There’s An Ordinary World*

Some crime-fictional settings are full of atmosphere. The genre is full of creepy houses, isolated small towns, old hotels, you get the idea. But the fact is, most of us spend a lot more time in very ordinary places. We go to grocery stores, dry cleaner shops, and mechanics a lot more often than we go to traditional crime fiction places. Those regular, everyday places can serve important functions in a crime novel. They can be places where people exchange gossip (and clues). They can also be settings for murder when the story is done right. And, of course, they can simply be places characters go, just like you and I do. That can add realism to a story.

Agatha Christie included several ordinary sorts of places in her stories. She used them very deliberately, too. For instance, in Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle and her fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman go for a visit to Elinor’s Aunt Laura. During the visit, Roddy becomes infatuated with the lodgekeeper’s daughter, Mary Gerrard. When Mary is later poisoned, Elinor becomes an obvious suspect, and is soon arrested. One of the pieces of evidence against her is a visit she’d paid – a very ordinary visit – to a grocer to buy fish paste for picnic sandwiches. Since Mary ate one of the sandwiches, it seems more than possible that Elinor poisoned the fish paste. Local GP Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her acquitted. He asks Hercule Poirot to help clear her name, and Poirot agrees to look into the matter. It turns out that this murder isn’t nearly as simple as it seems on the surface.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives includes a few scenes in grocery stores. In the novel, Joanna Eberhart and her husband Walter move with their children to the small Connecticut town of Stepford. They settle in, start to make friends, and all seems well at first. Soon, though Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe (who’s only been in Stepford a few months longer than Joanna has) begins to suspect that something is wrong in the town. At first, Joanna doesn’t think there’s a problem. But it’s not long before she becomes convinced that there is. The closer she gets to the truth about the town, the more danger there is for her. At two points in the novel, there are scenes where characters go grocery shopping. In both cases, Levin uses those scenes to give hints about what’s going on in town, and those scenes contribute to the story.

In Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, we are introduced to Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen, who’s just been stationed in Tiverton, in rural South Australia. He’s been more or less exiled there because it’s believed that he was involved in an internal investigation in Adelaide. Now an outcast among his fellow cops, he’s abused by his new co-workers and generally considered a pariah. Then, the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is found by the side of the road. Hirsch has his job to do, so he gets to work. He doesn’t have the support of his colleagues, but he’s determined to get answers. One place he visits is the local convenience store. It’s a bit run-down, and doesn’t stock a lot of variety, but it is, well, convenient. And Melia’s friend Gemma Pitcher works there, so Hirsch is hoping that she’ll know something about the murder. It’s not spoiling the story to say that the store itself isn’t central to the mystery. Still, it adds to the atmosphere, and it’s a very normal, ordinary place for the people of Tiverton to visit.

Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder is the story of Malin Andersson and her husband Henrik Kjellander, who live with their two children on the Swedish island of Fårö. As the novel opens, they’re just returning to their home after an absence of two months. During that time, they rented their home to a few temporary tenants. When they get to their house, they’re dismayed to find that it’s a mess, and there’s been some damage. At first, it looks as though it’s a case of terrible tenants. But then, Malin finds a mutilated family photograph. That seems a lot more personal and now, Mailn and Henrik contact the police. Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson look into the matter, but it’s not going to be an easy case. Then, Malin begins to suspect that someone is stalking her. She makes a perfectly ordinary visit to a grocery store and becomes quite sure that one of the other customers is following her. It’s a scene in which the everyday act of picking up groceries is used to add some real suspense to the story. Other incidents convince Malin that she’s right, and that her family may be in danger. Now, Broman and Oskarsson have to find out who’s responsible before the family comes to real harm.

