Friday, October 26, 2007

Questions about setting

Geography must be in the air. I was preparing to post a link to John Sutherland’s New Statesman essay on cities and the crime novels they inspire when I found a comment on Crime Always Pays that links to another essay on a similar subject.

Sutherland writes about hyperlocalization: “crime writers' practice of rooting their narrative not just in some metropolitan setting, but in one which is loaded with a `solidity of specification’ (as Henry James called it) far in excess of what that narrative strictly requires.” He calls this a distinct trend in U.S. and British crime fiction of the past fifty years. (Once again a writer on crime fiction invokes Henry James, though not, as Clive James did in the New Yorker in April, to beat crime fiction over the head.)

Sutherland’s piece on hyperlocalization is hypershort and, though he cites authors he says exemplify the practice, he gives no samples. That makes it difficult to know precisely what he means. I was surprised that he dated the trend at half a century. I’d have extended it further back, to Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles in the 1940s. Sutherland cites Ian Rankin, Sara Paretsky, J.A. Konrath, among other writers. Whom would you include? Which crime writers do you think fill their work with “`solidity of specification’ far in excess of what that narrative strictly requires”? And how do they do this?

The other essay, by Ingrid Black, focuses more on killers:

“The obsession with geography which inevitably grips any crime writer who claims a city as their own and tries to stamp their own personality on it is not mere self-indulgence or authorly vanity,” she writes. “It’s an essential counterpart to what the killer, that invisible and unknown protagonist who haunts the pages of every crime novel – the ghost in the machine of the narrative, as it were – does too. The only person who knows the city as well as the detective is the perpetrator. They match their knowledge of the city one against another.”
Is she right to assert that crime writers who put their own stamp on a city do so, in effect, to have their protagonists match wits with the killer?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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11 Comments:

Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't know that it's about having a protagonist match wits against the killer. I mean, that's the core of pretty much any crime fiction novel (at least, that involves catching a bad guy) if you get right down to it. There have been killers that relocated... In this day and age I think it goes down to matching knowledge of forensics and how to leave no evidence as much as anything else.

There are some stories that could be relocated, without difficulty. The setting isn't paramount. Others are very location-specific.

I think what amounts to going beyond what the narrative requires is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the reader. In the case of Ian Rankin, the Rebus books are about more than just the cases and even more than just about Rebus. Part of it is Rebus trying to understand the city. I think that has to do with the fact that he came in as an outsider, disillusioned from his military background, unable to sustain a marriage, losing his role as an active father in the day to day sense. He's looking for an anchor. We see it more in the early books, with his obvious spiritual musings, but throughout the entire series he's struggled to understand Edinburgh. Some cities give birth to specific types of crime by their nature. You find international or national politics in political capitals more than in rural communities, in general. Taking the latest Rebus offering, can you imagine the investigation of the murder of a Russian poet, involving key political figures as suspects, playing out in Vulcan, Alberta? Not likely. But if I was planning to write about gang violence in Alberta I'd be more likely to pick Edmonton over Calgary. More material to draw on, not that I have any interest in that at the moment.

In that respect, it's a delicate balancing act. The story must be somewhat believable for the setting. Writers have to consider that. It boils down to a simple point - crime fiction is often about trying to restore order from chaos. Stop the killer. Find the answers. Obtain justice. Reassure people it won't happen again by solving the case. Good triumphs over evil. In a broader sense, it's about trying to make sense of the horrible things that happen in the world, and part of trying to make sense of those things involves trying to understand the world around us. After 9/11 sales of books about Islam soared. Why? People trying to understand. Part of that understanding comes from the culture, and culture is often rooted in geography. That's changed in recent times, but traditionally, cultures have a geographic root. Relocation can affect how a culture evolves, or doesn't evolve. I remember that from my studies in high school, about the cultural mosaic, and that one of the things that happened in Canada was that immigrants often adhered to cultural practices from their homeland more rigorously than the people they'd left behind, because the society continued to evolve but the people who'd left it stagnated and adhered to the practices as they were when they left.

Anyway, I'd better stop, but it truly must be in the air. The next Spinetingler, which will be up soon, includes an interview with Rick Mofina, and a long discussion about setting.

October 27, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

That's all thought-provoking, Sandra.

There's another aspect as well: the detective or cop lives and works in a specific place. Rarely does he chase the perpetrator all over creation. (The List of Adrian Messenger, which I mentioned a couple of posts ago, is an exception.) Usually the criminal commits his crime in that location; that's where the evidence is. Motive may be found elsewhere, but the opportunity was used where the detective already is.

