By Ann Cox, MLS, Collection Development Librarian
All collection development librarians know that looking for publishing trends is a major part of the job, but I think most of us are also fascinated by the overlap with the real-world events and pop culture fads that inspire authors to write. Whatever your political views, we can all agree that an awful lot of ink has been spilled over the last several years about rural America. With blockbuster nonfiction titles like Hillbilly Elegy and White Trash at the top of many libraries’ holds lists, many city-dwellers are taking a closer look at the geographical socioeconomic divisions that have existed throughout our country’s history. The trend is also found in fiction. While it has been around for decades, the recent rise in popularity of the rural noir subgenre reflects the tone of the country, and what better way to examine the gritty truths and hidden corners of our fears than through crime?
Novelist Keith Scribner explains that, like all crime fiction, the appeal of rural noir is its ability to make sense of the chaos of the darkness. He writes, “The best rural noir transports us and traps us in a place with people who are also trapped there by lifetimes of trouble, poverty, obligations, kinship, or an inability to see beyond the next hilltop. In these stories the people are inseparable from the land and its history. Although their challenges are crushing and their luck ran out generations ago, there seems to always be a glimmer of the persistent human spirit.” With roots in the Southern Gothic tradition, the genre can be traced back William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor’s use of violence and small-town eccentrics to examine the hardship, desperation, and intrinsic fears of a changing social and economic landscape.
Aside from its current popularity, there are several classics and standards of rural noir that you probably already have on your shelves. The novels of Cormac McCarthy are famous for their graphic violence, grotesque scenarios, and brazen characters fighting to survive their terrible decisions. Start with Child of God.Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell focuses more on the fallout of crime than on the act itself, but it still deftly portrays the harshness and anxiety ingrained in choices made when backed into a corner. James Lee Burke’s detective Dave Robicheaux is based in New Orleans, but his investigations usually take him deep into the bayou, like in The Neon Rain. And while it’s not technically fiction, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood reads like a novel and features all the tropes, exploring in detail horrific murders in the bucolic Kansas heartland.
As rural noir has gained traction, a greater range of voices have been at the core of these stories. The Midwestern novels of Laura McHugh are some of my favorite mysteries of the past decade, and her latest, What’s Done in Darkness, explores religious zealotry and the binds that keep us from moving on. Attica Locke writes racially-charged thrillers and mysteries, and her Highway 59 series stars Texas Ranger Darren Matthews, a Black man, solving the crimes deemed particularly challenging due to their racial component. In S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland, financial desperation drives – literally – former getaway driver Bug Montage to do that one last job.
And why should Americans get all the chills? Many international authors also examine rural crime within their own locations. Bestselling author Jo Nesbø writes about the clash between two brothers when one wants to convert their remote Norwegian family farm into a resort in the standalone The Kingdom. Tana French, an American transplant to Ireland herself, moves a retired Chicago cop in The Searcher to an insular Irish village with hidden threats behind every door. In Candice Fox’s Crimson Lake, a former detective wrongfully accused of a terrible crime flees to an Australian backwater to escape his ruined reputation and teams up with a convicted murderer-turned-investigator to solve the disappearance of a bestselling author. Crocs aren’t the only things with teeth.
For gritty, psychologically-astute depictions of crime and vice, rural noir proves that a country road can be just as dangerous as a city alleyway. Find these and many more authors and titles on our Rural Noir ipage list.