Thursday, January 24, 2008

Crime fiction close to home and a question for readers

The latest border I’ve crossed brings me to my native land: Canada, for The Delicate Storm by Giles Blunt. My early impression is favorable. The man can portray small-city humor and hopelessness as well as any American or Swede you’d care to name.

But I’ve also noticed familiar touches: names that reflect Canada’s Anglophone and Francophone mix (Ivan Bergeron, Lisa Delorme), and the jacket’s reference to an investigation that leads back three decades to Quebec terrorists. I lived through that period; I’ll be interested to see how Blunt handles it.

And now, readers, your question: How do you feel about crime fiction set in and around places where you have lived? Examples, please!

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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20 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Funny you should think this one up now. I'm on the third and latest mystery from Deborah Turrell Atkinson, featuring a Honolulu lawyer who's part Hawaiian. There's a lot of local folklore and Hawaiian legend in these books, and it's accurate as far as I can tell. The author lives here and has since 1988 or so (a year after I got here!). They're pretty good books, and she's got the small town part of Hawai'i down pat.

So first things first: if you suspect a resident of the area's going to read it, you'd better be accurate in the details. Don't have your protagonist turn East on a one-way street going West.

January 24, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Oops. Eleven years after I got here. Missed a decade there.

January 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

I know the author is Canadian, though he was not born in the part of Ontario he writes about. At any rate, he thanks a member of the North Bay police department and a researcher as well, so he apparently worked to make sure he got details right. He also has created a fictional city, Algonquin Bay, though this is said to be based on the real North Bay. Still this gives him license to rearrange geography to suit his purposes.

My perspective will be somewhere between those of a native and a stranger. I'm from Canada, but not from Ontario. And I've never been to the parts of Northern Ontario where Blunt sets his books.

January 24, 2008  
Blogger Kerrie said...

This is a question that I have considered often. I read one set in Adelaide and found myself trying to place locations mentioned. In CHAIN OF EVIDENCE, Garry Disher appears to be using authentic locations until Hal Challis visits Mawsons Bluff in South Australia - but this is a fictitious place, and I could not get it out of my mind as I read. Every time the place was mentioned I ground my teeth!

January 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

I pity your poor teeth! I can imagine that a mix of real and fictitious locations might be jarring to someone who knows the real locations well.

Perhaps one is safest avoiding stories about places one knows to the point of topographic detail, or maybe writers should just avoid such detail.

January 24, 2008  
Anonymous bookwitch said...

Henning Mankell's Return of the Dancing Master. The detective is roaming about all sorts of places I used to live, used to go on holiday, where my relatives live, etc. It felt very good.

January 24, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

The hero in Paul Johnston's The Death List lives a few metres from where I lived on Denmark Hill South London. Most of the characters in the book were insane or chose completely the wrong options. It was very accurate and I was pleased the area did not seem to have changed much in the 45 years since I had left.;)

January 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Bookwitch, I suppose Mankell got the details right, then, and probably the atmosphere, too.

Uriah, apparently Paul Johnson had at least the human geography down very nicely.

January 24, 2008  
OpenID Petrona said...

I grew up in Oxford. Later, I went to college there and got my first job there, living there until I was about 22.
So I have plenty of choice! Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, for example. Perhaps the most fun was when the first Morse books by Colin Dexter came out, because they were not focused on the colleges, but on the acutal Oxford that people live in, eg "Jericho" and Woodstock Road.

Kingston upon Thames, where I live now, is not rich in literature, but there was once a Sherlock Holmes story set here.
Maxine.

January 24, 2008  
Blogger Simona said...

One of the reasons I have enjoyed reading Augusto de Angelis' stories featuring commissario De Vincenzi is that they are set (at least the three I have read) in Milan, where I lived for 10 years. I think he captures beautifully the atmosphere of the city, especially when it is foggy or rainy. I like reading about streets, squares and other places I know.

January 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Why, Maxine, I never knew you were an Oxonian.

I have read a few of the Morse books, and I seem to recall Colin Dexter doing a good job with setting. I have no way to judge his accuracy, but his Oxford was convincing, whereas excessive focus on the colleges might have seemed stagy. That, I'd say, is an author's first job with respect to setting. Accuracy is important when called for, but a convincing setting is even more important than an accurate one.

