Posted in Reading, Writing

Why the English Countryside Makes a Great Setting for Mystery Novels

This week I’m in conversation with my author friend Helen Hollick about why rural communities make such great settings for cosy mystery novels

Debbie Young with Helen Holllick
Taken when I first met Helen Hollick at the launch of my first book many years ago! We have since become firm friends.

When my historical novelist friend Helen Hollick took to writing cosy mystery stories during lockdown, I couldn’t wait to read them. I’d enjoyed her Jesemiah Acorne pirate series, and her Arthurian novels were among my mum’s favourite books. What’s more Jan Christopher, the heroine of her new mystery novels was a young librarian in a public library very much like the one I belonged to as a child.  

Like me, as an adult Helen moved from greater London suburbia to the countryside – in her case to Devon, rather than to my neck of the woods in the Cotswolds. Her latest Jan Treasure mystery embraces Devon life at harvest time. I’m pleased to invite Helen on to my blog to day to tell me a bit about why rural Devon – or indeed any rural community – makes such a great setting for cosy mystery stories.

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Helen: Hello Debbie, thank you for hosting me – and Jan Christopher – today!

Debbie: Jan’s adventures alternate between her native suburban London Borough of Waltham Forest and rural Devon. Why does a rural community make such a great setting for a cosy crime story? 

Helen: I moved from London with my husband and daughter, (and the horses and the cats and a dog) to Devon in January 2013 – best thing we ever did!

During Covid lockdown I wanted to write something where I could use my experience of working as a London suburb library assistant during the 1970s. A cozy mystery seemed a good idea, so the Jan Christopher Mysteries came into being. Snag. I also wanted to write about Devon; not exactly autobiographical, but drawing on living in the countryside. Easy solution: alternate the locations.

I think a rural community setting appeals to readers of cozy crime because of the lure of a slower pace of life, and the huge advantage of a village community is that everyone knows each other – ideal for amateur sleuthing via murder mystery writers!

Array of four book covers of Jan Treasure series
And then there were four…

Village gossip is no mythical exaggeration. Often X who lives at the other end of the village will know what you’re going to do before you do yourself. It’s a sad fact, but I only knew my immediate next-door neighbour when I was back in London, no idea of anyone else in the street. Here, I know almost everyone in the village, even though my nearest neighbour lives almost ¼ of a mile away!

And the biggest appeal of all? Many people long to live in the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle, but have no opportunity to do so. To escape into an outdoor life via the pages of a book is the next best thing to actually doing it – and with the added bonus of working out ‘whodunit’, well, who can resist?

Devon field with tractor harvesting
Work in progress

Debbie: What does the rural setting offer that the urban one doesn’t?  – and vice versa?

Helen: North Devon couldn’t be more different to Waltham Forest – a sprawling north-east London Borough consisting of the towns of Chingford, Walthamstow, Leyton and Leytonstone. It’s one advantage: Chingford borders the County of Essex and can boast the inclusion of Epping Forest, where I used to ride and keep my horses.

When musing about writing a murder mystery, I knew that I did not want to write it as a police procedure series. I know very little about crime investigation, beyond what I watch on TV, and anyway, my mysteries were to be set in the 1970s when we didn’t even have mobile phones, let alone the internet!

Here in a rural community we rarely see a police car, but they are everywhere in a London town.

In the countryside, strangers are all too happy to chat to other strangers. Alas, it doesn’t happen in London, everyone is far too busy rushing about from A-B with ‘no time to stand and stare’. Country people can often be found leaning on a gate, thoroughly enjoying the view.

Timekeeping rarely seems to exist. There’s a Devon word ‘Dreckly’, it basically means ‘some time soon’. Soon could be this afternoon or next month… or the next.

So in a rural setting you have fewer locals to include as characters but a greater opportunity for the community to gossip.

One huge advantage for a murder mystery, in a small rural village is that it will take a while for a summoned policeman to arrive. In town, you’re probably talking within the hour – add a couple more hours for Devon. Which gives your criminals time to get away, and time for some quality amateur sleuthing.

Field after harvesting
Nearly done!

A village will probably only have one or two shops and pubs. Town will have several in a small area. Fewer cars in villages, so the ‘grockles’ (strangers/tourists) are more readily noticed.

Good tip for mystery writers: visitors’ cars are usually clean.

