I must admit to a fondness for the world that was created by the Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers books, that of murder mysteries set amidst English village life where the crimes are of the ‘by the bishop with the candlestick in the library’ variety rather than the fast-paced guns, car chases, and fist fights that are the norm in more modern crime dramas. I recently came across a long-running British TV series called Midsomer Murders that depicts just such a world, though the murders in this series are not solved by private investigators but by the police in the form of Chief Inspector Barnaby and his assistant Sergeant Troy, the latter playing the obligatory role of the sidekick who acts as a sounding board for the detective and jumps to the obvious but wrong conclusions and thus causes the sleuth’s deductive powers to shine even more brightly.
If one forms one’s opinion of English country life based on the series, then one comes to the conclusion that despite their pastoral appearance, these villages have a staggering homicide rate, since each episode features about four murders in rapid succession. The series creators have avoided the problem that at that rate any village would soon be seriously depleted of its population by making Barnaby and Troy based in the county seat and the scenes of the murders they investigate are rotated around the many villages that surround it, so one always has a fresh supply of characters and corpses to draw from.
As an aside, is such high murder rate really necessary for crime mysteries or is it (pardon the pun) overkill? To my mind, the more murders committed, the more it makes the plot implausible. I feel that one carefully committed and well-motivated murder that is methodically uncovered would provide a more engrossing story than the regular turning up of corpses. Given that the murders in these stories are committed by people who have lived otherwise homicide-free lives, it seems unlikely that they would suddenly go on a murder spree. Such a high rate is surely not necessary to maintain suspense. In the series Columbo for example, which is in the same vein, there was usually just one murder and even for that we knew from the get-go who was the guilty party. Many of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries also had at most one murder. Interest was maintained by watching how the detective figured out who the culprit was, the method, and the motivation.
Other features gleaned from the Midsomer series are that the streets in rural England are very narrow with very poor visibility around corners and yet people drive really fast. The villages also seem to be inhabited largely by old people, the majority of whom are elderly women who are widowed or divorced or otherwise single. Very few people seem to have real jobs other than being shopkeepers or manual workers. Despite the lack of signs of any economy, the villages seem prosperous with lots of open fields and farmyard animals, many fine houses, upscale restaurants, and charming well-kept cottages or mansions, all with beautifully maintained gardens.
People seem to have plenty of time to spy on their neighbors, hang about in the local pub and shops, and gossip. In fact, gossiping seems to be the main occupation and people snoop on others shamelessly. Given that, it is surprising that people seem to never lock their doors and even keep the door ajar, enabling anyone to walk in and look around and eavesdrop. Even the police seem to think nothing of searching houses by entering through an open door or window without a warrant. Given that everyone seems to be having affairs with everyone else (Peyton Place has nothing on these English villages when it comes to uncontrolled libidos), this lack of discretion is surprising and trysting couples are frequently found in flagrante delicto indulging in all manner of sexual practices. On the rare occasion that people do lock the door, they keep the key under a flowerpot next to the front door, a fact that seems to be known to everyone and thus makes the precaution pointless.
People also seem to be drinking tea all the time, by the gallon almost. Every visit to every home, by the police or anyone else, either finds people already drinking tea or is accompanied by an immediate offer to make it, which is usually accepted.
Surprisingly, given our impression of the UK as pretty much gun-free, there are plenty of guns around. They tend to be double-barrel shotguns used for hunting and rarely used in the murders, which are usually committed using knives, poisons, and assorted instruments like shovels, pitchforks, wrenches, and the like that are easily available in rural areas. The police also don’t seem to have guns and so far I have not seen the police draw a weapon.
In fact, the story usually ends with the police confronting the killer and, rather than try and escape in a blaze of gunfire or a mad car chase or call for a lawyer and refuse to talk, the latter pretty much gives up, says, “It’s a fair cop”, and confesses everything. A very obliging criminal class.
How true this is of English village life, I have no idea.