Sunday, November 26, 2006

Can a setting be too familiar?

Has this ever happened to you? Have you been driven nuts by an author's mistakes with a setting you know well? Distracted by topographical detail when you would rather have been enjoying the story? Have you reached the conclusion that perhaps it's better to read stories set in unfamiliar areas?

A discussion at Yahoo's Oz Mystery Readers group raises the question. A reader from Tasmania said she found David Owen's Pufferfish novels distracting because he didn't get the local ambiance quite right. Another reader responded that she loved the Pufferfish novels but was driven "bats" by some aspects of Garry Disher's settings, which she knew better. And I mentioned having been distracted by an unnecessarily detailed description of a car ride through some Philadelphia streets that I knew. In this case, the author did not get the setting wrong. Indeed, he got it too distractingly right.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006



Anonymous De Scribe said...

It does get to me, Peter, when I start spotting inaccuracies in topographical details. Therefore, I tend to prefer reading stories set in unfamiliar areas.
On a related but different note, quite often I have read crime fiction set in a new place to get a sense of the topography, and then try and map the place out when I visit those places. I figured London out through this route, and then attempted the same with Stockholm.

November 28, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

I had never thought about this matter until that Philadelphia book that I had mentioned.

Have you read any of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels? One character is a driver whose shtick is his lengthy explanations of the shortcuts he takes to avoid traffic all over New York City. Now, there is a field day (or perhaps a minefield) for readers who are sticklers for topographical detail.

November 28, 2006  
Anonymous Maxine said...

I'm sure I often find this about books set in London, but I can't call an example to mind, apart from the famous beginning to "Spycatcher", the book banned in the UK for a year or two (pre-Amazon days). That begins with the author coming out of a non-existent tube station and walking in a nonsensical direction if I recall.
There is the wider issue, which I hesitate to mention as these things have a habit of proliferating -- but what the hell. That of books sent in a country alien to the author, and the author getting it "so" wrong. I love books like this, eg Elizabeth George, who writes about a country that doesn't exist, but rather a parallel universe, as if the 1950s are still going on culturally with all the modern inventions since then.

November 29, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Maxine: Crime-fiction readers from London have had far more time than most to get used to this sort of thing. Perhaps they should be accustomed to inaccurate portrayals, whether the inaccuracies are intentional or not. But what is a poor author to do? A topographically accurate setting may risk offending inhabitants; a topographically altered one may open the author to allegations of sloppiness.

I don't think you need fear starting another controversy with your comments about authors who set books in countries other than their own. That's an established area of discussion. Your comments about Elizabeth George are interesting. Do you think she deliberately creates a "parallel universe"? And do you really "love" her books, or did you roll you eyes while writing "love"?

November 29, 2006  
Anonymous Maxine said...

Just to confirm -- I am not at all offended by authors getting it wrong about Britain. I find it totally endearing. Deborah Crombie used to be good but has gone off in recent outings. I read an awful book by her where she put her main characters in Scotland, cue kilts, whiskey distilleries, glens etc --bit like a 1950s movie but with mobile phones. Hilarious. In fact I don't even know if she is American, but I can't believe she's British.

Elizabeth George, I am not being ironic, I usually do love her books, except her last (which I reviewed for Frank W) was truly awful -- that's partly becuase she focused purely on the London atmosphere social comment (all completely wrong as usual), and omitted any of the other usual elements in her books, eg detection, any of the regular characters, plot, suspense etc. So all you were left with was this frightfully "taking itself terribly seriously earnest let's be a profound social comment on urban deprivation" ramble for far too many pages. If I hadn't promised to review it I would not have finished it.

But usually I love these delightful misrepresentations, I think they are lovely. This is why the first thing I did when I finally got to New York for the first time in my life I immediately went into some seedy dive and asked for a pastrami on rye. I didn't have a clue what it was (other than being some kind of sandwich) and the guy I asked didn't have a clue what I was asking for either (must have been the accent). Just as well really.

November 30, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

I can imagine that a parallel universe might have its charm. What are some other misrepresentations that you find delightful?

Hmm, perhaps social comment is tougher to get right than character, plot, detection, etc. This puts me in mind of the great Donald Westlake. First he wrote hard-boiled (including the Parker novels), then he more or less invented, according to some, the comic caper novel (the Dortmunder books and numerous standalones). More recently, he has taken a more serious or darkly comic turn and started writing about workers who become economic victims, as in The Axe or Ask the Parrot, and the blend of humorous and serious has not always been 100 percent effective. Most recently, I’ve read his novella Walking Around Money which is an awesomely seamless blend of humor with subtle social comment about displaced workers. But that story is set in two areas Westlake knows well: Manhattan and upstate New York.

Your asking for pastrami on rye would be like, what, me asking for bangers and mash, maybe. I never knew about pastrami growing up in Montreal. I think that what Americans call pastrami, we called smoked meat. How did you finally resolve the pastrami impasse (which sounds like a Robert Ludlum title)? What did you wind up eating that day?

November 30, 2006  

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