The setting for the crime stories by what we might call the Mayhem Parva school would be a cross between a village and commuters’ dormitory in the South of England, self-contained and largely self-sufficient.
In Snobbery With Violence written in 1971, Colin Watson explores the way English society is reflected in detective fiction. The book’s subtitle is English Crime Stories and Their Audience and his chapter on the seemingly idyllic yet bloody English village uses the phrase Mayhem Parva to describe a setting to which crime fiction writers have returned on many occasions, and to which readers often escape. It is as far removed from the setting of hardboiled detective fiction as it is possible to get, and can often be an integral part of the perception that people have of England. Mayhem Parva is the stuff of yore, of cricket on the village green, afternoon tea with the vicar and of cucumber sandwiches. But there is also a much darker side. Peek behind the idyllic facade and things quickly change.
My two favourite examples of Mayhem Parva are the Midsomer of Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby novels and St Mary Mead, home of Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple. On paper, you couldn’t wish to live in nicer places. If these villages actually existed, however, then you would hope that local law enforcement was able to stretch beyond a retired old lady.
The names given to Mayhem Parva novels are often wonderfully evocative and a genuine juxtaposition of good and evil. This fact is rarely mentioned when it comes to non-English perceptions of England. People think of afternoon tea with the vicar rather than The Murder at the Vicarage. In this book, Agatha Christie demonstrates her often overlooked ability to shock by having St Mary Mead’s vicar announce that if Colonel Protheroe were to be killed then the murderer would actually be doing the village a favour. Cue bloody murder, and cue Miss Marple.
Similarly, the fictional village of Badger’s Drift is torn apart in the first Inspector Barnaby novel The Killings at Badger’s Drift when the character of Emily Simpson is found to have been poisoned by a lethal cocktail of red wine and hemlock. Hardly the sort of thing the English tourist board would shout about. The iconic setting of what Mayhem Parva represents is one of the most powerful in crime fiction. It is generally always summer, there is usually a fête or village fair, or (my own favourite plot device) an amateur dramatics production in which the fake weapon is swapped for a real one. The villagers are a mixture of gossipy spinsters, retired army officers and recently-moved-into-the-area outsiders who find it hard to adjust. As for the village itself…well I’ll hand back to Colin Watson,
It would have a well-attended church, an inn with reasonable accommodation for itinerant detective-inspectors, a village institute, library and shops – including a chemist’s where weed killer and hair dye might conveniently be bought.