January 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Simona, I see that you commented on Augusto de Angelis a few months back. I also just did a quick Web search on him, and he seems to have been an interesting figure. I wish someone would translate his work into English.

You compared him to Conan Doyle in his ability to evoke the atmosphere of his city. That's a good advertisement for him. All I know of Milan is the areas around S. Maria della Grazie, S. Ambrogio, and the duomo. But I can picture the rain splashing off the stones in the Piazza del Duomo even though it was not raining when I was there.

January 24, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Last year I was the 'opening act' for Giles Blunt at a reading in Toronto and I have to say, he's a great guy. I've never been to North Bay (I grew up in Montreal and currently live in Toronto) but I found Algonquin Bay totally believable. Maybe because the characters in the books are so well developed.

I remember reading THE MAIN by Trevanian when I still ived in Montreal and really liking it. CITY OF ICE was also a good book set in Montreal (by Will or Trevor Ferguson, I can never remember which one, under a pseudonym which I can't remember).

Louise Penny's books are also set in a fictional town, Three Pines (what is it with Canadians and fake towns?) in the Eastern Townships not far from Montreal and used the setting very well.

Just today I was saying to someone that Toronto is a pretty well-known city but has very little crime fiction set in it. I guess that works for me.

I'd like to find more crime fiction set in places I've lived.

January 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Did Trevanian ever live in Montreal? And did the characters in The Main converse colorfully over smoked meat (not "pastrami") at Schwartz's?

I wonder if Canadian authors' fake towns are any faker than Ed McBain's Isola -- real town in all but name, in other words. I often refer to a novel I started to read that was set where I now live. The author described a car ride in accurate detail -- down this street, left on that one, right on the next -- the seemed distracting and beside the point.

You write; how do you feel about topographical accuracy? I would imagine that one incentive to use fake names for cities and towns is to avoid that pressure to be accurate down to the tiniest detail.

January 24, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

I don't know if Trevanian ever lived in Montreal but I'm pretty sure the characters ate at Schwartz's, afterall, he called the book, The Main. I do remember that one of the characters lived in a walk-up facing Carre St. Louis and there was at least one scene of cops eating steamies in the Montreal Pool Room on St. Laurent.

For me, I have no reason to change any geography. But you're right, the trick is in the balancing of giving enough information so the reader understands and not so much that they're annoyed. As in everything else in the book.

I think places have character and it's important to get that right. You start changing geography, you might mess up the feel of the place. Crime fiction may be the most connected to place of any genre. You think Rebus, you think Edinburgh. Michael Connelly, LA. Sara Paretsky, Chicago. the personalities of those cities are important parts of the books.

January 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

I'll have to look for The Main, though I confess that neither I nor my forebears grew up around Duluth and Clark.

I can well imagine that mixing real and fictional geography is dangerous in the way you suggest. Perhaps it's safer to go all real or all fictional.

I think I'm beginning to sense something of a personality for Melbourne based on the Australian crime fiction I've been reading.

Fred Vargas creates interesting senses of place, particularly in Have Mercy on Us All and The Three Evangelists. Her little corners of Paris are something like what the city must have been like in the nineteenth century. Or rather, they may be reminders that such unexpected enclaves survive today.

January 25, 2008  
OpenID Petrona said...

Although I grew up and was mainly educated in Oxford, I was born in Manchester (as your colleague John Brumfield can tell you!) and lived in Stockport until I was 5 (when we moved to Oxford). When I was 15 we lived in Shropshire for 2 years and when 17 back in Manchester, more centrally, until I went to University. Well, that was a pretty boring summary of my early life. The main point to me is that I am a northerner at heart.
I have lived in quite a few other places but I will spare you those.
(Maxine)

January 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Such a life might grant you familiarity with quite a number of crime-fiction locations -- unless that old pro-South bias has meant that few crime stories are set in the North.

January 25, 2008  
Anonymous LauraR said...

Maxine - how coincidental - I was also born in Manchester and went to Oxford for university(!). I agree about the accuracy of the Morse books. Always good fun trying to id locations from the TV series of both Morse and Lewis :)

January 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Welcome, Oxonian Old Girls!

The non-university side of a famous university town makes for a compelling setting. Kjell Eriksson has stressed that the action in his books set in Uppsala takes place on the wrong side of the tracks in that old Swedish university city.

January 25, 2008  

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