Features

The Village in Crime Fiction

Outset The Village Setting
Cover art from The Appeal by Janice Hallett, © Shutterstock and iStock, Design by Steve Panton

Written by Janice Hallett

Thatched cottages, quiet lanes, an imposing vicarage, cricket on the green and tea at the church hall. It’s a pleasant enough image, so why is ‘The Village’ one of the most traditional settings for a murder mystery? We may also ask why the archetypal English village, with its eccentric residents, fiercely guarded social hierarchy and creaky country house, is a particular favourite of the genre. And with the typical English village a fast-disappearing reality, where are contemporary writers finding their ‘village’ settings now? To quote Miss Marple from A Murder Is Announced: "in an English village, you turn over a stone and have no idea what will crawl out".

The clearly defined location of the village shrinks the narrative landscape to manageable proportions, yet expands its dramatic possibilities. How different The Murder at the Vicarage would be if Colonel Protheroe breathed his last in the bustling aisle of Westminster Abbey rather than the sleepy vicarage of St Mary Mead. That Miss Marple can narrow her suspects down to just seven local faces makes for a thrilling and satisfying hunt.

A village can feel like a world apart, untouched by time and this fuels the nostalgia factor for crime writers influenced by the Golden Age. That’s not to say we don’t embrace and play with that balance in equal measure. Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders turns this nostalgia into an ingenious story-within-a-story. His village of Saxby-on-Avon achieves mythical proportions as a place divorced from reality: "Pye Hall was on the other side of Dingle Dell... it had always been there, as long as the village itself... the whole estate was surrounded by mature woodland... separating it from the modern world."

In Wicked Autumn, G. M. Malliet observes that a visitor to Nether Monkslip "might catch his or her breath in wonder that anything so pristine could have survived into the 21st Century". This sense of separation from the modern world, this otherness, helps magnify each character and every event, stretching and warping perspectives, until there is nothing else in our world as the reader - just as there is no ‘wider world’ for the characters.

At the same time, we appreciate the comforting certainty of a village murder. "It must have been someone here" is de rigeur. But there’s a difference between the pressure-cooker claustrophobia of the stranger soup mystery like Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express and the true village mystery where the suspects (and often the victim too) all live in close proximity.

Small communities are microcosmic. They contain the best and worst of humanity and exist in a state of isolation that elevates trivialities in a way that’s both hilarious and tragic. It’s no wonder that the Reverend Richard Coles settled down in Champton for the cosy Murder Before Evensong.

The gap between perception and reality can be a useful tool in building a compelling backdrop for a murder mystery. A village murder is all the more shocking for the very reason it feels as if nothing bad could possibly happen in such a pretty, sleepy little place. In 'The Adventure of the Copper Beeches' Sherlock Holmes sums up this irony: "Look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places."

That lawlessness is important, because there simply is nothing as terrifying as realising you are vulnerable in the very place you’ve never felt safer. This makes the village a perfect base to explore the mysterious, horrific and downright macabre – not least when it is faced with the arrival of strangers.

When I wrote The Appeal it was the injection of newcomers to a small, claustrophobic community that drew me. Not only how their presence changes the established hierarchy, but also how the pressure of that isolation plays on them. I didn’t have Agatha Christie’s Endless Night in mind when I wrote it, but there are certain parallels between The Appeal’s Sam and Kel, and Christie’s Michael and Ellie. Both are determined to settle in and make a keen effort to ingratiate themselves with the locals – in both cases with ulterior motives in mind.

Having said that, much crime fiction follows the unwritten ‘rule’ that when you have a village murder, the outsider is usually the best person to solve it. Why else would the itinerant sleuths of Miss Marple, Poirot and indeed Sherlock Holmes have become such a blueprint?

Outset A Murderis Announced
Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple, the sleuth solves plenty of cases in her local village of St Mary Mead, as well as in Lymstock and Chipping Cleghorn,

So great are the influences of the English village in crime fiction that 21st Century writers, whose voices are diverse and whose scope is global, are firmly reinventing it. In the process they are exploring social issues, making astute observations about the modern world, and delivering satisfying crime stories that would make Agatha proud.

Lightseekers by Femi Kayode is set in rural Nigeria, where psychologist Dr Philip Taiwo is asked to investigate a mob-murder. Just like any ‘village’ community in crime fiction, Dr Taiwo is soon advised to go back to Lagos if he knows what’s good for him.

Lark, a tiny backwater community in East Texas is the setting for Attica Locke’s Bluebird Bluebird. Ranger Darren Matthews drives an investigation into two murders: a local white woman and a black Chicago lawyer. He too faces hostility from the locals before cracking the mystery.

Will Dean’s gritty and gruesome Tuva Moodyson novels are set in the atmospheric Swedish townlet of Gavrik, while Lianne Moriarty’s Big Little Lies creates a village atmosphere in a small coastal community north of Sydney.

For other contemporary writers, reinventing the village means finding a limited community that reflects its essential qualities, yet in a relatable modern-day setting. In The Last Party by Clare Mackintosh, an artificial lake-side development in Wales is ‘the village’, while for Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series it’s a retirement home.

According to Miss Marple in 'The Thumb Mark of St. Peter': "human nature is much the same everywhere" and it’s simply that "one has opportunities of observing it at closer quarters in a village." Golden Age crime fiction centred on the English village not because English villages are any more conducive to murder mysteries than anywhere else, but because the writers of them happened to be English. With ‘the village’ a recognisable concept around the world, crime writers around the world have brought the village murder to their own shores, where similarly, they can nurture the mystery without time, the law or the outside world bleeding through to dilute it or, horror of horrors, solve it too quickly. For readers, a village setting allows us to focus on solving the puzzle as we peer in on a miniature, simmering world somehow other than, yet adjacent to our own.

About Janice Hallett

Janice Hallett studied English at UCL. Before writing crime fiction, Janice Hallett worked as a journalist, magazine editor (winning two journalism awards), and speech writer for the Cabinet Office and Home Office, as well as writing for the stage and screen. Her first feature film Retreat (co-written and directed by Carl Tibbetts) came out in 2011, and she won the award for Best New Screenplay at the 2014 British Independent Film Festival.

In 2021, Hallett published her debut thriller The Appeal (a Sunday Times bestseller, Waterstones Thriller of the Month, winner of the CWA New Blood Dagger and the Sunday Times Crime Book of the Year). Composed of emails, texts, police transcripts and other documents, this unique interactive murder mystery filled with amateur sleuths and thespians achieved great success. Hallett’s second novel, the Sunday Times bestseller The Twyford Code (2022) revolves around a secret code spotted in a famous children’s author’s work by an English teacher who subsequently disappears, and the former pupil who starts to investigate her fate decades later. Her third novel, The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels, will publish in 2023. She lives in West London.

The Appeal

One murder. Fifteen suspects. Can you uncover the truth?

There is a mystery to solve in the sleepy town of Lower Lockwood. It starts with the arrival of two secretive newcomers, and ends with a tragic death. Roderick Tanner QC has assigned law students Charlotte and Femi to the case. Someone has already been sent to prison for murder, but he suspects that they are innocent. And that far darker secrets have yet to be revealed...

Throughout the amateur dramatics society's disastrous staging of All My Sons and the shady charity appeal for a little girl's medical treatment, the murderer hid in plain sight. The evidence is all there, waiting to be found. But will Charlotte and Femi solve the case? Will you?

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