Deadly Villages

Aug 19, 2013

Two hundred years ago almost nobody lived in a large town or a city. Now almost everybody does. So there is certain nostalgia for the long-lost world in which our ancestors lived among familiar faces in small communities on the human scale. When we look for a second home or a holiday getaway we imagine not downtown Detroit but a charming village in Vermont or England or the south of France.

I love villages myself, and I'm living in one right now. But what I love about them is not their charm and innocence but their mysteriousness. You can live in a village and know every street, alleyway, and stray cat. You can get to know in a casual way a lot of the local people, so that you exchange greetings or handshakes as you walk around. Walking is important; it's not a proper village unless you can walk around. But however familiar it becomes the village remains mysterious, locked in on itself, and essentially unknowable.

This is why, when your search for summer reading takes you to the mystery shelves in your local library, you are reminded that villages, especially the picturesque English kind, are among the most dangerous places on earth. The charming thatched cottages so beloved of writers like Agatha Christie almost invariably shelter the most cunning murderers. M.C.Beaton's Lochdubh and Carseley, Caroline Graham's Causton, P.D.James's bleak East Anglian villages, Martha Grimes's Long Piddleton - war zones all of them, where nobody is safe.

From a storytelling point of view a village is ideal, especially when it comes to murder. It provides an attractive and genteel setting for the enquiry, and it automatically limits the number of suspects. A small village, as Miss Marple knew very well, is a pressure cooker for emotions, a kind of extended family. It contains grudges and feuds going back sometimes for generations, or ancient political or religious hatreds, all more or less invisible to the outsider.

Sherlock Holmes himself remarked, in the tale called "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," that isolated country places provided more opportunities for crime than the big city. "It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."

There seems to be disappointingly little crime in our present village, and no murders at all yet this summer. It must be the heat, which makes everyone lethargic. There is a rumor that we have a village policeman, but we've never seen him, and somewhere the local version of Miss Marple must be lurking, waiting for her chance. But the murder rate remains obstinately at zero. My only personal brush with village murder was many years ago when I was living in a quiet and bucolic corner of England. One of the regulars at the local pub, a man I knew quite well, was the victim, and it was clear that some of the older villagers knew both the motive and the identity of the perpetrator. But they forgot to mention this to the police, and the murder remains unsolved to this day. That's another thing about a village: it keeps its secrets, so you never know what you never knew.

Copyright: David Bouchier