By Vanessa Savage
I love setting my books in small towns because the smallest crime, which might go unnoticed in a city, is shockingly huge in a village. For a writer, it can be challenging – it is so much harder for the perpetrator to hide his or her crime in such a close-knit community. In a place where everyone knows your name, can you really get away with murder?
And to go with all those challenges, there’s the gorgeous juxtaposition of a peaceful idyll ripped apart by some shocking crime. The city is jaded, the city has seen it all, so another crime can easily be overlooked or ignored by cynical city-dwellers. But the country village is innocent. Sure, there’s the odd bit of light theft, a speeding car or two, but a murder? A kidnapping? A violent attack? Never! With such a shock in somewhere so safe – a town where people don’t lock their front doors – the inhabitants of said tiny village will always want it to be an outsider, an intruder, and they’ll close ranks and band together because it can’t be any of them, can it?
That’s when a small town gets interesting for me as a writer. How well do you know Mr Smith from down the street? You see him every day buying his newspaper in the local shop. You exchange pleasantries, ask after his wife, his sons, or his granddaughter. But do you really know him? When was the last time you saw Mrs. Smith? What was that noise you heard in the middle of the night? Where was he going in such a hurry at 4:00 in the morning? Small happenings, tiny incidences that would go unnoticed if you lived in a big city, are of monumental importance in a town of only a few hundred.
Another lovely (or perhaps terrible) thing about a small town is the impossibility for someone new to town to be anonymous. The Newcomer or The Returner are the protagonists of many of my top ten reads, and none of them get to slip unnoticed into town and live a quiet life. When a new person moves to the village, it sets off a chain of events that power the story. Or better still, someone returns to the village they grew up in and, as well as dealing with the chain of events their return sets off, usually has to deal with something terrible from their past that sent them fleeing the village for the anonymity of the big city in the first place.
In a crime novel, whether you move to the small town for a fresh start or whether you return eagerly or are dragged back reluctantly, what you won’t get is a quiet life. If you move to a small village in Crimeland, you cannot be part of the chorus – you have to be center stage under the spotlight. And whether you’re the victim or the perpetrator, no small-town crime is small. So check out these small-town stories with big impacts.
The Dry by Jane Harper
Set in a small, remote country town during the worst drought to hit Australia in a century, what looks like a clear-cut case of murder/suicide turns out to be something much bigger, with secrets from the past emerging and the case threatening to rip apart the community.
Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter
Blindsighted is the first in the Grant County series, introducing us to medical examiner Sara Linton and her ex-husband Jeffrey Tolliver. Set in the sleepy town of Heartsdale, the community is shocked by two brutal murders only days apart. Is there a serial killer on the loose?
Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
This is Miss Marple’s first appearance in this beautifully plotted tale of murder in a small, sleepy village.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
When Libby was seven, her mother and sisters were murdered by, she believes, her fifteen- year-old brother. More than two decades later, she returns to her small home town, looking for answers to questions that have thrown doubt on the killer’s identity.
Blood Harvest by Sharon Bolton
A mother haunted by the disappearance of her daughter, a ghostly child playing in the churchyard, a new vicar… Set in a small village in the Pennines, Blood Harvest is deliciously creepy, full of spooky sightings, dark folklore, and disturbing pagan rituals.
It by Stephen King
Set in the fictional small town of Derry, Maine, the number of children missing and gruesomely murdered is shockingly high as The Losers Club, first as children and decades later as adults, discover the terrible secret hidden beneath their town.
The Rumor by Lesley Kara
In a sleepy coastal town, one rumor at the school gates can ripple out and spread through the whole community. And when the rumor is about a notorious child killer living among them under a new identity, the single spark of one casual comment can unleash a firestorm.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Big Little Lies has an idyllic small-town setting where the smallest incident spirals out of control, and whispers, rumours, secrets and lies explode and ends up in murder.
The Whisper Man by Alex North
Last year’s The Whisper Man by Alex North captures everything I love about a small-town crime novel beautifully. Broken-hearted after the death of his wife, Tom moves with his young son Jake to a sleepy village. But as all the best idyllic villages do in crime or horror fiction, Featherbank has a dark past.
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
I love Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, and in this fifth one, police inspector-turned-private detective Jackson Brodie has moved to a quiet seaside village in North Yorkshire. But under the beautiful setting, something much darker stirs…
The Woods (Aug. 25th)
There’s a lot from Tess’s childhood that she would rather forget. The family who moved next door and brought chaos to their quiet lives. The two girls who were murdered, their killer never found. But the only thing she can’t remember is the one thing she wishes she could.
Ten years ago, Tess’s older sister died. Ruled a tragic accident, the only witness was Tess herself, but she has never been able to remember what happened that night in the woods.
Now living in London, Tess has resolved to put the trauma behind her. But an emergency call from her father forces her back to the family home, back to where her sister’s body was found, and to the memories she thought were lost forever…
Vanessa Savage is a graphic designer and illustrator. She has twice been awarded a Writers’ Bursary by Literature Wales, most recently for A Woman in the Dark. She won the Myriad Editions First Crimes competition in 2016 and her work has been highly commended in the Yeovil International Fiction Prize, short listed for the Harry Bowling Prize, and the Caledonia Fiction Prize. She was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award.