A guest blog post from Stephanie Austin as part of National Crime Reading Month
To celebrate National Crime Reading Month (June 2023) we will be showcasing our finest crime series from the Allison & Busby bookshelves. Each week, we will be spotlighting a different crime series and bringing you exclusive content from the authors themselves. National Crime Reading Month aims to bring crime writing, old and new, to the forefront of bookshops and libraries throughout the month of June. We are thrilled to be taking part in such a pivotal initiative in the crime writing world! This week we have a guest blog post from Stephanie Austin, author of the Devon Mysteries, on why the rural idyll is a perfect setting for crime fiction.
‘It is my belief, Watson…that the lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.’ So says Sherlock Holmes in The Copper Beeches. Is he right? Is the countryside really a more sinful place? It can certainly rival the city when it comes to depravity. The small Dartmoor town of Ashburton, where my series of Juno Browne novels is set, was dubbed by one Methodist preacher, ‘the most sinful town in England,’ a fact which certainly adds to its appeal to me as a writer. At one time it boasted twenty-eight inns and public houses, ‘seven within one hundred yards,’ and a gaming house. Stage coaches would time their arrivals to coincide with the bull-baiting and bear-baiting which were regular features of Ashburton life, and in 1770 the lord and lady of the borough found themselves in court for failure to keep a ‘cucking stool’, where adulterers could be ducked and publicly shamed, as ‘no town needed it more.’
Sin in the countryside there is a-plenty, but sin does not always translate into crime. So why does the rural idyll seem to be such a perfect setting for crime fiction, particularly for the crime of murder? And this, despite the fact that, historically, we think of the countryside as a peaceful place and life in the thatched cottage as the good life. After all, Robin Hood and his merry band of do-gooders lived in Sherwood Forest, while the bad Sheriff of Nottingham, and the even worse King John, carried out their evil deeds in towns and castles. Virtue, it seems, dwells under the trees. Yet crime fiction has flourished in the country since the early years of the twentieth century, an era often looked upon as ‘the golden age of detective fiction’.
The countryside, it seems, has always been the natural milieu for murder. Is it simply a matter of contrast? Is the corpse rotting in a leafy lane somehow more horrible than one similarly decomposing in a back-street alley? Or is the body drowned in the village duckpond more upsetting than the victim found floating in the town canal, simply because the rural crime seems to be a violation of its more beautiful surroundings?
But as well as offering babbling brooks, leafy lanes, dark woods, sunlit meadows, thatched cottages, quaint and possibly haunted churchyards, the countryside offers two significant inducements to the crime writer which cannot be found in an urban setting: the country house and the village.
As the twentieth century rolled on, an increasingly literate and urbanised population, commuting to work in the office and factory, lapped up detective stories set in large country houses where guests gathered for the weekend and everyone dressed for dinner. The victim of murder was likely to be found in the library and the suspects on the tennis court. While the village, with its bicycling bobby, offered the investigating detective or amateur sleuth suspects in the form of the vicar, the postmistress, the schoolteacher, pub landlord, and the members of the cricket team, any one of whom might be a blackmailer, a writer of poison-pen letters, and a deserving target for murder.
Within the small community of country house or rural village, the detective, after a brief period of bafflement, stands a pretty good chance of apprehending the culprit, a task far more difficult for his colleague chasing suspects in the sprawling and anonymous city. PD James famously wrote that crime fiction allows us to believe that we live in a rational universe, that the criminal will be apprehended and brought to justice, that order will be restored, that things that go wrong will be put right again. Sadly, this is not always true in real life.
So, is the popularity of idyllic country settings part of a more general nostalgia, a longing to live in a more perfect world? Or does it just reflect a sentimental yearning for a lost way of life that is dimly remembered, and whose real hardships have been conveniently forgotten?
And what of the countryside now, is it still a perfect setting for crime? There’s certainly plenty of criminal activity going on: theft of livestock or expensive agricultural machines, fly-tipping, county-lines drugs, people-smuggling are all rural themes I’ve dealt with in my own books, and any one of them could lead to murder. The idyllic setting may be more difficult to locate, avoiding main roads, solar farms and fields of plastic polytunnels, but where it exists, it’s still a beautiful place to hide a body.
Click here to learn more about the Devon Mysteries.