Guest Post: Judy Alter

Please welcome back Mysteristas friend, Judy Alter, promoting her new book Contract for Chaos!

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.

Contract for Chaos coverEven 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?”


JudyCasualPortrait 002Judy Alter is the award-winning author of three mysteries series: Kelly O’Connell Mysteries: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, Danger Comes Home, Deception in Strange Places, Desperate for Deathand The Color of Fearthree in the Blue Plate Café Series: Murder at the Blue Plate Café, Murder at the Tremont House, andMurder at Peacock Mansion; and two Oak Grove Mysteries: The Perfect Coed and Pigface and the Perfect Dog. She is also the author of historical fiction based on lives of women in the nineteenth-century American West, including Libbie, Jessie, Cherokee Rose, Sundance, Butch, and Me, and The Gilded Cage, and she has also published several young-adult novels, now available on Amazon..

Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and the WWA Hall of Fame.

Judy is retired as director of TCU Press, the mother of four grown children, and the grandmother of seven. She and her dog, Sophie, live in Fort Worth, Texas.

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Buy Contract for Chaos at Amazon

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6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Judy Alter”

  1. Welcome, Judy!

    My series is set in the Laurel Highlands, which is very much a “small town” setting. Lots of history, lots of natural beauty. But also lots of poverty. One of the reasons I chose it as a setting was the dichotomy between such a beautiful area and the criminal effects of poverty.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good, thoughtful piece on rural life. I have set my new series in a rural area in central Massachusetts because I think the area offers the contrast of the outer bucolic image and the inner conflicts of people living close to the edge. You’re absolutely right about the illusions we have about city life versus rural life. I have friends who raised their children in the NYC and never regretted it.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks, folks. Trouble is, through no fault of Mysteristas, this is an old post, and the agrarian myth has little to do with Contract for Chaos, which has an urban setting and is about racism. Sorry about that. The agrarian myth does apply to my Blue Plate Café Mureder Series and to the two novels mention, The Perfect Coed and Pigface and the Perfect Dog. For more on Contract for Chaos, please see

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I am so glad that you start with the “first line.” As a reader, I LIVE on those first lines. A great first line can make or break my experience as a reader. If a book does not “grab” me in the first line, or a paragraph or two, I find it hard to continue. A GREAT first line can propel me through the book.


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