Over the past few weeks, the topic of villages in detective fiction has cropped up in my mind a lot. Initially this was because whilst reading for my northern crime fiction course I noticed that village settings/rural communities were a common theme and I started wondering how modern crime fiction was using the village setting. In particular I pondered whether villages were used in a similar or different way, to the way they are used in Golden Age detective fiction, where the village setting was also popular. Aside from considering different detective novels with village settings I also perused other people’s thoughts on the topic, some of which I agreed with and some with which I did not. I think my key reason for disagreeing with some people was that they were trying to create a fixed set of principles for how villages/rural communities have been used at different times in crime fiction and yet when I went back to the texts themselves, there were many exceptions to the rule, to the extent that the principles themselves came across as quite distortive.
The remainder of this post is just a collection of my own thoughts on villages and detective fiction, looking at how they are used, what effects they have on a story and also the complex and murky relationship between Golden Age village mysteries and their modern counterparts.
N.B. Some Christie spoilers in the section marked Insiders vs. Outsiders.
Gossip and Rumours
The village early on in literature and in novels, has been a place of gossip and rumour, with the works of Jane Austen (Emma (1815) especially) being prime examples. Golden Age detective fiction has continued on this depiction such as in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942), which I will be discussing more fully later. Gossip when interpreted correctly can be a useful tool for the investigating character, which Christie’s Miss Marple demonstrates, but it can also be found in the works of modern authors such as M. C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series. Conversely, in fiction when gossip is used inappropriately it can also lead to injustice, with untruthful gossip taking the place of genuine evidence, meaning innocent people are wrongfully convicted.
An Enclosed Space
Another key characteristic of a village setting is that it can become an enclosed and isolated space. Due to the smallness of the community in terms of physical space and number of inhabitants, neighbours tend to know a lot about each other and can easily observe what people are doing (even without the use of binoculars). I also felt that a Big Brother (George Orwell not the reality show) atmosphere can also be created, as often in fictional villages there is a social hierarchy and certain social expectations and because people can so easily check up on what you are doing, it can be hard to deviate from these standards and norms. Therefore when murder does occur I think in some ways it is more impressive than in a big city where people don’t always know their neighbours very well. Furthermore Barry Hayne (1999) asserts that in regards to detective fiction and settings, ‘the smaller the world under examination, the more effective will be the impression of restored order’ (Hayne, 1999: 76). For Golden Age detective fiction as well, a village setting enables a closed set of suspects, such as in Georgette Heyer’s Detection Unlimited (1953).
A Window into a Changing Society
Villages I think are also used quite effectively to show how societies are changing. Often in modern crime novels villages are shown to be struggling economically due to loss of population and employment or there is a tension between native inhabitants and holiday home owners. In Ann Cleeves’ Murder in my Backyard (1991), the lack of jobs for villagers is an issue. Additionally the demographic for this village tends to more dominated by older people, with younger people having either moved away to Newcastle or have a similar move in mind. Miss Marple, in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962), although a little nostalgic for the past, (a trait she acknowledges in herself: ‘You could blame the war (both the wars) or the younger generation, or women going out to work, or the atom bomb, or just the Government – but what one really meant was the simple fact that one was growing old,’) sees that modernisation, urbanisation and change are inevitable, thinking that the new development of houses ‘had to be’ and are ‘necessary.’ Moreover, she also realises that outward changes do not always mean inward ones as when she walks around the development she observes that ‘the new world was the same as the old… the human beings were the same as they always had been.’ A village can also make a useful lens for looking at how society is changing due to the fact that village inhabitants, in fiction at any rate, can be quite reluctant to accept change. An example which immediately comes to mind is a short story called ‘Sirens’ by Mary Sharratt which can be found in The Starlings and Other Stories (2015). The villagers in this story, which I think must be set between the 15th and 17th century, are reluctant to operate outside of the village and the three woman who try to escape are either forcibly returned or sent to prison for being witches and interestingly all of these women are shown to be interested in learning and absorbing new knowledge. Therefore the victims in the story are characters who are sympathetic towards change and progress.
