I had a friend once who claimed that the vast majority of the people who lived in the part of the country he was from fell into two categories––people leaving the scene of their last crime and people heading to the scene of their next crime. That had to be an fascinating place, to say the least, but out of respect for the (apparently) few whose rejection of the lawless life left them out of step with their fellow citizens, my friend and the place of his origins will remain nameless. However, I think it’s safe to reveal that he grew up in a rural area.
After living in towns and cities for most of my life, I found myself, in my early thirties, living in a rural area for the first time, and one of the things that struck me right off was the great open space between any two places you might want to go. In fact, the folks around there reckoned distance in hours, not miles. In a practical sense, that meant that going someplace––any place––required a bit of planning and sometimes a commitment of considerable resources, in terms of time, gasoline, and the opportunity cost of other forgone activities.
My point in dragging up these two bits of personal trivia is that, once I began writing crime fiction, it dawned on me that plowing the crooked furrow out among the amber waves of grain might be different, in some interesting ways, from being on the wrong side of the law in the land of concrete and car exhaust.
In the towns and cities, simply because people and places and things are packed so densely together, unlawful opportunities would be plentiful and nearby. So, being able to choose among competing options by quickly and correctly spotting the one with the best cost-benefit profile would be an important determiner of success and career longevity.
By contrast, in the rural setting, such opportunities would, by definition, be spread thinner on the ground, so a premium would be placed on the ability to discover and figure out how to safely get to (and away from) the scene of one’s next ‘job’––essentially, how to properly deal with the dangers of greater time and distance and openness.
Each setting seems to demand a different skill-set and a different sort of commitment to a life of crime. An economist might say these different settings impose different barriers to entry. A writer might wonder whether the criminal mind is a transplantable thing––whether an old dog can learn new tricks, whether a veteran of one setting could succeed in the other. Or, would a foreign environment be an insurmountable disadvantage?
One of the great rewards of spinning tales for a living is the ability to experiment with dangerous ideas without being exposed to the legal, physical, and moral consequences of failure. So, I have spent a fair amount of time pondering whether a city crook could make it in the country, and vice-versa.
My instincts tell me that a criminal mind is a criminal mind, and that should be enough. But another part of me insists that, even if that’s true, a change of venue might require a bit of a transition period, and that such a transition period would offer some mighty thought-provoking situations––the kind of fun and games that make crime fiction so much fun to read.
Tales of city crooks preying on country victims (Mean Acres?) and bucolic bad guys bearing down on metropolitan martyrs (The Beverly Killbillies?) are staples of the genre, but those usually involve a victim who has strayed into unfamiliar territory. When the crook is the fish out of water, well . . . that’s a horse of a different color. (I was tempted to write “. . . that’s a different kettle of fish”, but hey, I’ve got my standards. I do not, however, have anything against mixed metaphors.)
In any event, as I consider the versatility of the criminal mind, I’m trying to decide whether either of these fish-out-of-water propositions is enough to carry a novel-length narrative, and whether such a story would work better as a serious piece or something comedic. Hmmm.
by Roger Johns