When we think about our hometowns most of us are gripped by strong emotions of one sort or another. There’s the never-going-back-in-a-million-years crowd and the fond memories crowd. And then there are those of us who never left. My hometown was more of a suburb. We lived on the fringes of the city of Ottawa in Eastern Ontario. Mine was a neighborhood and a childhood like so many others in North America in the 70s. I rode my bike down shady streets all summer and built snow forts in winter. We swam in the local pool until our fingers withered and our eyes burned. We poked sticks into the muddy creek next to the high school and we played hide-the-flag with the neighborhood kids across the vast, fenceless yards until darkness fell and our mothers called us inside. I guess that makes me part of the fond memories crowd. But I’m also a writer of dark thrillers which makes my oh-so-normal and kind of uneventful hometown experience somewhat fertile ground for the oh-so-macabre and kind of twisted stories that I’m fond of writing.
You see even though my friends and I never found any bodies floating in that creek, unearthed a rotting corpse while playing in our backyards or happened upon a horrific and bloody crime scene in the community pool, that place where I swam and played and climbed and poked around—that place I call my hometown—turns out to be the perfect setting for murder.
And I’m not the only writer who thinks so. A number of authors of crime, mystery, and thrillers have crafted brilliant novels about characters who return to their hometowns after years away. Their reasons for leaving and returning are all deliciously different, but each of the characters in these novels inevitably finds themselves smack dab in the middle of a long forgotten mystery—usually one that a few people in town would prefer stayed dead and buried.
So why is this story of the hero returning home to solve a crime so appealing? I know why I was inspired to write such a story in my debut thriller, “Dark August”. Because where we grew up is where our memories still reside. And when we return home and walk the streets of our childhood, those memories come to life. They are conjured by the smell of baked bread wafting from a window or the sound of a woodpecker drumming on a dead elm. And because our hometowns are often populated by the ghosts of our pasts, they can leave us feeling haunted in wonderfully scary ways. Going home is sometimes less about revisiting an actual place than it is about coming back to who we truly are – back to our youth, back to our secrets, back to what makes us tick. A return home can be hugely personal. The stakes are sky high and, frankly, that’s all great fodder for suspenseful writing. Characters returning home often discover something about themselves that they’d forgotten or lost, all while solving a thrilling mystery. And on that note, here’s a reading list of some terrific novels featuring some dark and stormy journeys back home.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (Penguin Random House, September 2006)
This super creepy debut thriller follows reporter, Camille Preaker, who returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri when a girl is murdered and another goes missing. What brings Preaker back home is an assignment, but the past has a truly eerie vibe in Flynn’s novel and it is a relentless force. Preaker is a woman literally scarred by demons in her past. As she reconnects, as if that’s even possible, with her weirdly dysfunctional family, Preaker attempts to cover a newspaper story. But it’s her disturbing connection to her hometown that makes the task both impossibly harrowing and terrifyingly dangerous.
The Dry by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan, May 2016)
In yet another great debut about a return home, Harper’s novel follows Aaron Falk’s reluctant homecoming to the town of Kiewarra, Australia where he has come to attend the funerals of the family of his best friend. Apparently, his friend murdered his wife and son, then killed himself. It looks like an open and shut case. But Falk is a Federal police agent so he’s got some investigative chops. When he starts digging through the past, the truth of what really happened begins to emerge. It’s the bleak dry landscape and the blowflies swarming over corpses that gives the reader insight into why Falk left his hometown is the first place. Like Preaker in Sharp Objects, Falk’s is a homecoming steeped in secrets about to be exhumed.
A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner (Down and Out Books, May 2017)
The first in a gritty crime series featuring detective Elliot Caprice, this hard-boiled and stylish tale is set against the backdrop of Chicago, Southville and St. Louis in the 50s. Gardner’s debut novel follows Caprice, a war hero and disgraced Chicago police officer, who wakes up in a St. Louis jail after being on the run for a year. Sprung from his cell, Caprice decides the only place to go when you’re in deep trouble is back home. He returns to his hometown of Southville to find everything in disarray. Needing money, he takes a straight job, but soon mobsters he owes come calling, and Caprice heads back to Chicago where he’s caught between the police and the syndicate. Of mixed race, Caprice is a complex character also caught between the two worlds of black and white. He’s driven by anger, but looking for a better way to navigate life. You can’t help but root him.
Faithful Place by Tana French (Viking Press, June 2010)
In this gripping thriller from Tana French, her main character, Frank Mackey, returns to Dublin and the dead end street called Faithful Place where he grew up. He left years earlier after his first love, Rosie, failed to show up for their planned elopement to London. A couple of decades later, Frank’s a detective and Rosie’s suitcase mysteriously turns up in an abandoned house on Faithful Place. Another dysfunctional family, another unresolved mystery and another reluctant hometown return by a protagonist hell-bent on finding out the truth – all of which makes this novel both heart-wrenching and nail-biting.
Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien (St. Martin’s Paperbacks, March 2018)
This first volume of Chien’s Noodle Shop Mystery series serves up the lighter side of the returning home story in a saucy novel set in a Chinese neighborhood in Cleveland. Lana Lee’s life has gone off the rails and she’s come home to work in her family’s restaurant after losing both her job and her boyfriend. Life couldn’t get any worse. Or could it? When a dumpling delivery leads to the murder of property manager, Mr. Feng, Lee suddenly finds herself a prime suspect. But it turns out Mr. Feng had lots of enemies and Lee must embark on some amateur sleuthing to clear her name. It’s a fun and light-hearted cozy mystery. And who doesn’t love dumplings?
Before We Were Strangers by Brenda Novak (MIRA Books, December 2018)
This darkly woven mystery features the return of Sloane McBride to her small hometown in Texas. It seems small towns are the perfect claustrophobic setting for the return home story. They ooze secrets and lies. Everyone knows everyone in a small town. Or do they? McBride moved away to New York at eighteen, but the past has haunted her ever since. Now that she’s back, McBride decides to find out what really happened to her mother who disappeared when she was five. Her father is so intertwined with what happened that night that digging into the past and relying on her shaky memories could end up destroying her family. Yet another riveting book in which the past can only truly be reconciled by returning home.
Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham (Orion Books, June 2012)
This is the first in a series of crime novels featuring the gutsy and quirky, Fiona Griffiths, a junior detective in South Wales. I just love this character and her inability to resist side-stepping police procedures. She’s brilliant at getting herself out of deadly predicaments using either her smarts or a makeshift weapon, or a combination of both. Due to a rare dissociative condition called Cotard’s Syndrome, Griffiths believes she can to talk to the dead so she likes hanging out with bodies on occasion. I’ve snuck Bingham’s macabre and lovely novel onto this reading list because Griffith’s often returns to her childhood home in an effort to understand the secret of her odd start in life. You see, she was found at the age of three sitting in the car of her adoptive parents. Exactly who left her there and why she was abandoned is a mystery that haunts her into adulthood – a mystery that she believes could explain her affliction. Throughout the series, Griffiths periodically goes home to revisit the past, sift through old photographs or talk to her evasive father about how she ended up in his car. All of this she does in the midst of investigating cases for the Major Crimes Unit, hoping that one day she’ll unlock the mystery tucked away in her remarkably unusual brain.
The Reckoning by John Grisham (Penguin Random House, October 2018)
This dark mystery is something of a homecoming for the author, John Grisham, who has set “The Reckoning” in the mythical town of Clanton, Mississippi where over the last thirty years he has set at least three of his novels and a few short stories. The main character, Pete Banning, is also making a return to Clanton as a war hero in 1946. But in this story, a crime hasn’t been long buried. It is about to be committed. Something has changed in Banning upon his return. He sends his wife to an asylum and kills the local pastor. Banning won’t explain why he did what he did and so begins this suspense-fuelled mystery about complicated entanglements between local black and white families, about a favourite son who calmly commits a cold-blooded crime, and a hometown left reeling in the wake of a baffling murder.
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke (Mulholland Books, September 2013)
In this powerful thriller about race and redemption, Darren Mathews returns to East Texas where he grew up. He’s been asked to look into two murders that have stirred up long simmering racial tensions in the town of Lark. He’s a Texas Ranger who drinks too much, has a rocky marriage and was recently suspended. Despite his issues around growing up black in the lone star state, Mathews travels back to East Texas to try to solve the crimes, putting his own life in jeopardy. His very identity comes into question as he digs into Lark’s past and present where old deeds seem to have left a residue on the town. It’s a compelling novel about hatred and love and everything in between.
Dark August by Katie Tallo (Harper Paperbacks, June 2020)
A homecoming is at the very heart of my novel. Augusta Monet is twenty and a bit lost in life. It’s been a long time since she’s felt like she’s had a home. “Gus” returns to her hometown when she inherits her great-grandmother’s house and dog. Once there, she becomes embroiled in a cold case that her mother was investigating as a police detective before her death. With an old dog by her side, Gus digs into the case and uncovers a conspiracy of deception that awakens the wrath of some very dangerous people. It’s a chilling thriller that centres around a young woman’s unflinching search for the truth, set against a backdrop of emotional turmoil as she combs through the wreckage of her life for a place she can finally call home.
I never did move very far from that suburb where I grew up. But it feels like I, too, have somehow returned to my hometown. By setting my novel in the place where I rented my first apartment, met my husband, and raised my daughter, my debut feels grounded in the place where my memories are most alive and vivid and raw and real. And even though I have yet to excavate a severed limb from amidst the lilies in my front garden or find a body floating in my murky pool (notwithstanding that poor squirrel), I have definitely begun to unearth the writer in me. She’s the one who loves to write stories about home. And not the home-sweet-home kind. The home-sweet-homicide kind. And she’s just getting started.