During the Covid-19 pandemic, many have abandoned cities, temporarily or permanently, for less human-clogged pastures. But remote settings, however dreamy, bring their own frights. A slew of forthcoming novels set in rural spaces and small towns pose spine-tingling questions about what we want, and what we get, when we retreat from the world.
The countryside has always exerted a nostalgic pull: one readily conjures barns, apple pies, serene fields. But the authors of several upcoming books challenge this idea, presenting the cozy countryside as a cover for a terrifying reality.
Dane Bahr’s The Houseboat (Counterpoint, Feb. 2022) takes places in 1960s small-town Iowa and centers on a series of murders that rattles its community. Harry Kirchner, editor-at-large at Counterpoint, says Bahr “takes what should be a bucolic place and turns it upside down. The cornfields turn to muck in the rain, the back borders are dangerous, and there’s a maniac lurking back there.” The book, he adds, suggests that our rosy ideal of the bygone countryside has never had a counterpart in reality. “That time was a fabrication of our own imaginations. There are no halcyon days to go back to, because they never really existed.”
Small towns also mean a limited cast of suspects, a variation on the classic locked-room mystery. Erin Young’s The Fields (Flatiron, Jan. 2022) takes place in Iowa and turns on the discovery of a young woman’s body on one of the few family farms that has held on in the age of Big Agriculture.
“The best crime stories are set in a place that has its own life and subculture,” says Zack Wagman, editorial director and v-p at Flatiron Books. “The rural South and the Midwest offer opportunities for settings that are insular, where the investigator—whether law enforcement or a journalist—explores the nooks and crannies of a new place.”
Heather Gudenkauf’s The Overnight Guest (Park Row, Jan. 2022) also takes place in rural Iowa. The novel focuses on a true crime writer who, while snowed in at a secluded farmhouse in Iowa, finds a mysterious child on her doorstep. “When crime happens in an isolated place, it’s a big deal,” says Erika Imranyi, editorial director at Park Row. “It creates much more intrigue.”
Novels set in remote locations show that wide open spaces can feel as suffocating, in their way, as city apartments. “A setting that’s closed feels natural during quarantine,” says Chantelle Aimée Osman, editor at Agora Books. In February Agora will publish Wayne Johnson’s The Red Canoe, which takes place on the border of Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community reservation and follows a boatbuilder who helps a troubled girl. “When the story can only happen in this controlled environment, with a limited cast,” Osman adds, “the author has to come up with ways to make the story limitless.”
In such stories, the lonely-outpost setting can become a character unto itself. Catherine Jinks’s Shelter (Text, Oct.) takes place in the Australian interior and centers on a woman who harbors a young mother fleeing an abusive relationship.
According to Mandy Brett, senior editor at Text, the novel’s setting touches on Australia’s peculiar relationship to its geography. “Australians have always perched ourselves in large cities on the edge of our continent,” she says. “The fear of the interior is our national mythology.”
Brett adds that the novel’s setting ties into the country’s growing environmental crisis. “Everyone’s coming around to the fact that we’re approaching climate calamity,” she says. “Our notion of our country as geographically extreme really fits with how crime fiction can be emotionally extreme.”
Mystery fans are volume readers, and settings are often what make them stick around. “In many really successful series, location is part of the premise,” says Kelly Ragland, associate publisher and editorial director at Minotaur, whether it’s Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles or Louise Penny’s Three Pines. Despite their spookiness, or maybe because of it, rural settings can prove enticing.
In February Minotaur will publish Kelley Armstrong’s The Deepest of Secrets, the seventh in a series of mysteries set in the small Yukon town of Rockton. In this installment, things fall apart when the inhabitants’ secrets, which they’ve come to Rockton to escape, begin to be exposed.
“The isolation of Covid times makes these books more resonant,” Ragland says. “We’re all thinking about isolation, whether in a personal or grander, societal way. Who’s your community? What do you really know about them? What happens when something goes awry?”
For readers who have been stuck where they are for much of the past year and a half, these are chilling questions indeed.