Welcome back Judy Alter with her new release Pigface and the Perfect Dog!
The Agrarian Myth, Small Towns, and the Cozy Mystery
When the first Anglo immigrants fled from Europe to our shores, they farmed, and they set the tone for our nation for over two hundred years. We were an agrarian culture, living close to the land.
Somewhere along the way the agrarian myth took root. It’s the belief that the best life is found in small villages where farming is the backbone of the economy. People who live close to the land are thought to be more honest, more independent, and possessed of a stronger work ethic. Small towns are safe; cities are dangerous places, full of crime and drugs.
Even though we are primarily an urban society today, that myth lives on. I have no statistics to back this up, but do you ever hear people say they want to raise their kids in the city for the wholesome life? Nope. Lots say they want to raise the kids in a small town, for that very wholesomeness. They overlook the educational and cultural opportunities for adults and children in cities. And they overlook the fact that small town teens often have drug problems as severe or more so than their city counterparts. If you did controlled comparative profiles on city kids and village kids, say from age 15 to 25, I suspect city kids would look better.
In other words, cities get a bad rap, and we fool ourselves about the purity of the pastoral life. But what does all this have to do with cozy mysteries?
A small-town setting is usually part of the profile of the traditional cozy. (More cozy series are set in the city recently, but I’m talking tradition here.) The limited environment makes it believable that the protagonist knows everyone in town—or seems to. And it’s all familiar to the reader if you follow the series. Read Leslie Budewitz’s Food Lover Village series—you know Erin, the Merc, the bar where Ned rules, the coffee shop with Michelle, and maybe the realtor’s office where cousin Molly presides. But you don’t really know the whole town—you just think you do. There’s an underside to Jewel Bay where many people struggle to make a living—it’s mentioned, but doesn’t figure in the story.
I think cozies are also set in small towns for contrast or shock value—a murder seems out of place in a village. In the city, murders become just another statistic and are often overlooked. In the small town, everyone focuses on this disruption of the natural order of things. Nothing bad is supposed to happen in this lovely, safe, pastoral village—but when it does it grabs our attention. It’s like evil has come to Mayberry.
I’m not sure that authors make these decisions consciously. Probably few say to themselves, “I’ll set this story in a village because I can control the population, and because the murder will have shock value.” I think, like much of writing fiction, it’s instinctive. At least that happened with the creation of the Oak Grove Mysteries, The Perfect Coed and the current Pigface and the Perfect Dog.
Not only are the books set in a small town, the main characters work on a university campus—another small and controlled environment. But this small town, like so many other fictional ones, turns out not to be as calm and peaceful as you’d expect if, say, you were a parent sending a son or daughter off to school there. In the first book, a coed is found dead in the trunk of a teacher’s car, and now in the new book, the protagonist is confronted by rifle-carrying, belligerent men in a grocery store. Really?
Did I plot all that out before hand? Not on your life. It’s just what happened when I, a dedicated pantser, sat down at the computer with that first line. I still like that opening: Susan Hogan thought she was going to meet her maker that March day. Her first thought was irreverent. “Really, God? In a grocery store in Oak Grove? Have you got this wrong somehow?”
Judy Alter is the author of six books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries, two books in the Blue Plate Café Mysteries; and two in the Oak Grove Mysteries. Pigface and the Perfect Dog follows The Perfect Coed in this series of mysteries set on a university campus. Judy is no stranger to college campuses. She attended the University of Chicago, Truman State University in Missouri, and Texas Christian University, where she earned a Ph.D. and taught English. For twenty years, she was director of TCU Press, the book publishing program of the university. The author of many books for both children and adults primarily on women of the American West, she retired in 2010 and turned her attention to writing contemporary cozy mysteries.
She holds awards from the Western Writers of America, the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame, and the Texas Institute of Letters. She was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and recognized as an Outstanding Woman of Fort Worth and a woman who has left her mark on Texas. Western Writers of America gave her the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement and will induct her into its Hall of Fame in June 2015.
The single parent of four and the grandmother of seven, she lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with her perfect dog, Sophie.
her blog: http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com;