The Appeal of Small-Town Murder Stories With Joe R. Lansdale

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For me, having grown up in small towns, I know that underneath that bucolic calm there is sometimes a raging river. Pass through a small town, population four thousand, maybe up to forty thousand, see the nice houses on the short, clean streets, it’s easy to think of the place as quiet as the grave, but pleasant as sitting on a well-roofed porch during a sweet spring rain, the wind gently blowing and lifting your hair. And you’d be right. There is that. But back to that river. Out there on the outskirts of town, often in cheap trailers with  one end blacked by fire, some pretty nasty individuals might be cooking meth or chopping up a body in the bathtub, placing parts in black plastic bags while a pot of chili with beans steams on the stove. A murder, or a meth-cooking, works up an appetite.

In town, on a tree-shaded street, one of those quiet streets in one of those quiet, quaint houses, a wife is measuring out a bit of rat poison in her abusive husband’s soup. Or maybe he’s all right, not a bad guy, but the wife, she’s thinking, I could use that serious insurance money, and a long vacation. Perhaps in another home a husband is planning a false robbery to murder his wife, having found another lady more to his liking, one with a large bank account and an office job that needs filling, and comes with a 401K and good medical, not to mention dental. It’s the serene aspect of small towns that sets the murder table so well. Some of the courses include Friday night football games where heavy bets are made, and losers are expected to pay, or else. It’s the soccer mom who works at the bank and brings treats to all her children’s events, who is found to be skimming where she works, and has suddenly left her husband and kids for some nice place in the islands.

It’s all that, and more.

I love the mixture of sweet and sour, and for me small towns provide that kind of taste for a crime writer. In truth, the good outweighs the bad, but for a crime writer, what fun is there in that? A prize for the biggest tomato at a tomato festival hasn’t the charm of a body found in the tomato patch. My research for writing novels about small towns and small-town murder is simple. I know these people. I am one of these people. My wife was a campus police officer, worked for the fire department as a dispatcher. My son was a dispatcher. I hear things. I listen to things. Stories are sometimes literal, or almost, and sometimes sewn and created from ragged cloth, a quilt constructed of numerous patches, all  of those patches shades of gray and degrees of black, like the shadows in Hell.

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