Even Travis McGee usually doesn't have to go further than another part of Florida to hunt down the bad guy, and to MacDonald's eye all of Florida has been polluted by the grifters and the crooked politicians, so he needn't have McGee stray far.

October 27, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Yes, thought-provoking enough that I'll likely spread my reply over several comments and several days. There's a bit much here for me to reply to at once, especially considering the late hour. If I have my time zones right, I'm two hours east of one of you, six hours east of the other.

Ingrid Black's comments seem extreme to me at first glance, perhaps a worthy enticement for me to read her novel. It's interesting that her use of match suggested to me the idea of matching wits. That, in turn, is evocative of nothing so much as Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. This is appropriate, since Conan Doyle was arguably the first crime writer who made evocative use of an urban setting. I read one essentially dismissive essay about Holmes, in fact, that said the stories' saving grace was their descriptions, mostly nocturnal, of London.

I'm not the Rankin reader you are, Sandra, but the novels I have read suggest Rebus struggling with the city, perhaps, with himself, and with the killer, but not killer and Rebus matching knowledge of the city, as far as I can recall. I shall have to think about this for a while. It's interesting, too, that you suggested the importance of matching knowledge of forensics "in this day and age." The other article I cited proposes hyperlocalization as a relatively recent phenomenon. It that's accurate, perhaps authors emphasize the particularlity of setting as a reaction to the impersonality and universality of forensics. Criminy, it must be really late if I am throwing our such vague notions. Again, I will have to think about this more carefully.

Linkmeister, I wonder if your example of Travis McGee and his quarry supports Ingrid Black's argument about the importance of settings.

October 27, 2007  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, here's another "food for thought" tidbit to throw in the mix, for both of you.

People like things they can grasp. Most books involve a protagonist who's identified to us, very little comes out in second person narrative, for example.

Now, we have police chasing cybercrimes, involving multiple jurisdictions, international activity, hunting pornographers etc. But it's hard to represent in a book, on a few levels. One is that you have to almost live in offices and computers, and that means a lack of physical action throughout. But the other is the generic settings. It's hard to deal with things like hunting terrorists... face it, even in the wake of 9/11, it was hard to pinpoint the enemy. The enemy was not a country but a belief system supported by certain extremists. It wasn't like the Cold War, where you could put your finger on a map and say, 'That's where the enemy is.' Part of the reason the Iraq invasion was so controversial.

Could it just be as simple as the fact that it's hard to represent the crimes that transcend geographic boundaries in works of fiction? Harder to present, harder for people to follow?

Peter, I would agree with what you said about Rebus, with one exception: Cafferty. He's invested a lot of energy in trying to take him down over the years.

October 27, 2007  
Blogger Simona said...

I am totally not an expert in crime fiction: I just like to read a few authors who all happen to write in the genre. The topic of geography is interesting and I thought about my favorite authors with regards to it. I am a fan of Camilleri's Montalbano stories. Solidity of specification applies well to his rendition of Vigata, Montelusa and the Sicilian landscape (so much so that the town of Porto Empedocle, which is the real Vigata, now officially bears both names). Another example is Augusto De Angelis' Milan of the 1920's. I am not sure this author has been translated into English. He evokes a foggy, rainy, silent in the night Milan which may be a bit reminiscent of Conan Doyle's London. The protagonist of these novels is il commissario De Vincenzi.

October 27, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Regarding the transcendent geographic boundaries, most Cold War novelists didn't seem to have much trouble, as I recall. They did all seem to end up in Berlin, though. ;)

It's easier in movies, I think, because it's a visual medium. War Games comes to mind as one that took place almost entirely in cyberspace, but Fail Safe and North by Northwest moved across state or country borders easily.

October 27, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Simona, the Montalbano novels may be more immediate and clearer examples of stories that pit the detective against his quarry in a battle for who knows the landscape best, though in this case it is not usually a city. And Camilleri's notion of geography includes human geography as well, I'd say. On top of that, the man writes these wonderful novels while living in Rome. He must maintain vivid memories of his earlier life in Sicily.

I'm intrigued by Augusto De Angelis. When did he write? Reading him just might be a mind-expanding experience. The 1920s in Milan may well have been a combustible and highly interesting period of history and, to me at least, little known. Mi dispiace che non posso leggere abbastanza bene l'italiano!

