For most of my life I have lived in the eastern part of the country—most recently Boston, and before that Brooklyn, and before that Philly, and I was born in D.C. and grew up in Maryland. I did go to school in St. Louis, though, and I currently live in Indianapolis, which, like many thriving, cosmopolitan cities in the Midwest, is nevertheless a half hour drive in all directions from eerie fields of corn and dark midnight skies.
When people think of the Midwest they think of county fairs and kindness, not murder and mayhem, but in this installment of my Reverse Blog Tour, the very clever Chicagoan Lori Rader-Day (author of the brand new The Black Hour and the Vice President of the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America) explains why they better think again.
After enjoying her piece, you’ll want to go catch Lori TONIGHT (Friday, July 25) in Indianapolis, at the incomparable IndyReads Books.
Do mystery novels make you think of Miss Marple, of Hercule Poirot, of nosy ladies in pearls and mustached men pulling all the suspects into the drawing room of an English manor to hash out a killer’s identity? Or maybe your heart belongs to the seedy underbelly of Chandler’s lonely Los Angeles and Dashiell Hammett’s boozy New York?
But have you considered the darkness between the rows of a cornfield? Or a barren North Woods lake? If you’ve never been the lone figure walking hunched against the wind coming off a frozen Lake Michigan, you may not know that the Midwest has its own particular brand of darkness and dread. Check out the bookshelves. The Midwest’s dim corners make for sinister reading: William Kent Krueger’s Boundary Waters, Minnesota. Steve Hamilton’s Upper Peninsula Michigan. Clare O’Donohue’s urban Chicago TV filming locations, down Lake Shore Drive from Sara Paretsky’s South Side stomping grounds. Don’t forget Michael Koryta’s Indiana landmarks. Gone Girl? Heard of it? Gillian Flynn’s small-town Missouri was as creepy as anything the New York Times bestseller list has seen in a while.
What makes the Midwest so mysterious? It’s not necessarily that Midwestern people are more criminal or that terrible things happen here more than other places. I think it’s only the Midwest’s varied landscapes contains so much potential for darkness. Serious potential. Acres and acres of potential. Sure, Chicago gives off whiffs of New York-style organized crime. St. Louis has a few bodies buried. Cleveland? Have you not heard what horrors Cleveland is capable of?
But in between these middle cities lies all that wide-open space, all those tidy small towns where everyone knows everyone else—and their business, you betcha. Look around: 4-H fair prizes, tractor-shaped mailboxes, flags flying from the porch. And smiles. Too good to be true, don’t you think? All that outward friendliness could belie any sort of emotion, any number of secrets. Those barns make excellent meth labs.
By all means, mystery writers, let middle America hand you a favor. A small town, population 380 or 1,500, creates a tidy closed community reminiscent of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. And if you want tension and heightened circumstances? In Chicago, there were 40 murders last weekend. In a small town, a murder changes everything, and an unsolved murder means forging on with life knowing that one of the people you know—and you know them all—did the unthinkable. You might go to church with the killer. You certainly went to high school with him. Your children will continue to go to school with the murderer’s children.
I just gave you, like, five story ideas.
In short, mysteries are about seeking the truth when it’s being hidden. Where’s a better place to hide the truth but in all that empty space among all those reticent people?
As a writer, you’ll find the empty space is also a fine place to get your work done. The pace of life is just a little looser, a little more laid back. A lot fewer cocktail parties. A lot fewer bookstores. Spotty internet service.
It’s quiet out in the middle of nowhere. Have you ever heard the sound a breeze makes rustling the dried autumn husks of a cornfield?
Sometimes maybe a little too quiet.
Thank you, Lori! And thank you also for writing The Black Hour, which Publisher’s Weekly called “an exceptional debut…an irresistible combination of menace, betrayal, and self-discovery.”
While you’re at your favorite bookstore, pick up World of Trouble, too.