hellish little town called Wind Gap, Missouri. Val McDermid’s modern gothic masterpiece, A Place of Execution, is set in a tiny English community so isolated that it might be a medieval village in the thrall of a devilish overlord. McDermid’s chilling tale of twisted desire, decades-long conspiracies, and shocking secrets brings to mind Sherlock Holmes’s observation in Copper Beeches: "The lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."
For all its creative possibilities, the small community setting does pose challenges for the mystery writer, especially in a series. “Anyone new to town will be automatically suspected,” Mary Ellen Hughes notes. “Plus, we can't have the town population shrinking as the series goes on and murders continue, can we? Or have the town looking like too dangerous a place to live in? That's the tricky path the author of a small-town mystery has to navigate.”
The author won’t be alone on that path. She’ll have plenty of readers eager to keep her company.