Julia Keller’s Summer of the Dead features a combination gas station/convenience store in rural Raythune County, West Virgina. Lindy Crabtree works there, and also takes care of her father, a former coal miner with mental and physical problems. Jason Brinkerman also works at the store, and the two have become work friends. Lindy has her own dark secrets, but she’s made a sort of life for herself. Both she and Jason get drawn into some real darkness when two murders shock the small town of Ackers Gap. Country Prosecutor Bell Elkins investigates the murders and gets to know both young people in the course of the case. The convenience store is a stopping point for a lot of the locals, and it’s interesting to see how it plays into their ordinary lives, and into the lives of the people who work there.

There are plenty of other ordinary places that feature in crime fiction, too. There are the local stores in Bill Crider’s Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, and the shops in Vicky Delany’s Molly Smith series, among many others (You’re absolutely right, fans of Louise Penny’s Three Pines series!). These ordinary, everyday places, like dry cleaners, supermarkets and so on, keep a community going, and sometimes, keep the members of it together. Little wonder they’re woven into crime fiction.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Duran Duran’s Ordinary World.

Published by Margot Kinberg

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

14 thoughts on “There’s An Ordinary World*

  1. Nice post on the use of settings in crime fiction. I am glad you mentioned Bill Crider’s series. I love that series and it is set in perfectly ordinary places. I have not tried Julia Keller’s Bell Elkins series yet, but I have the first one and I hope to get to it soon.

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    1. Thanks, Tracy – glad you enjoyed the post. And I do like the way Crider uses those ordinary places to tell his stories. It all adds to the sense of place and local culture. It’s a great series. And I hope you’ll like Julia Keller’s series. That’s another one with a real feel for place, and some interesting characters.

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  2. Margot, pubs, bars and cafes have been a fairly common setting in action-suspense-espionage novel I have read. I suppose they make an excellent setting for meetings and dealings, clandestine or otherwise, often followed by shootouts. I watched “The Stepford Wives” a long time ago, though I’d like to read the book (which I haven’t) and then watch the film again.

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    1. That’s true, Prashant. Places like pubs and bars and coffee shops and so on make very effective places for characters to interact. They’re very natural meeting places, so a conversation that takes place doesn’t attract a lot of attention. I do recommend The Stepford Wives. It’s dated in some ways, but Levin did build suspense quite well in it, and those everyday encounters are done well.

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  3. I have a particular love for any crime story set in a department store – a bit less mundane than a convenience story, there’s a bit of glamour there maybe, but I like the idea of the large building, the many many workers and even more numerous customers, the offices hidden away… so many opportunities for good crime plots.

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    1. Department stores are great settings for crime novels, Moira. And part of the reason is exactly what you say: there are lots of employees, customers, physical places, and so on in a department store. All sorts of things can happen. The other thing I like is that department stores have changed over the years, so the author can evoke a time period really effectively in that setting.

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  4. I have to grocery shop today and now I’ll be too frightened to go! 😉 Yes, these ordinary places are much more realistic than the creepy mansion, fun though that can be too. Especially in villages or small towns, where people still tend to know each other. In huge stores, there’s much more anonymity, which can be a different kind of setting and somehow, to me at least, suggests a different, less personal, kind of crime.

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    1. Haha! Yes, do be careful when you head out to shop, FictionFan! You just never know… 😉 – You make a good point that it’s very realistic that people would to ordinary places like grocery stores and dry cleaners and so on. You make an interesting connection, too, between huge stores and the sort of murder that might take place in that sort of setting. I hadn’t thought about that link before, but it makes a lot of sense. Plus, in large department stores, one’s less likely to meet someone familiar, so it’s harder for the author to create ‘clue’ conversations among characters (other than the things we say to strangers, like ‘Excuse me.’).

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  5. Love how you dissect novels, Margot. You find the most interesting topics, too! This post reminds me of cozy mysteries where we often find the main characters solving murders in ordinary places, like a bookstore or weekly card game.

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    1. Thanks, Sue! I’m glad you enjoy what you find here. And it’s quite true about cozy novels. Their authors are very good at using ordinary places like dry cleaners, and ordinary events like a card game. It’s something I’m hoping to get better at as I keep writing.

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