Friday, June 4, 2010


by Darrell James

Okay, before we get off on a debate that has only one obvious answer, let me say that we’re talking city’s and towns and story settings.

The reason for the discussion is that I’m considering starting a new series of thrillers (aside from the Del Shannon series that will debut next year). Some advisors suggest that a series should have a large playground, ie: a major urban area in which to fashion multiple stories. The argument is that only big cities have the depth and diversity to sustain multiple stories in a long running series. Certainly others have gone this route: Leonard has Detroit, Lehane has Boston, and nearly everyone has L.A. (Connelly, Crais, Wambaugh, Chandler.)

But is it possible that a small town has just as much depth of interest (if you look deep enough beneath the skin) to form the setting of a major series?

I was raised in the Bluegrass State, in the small town of Crescent Springs, Kentucky. It was a simple string town with store fronts lined along the tracks of the Southern Railroad where the rails led south out of Cincinnati, Ohio. A wooden, one-lane bridge at the end of Buttermilk Pike got you across the tracks and into the heart of town. There was a little grocery store, hardware store, a barber shop, and “stag bar” (yes, only men allowed! sorry feminists!) and a depot, where in the old days, trains would make “unscheduled” stops to let off passengers. In later years the depot housed the volunteer fire department.

The population of this little berg was too small to bother counting (maybe a few hundred at the time). You knew virtually everyone in town and referred to them as Mrs. Eubanks or Mr. Tucker. (Never Bob or Roy or Bettie or Edith.) Even adults used this formal politeness.

Life in this little microcosm was less than glamorous by “city folk” standards. In the evenings, bats would swarm around the one street light near the bar (the only business open after dark). Drunks would stumble home on foot. Hooligans of the day would sit on the bridge railing to smoke and watch the cars go by. Maybe one every two hours or so would pass (they went through a lot of cigarettes obviously). On the rare occasion that two cars met at the bridge, one would have to wait for the other to cross before proceeding in or out of town. There was a politeness here too. No one dashed for the bridge to be the first one across. They’d wait and wave, and sometimes argue over who should go first. Meaning… “you first”… “no, please, after you”… “no, you”…

You get the picture.

While, I could go on, I’ll save it for the potential series.

I guess my question is: as a reader or a writer, do you favor fiction set in large metropolitan areas? Or do you find small towns can have their own rich diversity that can serve a story series well?

While you’re at it, tell me about your city or town. Or your most memorable fictional location.


Anonymous said...

The big city thriller is almost a cliche anymore. Everyone's done it, and every reader knows what to expect. Time to explore new territory. Human nature is still human nature after all.

Have a look at the Ozark novels of Daniel Woodrell (Winters Bone, for example) to see how a master can set a story in a small town.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I think small towns can have an even more sinister feel to them. After all, in a place where everyone knows everyone else and their business, there is more cause and opportunity for dark secrets known by more people. Almost an inbreeding of blackmail. Whereas, in a bigger city, crimes and secrets can be lost or forgotten.

Let's not forget the work of Agatha Christie, or even Cabot Cove!

Jess Lourey said...

I agree with Paul and Sue Ann, though I think a town of a couple hundred would be too small. Of course, my series is set in Battle Lake, Minnesota, a town of 800 people. I've had to kill off a lot of tourists.

As to this:

"and 'stag bar' (yes, only men allowed! sorry feminists!)"

I'm guessing the feminists are fine not being invited to that party. It's the grown men playing "no girls allowed" fort in a bar we should worry about.

Good luck with your new series!

mlloschiavo said...

Definitely go the small town route. And Crescent Springs, Kentucky would be the perfect place to start. You may also want to include Ft. Thomas, Ky.(there are many mafia stories to refer to). Covington, Ky is right across the bridge from Cincinnati. That way, you can always travel to a larger city if the whim hits you. Now if you should use Crescent Springs in your next novel, please don't forget to include Ft. Mitchell, Erlanger, Florence, Ft. Wright, Edgewood and Ludlow. Surely one or more of these little cities could spark some drama. Home is always the best place to start.

Alan Orloff said...

Big town, little town, as long as the stories are good, I like 'em both.

Keith Raffel said...

Darrell, I'll read whatever you write.

Beth Groundwater said...

There are lots and lots of mystery series set in small or mid-sized towns. My Rocky Mountain Adventure series for Midnight Ink is set in Salida, CO, which has a population of just over 5,000, for instance.

T.S. Richardson said...

Although it isn't mystery per se, Empire Falls by Richard Russo is a great examination of personalities in a small town that never recovered after the closing of a textile mill.

In small towns everybody knows everybody, and they keep secrets. This is possibly a mixture of respect for others - regardless of what they do - and not wanting to unearth/mar the reputation of a wholesome community. (Just look the other way, Ethel.) You could bridge both worlds and have a big city detective/fish-out-of-water come to a small town with his/her presumptions and have them upended. (Though people speak simply, they are intelligent. Unlike big cities, loyalty is never for sale and the immediate, open friendliness is a facade to deeper suspicions, etc.)

Though I grew up in Oklahoma, I write stories mostly in LA because the city is vast and it is a monster excess and evil giving me endless possibilities. Small towns have nuances that if explored deftly can be as or even more interesting than a city, I just haven't tried crime fiction there yet.

Also, Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280 is an amazing noir comedy set in Texas' smallest county that I highly recommend. (The Killer Inside Me is similar, but a bleaker examination of a monomaniac entrusted with a badge in a tiny town.)

There's my two cents.


Darrell James said...

Valued the input-- Paul, SueAnn, Jess and Alan.

Linda, I'm actually thinking Covington as the central setting using all the surrounding area as a canvaas. Thanks for vanidating my thinking.

Travis and Beth- thanks for the great examples.

Keith- You're the man!

Alice Loweecey said...

I'm going to agree with Alan. :) I've read big-city and small-town mysteries. It's the characters who make or break it for me.

Renae said...

Big city thrillers are great, however being from a small town myself...I think small towns can lend an even more creepy thrilling edge to the story.