The locals get used to the muddy lanes and soon don’t bother cleaning their cars!) A murder committed in town will usually get immediate attention. In a village – well someone in authority will come along ’dreckly…

Debbie: Like Jan – and Sophie Sayers and me! – you’ve moved in real life from an urban to a rural setting. But your move to the countryside, like mine and Sophie’s, was permanent. Jan clearly appreciates the beautiful, peaceful scenery – we know this as the stories are written mostly in her voice. Do you think it might tempt her to move permanently to Devon, if Laurie can get a work transfer?

Helen: Oh that would be telling wouldn’t it? Although in the postscript of Episode One, A Mirror Murder, (with the p.s set in modern times,) a much older Jan is clearly not in London. Does she move permanently? When? How? And is she still with DS Laurie Walker? Ah…all that will be in another story!

Debbie: How do your real-life neighbours take to having a crime-writer living in the midst of their peaceful community? Have you ever been asked to solve any local crimes or misdemeanours?

Helen: No, to the second part of the question, thank goodness, although I’ve often had to search my fields for a missing horseshoe that one of the horses has lost. Or one of the dog’s toys – or, actually, even a missing pony! We have a couple of Exmoor ponies and they are frequent escape artists. We found them once, over half-a-mile away almost up at the village. I’m sure they were heading for the pub!

My real-life neighbours are wonderful. I must add that my quirky characters are all entirely fictional, apart from three people: Heather is my friend who is often involved with the village community shop. We have tea and cake together usually once a week and often discuss the next mystery. So of course she had to become the Devon shopkeeper in my stories. In A Meadow Murder I have also included pub landlords Hazel and Steve, primarily as a thank you for their wonderful hospitality at the Exeter Inn. Hazel, Steve and Heather gave their full permission to be used as characters, and I have assured them that they would always be ‘goodies’ and not victims!

I have heard that there’s often a fair bit of chatter in the village shop about my books … mostly good, I hope!

Loaded tractor proceeding down a Devon country lane
Jan takes a ride on top of a loaded tractor in “A Meadow Murder”

Debbie: My fellow bell-ringers at our parish church are always suggesting new murder ideas for me – 101 ways to kill someone with a church bell! Does your adopted home in Devon inspire you with new ideas for crime stories that are specific to rural Devon or to the countryside in general?

Helen: Oh yes! Read A Meadow Murder and find out! I came up with the plot last summer whilst watching our local farmer, Andrew, trundle up and town turning the cut hay in our top field. The field slopes so you can’t see the bottom at all. “What if…” I thought.

The cover image for Meadow Murder is actually my field. The deer and rabbits have been added, but we do see them there.

Debbie: Jan’s stories are set in the 1970s. Her home town in north-east London will have changed a lot – to what extent have things changed since then in rural Devon? How different would the stories be if Jan was a member of Generation Z, ie born between 1990 and the early 2000s?

Helen: A modern Jan would be very different –which is why the stories are set in the 1970s, ‘my’ years as it were. (I was born in 1953.) Technology is a big difference, nearly everyone has cars, phones, laptops today. Though not everyone has a good Internet connection – ours can be very sporadic. We get quite a few power cuts too. I really enjoy your Sophie Sayers mysteries, Debbie, but, well, I just couldn’t do it. Jan and Laurie and their families are from the ’70s and that’s that! The thought of writing modern day just doesn’t appeal to me at all. I guess nostalgia wins out for me – and I hope for my readers, too!

Debbie: Finally, thank you for allowing me to share below an extract from A Meadow Murder  to whet my readers’ appetites! 

3D stack of paperbacks of A Meadow MurderExtract from A MEADOW MURDER

The tractor was trundling off down the row, the baler scooping up the cut hay, packing it into slabs, automatically tying them together with two lengths of baler string and shooting the trussed rectangular bale out behind, before repeating the whole process. Mr Greenslade drove the tractor round the field in ever decreasing circles – or more correctly, odd-shaped squares. Down one row, along the bottom of the meadow, up the furthest row, across the top of the meadow, down the next row, along the bottom… coming at each turn closer to the middle of the field until there were only two rows left.

Our job, I discovered, was to follow the tractor and stack the bound bales in groups of six or eight in order to make the next step of loading them onto the trailer easier.

“Roll them,” Kevin advised when he saw me lifting a bale by the string. “Less likely for the twine t’ break an’ easier on your back. Roll with the lie of the land, downhill.”

It took a while to cover the entire field, walking up and down the rows – down was fine, up… the hill seemed to get steeper with each row. Funny how it didn’t look steep from the top, but imitated Mount Everest from the bottom. (Slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean!) At last the tractor came to a stop, with (and we all cheered) no more breakdowns. Scattered across the field as if they were some form of crude artistic sculptures, were stacks of hay, baking in the heat of the haze-shimmering, airless afternoon. We were all somewhat sweaty and grimy, with sore backs and smarting hands, despite wearing gloves. But the work was only half done. Five-hundred bales of hay had to be transferred into the security of the barn before those blackening clouds came any nearer.

