Janice Hallett Recommends Her Top Small Town Big Reads
Set in a small English town and recounted through 'found' documents such as emails, transcripts and more, Janice Hallett's addictive whodunit The Appeal was one of the most audacious crime thrillers published last year. To celebrate the book's paperback release Janice selects her favourite gripping mysteries set in small towns, from the Deep South to St Mary Mead.
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
Every great small town murder mystery has an immersive claustrophobia that transports you to its own time and place. In this classic of the genre, the place is Miss Marple’s sleepy English village of St Mary Mead, and the time is 1930. The villager everyone loves to hate, Colonel Protheroe, is shot dead in the library of the vicarage. Next door neighbour Miss M gets to work solving the mystery, using her famous insight and penchant for acute observation. She rules out seven suspects, one by one. First published in 1930, and the first novel outing for Miss Marple, Murder at the Vicarage is still a thrilling Cluedo game, full of Christie’s wry humour and deft plotting.
Lightseekers by Femi Kayode
From a story almost a century old to a shiny new example of the genre. This thought-provoking and complex debut thriller will pick you up and set you down in the heart of rural Nigeria, specifically the small university town of Okriki. Psychologist Dr Philip Taiwo is asked to investigate the mob-murder of three young men. Were they really thieves who died at the hands of vigilantes, or are there more sinister elements at play? It’s soon clear plenty of folk in this town would rather Dr Taiwo went straight back to Lagos. Inspired by actual events, we aren’t looking for who did it here – the killers are already in jail – instead we are on a journey into how it happened and why. Thanks to Philip and his driver Chika, we explore the campus cults that mar Nigerian university life, and take us deep into the psychology of collective violence.
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
You can taste the dust in this beautifully written thriller – the first of Locke’s Highway 59 series – with Black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews at the helm. Two bodies are pulled from the Bayou in Lark, a tiny backwater community in East Texas. One victim is a local white woman, the other a black lawyer from Chicago. What links them, and how their murders relate to racial tension stirred up by the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, is a driving force in Matthews’ investigation. With strong roots in the dry Texas soil, he is determined to uncover the truth. At first glance a police procedural, Bluebird, Bluebird is a lot more, as its slow burn of a mystery is as much an emotional journey as it is an intelligent one.
Dark Pines by Will Dean
Set in the small Swedish town of Gavrick, the investigator steering this atmospheric thriller is local newspaper reporter Tuva Moodyson, who happens to be deaf. She’s only just balancing her searing ambition with caring for her dying mother, but when two hunters are found dead in the woods with their eyes gouged out, Moodyson simply can’t stay away. It’s not just the pine forest setting, there’s a quirky, stylish Twin Peaks vibe throughout this book (the first of three) with extraordinary characters and rife small-town eccentricities. Being hearing-impaired means Tuva employs quite different techniques to typical ‘detectives’. Her hearing aids frequently fail in the permanently damp air and she must lip read – a skill that proves invaluable at several points during her investigation.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Whether or not you’ve seen the TV series, it’s well worth checking out the original novel. Set not in California, but in a small beach community north of Sydney, Australia, the story follows three mothers – Jane, Madeline and Celeste – in the months before a murder. Just how are these three women and their families involved in what happens that fateful night at the school quiz? There’s a cheerful façade over terrible reality in this world of thinly veiled competitiveness and tense oneupmanship. Domestic violence, abuse, rape, bullying and step-family angst bubble ominously behind perfect smiles and declarations of happiness. What I love about this book is that you laugh as loudly as you gasp, and although it’s a cliché to say it, you are hooked right to the very last line.
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