Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Location. Location? Location! with questions for readers

I'm reading a location-based collection of stories and, by coincidence, the first three stories I read illustrate three approaches to location in crime stories (other genres, too, I imagine).

One of the stories, and not a bad one, laid the tourism touch on a bit heavily, I thought, name-checking well-known locations with just the slightest whiff of the guidebook. A second, a fine story, was a bit more subtle in its invocation of setting but, as good as the story was, it would have worked just as well set in any number of other places. A third story, the best of the lot, to my mind, made superb use of its setting's unique features. The author could have written a similar story and set it elsewhere but, more than is the case with the other two, it would have been a different story.

 Now, your thoughts on setting, please. What novels or stories simply could not be set anywhere else? What novels or stories that emphasize their settings could, nonetheless, work if transplanted to a new location?  What, in other words, does setting mean to you? What constitutes good setting in fiction, crime fiction or otherwise? 
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The book illustrated at the upper right of this post is Maxim Jakubowski's Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction, to which I contributed chapters on Andrea Camilleri's Sicily and Arnaldur Indriðason's Iceland. Arnaldur's novels are more intimately (and literally, in some cases) rooted in their settings than any others I know. What authors do you say are most inextricably bound up with their settings?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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31 Comments:

Blogger Gerald So said...

Hi, Peter.

Like you, I prefer a balance between no dependence on location at all and relying on stated location, neglecting characterization, description, or plot.

I haven't bought into the notion "Setting is an additional character". Setting doesn't drive plot to the same degree characters do. It can and should, however, come into play at key times to give us the sense that the same story couldn't happen anywhere else.

I think location is crucial in Robert B. Parker's Mortal Stakes, in which Spenser discovers star Boston Red Sox pitcher Marty Rabb is being blackmailed. Mortal Stakes is the only Spenser novel Parker wrote in which a real Boston sports team figured prominently in the plot. No doubt the book, third in the Spenser series, helped connect Spenser and Boston. Subsequent entries benefited such that Parker didn't have to devote as much time or attention to setting. He combined or made up towns, for example, and readers went along.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Not just place but time as well for Adrian McKinty's Belgast series. And while we're in Ireland, I had never heard of Sligo until I read Declan Burke and found it fascinating, a kind of second (or third) city.

Speaker of Spenser, I did like it a lot when he and Hawk came to Montreal during the Olympics, that couldn't have taken place anywhere else.

June 09, 2015  
Anonymous Ron Koltnow said...

Ellroy comes to mind first. L. A. Is not so much a setting as it is the major character. Ross Thomas's D. C. novels could not be transplanted, and in fact are probably most enjoyed by readers inside the beltway. Duane Swierzcynski does Philadelphia proud in The Wheelman, although I've never been able to drive that fast there. However most mysteries could be transplanted to any locale. Wm McGivern's Philadelphia could be any major city. Ditto for Robt. Parker's Boston. You can change a few location names and it could be anywhere.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

And Ellroy's LA is also historical. I wonder if that has more to do with it than setting.

Peter, maybe there's a potential anthology in that, The Historical Detective...

June 09, 2015  
Blogger Dana King said...

I think history is a far more important element in setting stories in specific locations than geography. John's Eddie Dougherty books, Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy series, Stuart Neville's THE TWELVE and RATLINES, and Ellroy's LA Quartet, all have to be where they are because the events the books play off of took place nowhere else. That's what makes them unique.

Aside from that, geography takes a back seat to mood and atmosphere, which is also often tied to history. Chandler and Macdonald and LA come to mind.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger R.T. said...

Amen to your assessment of Indridason. Consider also Tony Hillerman. And Georges Simenon.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger R.T. said...

And James Lee Burke.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerald, that's s nice observation, that Parker's establishment of the setting in one book meant he could concentrate on other areas in subsequent novels.

I don't buy the glibness of the "setting is character" commonplace either because it doesn't make sense to me. A setting has no will, no volition, and does not generally change over the course of a novel. At most, setting can be a kind of looking, passive (non)actor.

That said, I sympathize with the sentiment behind it in rare instances such as Arnaldur's novels.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, yes on McKinty's Sean Duffy books--which I always associate with your Toronto series and your Montreal books. I once noted the coincidence that in the Sean Duffy books as well as in Black Rock and A Little More Free you have authors writing about turbulent moments in history that happened when they were adolescent or in their early teens. Sure, those were interesting time, but I wondered if there was something special about that age, recent enough to be familiar but perhaps just remote enough to stimulate an effort to understand the period in the form of a novel.

I read a few of the Spenser novels when I lived in Boston and Robert B. Parker's career was just taking off. I don't remember Hawk being sent to Montreal, though. In which novel did that happen?

In re Parker, he wrote a Raymond Chandler novel, and now Ace Atkins and Reed Farrel Coleman have written Robert B. Parker novels. I wonder if this has happened before, or even progressed to a fourth generation.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ron, I agree with you on The Wheelman. I know those streets!

That's an interesting observation, that Ross Thomas' books may be more interesting to folks inside the Beltway. I juxtapose that next to his relatively recent phenomenal popularity, and his more recent relative obscurity. I wonder if readers exposed to daily scandals wearied of books that viewed those scandals with wry, even light-hearted attitude.

Like Gerald, I'm not sure I buy the notion of setting as character, but Ellroy certainly embraces Los Angeles more tightly than other novelists do their settings.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John: The Recent Historical Detective. You're in, Adrian's in, Ellroy's in. Who else?

