POCATELLO/FAIRFIELD, ID – Don’t email me about it. I know it’s mid-winter, not mid-summer, and that I spelled Midsomer wrong, but this column title pays homage to my favorite British television series, Midsomer Murders. Each episode in the series solves a murderous puzzle introducing a plethora of classic characters, all ages, who live in tiny contemporary English villages in manor houses or fairy tale cottages with expertly thatched roofs.
Like England, Idaho has many tiny villages but with many more miles between them. Also, Idaho is a bit rougher than Midsomer County. Thatch is unknown here, but corrugated tin roofs, barbed wire fences, and weeds left to grow up through defunct farm equipment replace those carefully tended English gardens.
Midsomer is a fantasy, of course, but the mean-spirited characters who gossip, blackmail, back-stab, and plot complicated murders are oddly familiar, especially if you’ve spent any amount of time living in a tiny community anywhere on this planet. After all, I read somewhere that small town life influences horror story writer Stephen King’s devious plots.
Humans are fascinated by each other’s behavior and take great pleasure in discussing it. In small towns it’s impossible to hover below the radar. If you don’t do something notorious, the rumor mill will invent a few juicy tidbits, especially in February when cabin fever tensions are at their most extreme.
And unfortunately, none of us citizens are immune from feeding the mill. There are no innocent bystanders.
Although women hold the international reputation for gossip, men might actually be in the lead according to recent studies (check Google “studies on gossip and men”). Men in small communities traditionally gather in coffee shops and local watering holes when work is interrupted or over for the day. According to my ex, Idaho topics of discussion include “farming, logging and construction work,“ but if you eavesdrop, as any decent writer is inclined to do, you hear very different story themes.
“When are them two gonna stop heating two houses?”
“I hear she moved out, is livin’ up the crik with that one-eyed cowboy.”
“Looks like ol’ Bill got himself a camp tender for the winter. Heh heh.”
“He’d probably stay home if the wife would peel them spuds instead of feeding him that instant stuff.”
“Saw that two-headed driver cruisin’ out by the reservoir yesterday. Haha.”
Sexual liaisons and misbehaving wives seem to top the gossip threads.
And rural Idaho is not exempt from murder despite our belief in mythic pastoral idylls. Twenty some years ago, in Fairfield, a rather “slow” young man was killed by rifle fire in his rented home one night after the Club Cigar closed. Rumors suggested sexual jealousy and alcohol (mysteriously including methyl/rubbing alcohol) contributed to the “accident,” as it was later officially declared.
More recently in Camas County, a local entrepreneur who hired a troubled young man to work at his golf course was beaten to death by him. Turns out, the guy was schizophrenic and off his meds. His family saw the deterioration coming, but was unable to convince the man to seek help, or the authorities to take him in hand.
And way way back in the 1930s, my grandfather, Frank Croner, an attorney in Fairfield, happened to be walking by a hotel run by Mrs. Murphy. He heard shots and saw Mrs. Angel (the prosecuting attorney’s wife) running down the walk. As the family story goes, he went into the hotel and found Mrs. Murphy shot dead. As he came out, Mr. Angel came up the walk and asked, “Did she hurt that woman, Frank?”
“She’s deader’n hell, Dick, deader’n hell.”
School was let out for the trial, and rumor has it (among my now deceased father, uncles and aunts) that the jury didn’t want to hang a woman, so she was declared innocent. During my explorations, I found a piece of Mrs. Murphy’s dress with the bullet hole in it in the evidence box in the county court house.
Little escapes the eyes of rural neighbors who can be anywhere from a half section or more apart. I once got a call from a neighbor asking me about the pickup towing a boat that had pulled into my driveway. I hadn’t yet noticed the boat had arrived.
There are advantages to this 24-hour surveillance, however. When insurance salesmen or Jehovah’s Witnesses are on the prowl, neighbors send out warnings. One time I hid in a back room to avoid a Jehovah family hoping they’d soon go on their way. Instead, they set up a picnic lunch in my driveway trapping me in my own house for nearly an hour until they’d finished their meal.
Some people move to small towns to “get away from it all,” but soon find themselves confused by the lack of privacy they believed they’d achieve. Some take to buying guns and building high walls and fences around their plots. They post signs: KEEP OUT: THIS MEANS YOU thinking the signs offer a layer of protection when they may as well install targets along the fence line.
In Midsomer, the murder victim is often described as “quiet, kept himself to himself,” but keeping to oneself is little protection in Midsomer England or Idaho for that matter. My advice is to live loudly and wildly. Give your neighbors something to talk about because they will anyway.