If I thought anything we’d done so far was backbreaking, hard work, I soon discovered that I’d been wrong. Stacking the bales on the trailer was much harder, even though I had one of the easier assignments. Aunt Madge and I were on the flat bed of the trailer receiving the bales that the men tossed up. We had to stack them one layer at a time, with each layer criss-crossing, otherwise, if they’d been simply one atop the other the whole lot would fall down. The first three layers were quite simple, but as the stack got higher, the bales had to be tossed higher, and we had to climb higher to keep up with the enthusiastic (and apparently untiring) bale-tossing men. I say it was hard work (it was!) but it was also a laugh. Teasing and banter between us, laughing as the tractor pulling the trailer lurched across the field from each six or eight stacked pile of haybales to the next. I had never felt as stiff and tired before, nor had I ever felt as wonderfully alive and happy.

Aunt Madge jumped down as the fourth layer began to grow, aware that she wasn’t too confident at balancing on a lurching and swaying height, which left me to do the last two layers on my own, but I’d got into the swing of it by then, so didn’t mind.

I suppose the trailer took about seventy bales. (I can’t tell you exactly; I’m guessing as I lost count somewhere along the third layer.) Then the next fun bit… there was no way I could get safely down – balancing atop a trailer stacked high with bales of hay is a challenge, believe me. Outside of learning how to fly, or leaping into Laurie’s outstretched arms in the hope that he’d catch me (both not an option), there was only one thing for it. I made myself a hollow in the centre of the top layer to ride the trailer all the way down the lane.

“Duck your head under the low trees!” Laurie called as Mr Greenslade set off negotiating the gate and the fairly tight turn from the meadow into the lane.

I have to say, it was one of the most thrilling things I’d ever done – and this included those scary, whizzy rides at the fun fair! The trailer was slow, very bumpy and rattly, and I could hear the occasional grinding of complaining brakes holding back the tremendous weight as we went down the steep hill, but the view above the hedges to across the fields was magnificent, and the ride itself was, well I can only describe it as exciting.

ereader showing A Meadow MurderAbout A Meadow Murder 

Make hay while the sun shines?

Summer 1972. Young library assistant Jan Christopher and her fiancé, DS Lawrence Walker, are on holiday in North Devon. There are country walks and a day at the races to enjoy, along with Sunday lunch at the village pub, and the hay to help bring in for the neighbouring farmer.

But when a body is found the holiday plans are to change into an investigation of murder, hampered by a resting actor, a woman convinced she’s met a leprechaun and a scarecrow on walkabout…

A Meadow Murder is the fourth tale in the Jan Christopher cosy murder mystery series, the first three being A Mirror Murder, A Mystery of Murder and A Mistake of Murder… see what I’ve done there? Yes, I’ve created a proper puzzle for myself because now every tale in the series will have to follow the same title pattern of ‘A M-something- of Murder’ (Suggestions welcome!)

Based on working as a library assistant during the 1970s, the mysteries alternate between the location of Chingford, north-east London, where the real library I worked in used to be, (the building is still there, but is, alas, now offices,) and my own North Devon village, but ‘Chappletawton’ is a fictional version, larger than my rural community and has far more quirky characters.

The main characters in the series, however, remain the same: Jan Christopher is the niece, and ward, of Detective Chief Inspector Toby Christopher and his wife, her Aunt Madge. In A Mirror Murder, Jan (short for January, a name she hates) meets her uncle’s new driver, Detective Constable Lawrence Walker. Naturally, it is love at first sight… but will an investigation into a murder affect their budding romance?

“As delicious as a Devon Cream Tea!author Elizabeth St John

“Every sentence pulls you back into the early 1970s… The Darling Buds of May, only not Kent, but Devon. The countryside itself is a character and Hollick imbues it with plenty of emotion” author Alison Morton

About Helen Hollick

Headshot of Helen Hollick
Helen Hollick

First accepted for traditional publication in 1993, Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend.

She writes a nautical adventure/supernatural series, The Sea Witch Voyages. She has also branched out into the quick read novella, ‘Cosy Mystery’ genre with her Jan Christopher Murder Mysteries, set in the 1970s, with the first in the series, A Mirror Murder incorporating her, often hilarious, memories of working as a library assistant.

Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler.

Helen lives with her husband and daughter in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon.