We Murder in the Country, Too
By C. Hope Clark
Classic mystery takes place in the city. Thanks to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Stieg Larsson, Sue Grafton, and the grand majority of crime fiction writers, the setting automatically assumes to be urban. Even Sara Paretsky, who broke ground for the female mystery sleuth, was born on a Kansas farm, yet set her V.I. Warshawski series in Chicago. Why can’t mysteries be as intriguing in a corn field, behind a barn, deep in the woods or beyond civilization in some mountainous hills?
Per a Wall Street Journal Health article titled “City vs. Country: Who is Healthier?” the conclusion is that city dwellers eat and exercise better, but those in rural settings endure less stress. Admittedly, a higher concentration of humanity lends itself to more violent crime. Gangs dominate dark, seedy sides of towns. Corruption runs amok. Hiding places exist in subways, alleys, old buildings, warehouses, factories. Law enforcement is complicated, segregated, competitive and untrustworthy. You find hordes of people, and therefore, lots of bad sorts who can hide in plain view. And with larger numbers of people living in cities than in the country, your reading public is more likely to be urbane.
Technology provides a larger impact on society in the city. While we are globally connected thanks to electronics, you won’t find power grids a hundred miles out in the middle of nowhere, and if electricity goes out, the gasps aren’t as loud, the damage less effective. Terrorists don’t target the corn fields of Nebraska.
As a rural gal, I choose living on a lake in rural South Carolina from where I write my mysteries. My stories do not take place amongst skyscrapers, and my readers wouldn’t know how to hale a taxi. Actually, I prefer reading about people who aren’t living in high rises, enduring honking, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and sucking smog.
A crime novel’s setting is a strong character in its own right. It impedes the chase. It can ruin, expose, or even be a clue. With people’s reading taste today so eclectic and desirous of new experiences, we can consider places outside the city, and give readers exposure to unaccustomed dangers. Dangers that can give readers pause, adding obstacles to crime solving they never knew existed.
For instance, deaths from traffic accidents are more common in rural areas. Speed limits are higher, but there’s the issue of distance. Do you know what an antagonist can do in that extra fifteen minutes it takes for police, fire or ambulance services to arrive on the scene?
Take that distance to another level. With protagonist pitted against antagonist in the country, who will hear the call for help? In a city locale, the author has to explain why pleas aren’t heard, but it’s understood that being confined two miles from the next house or ten miles from town means screams don’t matter.
Flora and fauna, the indigenous plant life and wildlife of a region, can make crime solving not just formidable but dangerous. Poisons abound in those woods. Ask any federal agent about castor beans and creating ricin. Eat one bean and you’re dead. A 500-microgram dose of ricin, one that fits on the head of a pin, will do you in. A baby food jar full of the stuff can kill a small town.
Tree tobacco, yellow jasmine, oleander, and pokeberry are just a few poisonous plants that grow naturally. As an agriculture major, I learned that a weed as innocent as Johnson grass, that grows alongside every Southern field, contains potent doses of cyanide during drought conditions.
Snakes, bear, wild dogs, feral hogs, and venomous spiders are forces that can interfere with the plans of the most attentive sleuth. Even whitetail deer can take down a man or wreck a car, and a rabid raccoon is potentially lethal.
Politics and bureaucracy are corrupt as much or more so, mainly due to the people in power having a wider reach, and less competition. Also, country cops can only cover so much ground. Cell towers aren’t as close. Simple lack of human, emergency and electronic resources can mean the difference between cornering or losing the culprit, convincing the authorities to assist or not, bleeding out or saving a life.
Even weather can be devastating and critical. Snow, tornadoes, torrential rains, and drought can kill. In the city, who cares if it rains or if someone can’t find a drink of water? If the car slides off the road, the average person calls Triple A, or 911 sends a wrecker from around the corner and a cop from three blocks over. Even if one’s cell phone is destroyed, a passer-by will take note. In the country, when you combine Mother Nature with an immense list of obstructions that have amassed for the last ten chapters, and then throw on the fact that nobody is around to help, you have crisis that makes for great crime fiction.
I set The Carolina Slade Series in rural reaches of South Carolina. Lowcountry Bribe ends in the secluded confines of a tomato packing shed, deserted in the off season. Neighbors are too far to see headlights, much less hear a scream. In Carolina Slade’s sequel Tidewater Murder, scheduled for early 2013, cat and mouse takes place on rural islands, in woods, along beaches, and through thick overgrown forests of saw-tooth oaks, wax myrtles and pines. It’s hard to just think of armed stalkers when you risk stepping on snakes and gators.
Setting can be as diverse and instrumental to the mystery genre as the range of crime and antagonists. Time to break free of stereotypes. Nothing makes crime fiction more fun than a stockpile of impossible. Rural settings have obstacles to spare. Just because more readers live around concrete and steel doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate country crime. They’ll never expect twists amidst such bucolic, pastoral, Americana settings and laid back country people. It’s always the quiet ones, you know.