Friday, January 24, 2014

Writers who set books away from home — and why they do it

I started Detectives Beyond Borders in 2006 with a wariness of crime writers who set books in countries other than their own or where they did not live. They must be arrivistes, I suspected, tourists in search of tax write-offs who had no more understanding of local conditions and attitudes than does CNN. Americans (or Brits) parachuting in to tell the locals how to solve their problems.

Over the years I've asked such authors what they see in their chosen settings that a local might miss, or what they might miss that locals take for granted, and I wrote the introduction to a book of essays on the subject (Christopher G. Moore's The Cultural Detective). But not until last night did I think to ask such a writer why she had chosen the country she did.

Turns out that Cara Black, currently in Philadelphia for an American Library Association convention, has ties to France that long predate her Aimée Leduc novels. Her father introduced her to Jacques Tati movies. An uncle had literary ties to the country. Nuns from the Society of the Sacred Heart taught her a mildly archaic French that would later bemuse the children of her hosts on visits to France. There's more to her attraction to Paris, that is, than the Eiffel Tower and bargains on designer clothes.

So now I'll assume that every such writer has stories of his or her own, that there is a reason he or she writes about the Greek islands rather than the south of France, or Italy rather than Spain, or vice versa.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Bouchercon panel waiting to happen.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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41 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

Peter, I think that you will find -- if you scratch around a bit -- some writers who use "foreign" settings even though those writers have no ties to those settings. A couple of names come to my mind, but I will postpone mentioning those names. I would not care to spoil the prospective panel's discussion. Perhaps you many commenters at your blog will weigh in with examples -- both proving and disproving the thesis. (Q: I suppose historical settings do not qualify for the thesis; after all, a living writer cannot have specific ties to the past without owning a time machine -- example -- Michael Gregorio.)

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

You're right again: this would be a great panel. Given your knowledge of all things foreignly criminal, I can think of no one better than you to moderate it

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

British writers seem to be particularly prone to appropriating other countries as settings for their fictional detectives. Call it imperialism by literary proxy. I talked about it a bit in a review of Thomas Mogford's The Shadow of the Rock. You'd think that a lot of these mysteries would be cozies for armchair travelers, but most of the ones I've read are pretty hard-edged.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Dana. Write a book set abroad, and I'll suggest you for such a panel.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary, the sun never sets on the Anglo-Franco-American detective story. Those Brits are a lot closer to borders than we North Americans are, unless one counts the Peace Bridge or Highgate Springs as gateways to exotica.

I singled out Christopher G. Moore and Tim Hallinan above; Colin Cotterill has also, in his way, gone native, a traveler who left on a round-the-world trip after university and never went back.

Dibdin, I think, made a game out of not being a tourist. With the exception of the Aurelio Zen book that opens with a body going splat in St. Peter's, he would set books in much-visited regions and cities without, however, mentioning the tourist destinations. I wish I'd been able to get him on a convention panel before he died so young.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., "Michael Gregorio" is interesting also because they are a married couple living in Italy, though just one of the partners is Italian. There are also American and Canadian authors such as Christopher G. Moore or Tim Hallinan who live full or part time in the countries where their wives are from. That makes something between insiders and outsiders, a fact of which both are aware.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

What about Elizabeth George and Caroline Graham? Aren't they Americans without ties to England who write about sleuthing in England? Of course, perhaps my memory is faulty.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

Correction: Delete Caroline Graham from my previous comment.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're write about Elizabeth George. Caroline Graham, it transpires, was born in Warwickshire and lives in Suffolk, though.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Done, as you'll have seen. I had a friend who was a longtime reader of Elizabeth George and was surprised to learn that she was American.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, you're right about Elizabeth George.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

And then there is Martha Grimes. I believe she is from Pittsburgh. That is a long way from England. Trust me!

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, is Pittsburgh a long way from England?

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

Of course the outsider sometimes has the most honest and perceptive take on other cultures. A good example of that would Dibdin's Rat King (I think it was that one) that begins with a series of phone calls from one bureaucrat to another in descending order of importance, each call asking for a favour. It was a brilliant and funny take on Italy's culture of cronyism and quid pro quo.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

Peter, Dana will probably confirm my observation that the home of Heinz, Isaly's ice cream, Iron City beer, the Liberty Tunnel, the Mt. Washington Incline, the Tambouritzens, and dozens of eastern European neighborhoods is a long way from England.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I dunno, R.T. Isaly sounds sort of like Islington.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary, I cited Dibdin in my very first Detective Beyond Borders post. He was the cleverest of crime writers.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

I worked at Isaly's when I was 16, and I saw nothing and heard nothing that reminded me of England. However, the store was in the borough of Versailles (which was not given the French pronunciation).

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In re Versailles, I am reminded of the professor who told the class with amazement that Goethe Street in Chicago was pronounced "Go-EE-th-ee." I live near a Greenwich Street whose name is pronounced locally "GREEN-witch."

How did Pittsburgh pronounces Versailles?

January 24, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

Versailles? VER-SALES
We had enough challenges with native American names for rivers and other locales.
In the nearby mountains, though, where George Washington murdered Jumonville in a surprise attack upon the diplomatic courier, the area bears no traces of French pronunciation. It is pronounced exactly as it is spelled.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary, my comment on Didbin than is pertinent to this discussion:

3) Cosi Fan Tutti, by Michael Dibdin, is an exception to my general distaste for novels set in "foreign" countries by writers not from those countries. Such books often degenerate into travelogues. This novel is formally daring, and talk about surprise endings! Dibdin, an Englishman, spent several years teaching in Italy, according to various accounts, and his charmingly named protagonist, Aurelio Zen, offers a kind of Baedeker's guide to official Italian corruption and internecine rivalry, each novel set in a different region: Naples here, the Vatican, Venice, the south in other books. And Rome. Always Rome. "Zen" is a name characteristic of the protagonist's native Venice, but it also has overtones of the detachment with which this Zen moves through the sometimes deadly worlds of Italian officialdom and gangsterdom. Of course, the character's other name, Aurelio, is another clue that he is wise and given to occasional musing, if not outright meditation.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I can imagine the challenges some of those names would pose. I tremble at the thought of ever having to pronounced Monongahela in public.

January 24, 2014  
Anonymous Michael Gregorio said...

We (Daniela and Michael)were fascinated by a country which no longer exists (Prussia), and by a war-torn history which is wide open to interpretation. We have never been to modern Kalinigrad, and have no intention of ever going there. Beefing out a story in an historical setting is relatively easy, and great fun for a writer. The most important thing, however, is the story...

January 24, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I think the first person I learned of who had quite a successful career writing a detective series in a country he had never been to was H.R.F. Keating with his Inspector Ghote Bombay based series. I have no idea of their accuracy, but I did find the few I read quite enjoyable.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael: Oh, but what ghosts Prussia has left among us. I have heard it said that even other Germans are not fond of folks from the former Prussia.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I had an interesting experience when I first read H.R.F. Keating. His characters had the speech quirk of placing the word only at the end of a sentence, rather than before the word it modifies, as in "I have 10,000 rupees only."

I wondered if this was condescension on Keating's part until I read books by Indian writers that used precisely the same quirk.

I also read that Keating did, in fact, visit India, but only after he'd been writing about the place for ten years. I don't know Keating's professional history, but I can well imagine India being a part of the mental landscape--the imagination--of any English person of his time, whether or not that person had visited the country.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yes, I read of his eventual visiting the country, and also that he found it harder to write the Ghote books thereafter.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I did not know that he found it harder to write the books after he had visited India. Keating was also quite a critic and scholar of crime fiction. Did he ever write about his post-India difficulties with the Ghote books? I would love to know his thoughts on the matter, and how he might have accounted for the difficulties.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I don't know where Meera Tamaya got this information but it is mentioned in her book H.R.F Keating: Postcolonial Detection, a Critical Study, according to Wikipedia.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll try to remember to look for it. Thanks. I don't much like words like postcolonial, but it might be suitable in this case. At the postcolonializer read some crime fiction.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Trevanian. He did a great job, I thought, of portraying Montreal in his novel, "The Main." I haven't read his spy novels, "The Eiger Sanction," and "The Loo Sanction," or "Shibumi," but I don't think any of them are set in his home town of Albany....

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So, who is the great Albany espionage writer? The city has William Kennedy, for (literary) crime writing, and he's pretty good, if my memory serves me well.

I wonder if The Loo Sanction's title was changed for British publication (even though the Loo Department in question was English).

January 24, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I'm not endorsing the book, since I haven't read it. I do wonder what the Indians think of Inspector Ghote, to the extent they even know of him.

On the other hand, I think that the pendulum has swung to the point of view that Keating can't possibly have nailed it since he's British. But he may have, despite the odds.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Jeffrey Siger said...

My oh my Peter, you hit upon practically all my life points with this post! You and R.T. that is. You see, instead of being in Greece at the moment where I live and set my Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novels, I was in Pittsburgh tonight at Mystery Lovers Bookstore. I know, R.T. will quickly say it's really Oakmont, but as a born and bred Pittsburgher now teaching an intersession Mystery Writing course at Washington & Jefferson College it warmed the cockles of my cold dark heart to hear about Isaly's, Iron, and the Mon Valley. By the way, my post tomorrow (Saturday) on Murder is Everywhere is a review I did of our late buddy Leighton Gage's final and terrific Inspector Mario Silva novel, "The Ways of Evil Men." I recommend it unhesitatingly.

January 24, 2014  
Anonymous Christopher G. Moore said...

Peter, I enjoyed reading your take was well as the comments of others about expat crime fiction authors. Writers such George Orwell, Somerset Maugham, Anthony Burgess are a part of a long tradition of fiction set in Southeast Asia. Modern Southeast Asia crime fiction continues the inquiry through into the East vs. West mindsets, social justice and political systems. In Fear and Loathing in Bangkok, you'll discover a new book of essays about developments at my end.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I like to think that Keating was respected enough in crime fiction that the pendulum may have swung to a more nuanced view that, while he may not have nailed "it," he nailed something worth nailing.

I live in hope that civilized, non-tendentious discussions among intelligent people of colonialism may one day be possible. (I should mention that R.T., who features in this discussion, is proudly conservative and also rueful about what colonialism has wrought. God bless the occasional surprise that comes our way in a world polarized by people screaming themselves hoarse in thoroughly predictable manner on matters about which they no little. He is a refreshing exception.)

I have a colleague born in India with whom I have occasionally discussed cricket. I suspect he might be open to questions about Ghote and Keating. He was born in Bombay, which he calls Bombay and not Mumbai, a point I consider in his favor. He is willing to remain true to his himself rather than be swayed by rhetorical fashion.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jeffrey: The hell with international stuff; let's have a Bouchercon panel about Pittsburgh. Dana King, who commented above, is another fine author from Pittsburgh. (I had him on a panel in Albany. Introduce yourself to him sometime.)

I quite naturally had you, among others, in mind when I put up this post. Expect some questions on the subject if you wind up on another panel with me at a future Bouchercon.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Christopher G., it's a novel experience for me to see modern Southeast Asia fiction mentioned in the same breath as Maugham, et al., much less to see both referred to positively as inquiry. That's not the sort of thing one is accustomed to in shrill, polarized discussion of such matters, at least here in North America.

Of course, what do we know? To my knowledge, no one in the continent's history has ever had crime-fiction readings and go-go dancers on the same bill.

January 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here’s more on Fear and Loathing in Bangkok.

January 24, 2014  
Anonymous Christopher G. Moore said...

Peter, Years ago in Singapore I interviewed an elderly member of the British Club and she had many stories of Somerset Maugham coming through town for a couple of weeks, finding expats to tell tales of infidelity, treachery, betrayals -- the usual expat life -- and he also spent time in Bangkok. An authors' suite at the Oriental Hotel bears his name. But you are correct as far as we know he never combined public readings with go-go dancers. That feature of life arrived twenty odd years after his time in this part of the world.

January 25, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should make a note to investigate some of thst British expat literature. I should also keep an eye out for the well-dressed, attractive old woman with what I fancied was an aristocratic way of carrying herself (not sure if she was Vietnamese or Cambodian) I once saw chatting away in French with the Franco-Cambodian owner of my local bakery. I have always wondered what her story is.

January 25, 2014  

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