Small Town America—Hotbeds of Evil?

Judy Alter 3An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of four books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, and Danger Comes Home. She also writes the Blue Plate Café Mysteries—Murder at the Blue Plate Café and Murder at the Tremont House

Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

Judy is retired as director of TCU Press and the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of seven. She and her Bordoodle, Sophie, live in Fort Worth, Texas.

I am a city girl. Born and raised in Chicago, I have lived most of my life in Fort Worth, Texas. I spent a couple of years in a tiny Iowa college town and hated it; another four—graduate school this time—were spent in a Missouri town of about 12,000 population, not counting the state university. I loved it, thought I wanted to live there forever, and, when I went back a year later, wondered if I’d been delusional.

Small towns, especially in fiction, have a certain tension about them. City dwellers suspect that beneath the placid, Norman Rockwell-like surface lies a tangled web of deceit, greed, lust and almost every other sin known to mankind. A small town, collectively, is liable to be defensive about its way of life and the blissful lives of its citizens and resentful of strangers who ask too many questions. Think of Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street or Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, books that set a precedent.

That city/town tension is a major thread in the second Blue Plate Café Mystery, Murder at the Tremont House. Identifying herself as an investigative journalist, Sara Jo Cavanaugh chooses Wheeler, Texas, as a microcosm of the American small town and arrives to spend several weeks intensively studying the town. Café owner Kate Chambers is immediately suspicious:

“Hindsight, they say, is twenty-twenty, but I think I knew that Sara Jo Cavanaugh was trouble the minute she walked into the Blue Plate Café.”

The encounter continues:

“Ever get bored in this tiny town. Think it’s time to move on from waiting tables in a café?”

I bristled. “Well, first of all, I own the café. And second I had a fairly long career as a paralegal in Dallas. I’m back here by choice.” ….This Cavanaugh woman whipped out an electronic notebook and began making notes, while I stood in amazement. This was no ordinary person passing through town—besides, on the road through Wheeler, where would she be coming from or going to? Most travelers took the Interstate that was at least fifteen miles to the north or Highway 64, the back road to Tyler, which was about five miles from us.

Just as abruptly, she popped the notebook shut and explained, “I’m working on a study of small-town America, and I’ve chosen Wheeler as a sort of microcosm.”

Murder at the Tremont HouseKate worries that Sara Jo will uncover hidden skeletons in town that the townsfolk don’t even know about. And her worries soon intensify as Sara Jo manages to antagonize a good portion of the townspeople. She insults a “maiden lady” by asking what it’s like to be single in a small town like Wheeler; the minister’s wife is outraged when Sara Jo inquires if her husband ever has to reject sexual advances in his role as a counselor. And the town grapevine buzzes with the suspicious news that Sara Jo spends an extraordinary amount of time with high school students, particularly one young athlete.  Sara Jo, it seems, has an agenda based on her own idea of a small town. She’ll find what she wants because she’s looking so hard for it.

The reporter angers so many in Wheeler that when she is found murdered, the list of suspects is long. But Kate heads the list, and she must clear her name, with the help of David Clinkscales, her former lawyer-boss from Dallas, and Wheeler’s chief of police, Rick Samuels. A second murder confirms that someone is desperate, and Rick is convinced Kate is in danger. There’s a love triangle, a cooking school, a kidnapping, a broken marriage, and a lot of adventure before the threads of this mystery are untangled, and Wheeler can go back to being a peaceful small town. If it ever does.

Behind all the murder and mayhem lies the unfortunate stereotype of the small American town, no matter the part of the country. Is it a stereotype or something this city girl invented? I leave it up to you.