Kathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today to share her memories of small town life and why community is so important.
Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. Purebred Dead, the first in the new Mary McGill series, was released in August 2015 and Curtains for Miss Plym was released in April 2016. Blood Red, White and Blue was released in July 2017 and was a finalist for best canine book of the year in the Dog Writers of America annual writing contest.
I was born and spent my growing up years in Glendale, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. Back in those days, Glendale was not quite a small town nor was it quite a city, but it was a nice place to live. Lots of tree lined residential streets, a good-sized downtown with I think three movie theaters, a couple of department stores (Webbs was the biggest and nicest, Famous was as I remember a bit dowdy but had lots of great bargain basement deals). There was a chicken pie restaurant that had a large sign over the take home counter. “If you don’t like chicken, dinners over.” The first Bob’s Big Boy restaurant was in Glendale. It also had a great library which I frequented regularly, and a bus and red car system that was safe enough even for my over cautious mother to let us ride without her. But it wasn’t the kind of small town I write about in my mystery novels. The kind where everyone knows everyone else, where families live close by and cousins are your best friends. We knew our neighbors, of course, and my parents had friends, as did my brother and I but they were not the people my parents had grown up with. Our closest relatives were half a day’s drive.
I read about small towns, about cousins running in and out of each other’s houses, about how friends were made from birth to grave, how everyone knew each other’s ‘kin’, knew their friends family history as well, maybe better, than they knew their own, knew the latest gossip about everyone in town, knew to a day how close a baby was born after the wedding, and had no problem telling everyone who would listen. They also knew who needed a helping hand, who needed a job or help with a hospital bill, or a barrage of prayers from the church prayer group. Casseroles appeared on kitchen tables of the bereaved, children were taken in while their parents tended to a sick grandparent, help fixing a broken car engine appeared almost before the car owner knew he was in trouble and teenagers had a hard time trying to cross the red line set by their parents. Someone else’s parents had the same red line and had no problem imposing justice, or just ratting out the offender to his or her parents. It wasn’t only the young whose misdeeds were found out. Adults had an equally hard time straying from the straight and narrow pathway. Someone always knew what they had done. There was always someone in town who knew where all the bodies were buried.
Were these towns real? I often wondered, until I ended up in one.
I moved to a small town in central California after my divorce. I took with me my mother, father, last born child, 5 horses, 3 dogs, assorted cats and a brand-new real estate license. I knew no one in town. It took awhile to break down the barriers, but eventually we were accepted. The town was going through many changes as new wineries and vineyards popped up everywhere. That meant new people were moving in, which changed the character of the town, but not entirely. Old families remained. Not all of them stayed on the farms and ranches they had inhabited for several generations. Many moved to town to start businesses, but others traded in cows for wineries, yellow fields of barley for the green of vineyards. And the rhythm of small-town living remained. The traditions, the festivals, the church suppers and the annual rummage sale, they’re all still there. A little larger, as they include a new generation of people who, luckily, recognize the value of community, a blessing small towns offer.
I don’t think this sense of community remains in all small towns. It seems many of them are swallowed up by growth. Large housing tracts appear along with chain restaurants and retail stores. The only place neighbors meet is at the housing association pool. Children still make friends, but their mothers rarely know the first names of their kids’ friends. The neighborhood women don’t play bridge any more while they exchange recipes or gossip, the men don’t play poker on Saturday night at someone’s house where they can walk home. Kids don’t ride their bikes all over town under the watchful eyes of the town merchants who know their parents. Those towns seem to be flourishing while the small towns I’m talking about seem to be dying out right along with the family farm.
I hope that is not true, but in the meantime, I plan on helping to keep them alive through stories. You actually won’t find many murders in small towns, but you will find plenty of mysterious goings on, and every town has a Mary McGill to keep the town organized and the community spirit alive.
So, draw up a chair, smile a little, and prepare to meet Mary McGill and her dog, Millie, and the good people (mostly) in Santa Louisa, Ca. and enjoy a little bit of small-town living.
The 4th in the Mary McGill canine mystery series, Boo, You’re Dead, will be released late 2019.