October 27, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

This is good food for thought, Sandra, rich and nourishing, full of good intellectual fiber.

Your comments about cybercrime tie in with several things I've read or thought about in recent years. One is the surprising rarity of movies in which computers play a large role -- surprising considering how large computers are said to loom in our lives, less so considering how difficult it is to make visually compelling drama out of them. Another is that I recently read an author's lament about the decline of P.I. stories and traditional mysteries at the expense of thrillers. What do thriller authors write about in the post-9/11 era? A third is that trans-national crime-fighting of the kind you mention may present difficulties, but it's a rich field for the sort of jurisdictional clashes that are a strong component of Italian and French crime fiction.

Finally, your comment goes right to the heart of my interest in "international" crime fiction. One of the first such novels I read, maybe the very first, was Henning Mankell's Firewall, which held my attention precisely because it combined international manipulation of financial networks with the workings of a small-city police procedural. Perhaps this globalization of crime and the people who try to solve it accounts for the high number of crime writers who acknowledge, sometimes with bitterness, the workings of the great transnational world, but then turn inward for the dramas and conflicts that form the heart of their stories. One could discuss Ken Bruen, for one, in such terms.

Linkmeister, Cold War writers may have crossed boundaries with ease, but one always knew who the enemy was or was supposed to be. Even a novel such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which, arguably, demolished the idea of a morally superior us vs. an evil them, would not have been possible had the clear us-vs.-them rivalry not been there for Le Carre to demolish. These days, there's not even a clear cut "them." No one can even figure out what to call the bad guys or the bad isms, much less figure out where they are, who they are, and how to catch them.

October 27, 2007  
Blogger Brian said...

First I’d like to say that typically, it seems, when the discussion of city-centric characters arises its in relation to PI’s and the books that encompass that PI’s series. One can’t deny the relationship between certain PI’s and their locales. Lew Griffin HAS to be in New Orleans; Kenzie & Gennaro HAS to be in Boston etc. I think there is a reason for this. The PI is a man of the town, his town. More importantly he is, in many ways, the physical embodiment of the city. Their stories cannot be transplanted elsewhere. Griffin IS New Orleans & Kenzie IS Boston.

But doesn’t this, to an extent, make sense.

In a genre like Fantasy, the protagonist is typically someone of low social stature, who is possessed of something that will be the catalyst for categorical change of the entire world (word used loosely). In crime fiction the often times we see that same singular protagonist railing against the system and throwing bricks at the temple. But the larger entity, very often wins, chugging along nearly unchanged but leaving the protag altered. So, if the larger forces absorb and integrate the protag then it makes sense that he is the city itself.

But on a more practical level the PI is someone who exists in different social circles and can maneuver easily in them. This device allows the protag to interact with a cross section of people from different socio/politico/economic strata and is effective in that it allows the author to infuse his chosen locale with life so that that the city becomes its own character in the book. And since the city so clearly becomes its own character then that may be why there is such a strong link between it and the charcters.

Let me say up front that I haven’t seen Dexter because I don’t have Showtime, but my impression of it is that it isn’t location specific. That this is a tale that COULD be told somewhere else. But I do have HBO and I look at something like The Wire and (putting aside the fact that I am from B-more) it absolutely cannot be told somewhere else.

I actually disagree with a lot of what Ingrid Black says but a trunicated version of the quote you provide does also apply to The Wire in that both sides of each season have an inherent knowledge of the city but that whole ghost in the machine business is a little bit of hooey if you ask me.

I knocked all of this out over morning coffee so I’m not even too sure if it makes sense :)

October 28, 2007  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

See, I knew I had to get your input on this Brian!

The TV show Dexter only needs a place with a lot of crime. Access to the ocean and an inept police department doesn't hurt, but yes, the show could be moved.

October 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Welcome, Brian, and thanks for weighing in. I was especially interested in Ingrid Black's thoughts because I found them debatable. Is a crime story really a contest between killer and detective for who knows the city best (leaving aside the question of whether her dictum could equally apply to a non-urban crime novel such as The Skull Mantra)? Debatable but intriguing. Having read her strongly held views, I now want to read her fiction.

I will keep in mind what you wrote about larger forces absorbing the protagonist and how this squares with the traditional image of the outsider. For now I can say that coffee apparently keeps your mind sharp. Your arguments made sense to me.

Sandra, perhaps it may be time to hook my TV up, plug it in, and turn it on.

October 29, 2007  

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