The little world of Mayhem Parva

In his classic study of British detective fiction, Snobbery with Violence: English Crime Stories and Their Audience (1971), Colin Watson (1920 – 1983) coined the term Mayhem Parva. He actually subtitled chapter 13 in his book: “The little world of Mayhem Parva”. The question is what did he mean by Mayhem Parva?

Several online dictionaries have defined the term Mayhem Parva as: “The archetypical sleepy English village that is the setting for many works of detective fiction.” And they go on to say that “its earliest use is found in Colin Watson in 1971. From mayhem + classical Latin parva, feminine singular of parvus little, after English village names with this as second element (e.g. Ash Parva, Shropshire, Ashby Parva, Leicestershire, etc.)

More specifically, Colin Watson writes: “The setting for the crime stories by what we might call the Mayhem Parva school would be a cross between a village and commuters’ dormitory in the South of England, self-contained and largely self-sufficient. It would have a well-attended church, an inn with reasonable accommodation for itinerant detective-inspectors, a village institute, library and shop — including a chemist’s where weed killer and hair dye might conveniently be bought. The district would be rural, but not uncompromisingly so — there would be a good bus service for the keeping of suspicious appointments in the nearby town, for instance — but its general character would be sufficiently picturesque to chime with the English suburb dweller’s sadly uninformed hankering after retirement to `the country’.”

There is no doubt that the term had a derogatory tone in its inception, but I would like to think that now, that the term is widely established, it may have lost that pejorative sense it originally had, to become a purely descriptive term. Would you agree, or am I totally wrong?

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