A vehicle for exploring social issues and tensions
As well as being used to show societal changes, villages have and are used to explore social issues and tensions. Perhaps again the smallness and closeness of the setting makes this an easier task. Cleeves’ Murder in my Backyard (1991) is a great modern example of this including environmental and house building issues. But this function can also be found in historically based crime series as Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael series, which often takes place in a Shropshire village and nearby monastery, set at a time when there were significant political and social tensions, between Matilda and Stephen’s followers and between the Normans and the Saxons.
Insiders vs. Outsiders
In terms of secondary reading this was the area where I started to agree less, as this is an area for me where firm rules cannot be set. Jean Gregorek (2016), although discussing regionalism in contemporary television police drama, briefly focuses on Golden Age detective fiction, saying it ‘relies on a quaint regional setting, often a village or market town… [which is] then portrayed as invaded by the modern world of characters who have internalised problematic modern values’ (Gregorek, 2016: 211). Gregorek uses Agatha Christie as an example saying that ‘in this classic Agatha Christie pattern the nouveau riche, the social upstart, the foreigner, the sexual woman and the film star are often marked as particularly villainous; by far the most common crime is murder for gain, often by some kind of imposter or interloper’ (Gregorek, 2016: 211-12). Now whilst I agree characters like film stars and the nouveau riche don’t always fare well in Christie’s work and that there are examples of ‘modern world’ characters ‘invad[ing]’ a village setting, such as in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962), I do disagree with the idea that the crimes are ‘often… [committed] by some kind of imposter or interloper.’ The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), Murder is Easy (1939) and The Moving Finger, for example are novels which refute this notion by the fact that the killers are insiders and are not ‘interlopers.’ In regards to The Moving Finger in particular, the insider killer is actual shown to be harnessing insider knowledge (not available to the outsider) to enact and mask their criminal deeds. Furthermore, in A Murder is Announced (1950), where there is an ‘imposter,’ they are not a part of the nouveau riche, nor are they a social upstart, a foreigner, a sexual woman or a film star. The reason why they are such a good imposter is that they blend in with the village to the extent that over the years they become an established insider. Moreover, returning to The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, although the killer can be categorised as an ‘interloper,’ their reason for killing is not for gain but revenge. All in all it felt like finding an example to prove Gregorek’s point about Christie was harder than finding exceptions. Additionally, John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge (1938) in my opinion also really plays around with the idea of imposters and criminality. Modern crime fiction such as Murder in my Backyard (1991), shows that the issue of insiders and outsiders still plays an important part in village set detective fictions, as suspicion switches between outsider and insider suspects.
Gregorek also goes on to say about the ‘classic Agatha Christie pattern’ that ‘significantly the crime is solved by a detective figure… who, bound, by an old-fashioned sense of duty resists this “sadly changing world” and restores the stability of the community.’ Miss Marple may have a sense of duty but I don’t think she can be described as ‘resist[ing]’ societal changes. Granted she is not wearing hot pants or miniskirts in her 1960s adventures, but as I mentioned in The Mirror Crack’s From Side to Side, she is accepting of change and aware you can’t relive the past, (as attested to in At Bertram’s Hotel (1965)).
In addition Gregorek’s piece argues that in Golden Age detective fiction it is the insider detective who succeeds, whilst in later crime drama there is a shift to outside detectives being the ones who solve the case. Whilst this may be true in contemporary TV dramas, in detective fiction the evidence is much less clear cut, with some earlier texts fitting this trend and others bucking it. For example in Murder of a Lady (1931) by Anthony Wynne the insider amateur sleuth, Doctor Eustace Hailey, definitively triumphs over his police counterparts. Furthermore, as Makinen (2010) suggests, Miss Marple has an advantage over the police in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), because she ‘is the village insider, conversant with all the community’ (Makinen, 2010: 421). Yet in Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham (1931) and Edmund Crispin’s Buried for Pleasure (1949), the solutions to the cases come from people outside of the village. Moreover, in The Moving Finger, Miss Marple, although staying with friends in the village of Lymstock, is still an outsider and using her knowledge of another village to help her solve the case. And of course one cannot forget Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) where Hercule Poirot, a definite outsider due to his newness to the area and his nationality, solves the murder in the village of Kings Abbott.
