‘Small Towns” is the next book in the series ‘The Best New True Crime Stories‘ which is of course, the anthology series edited by Mitzi Szereto. You have seen a review of the first book ‘Serial Killers’ here as well.
Serial Killers was quite an opening act for a series and that raises the bar for the next anthology significantly. Well, without question I can say that Mitzi did not just meet that bar. She raised it.
‘Small Towns’ is at this point my personal favorite.
The book contains short stories by the following authors: Tom Larsen, C.L. Raven, Edward Butts, Mark Fryers, Alexandra Burt, Charlotte Platt, Christian Cipollini, Iris Leona Marie Cross, David Brasfield, Deirdre Pirro, Paul Williams, Joe Turner, Stephen Wade, and of course, Mitzi Szereto.
Each story explores a small town in an idyllic setting. As the cover illustration by Debra Millet shows, idyllic is an illusion as it is out of focus.
At first glance, we see a setting of a row of buildings that can come straight out of ‘Little House of the Prairie.’ Peaceful, handmade, and local craftsmen and women in a self-sustaining community. But when you zoom in the cover image becomes less sharp, even unhinged in the background. Straight lines deform and blur. The lines between buildings are no longer indicating boundaries.
It now turns into Cabot Cove that features in ‘Murder, She Wrote.’ In the episode ‘Mirror, Mirror on the Wall’ from May 1989, we see Doc Seth Hazlitt in need of a pie dish to bake dessert. When he finds nobody at home he automatically and without hesitation goes around the back, enters his friend’s Jessica Fletcher’s home through the open back door, and walks straight to the kitchen cabinets to grab a pie dish. He feels so at home and safe that without hesitation he grabs an apple from her fruit bowl but then promptly falls down on the floor, unconscious. Poisoned.
You need not be a fan of Jessica’s investigating skills to see how the calm setting of Cabot Cove stands in stark contrast to the many crimes that happen there. Lines blur there all the time and as the saying goes ‘old families have old secrets.’
Mitzi’s book takes you around the world. Some of the crimes described were solved but many were not. Many people are good at keeping secrets. And in some cases, the discussed crimes leave you unsettled for many reasons.
A small sample: we start in Snowtown, South Australia, population around 500. When the story unfolds we are left standing with 12 dead bodies, 6 plastic barrels, 4 suspects, and 1 baffled small town wondering what to do with their notoriety. In Woodstock, Ontario we see an exhumation that hopefully will answer the question whether there is a killing bride amongst the population. Mitzi’s own story gives us a painful overview of what happens when a mentally unstable young man breaks down in Alger, Skagit County, Washington.
The story by Fryers is a painful reminder of the terror the Golden State Killer unleashed on California’s population. There are eerie similarities in binding, eating from the victims’ homes, and watching tv before assaulting again.
The story by Cross is heartbreaking. Children who have been inside their home with the decaying bodies of their murdered parents before help arrived. Taking care of each other as best as they could and now facing a life of therapy to regain a sense of normalcy. This one is an unsolved case.
We haven’t touched yet on voodoo, illegal medical practices, and cannibalism.
Szereto saved the last story for one that so slowly crawls under your skin until you can hear the waves, you can smell the decaying bodies of prisoners, and can feel how a spree killer placed a small town in a permanent state of pain. They have erased his name from as many things as they could but his actions have forever shattered this small Tasmanian town.
Throughout the book, the victims and their families are treated with respect and dignity. Szereto has made sure that the book is a tribute to resilience as well as to the will of the people in small towns to move on after tragedy.
In the beginning you may think about making this your next world trip, dark tourism. Following the stories, jumping counties, countries, and continents. But after Wade’s story, I feel the need for just the blurring lines from Millet’s cover image. The knowing sharp lines turned to smudges and oddly, out of focus, knowing less, now feels comforting.
Highly recommended reading.
Note: I received a copy of the book ‘The best New True Crime Stories Small Towns’ from Mango Publishing in exchange for an honest review. My other book reviews are here.