Living in the City Ain’t Where It’s At*

There are some important cultural differences between living in a small town (or even out in the country) and living in a city. It goes beyond simply the issue of population, and impacts the way each culture sees the other. There’s a long history, at least in fiction, of disdain for the ‘hicks’ from the country, and suspicion of ‘city people.’ We see it in crime fiction, just as in any other genre.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Hastings is taking a train to London. He shares a car with a young woman who calls herself ‘Cinderella.’ They strike up a conversation, and Hastings notices that she re-applies face powder and lip salve:

‘“I say,” I hesitated. “I dare say it’s cheek on my part, but why do all that sort of thing?”
The girl paused in her operations, and stared at me with undisguised surprise.
“It isn’t as though you weren’t so pretty that you can afford to do without it,” I said stammeringly.
“My dear boy! I’ve got to do it. All the girls do. Think I want to look like a little frump up from the country?”’ 

While the city/country distinction isn’t an important part of this novel’s plot, it’s woven into popular conception of what people who live in the country are like, versus what people who live in the city are like.  

Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt introduces readers to Edward Powell, who lives with his Aunt Mildred in the small Welsh village of Llwll. He’s come to resent the villagers deeply, thinking of them as yokels who couldn’t possibly appreciate a great book or take in a real concert or play. They don’t like him, either. He’s artsy and condescending, and has no respect for anyone. Powell wants desperately to leave, but he can’t do that, because his aunt holds the purse strings, and must approve of any decision he takes, including where he lives. And she wants him to live with her. Things get to the point where he decides to kill her. His lays out his plans and prepares to put them into action. But things don’t turn out to be as easy as thinks. What follows is a battle of wits between him and Aunt and Mildred, and she is no mental slouch.

In Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers, we are introduced to Janet Pete, a half-Navajo attorney from Washington (DC) who works with the DNA, a legal non-profit group that provides free legal services to those who cannot afford it. This time, she’s been sent to the Reservation to defend Roosevelt Bistie. He’s accused of committing a murder, but claims that he is innocent. Janet and Hillerman’s sleuth Jim Chee begin a relationship, but in The First Eagle, they end it. Part of the reason is that she’s been living in the Washington culture, and he can’t be happy anywhere but on the Reservation. Here’s how Hillerman puts it:

‘He had imagined their love could blend oil and water…she would forget the glitter, power, and prestige of the affluent Washington society that had produced her. He would set aside his goal of becoming a shaman. He would become ambitious, compromise with materialism enough to keep her content with what he knew she must see as poverty and failure.’

Neither really feels comfortable in the other’s cultural home, if I can put it like that.

Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library series also takes up this city/country difference. His Israel Armstrong had dreams of becoming a librarian at a prestigious place – a university or perhaps even the British Library. But every career has to start somewhere. He accepts a job as librarian for the Tumdrum and District Library in rural Ireland, only to find out that he’s expected to drive the mobile library bus, which is old and not in good repair. His job is to serve the library needs of the farthest flung residents, and he soon finds some major differences between the London life he’s used to, and the life the locals lead. Over time, he begins to fit in a bit better, but at first, he has little but contempt for the way the locals do things, and they don’t think much more of him.

There’s a bit of that ‘country vs city’ feel in Garry Disher’s Bitterwash Road. In it, Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirshhausen has been stationed in Tiverton, a rural town in South Australia. He’s under a very dark cloud, with the reputation of a ‘whistleblower’ because of his involvement with an internal investigation. That makes him a marked man for a lot of other police officers, and his new colleagues lose no time in treating him that way. He hasn’t been in Tiverton long when a new case comes up: fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is killed, and her body is left by the side of the road. Hirsch has a job to do, and he goes about it despite his co-workers sabotaging him whenever they can. Hirsch was originally based in Adelaide, so part of the transition for him is moving from the city to the country. Life is different in a small, rural place, and it’s not always easy to get used to things.

Some of Martin Walker’s novels featuring Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges also explore the city/country issue. Bruno is chief of police in the small French town of St. Denis. It’s an old town, and some people have been there for a very long time. Bruno knows everyone in town, and is accepted as ‘one of us,’ even though he does have to enforce the law. Most of those who live locally don’t think much of city people, especially government officials, from Paris or Brussels or London. They’ve been doing things their way for generations, and they’re proud of the way they live. While it isn’t a major theme in the series, it does come up from time to time, and adds to the stories.

There really is a difference in culture between cities and small towns or the country, and it can be tricky to write about it without falling into stereotypes. But it’s an interesting phenomenon, and it can add to a plot or the context if it’s done well. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Honky Cat.

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

10 thoughts on “Living in the City Ain’t Where It’s At*

  1. Margot: As I love libraries, especially small rural libraries, I should look up Ian Samson. In rural Saskatchewan there have been small libraries in buildings in small communities rather than mobile libraries.

    As I reside in rural Saskatchewan I appreciate rural mysteries. Let me make a pitch for Blackwater Bull by S.M. Hurley, a legal mystery set in rural Ontario. Augie de Graaf is an interesting lawyer.

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    1. I’ll have to check out the Hurley, Bill. I remember your excellent review of the novel, and have wanted to read it. I love libraries, too, and I’m glad rural Saskatchewan has libraries. I think they help to make a community better. Certainly they add to its quality. I hope you’ll enjoy Sansom’s work if you get to it. There’s some wit in there along with the mystery that I found was quite appealing.

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  2. Hehe, I did love the awful Edward in Murder of My Aunt! He’s so deliciously snobby, and it’s no wonder the “yokels” don’t appreciate him as much as he feels they should! Such a good book. 😀

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    1. It really is, isn’t it, FictionFan? It’s fantastic on a lot of levels, and that’s definitely one thing that helps it work. I love it that they get the better of him, too, in some cases. It’s just…fantastic. 😀

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  3. Agatha Christie’s Moving Finger has brother and sister Gerry and Joanna moving to the country – and trying their best to fit in – poison pen letters and murder are important, but we also have to discover whether Joanna can adapt to country life, and whether her clothes show her off as a townie. Meanwhile Megan has to be upgraded in the other direction, and look more sophisticated. Town and country clothes are quite different!

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    1. They really are, Moira, and I’m so glad you brought that example up! The contrast between Joanna and Megan is an interesting part of the story, and it really shows a lot about country life and city life. Neither woman fits in, in a way, and I like that sub-plot.

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  4. I don’t know if Australia’s peculiar landscape and environment lends itself more readily to the small town – big city contrast. I think Jane Harper’s The Dry springs to mind with Falk returning from the city to his hometown, which still has the same resentments he left behind. I’m hoping to read Bitterwash Road soon, especially as Disher has just had or is soon to have the 3rd book in the series published.

    A recent read of Cradle of the Deep by Dietrich Kalteis sees a couple on the run from the city and pursued into the wilds of British Columbia and Alaska. Not so much about cultural differences, but as outsiders they stand out and it’s a lot harder to hide in a smaller locale.

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    1. The Harper example is a great one, Col – thanks for adding that one in. I think you have a point, too, about Australia’s particular context. It does lend itself to the city/country contrast, and the Disher (I think) shows that. I’ve a feeling you’ll enjoy that one when you get to it – I think it’d be up your street.

      I’ll admit I’ve not read the Kalteis, but the setting really appeals to me. And I can see how that context would really highlight the way people can stand out when they’re in different environments.

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