The Gravel Road of Broken Dreams


by J.D. Rhoades

“Down these mean streets a man must go…”

    So begins one of the most famous quotes in crime fiction, from Raymond Chandler’s essay, The Simple Art of Murder. For years, though, those mean streets were in a limited number of places, all of them big cities. Phillip Marlowe had L.A. Sam Spade had San Francisco.  Mike Hammer (and most everyone else) had New York. Spenser had Boston. For the longest time, it seemed only the metropolis was where the action was, crime-fiction wise, at least on the hardboiled end of the spectrum.  You’d think the only big crimes were in big towns.

    Those us from outside the sprawl  knew differently, of course. It’s not just urbanites who have it brought home to them that  “murder is an act of infinite cruelty.”  For every mean street, there’s a dozen dirt roads just as mean, if not meaner. Not to mention your mean desert highways, your mean mountain roads, and your mean bayous.

    Eventually, crime fiction began to reflect this.  James Crumley gave us Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue out of Montana. James Lee Burke gave us Dave Robicheaux from  New Iberia, Louisiana. Stephen Hunter gave us  Bob Lee and Earl Swagger, of Blue Eye, Arkansas, and points west.  The list goes on and on: CJ Box, Nevada Barr, Daniel Woodrell,  the amazing Lori G. Armstrong….and let’s not forget our own Pari and Toni, who  set their books in small towns in the Southwest and Louisiana, respectively, and Louise, who spends a good part of her fictional time in the Arizona desert. 

    And, while I’m on the subject, just let me say I’ve read a couple of as-yet-unpublished crime novels set in rural areas: Anthony Neil Smith’s YELLOW MEDICINE and Ed Lynskey’PELHAM FELL HERE.  Both of them are flat out fantastic. Dark,  gritty,
and as merciless as a farm foreclosure. When they come out, grab ’em.

    Obviously, this is a subject near and dear to me, because most of my books are set in rural and small-town North Carolina. That’s what I see, those are the voices I hear, so that’s what I write.

    I wonder sometimes, though. While there are a lot of books set outside the major cities, and a few achieve success, the real heavy sellers—your Crais, your Connelly, your Lehane, your Pelecanos—seem to be mostly working within the classic metropolitan  locales. Sometimes it seems as if the farther you go out into the country, the harder it gets to hit that big bestseller.

     Is it just that there are more readers in big cities and they’re more likely to identify with an urban detective than they are with a small town or rural one? Are editors and reviewers more likely to warm to a gumshoe  that works the mean streets they could take a cab to (if they dared) rather than a sleuth  with mud on his boots?

City ‘Rati, Country ‘Rati: Where y’all from? And does it affect what you read? And what are your favorite crime novels from off the beaten track?

17 thoughts on “The Gravel Road of Broken Dreams

  1. Lorraine.

    From the reader’s perspective, I think it’s the suspend disbelief factor. If you live in suburban or rural areas, you know how much crime there is, and thankfully,in small town New England, there’s not many murders that qualify as mysterious. So, it’s harder to believe the mystery crimes set in small towns, whereas the cities are so huge, with such a diversity of people, that we can’t really know what’s going on, so it’s easier to buy into the criminal activities that our favorite writers describe.I read and enjoy mysteries set in English villages, because I know diddly-squat about life in an English village — maybe English folks would believe a mystery set in rural CT – either way, it’s a limited readership, right?

  2. Patti Abbott

    I remember once hearing Sara Paretsky speak at the American Popular Culture meetings and she said when she took her first book to the publisher, they told her no one would want to read a book set in Chicago! So we’ve come a long way from that, haven’t we.I prefer books not set in the city–like James Sallis or Daniel Woodrell, for instance. I get enough city right out my window. Give me some trees and red-necky crime.

  3. Lori G. Armstrong

    Thanks, Dusty, I humbled to be included in that group of authors.

    God, I hope it’s not a limited readership, Lorraine.

    As my good buddy and fellow author Craig Johnson says, when did the rest of the country outside big cities become a “region?” There are more people living *outside* urban areas and we’re largely forgotten. We buy books. We buy books that don’t have anything to do with the area we live in. And it is frustrating when people automatically dismiss a book written about a section of the country off the beaten path as “regional” — therefore unworthy.

    Yes, as writers we want to avoid the Cabot’s Cove syndrome, but to some extent, I think heinous crimes committed in smaller towns can have more impact. Rather than the, hey, there was *another* murder of some guy no one knew in Times Square, when someone everyone knew and loved (or despised) is murdered, that event can send ripples of shock through an entire community and change it for better or for worse in ways no one imagined.

    Great topic, Dusty, one that I’ve wrestled with, but ultimately I still choose to write about the fairly rural area in South Dakota where I live — in all its warty forgotten glory.

  4. Louise Ure

    ” … as merciless as a farm foreclosure.” Damn, what a line, Dusty.

    I think many mystery readers like to travel in their reading, and often those “travels” are to foreign countries or big cities they don’t know.

    But I’m a fan of gravel road mysteries, too. The whole range of them. From Cormac McCarthy’s desert southwest to Steve Havill’s Posadas County.

  5. Stacey Cochran

    Great topic, Dusty! (And a wonderful panel on Saturday btw)

    I tend to respond more favorably to novels set in rural settings (or at least small town settings). It’s what I liked about Stephen King’s early work. Likewise, John Grisham’s breakout novel was about a lawyer who took a job at a firm in a small town, instead of one in Chicago or New York.

    John Hart has cracked into bestsellerdom by writing about crime in small town North Carolina.

    It’s also what I like about your work and about Lori’s work. It’s what I respond to in Pari’s and Louise’s work as well.

    You guys are awesome writers! Keep up the great work.


  6. toni

    Thanks, Dusty, for putting me in such fine company. (stalking pays off, woo!)

