When people think of government – of getting things done – they may immediately think of national government (e.g., ‘Why can’t the President/PM do something about…’). And it’s true that the national government gets the media attention more often than not. But the fact is, a lot of things actually get done at the local level. City councils often decide where traffic lights will be. Councils make rules, too, about things like breeds of dog that are permissible, whether or not a person may own a business on private property, and so on. And it’s often the local law enforcement officials, especially in smaller towns, who determine what the law looks like in a given area. And local elections can matter a lot more, on a day-to-day basis, than national elections.
That local perspective can add a lot to a crime novel, especially one with a solid sense of place and local culture. That approach is realistic, too. So, it’s no wonder that a lot of crime novels feature local authority.
For example, Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire is the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. For the locals, Longmire and his deputy are the law. Longmire lives in the town of Durant, where everyone knows everyone. He’s part of that local fabric, and he makes a lot of the decisions about what happens in his county when it comes to law enforcement. Of course, there are state authorities and offices, and there’s the FBI. But for the most part, Longmire represents the law in Absaroka County.
The same might be said of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth, who serves as the local bobby for the Scottish Highlands town of Lochdubh. Macbeth has a superior officer, and there are regional and national authorities that sometimes play a role in this series. But in a lot of ways, Macbeth is the one who keeps the peace and who deals with those who commit crimes. He makes a lot of the decisions, and he finds sometimes very creative ways to solve problems at the local level.
There are a lot of other examples, too, of local police who are really the central law enforcement for an area. But it’s not just the police. Local government plays a big role in what happens in people’s lives, too. For instance, D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington novels take place in fictional Tuesbury. It’s a small place that’s largely governed by the local council. For example, the council has determined that people may not have businesses on their property. This is a problem for Heatherington, who is a retired milliner. He still takes some special orders, and he doesn’t want to stop making hats. So, he works very discreetly from a shed (which he is permitted to have on his property). It’s an interesting side to his personality, and a solid look at the sorts of ways in which council rules impact lives.
There’s another interesting picture of the power a local council has in Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos. An unnamed woman has recently been released from prison, where she served time for murder. The local council provided a place for her to live not far from a local children’s daycare facility. There, the narrator lives quietly with her only friend, her Pit Bull, Sully. One day, the narrator gets a devastating letter. The mother of one of children at the day care facility has complained to the local council about Sully because he’s a Pit Bull, which is a restricted breed. The council has determined that the narrator must give up her dog immediately. As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with the narrator, so she makes her own plans to deal with the situation.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, the first of her Myrtle Clover mysteries, takes place in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. There, it’s not really the national, or even the state, government that determines how things get done. Rather, it’s the city council. Successful real estate developer Parke Stockard knows this, and she has made it her business to find out an uncomfortable truth about city council member Benton Chambers. He’s not the ‘family man’ he wants his constituents to think he is, and Parke leverages that information to get some of the approvals she wants for her projects. It’s an ugly situation, so when Parke is murdered, Benton Chambers becomes a suspect. Retired English teacher Myrtle Clover finds Parke’s body in a local church, and she decides to find out the truth to prove that she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet. And it certainly makes for some awkward moments when she discovers the connection between the city councilman and the property developer.
Wise politicians know that citizens often think locally, so they make an effort to visit local places, listen to local concerns, and so on. We see that, for instance, in Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, the first of her books featuring academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. In the novel, we are introduced to Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuck, an up-and-coming politician. He’s just been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s Official Opposition party, and his future looks bright. He and his team (which includes Joanne) know that appealing to people at the local level is an effective way to gain even more support, so he is scheduled to make an important speech at a community picnic. Tragically, he collapses and dies of what turns out to be poisoned drinking water. Partly as a way to face her grief over the loss of her friend, Joanne decides to write Boychuck’s biography. As she gathers her information, she also slowly gets closer and closer to the truth about who the murderer is. And that puts her in more danger than she’d imagined.
People often do ‘think nationally’ when it comes to some issues. But a lot of issues are dealt with at the local level, by councils, homeowner associations, local police, and other local authorities. And that makes the local perspective an interesting one for crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Where You Are.
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There’s nothing quite as vicious as a town council on a power trip!
That’s the truth, Anthony! Nothing quite like it!
There can be a lot of drama involved in small town law enforcement and local governments. It’s interesting to see how two small neighboring towns deal with issues and each other and then put another official in charge of the county those towns are in and you do have drama. A post to ponder, Margot. Thanks for sharing.
You know, I hadn’t thought about that when I was planning this post, Mason, but you have a point. Different small towns have different ways of doing tings. Add to that the county level, and you’ve got all sorts of opportunity for drama. And that’s to say nothing of the different levels of authority that could be involved! Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’
Over the last few decades things have become more and more centralised here, so that most of the power really is in the hand of the central government – too much so, many would say. But back in the day the local council – or the Corporation as it was called – was hugely powerful in Glasgow and hugely corrupt, and it’s in the background of a lot of the original Tartan Noir stories or the ones set back in the “gangland era”. We’ve also in recent years centralised our police force into one covering the whole of Scotland and both Ian Rankin and Val McDermid have addressed the impact of that in their recent books.
That’s really interesting, FIctionFan – thanks very much for the insights. The movement towards a more central government and more central policing has a lot of drawbacks to it, so I can see how there’d be plenty of people who don’t like it. Funny isn’t it, too, how, when the Corporation was powerful, it was also very corrupt. There are lots of stories of groups like that and their counterparts in other places who have that local power and wield it it that way. Perhaps the old saying is true… At any rate, trust Rankin and McDermid to explore this change in their novels; they both do a great job of tracing changes like that.
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Thanks for the mention, Margot!
Always a pleasure to mention your work, Elizabeth!
Margot, thanks for the reminder of Craig Johnson’s work. I need to get to him at some point.
He is really talented, Col. His Walt Longmire series is terrific, with a real sense of place and some nicely developed characters. The stories themselves are well-written, too. I hope you’ll read him soon.