Friday, February 11, 2011

Why Edgar Allan Poe crossed borders

Here's the sort of unexpected answer I had in mind when I asked yesterday why crime writers set stories overseas:
"`There's something about Poe's work that's not very American. He's not a naturalist. He's not a realist.' The French were ready and waiting for what Poe had to offer: `Maybe it takes an older civilization to feel comfortable with the dark side and be able to enjoy it.'"
That was Poe scholar Shelley Costa Bloomfield one morning bright and early in the town of Baltimore (at Bouchercon 2008). The subject was why the American Poe chose a French hero (C. Auguste Dupin) and setting (Paris) when he invented the detective story, and why the real-life Mary Cecilia Rogers, who disappeared in New York in 1838, became Marie Rogêt, found dead in the Seine in "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt."

That's my favorite reason for setting a crime story abroad. What's yours?
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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35 Comments:

Blogger Stan Trollip (of Michael Stanley) said...

Should your opening sentence not read "Here's the sort of unexpected answer I had in mind when I asked yesterday why UNITED STATES crime writers set stories overseas:"?

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Not necessarily. Why? I meant that I wondered if other writers' reasons for setting their books overseas might been as unexpected (to me, at least) as were the reasons Costa Bloomfield proposed for Poe doing so with his.

February 12, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

My answer would be: pure escapism.

Mind you, other things enter into this also, but I think that's the primary reason. I think that's why readers read my books, and why I prefer books set in other countries and cultures.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

These days, of course, there's the commercial consideration. Some agents in Canada still recommend that writers set their books in the USA or elsewhere to interest publishers.

And sometimes maybe it's nostalgia. Peter Robinson has lived in Canada a long time but sets his books in Leeds where he grew up.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., escapism makes sense. In Poe's time, the escapism may have been tinged with Franophilia and Europhilia in general.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Commercial, and then there's the personal or political. I don't know why James McClure left South Africa, but I do know he did not start writing his Kramer/Zondi series until after he'd left for the UK. Those books paired an Afrikaaner police lieutenant and a Zulu sergeant. He might not have felt comfortable writing such books had he remained in South Africa.

February 12, 2011  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

I once read an article that claimed that Poe visited London, got along famously with charles Dickens, and together they went to Paris. Any truth to this?

February 12, 2011  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

Which reminded me that a Hollywood scriptwriter advised me once to write about foreign locales "in case the studio needs to bring along the writer." Which means an expense-paid trip. Also, I think a British writer wrote an American western where "the coyotes in the sky were circling the dying man."

February 12, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

As for why British authors set their novels in the U.S.: Yes, there are commercial considerations (more potential buyers), but there is also the fact that this is a gun-toting country with an extremely high murder rate and a great tolerance for violence. In other words, nothing much is over the top here, while the same thing would just not sound convincing in the UK. The same may hold true for Canada.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I may be hallucinating, but I seem to recall reading somewhere that Poe visited England when he was a child. I've never heard about his having hung around with Dickens.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J.: So America today may exert an attraction for overseas writers just as the American Old West did for, say, Karl May (I hope I have the first name right.)? Next thing, you'll suggest that the Cape Town Flats or Northern Ireland are attractive setting for crime writing.

You raise an interesting suggestion. I wonder if European or other non-American authors who set books in the U.S. include disproportionate gunplay in their books.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I'm no author, so I'm sure I'm ignorant of many practival considerations such as the one you mention.

Coyotes in the sky would be an even odder sight than a footballer taking a winter break when he should be back home playing football in Wigan or somewhere.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Oh, those hovering, soaring coyotes. No trip to America would be complete without seeing one. Well, actually they fly in packs, so seeing one alone would be extremely rare.

On a more serious note, I think there are a couple of different things going on here. One is the escapism, or more broadly, exoticism that both writers and readers crave. But there is also the pull of the native country for the exile, so that they want to write about the country they have left or had to leave, for whatever reason. I'd say nostalgia and escapism are different motivations, but I'm ready to be corrected.

February 12, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, escapism is a good reason as explained.

Nostalgia I'd agree on why writers write about countries they've left--but also, this is what culture, history and people they know well.

And, I agree that writers from Europe will write more violent mysteries set in the U.S. because it's much more acceptable here, than in other countries where gun violence occurs to a far lesser degree than here.

But I stopped reading one famous thriller author from England, whose books set in the U.S. became horrendously violent and vindictive. It just isn't good writing, it seems to me, just an appeal to readers who want blood, gore and vengeance.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Coyotes in the sky" has got to be a line from a song -- the coyotes circling in the sky waiting to devour vulture carcasses littering the ground.

Seana: Agreed that several things are going on here. And I wonder where that South African native Peter Temple fits in. He has spoken of a certain guilt that accrues to white South Africans of a certain age.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, a good case would be authors outside the U.S. who write some books set in their own countries and in the U.S. Are the books set in the U.S. more violent?

Also, what do authors such as John Connolly, Lee Child and so on say about why they set their books in the U.S.?

February 13, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I'm thinking 'skyotes' might be a better name for these magnificent creatures that haunt our dreams-and nightmares...

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Lauren said...

Sometimes it's realistic to go abroad, though - a *lot* of Northern Europeans spend holidays in Spain, and it's fairly logical to think that our heroes would either end up there themselves, or have to investigate crimes involving ex-pats.

There are of course issues when crossing borders is done badly, but the idea in itself doesn't have to be a bad one.

(Oh, and Karl May is correct. In German popular culture, pop Westerns appear to have been replaced by soppy romances set incongruously in Ireland or Cornwall. Not really an improvement!)

February 13, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Actually Karl May is quite old stuff. My parents grew up with those books. In addition to the American-Indian series, he also wrote a Middle-Eastern one. Exoticism was more than likely the reason for the popularity. And May was insanely popular.(I read them all!)

As for writing about your lost homeland out of nostalgia, I've found that extremely hard to do. It's a painful job.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Lee has often said that he set the Reacher books in the U.S. because the sort of 'hero' Jack Reacher is, was or has become could more easily roam about in the U.S. which is a very LARGE country. His adventures could be more varying in nature. In England, say, there aren't many places for a knight in shining armor to roam at random without being spotted. Living the sort of life Reacher chooses to live in the U.S. would not be as easy in Europe.

If you're familiar with the books, you'll know what he means. It's really self-explanatory.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm thinking 'skyotes' might be a better name for these magnificent creatures that haunt our dreams-and nightmares...

The Plymouth Skyote: Ride like the wind. Eat up the road.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, that makes sense, I think I first heard of Ibiza in a crime novel, and why shouldn't crime protagonists get in trouble on vacation just as they do at home? One of Adrian McKinty's novels opens with his protagonist in Spain, though in the middle of a riot rather than lolling on a beach.

I think I'd prefer pop Westerns to incongruous Cornish romances when it comes to German reading.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I had not known until about half a minute ago what your homeland was or that you wrote in a country other than the one in which you were born.

I knew Karl May was old stuff, but he was a few decades earlier than I thought. He appears to have led a colorful life, if this biographical outline is accurate. Perhaps I should investigate.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., you'll be pleased to know that this discussion of Van de Wetering has rekindled my interest and moved him right to the top of my reading list. Keep watching this space.

Your observation about Van de Wetering's humor and the tragic reminds me that Grijpstra and De Gier do not take death and violence at all lightly. One one novel De Gier is driven close to the edge by his having killed a man.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I've written a propos of Michael Dibdin and Georges Simenon that they took good advantage of the nationwide scope of the police forces in their countries to plausibly have their protagonists works cases all over the country. A police protagonist in the United States, say, could not plausibly work in Chicago in one book, Florida in a second, the West Coast in the third. Sounds like Lee Child, Dibdin and Simenon found countries that matched well the sorts of heroes they wanted to create. Or maybe the heroes matched the countries.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Speaking of national police forces, even an FBI protagonist would be constrained by the location of the office at which he/she is stationed. There's a Special Agent in Charge at most big city FBI offices, and the responsibilities are kind of restricted to a region.

Of course, those restrictions are easily gotten around by assembling task forces from various regions to hunt the serial killer.

February 13, 2011  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

"Skyote: Ride like the wind. Eat up the road."

Aw ... I'm definately using it SOMEWHERE eventually!

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I'm forever editing stories at work about task forces of investigators from local, state and federal levels, so I know such things can happen.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, just give me credit in the acknowledgments ,,, unless I've already made it famous as an advertising slogan.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Lauren said...

There was a rather funny scene in a German crime series here - a kidnapped child was taken in to the Czech republic, and our heroes were just a smidge to late to stop it. In a post-Schengen era, you were shown all these police uneasily standing in front of an unmanned border post, exclaiming "We can't go in there!" Eventually our heroes did go over, followed by (nearly) all of the uniformed cops, who got an extra minute of looking uneasily into the woods, but though they found the kdinapped girl, they couldn't arrest the two non-German suspects - who correctly took one look at the German cops and wandered off into the distance.

Given all the open borders in Europe, I found it pretty realistic. It's easy to go into another country these days (I live near a border myself), but woe betide someone who starts throwing their weight around. That's normally the problem I have with the "cop in new location" type of story - not their presence, but their behaviour.

(As when Irene Huss goes to Paris, and starts merrily poking around without informing any French colleagues, until they notice when people start getting shot/knocked out. And did Mikael Blomkvist get a visa before he headed off to Australia in book 1 of the Larsson trilogy? You can't just jump on a plane spontaneously if you're Swedish, and I don't think Lisbeth would have had time to hack the Australian electronic visa system! Besides, I don't know of any airline who will do the flights he took directly!)

And Karl May's life was about as colourful as the online resources suggest. Practically up there with Baron Munchausen!

February 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So, police can cross the borders, but they must leave their powers behind? That sounds like ripe stuff for drama -- and comedy.

I'm not sure Stieg Larsson worried about fine plot detail.

February 14, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Peter, I saw an article today saying that the movie rights to Jo Nesbo's books have been bought by a Hollywood company and, of course, they called him, "The next Stieg Larson."

February 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder who the other next Stieg Larssons are. Someone called Hakan Nesser the next Stieg Larsson, an even more ludicrous stretch than Nesbo is. But if Nebo and Nesser are the next Stieg Larssons ... I've interviewed both!

By the way, the first edition of The Maltest Falcon that I mentioned in today's post is available at a store in Montreal. It would still cost you the same $136,000 U.S., but you could save the $7.25 shipping if you crashed with a friend or relative and picked up the book in person.

February 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hey, can you picture some fat guy tearing the dust jacket off and crying: "It's a fake!"?

February 14, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I can imagine someone reading a book billed as being by "the next Steig Larsson," and ripping off the dust cover, yelling "the author is not the next Stieg Larsson; this is a sham"!

Hakan Nesser is a terrific writer, but nothing like Larsson.

Liza Marklund writes of a complex character, and complicated plots, which take up political issues--at least, the Red Wolf does, but she is not the next Stieg Larsson.

March 15, 2011  

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