Again in more modern crime fiction there are texts which follow the trend Gregorek outlines, showing that the village setting has a ‘need for outside detective intervention’ (Gregorek, 2016: 212) and that ‘the more sophisticated [urban detective]… acts as a corrective to the outdated practices and prejudices of the provinces’ (Greogrek, 2016: 212). For example there is Rebecca’s Tope’s Malice in the Cotswolds (2012), Kwei Quartey’s Wife of Gods (2009) set in Kenya and Louise Penny’s Canadian set, Armand Gamache novels. On the other hand though, novels such as Murder in my Backyard, suggest that local police officers are also capable at doing the job. Moreover, this shift to outside detectives seems less significant, when as I have briefly demonstrated, there are a number of earlier detective texts already doing it.
In fiction police coming in as outsiders to the village frequently have to deal with the inhabitants not being very communicative, preferring to close ranks, which occurs in Murder of a Lady. This phenomena also occurs in modern crime fiction today and in that most unexpected of genres, the thriller. For example in Gerald Seymour’s A Line in the Sand (2001), the protagonist’s espionage past catches up with them in the village they have lived in for a decade. As their own life becomes imperilled they cannot rely on the support of other villagers who fearing for their own safety close ranks.
A Sinister Setting
Maybe because of the bucolic images surrounding villages, they make such good settings in detective novels, in terms of dramatic effect, sinister atmosphere and unresolved crimes going back generations. For example, in Georgette Heyer’s novel Death in the Stocks (1935), the victim is found on the village green in a pair of stocks. Moreover, the village surroundings in Murder is Easy, makes the killer in my opinion come across as greater surprise and also as more sinister. A similar case can be made for the killer in Harriet Rutland’s Blue Murder (1942). A sinister atmosphere can also be found in modern novels such as The Sinking Admiral (2016) by The Detection Club and in Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution (1999). McDermid’s novel demonstrates well how a village setting can become very dark when an unresolved case is involved, in this instance the disappearance of a teenage girl in the 1960s. I think the potentially claustrophobic atmosphere of the villages is part of this darkness and also the fact in such a small space it is hard to avoid people you have grievances with. Overall I think Robert Barnard in A Talent to Deceive (1980) writes very aptly when he says about Golden Age detective fiction that ‘it is in many ways an unrealistic, stylised world… But cozy, safe, ordered? Only on the surface.’
Village Stereotypes and Assumptions
I mentioned above that villages can be stereotyped as innocent rural backwaters where nothing happens. Yet I also think there are assumptions, in Christie’s work at least, that ‘old women in a village community will be ignorant of the seedier aspects of modern life’ (Makinen, 2010: 423). Of course as we know Miss Marple confounds this assumption and also uses it as a form of camouflage during her investigations. Moreover, the texts also suggest that villages are not as innocent as they initially appear, such as in The Murder at the Vicarage when the vicar says, ‘Miss Marple may know next to nothing of Life with a capital L, she knows practically everything that goes on in St Mary Mead – and a surprising amount of murder and scandal there is too.’ This intimates at the end that being an expert on local people and places also exposes you to ‘the seedier aspects of modern life.’
The Village as a Blueprint
I think any examination of villages in crime fiction, not only has to look at Miss Marple, but has to touch on her use of village knowledge, as this small micro setting is utilised and applied by Miss Marple to much wider communities. In the Miss Marple novels ‘the whole world can be reduced to the confines of the village’ (Makinen, 2010: 423) and this idea also implies that village life is much more varied than outsiders may think.
First of all, having typed up the notes for this piece yesterday I optimistically thought this piece wouldn’t take long to write. Unsurprisingly my optimism was not rewarded, but I have had fun writing the piece. Secondly, well done for getting to the end it. As always I am interested to hear what other people think and to learn of more examples of good village based mysteries. Hopefully this piece will have given you something to think about and that it has shown that perhaps there is not always such a stark difference between Golden Age detective fiction and contemporary works today.
Gregorek, J. (2016). The New Regionalism in Contemporary Television Police Drama. In: Forshaw, B. Crime Uncovered Series: Detective. Bristol: Intellect Books. pp. 210-217.
Hayne, B. (1999). Closed World Settings and Open World Settings. In: Herbert, R. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 76-77.
Makinen, M. (2010). Agatha Christie (1890-1976). In: Rzepka, C. and Horsley, L. A Companion to Crime Fiction. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 415-427.