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Murder, she wrote

Janice Pariat | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 15, 2017
An intimate killing: A still from Twin Peaks, a pioneering murder mystery that popularised the ‘countryside crime’ template

An intimate killing: A still from Twin Peaks, a pioneering murder mystery that popularised the ‘countryside crime’ template

There’s something irresistible about small-town murder mysteries, as Fargo, Twin Peaks and other TV shows of their ilk demonstrate

I’ve had murder on my mind.

For the last month, my partner and I have been steadily making our way through Fargo the TV show, we’ve begun David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and, at the end of a long, tiring day, I sometimes watch the mindlessly fun Riverdale. They’re all crime shows, of course, but, more intriguingly, they’re all set in small towns.

These are just the smallest sample from the genre, of course. Innumerable others make small towns their home — Wallander, Midsomer Murders, the excellent Broadchurch, Shetland, Southcliffe and Hinterland, to name a few.

Many crime movies too choose the same setting — Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, the Cohen brothers’ Fargo (which inspired the TV show), Sam Raimi’s The Gift, John Sayle’s Lone Star, Edgar Wright’s super-fun Hot Fuzz. And the literary equivalents swell to a flourishing multitude, including Blood Harvest by Sharon Bolton, The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill, The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny, the charming Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell, Capote’s magnificent In Cold Blood, and other longer-running book series written by Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith.

What is it about small town and crime?

I suppose the place to begin is how small towns can be deceptively quiet. We associate these places with life that moves at a slower, more leisurely pace, where nothing much happens. They are the antithesis to the big bad city, and perhaps, even though we may have outgrown them, we like to hold on to them as pockets of innocence. Filled with gentle folk, who smile and wish each other ‘good morning’. Where the streets empty early, and night closes in like a safe, peaceful blanket. Perfect places then for disrupture — literary, cinematic, or otherwise — and what greater sin, or crime, than the killing of another fellow human being.

Riverdale begins, most tellingly. with “This story is about a town, once wholesome and innocent, now forever changed by the mysterious death of Jason Blossom.” With disruption comes revelation. What secrets are people hiding? What are their untold stories? Like a tempest, the crime churns them all to the surface. This is the classic structure of the murder puzzle — the guilt of the past is exposed.

The criminal act, set within a small town, makes everything feel much more personal. As Shetland actor Douglas Henshall notes in The Daily Record, “tiny towns turn the crime into a much bigger deal because it involves everyone and is in a closer-knit community where people all seem to know each other.” Everyone, we always hear of these places, knows everyone. Or at least they all seem to superficially know each other well. What crimes set in small towns also reveal is how much of people’s lives lie invisible. How people you’ve known for years, can, despite seeming internally consistent, be unpredictable. The effect is also one of stark opposition: what lies beneath is a quagmire of simmering, seething emotions, made all the more horrific by surface prettiness and politeness. Small towns, unreal in their seeming quietness, are microcosms of the larger world. Where “balance and harmony” is broken by the act of violence, just as the “outside” is disrupted by other forms of violence like war. (Interestingly, crime fiction was immensely popular during the post-War years in the UK and America. As academic Frederick Whiting noted in ‘Bodies of Evidence: Post-War Detective Fiction and the Monstrous Origins of the Sexual Psychopath’, this was probably because of rising interest in the relation between psychopathology and criminality, which engendered a shift of focus in the question “ who is guilty?” to “who is guilty?” )

Small towns harbour many secrets. Out tumble the complicated love triangles, long-standing family feuds, illicit love affairs, and people who might be bitter or jealous of their neighbours. Which makes the motives for murder personal, and that much more intimate. I also like to think of small-town murders as the equivalent of the (mostly literary) manor house murder. There’s a degree of isolation offered by both settings, a usually uninterrupted rhythm to the lives of people living there, and they both offer a limited number of suspects. The screw is tightened, as it were, around a handful of people. Who could it be? And why did they do it?

Usually, the perpetrators tend to come from within the community. Hence, adding to the fear and paranoia is a sense of ‘this was one of us.’ There’s shock, and shame, associated with that, as is a deep sense of guilt. This guilt, as it were, must be purged, catharsis, in the classical sense, must be achieved. A cleansing of sin must take place so that there can be a return to an original pre-lapsian state — to order and innocence. “Wipe everything,” says a character in Fargo, “we were never here.” Yet as Riverdale’s opening lines reveal, things are “forever changed”. There is no going back. And small towns tend to suffer the scars of criminality much deeper than their big-city counterparts — haunting them, their histories, and their futures.

Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart, which will be out in November 2017; @janicepariat

Published on September 15, 2017
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