    You already mentioned James Lee Burke, whose one of my favorites. I have to give Robert Crais major points for the book he set in Placquemine, LA (VOODOO RIVER) — and got it exactly right. I believe I read that he’d lived here for a while… or maybe had been born here.

    I really love books set outside big cities, but I think the writer has the double-whammy of making the scope of the story feel big enough to not be a regional story as well as getting the details right. I think there’s this sort of Platonic idea of “city life” that most people accept, and even if a book isn’t specific and doesn’t nail the details of one city neighborhood, most people aren’t going to know. But a small town area and its culture tend to be subject to a different sort of litmus test: people who live there are going to crucify it if the culture isn’t evoked well and if it’s not, then it feels too generic for anyone outside of the area to care.

    The hat trick is finding that way to evoke the culture of the area without pissing off the locals and while simultaneously creating characters or situations that anyone from a big city would want to identify with.

  7. pari noskin taichert

    Ah, Toni,I just go ahead and piss off the locals . . .

    You know, Dusty, I’ve wondered about this. As a reader, I like mysteries because of the characters and when the locale becomes one of them, that’s chocolate frosting on the experience.

    As a writer, I feel that my NM series has definitely put me in a “ghetto” on some level. I love the line that Lori mentions from Craig J. about “region.” And, it’s true. Some people just don’t understand that a book that takes place in some dinky town can be universal too. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD would be an obvious example of that.

    I’ll be curious with my new series because it’ll be set in better known places: Houston, Malibu, the Cote D’Azur (I’d better be able to do some research there!). Will I gain more readers because of these locations?

    ANDThank you for the mentions and kind words–Dusty and Stacey; they were very welcome today.

  8. Karen Olson

    I don’t really care where a book is set, as long as it’s a good story, well written and well crafted. I’ll read mysteries and thrillers set in rural areas or cities.

    And I love the books by the writers you mention.

    One writer you didn’t mention here is the wonderful Sarah Stewart Taylor, who sets her books in Vermont.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, I got good and blunt advice from someone who knows to set my next in a big city because rural is not as appealing to publishers, but the story St. Martin’s ended up going for is set in North Carolina. Starts with a big city heroine, though.

    I don’t care one way or another as a reader as long as the setting feels real, but I do wonder about commercial appeal – this is a great topic!

  10. Rae

    I like stories with a strong sense of place, but I don’t really care whether the place is urban or suburban. And, like Karen, I’m all about the quality of the writing.

    Thinking about authors who use location well, Lawrence Block writes so evocatively about New York, it becomes a character in his books. On the other hand, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher travels from country to city and back again; but there’s always a great sense of place, so that the reader can easily imagine themselves in, say, Las Vegas, or the Texas desert.

  11. j.t. ellison

    Fantastic topic, Dusty.

    Laura Lippman and Karin Slaughter paved the way for the off-the-beaten-path settings for me. Yes, Lippman’s Baltimore is a big city, but not a lot of people are familiar with it’s machinations. And Slaughter’s Grant County in Georgia is truly something different. I had both of them in mind when I decided to set my books in Nashville.

    There’s this perception of Music City — the whole country music scene — that I wanted to counter. I purposefully moved away from the country side, and any native here will tell you that the music isn’t the real driving force. And perceptions are fun to play with.

    Big towns and small towns all have something unique to bring. As long as the writer succeeds in making the setting a character too, I’m hooked.

  12. toni

    Pari, yeah, well, there are an awful lot of bayous to disappear in around here.

    I meant to ask earlier: do you all believe that readers automatically assume smaller landscape = smaller stories? As in, less drama, less scope? Just curious if the assumption that readers bring to this is city = edge + bigger stories.

  13. Tom Barclay

    Toni, I think it has more to do with unimaginative business planning. Beancounters don’t see why you don’t just repeat winning formulas again and again.

    Then, too, a great many readers seem to deliberately choose the same story again and again, but wrapped in different covers.

    I grew up in a rivers, lakes, forests and farms area between Chicago and Milwaukee. Awful things did happen there, some accidental, some deliberate, with fair frequency.

  14. a Paperback Writer

    I love the Inspector Rebus books because so much of what Rankin writes into the settings in Edinburgh is really there. I used to live in Edinburgh, so I can wander with Rebus and Siobahn in my mind. Having such a realy setting makes the characters and plot seem almost real, too. When I used to walk past the Leonard Street police station, part of me always wanted to look around to find Rebus there. I never did, of course, but more than once I passed Rankin himself in the Meadows on a Sunday afternoon.

  15. Fran

    Susan Hill’s British village is one I want to live in, she describes it so vibrantly and vividly. William Kent Kreuger’s series set in rural Minnesota and surrounding environs is as gripping as any big city tale.

    Perhaps big city editors and beancounters need to get out of the city more, and then they’ll see the inherent drama in the backroads.

  16. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Dusty. Sorry, late again – out shooting things all day yesterday. (And, yes, I do mean with a camera …)

    Great post, Dusty! I just wanted to add a Brit two-penny worth from the original private detective, Sherlock Holmes. In ‘The Adventures of the Copper Beeches’, Conan Doyle has Holmes saying, “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

    I was interested to hear your view, too, Lorraine, that small town New England is an unlikely place for mysterious murders. I set my last Charlie Fox book partly in Boston and partly in the small town of North Conway, NH. Part of the action in NH takes place in a military surplus store, and as there was a genuine one in North Conway, I invented a new store and moved it further out towards Intervale on Rt 302. Shortly before I was due to do an event at White Birch Books in North Conway, the owner e-mailed to say, by terrible coincidence, the real military surplus store had been the target of a botched robbery, in which three people were killed.

    Erm, without giving too much away, want to guess how many people die at the store in Second Shot … ?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *