I always appreciate pastoral settings, and am thus constantly drawn to books set in English villages. Many such books are ubiquitous with the murder mystery genre, but I wanted to create as varied a list as possible. Please let me know if you have read any of these, and which your favourite books set in small villages in England are.
- Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
‘You are about to travel to Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the English countryside filled with rolling hills, thatched cottages, and a cast of characters both hilariously original and as familiar as the members of your own family. Among them is Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson’s wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, Major Pettigrew is one of the most indelible characters in contemporary fiction, and from the very first page of this remarkable novel he will steal your heart.
The Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their respective spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?’
2. The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
‘In 1959 Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, risks everything to open a bookshop – the only bookshop – in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers. By daring to enlarge her neighbors’ lives, she crosses Mrs. Gamart, the local arts doyenne. Florence’s warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.’
3. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
‘It is the summer of 1950–and at the once-grand mansion of Buckshaw, young Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison, is intrigued by a series of inexplicable events: A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Then, hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath.
For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”’
4. Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym
‘Unsuitable romance is the theme of this wickedly comedic novel. A series of entanglements brings together an odd assortment of characters – clergymen, university dons, naive students, and academic hangers-on – with hilarious results.’
5. Thrush Green by Miss Read
‘The first novel in the bestselling Thrush Green series. It’s the May Day holiday, and a fair has come to the village of Thrush Green. The residents of Thrush Green all have their own views about the fair. For young Paul, just recovered from an illness, it is a joy to be allowed out to play at the fair; for Ruth, who returned to the soothing tranquillity of Thrush Green nursing a broken heart, the fair is a welcome distraction from her own problems. And for Dr Lovell, the fair brings an unexpected new patient. Then there is Mrs Curdle, the long-standing matriarch of the fair. For her, this year’s visit to Thrush Green awakens mixed feelings, and a difficulty she doesn’t want to face… Full of Miss Read’s inimitable charm and humour, Thrush Green is a wonderful introduction to this bestselling series.’
6. Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
‘Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Their rented cottage is simultaneously their armour against the world and their sanctuary. Inside its walls they make music, in its garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.
But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. At risk of losing everything, Jeanie and her brother must fight to survive in an increasingly dangerous world as their mother’s secrets unfold, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.
This is a thrilling novel of resilience and hope, of love and survival, that explores with dazzling emotional power how the truths closest to us are often hardest to see.’
7. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
‘High Wages (1930) was Dorothy Whipple’s second novel. It is about a girl called Jane who gets a badly-paid job in a draper’s shop in the early years of the last century. Yet the title of the book is based on a Carlyle quotation – ‘Experience doth take dreadfully high wages, but she teacheth like none other’ – and Jane, having saved some money and been lent some by a friend, opens her own dress-shop.
As Jane Brocket writes in her Persephone Preface: the novel ‘is a celebration of the Lancastrian values of hard work and stubbornness, and there could be no finer setting for a shop-girl-made-good story than the county in which cotton was king.’’
8. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson
‘The case is closed. Five years ago, schoolgirl Andie Bell was murdered by Sal Singh. The police know he did it. Everyone in town knows he did it.
But having grown up in the same small town that was consumed by the murder, Pippa Fitz-Amobi isn’t so sure. When she chooses the case as the topic for her final year project, she starts to uncover secrets that someone in town desperately wants to stay hidden. And if the real killer is still out there, how far will they go to keep Pip from the truth?’