June 09, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, you'll notice the remarks about history immediately above. History is usually more important that geography with, again, the notable exception of Arnaldur. But history plays a role in his books, too, notably against the background of the postwar movement of people to Reykjavík from Iceland;s countryside.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: Tony Hillerman would be ab obvious choice, Simenon less so, if only because he often took Maigret out of Paris. But he did have a knack of creating a sense of place in those places through atmosphere and small details.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger Gerald So said...

Peter, the novel John mentioned, where Spenser and Hawk went to Montreal was The Judas Goat (1976), fifth in the series.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Thanks Gerald, I'd forgotten the title. I find it amazing that the book was published in 1976, the same year of the Olympics. I wonder if Parker visited Montreal in July and got the book out the same year or if he visited earlier and managed to describe the Olympics exactly as they happened?

Peter, there's also Thomas Pynchon and Inherent Vice and Charlie Stella's Johnny Porno.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger Gerald So said...

John, 1976 was a typo. Actual pub date was '78.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerald: Thanks. I'm the same age and form the same city as John, so I share his interest.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, thanks for reminding me of Johnny Porno. Here's a post I made after I read the book.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

For some reason what came to my mind were the settings of those classic British mysteries. In a way, they become semi invisible to us because they have become so much part of our inner landscape. Most of us have never lived in the kind of English village that Miss Marple lived in, or the London that Marjorie Allingham describes, but we do somehow think we know them. It's hard to imagine Hercule Poirot in America, for instance.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

This topic rubs me the wrong way a bit. I keep thinking of Clive James's New Yorker article where he claimed erroneously that contemporary crime fiction was all just about tourism.

The place is a character, yes, but if the book was only about the place no one would buy it and keep reading the series.

June 09, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that could be one reason I found my entree to the traditional English village mystery only with Colin Watson's Flaxborough Chronicles, which poke sharp fun at the tradition that nonetheless makes it obvious Watson regarded it with considerable affection. You might say Watson made the tradition visible to me.

June 10, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: I happen to have Mr. James right here: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2008/12/short-review-of-adrian-mckintys-fifty.html Browse this blog's archives, and you'll see I have not always been kind to the superficiality of his views on crime fiction.

You'll also see from a comment above that I am skeptical of the "setting is character" conceit. I prefer to ask, if the author has chosen to emphasize setting, how he or she does it, and what about the setting makes it so important a part of the story.

I'm wary of the word "setting" because is somehow reminds me of a stage set, as if the story could take place anywhere but the author decided to set in Paris or London or New York or what have you. I think place can work in any number of ways. In Arnaldur's Erlendur novels (though maybe me not in that weird WWII thriller you read), Iceland's geography resonates in all kinds of ways. I know the man is from a Nordic country, but he deserves the accolades he gets. The man writes with a deep feeling for his land.

June 10, 2015  
Anonymous John Alexander said...


Wallender and Rebus for sure and probably Lucas Davenport and Stuart Mac Brides's Logan Mac Rae as well, along with Deighton's Berlin and Ross Thomas' Washington. The people and locations described are very much a product of their settings and have an impact on the story.

Too often one comes away from a book thinking that it could have been set anywhere and would have come out the same.For these and similar authors however,as Peter Rozovsky commented about Arnaldur " the man writes with a deep feeling for his land"

June 10, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder when people first start saying, "The setting is a character" in crime fiction. I would imagine that some locked-room mysteries would have worked just as well had the locked room been in a different house.

And is setting important to an English village or country house mystery in the same way it is in Ross Thomas' novels or Arnaldur's? I think not.

I have not read John Sanford or Stuart MacBride, though the former, in particular, has been recommended to me occasionally. So thanks for what I'll take as suggestions for further reading.

June 10, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You mentioned Wallander. I thought the setting was especially important in Dogs of Riga.

June 10, 2015  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I'm not going to jump on Clive James. The man is in very poor health. And his literary output in the last year has been astonishing. But he's wrong about crime fiction and he's wrong about the use of the word decimated in his review of Hitler's Willing Executioners (usage has changed its meaning).

He's also of course wrong about the Wehrmacht having no operational helicopters in WW2. But we know that dont we?

June 10, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm jumping only on that one article by Clive James for, among other things, its calculated faux-amateurism. Yes, readers of this blot know all about Clive James, the Wehrmacht, and helicopters.

June 11, 2015  
Blogger KIKAREN said...

Nobody cares what I think but what I think is that historical Crime Fiction, set in Germany, Ireland, Edinburgh, wherever is easier to write than contemporary Crime Fiction because everyone lives by the phone now and unless you allow a protagonist to ‘lose’ their phone or ‘leave their phone at home/in the car’ at a critical plot moment then none of the tropes ever work. Try writing Farewell My Lovely in a world of Mobile Phones and twitter.

June 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I try not to be too optimistic about things, and particularly not about anything to do with consumer electronics, but perhaps mobile phones and Twitter can force crime writers out of some of those old tropes. I once read a mildly amusing joke about Facebook in a contemporary crime novel, for instance. And social media and mobile phones open the way to all kinds of new tropes involving paranoia, surveillance, corporate control, and so on.

June 24, 2015  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Well, I don't know about easier, but having written contemporary crime fiction and some set in the early 1970s I would say that the single biggest difference is the cell phone.

I also try not to be too optimistic but there's certainly no shortage of crime, even with cell phones, so there shouldn't be a shortage of crime fiction either. As always, 90% of it won't interest any one of us but as long as we're getting our 10% it should be enough.

(more worrisome to me is that one day I'll click on the "I'm not a robot" box here on blogger and it will tell me that I am, in fact, a robot.)

June 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John: Even that "Prove you're not a robot" box is evolving. It used to ask me to pick the pictures that are cake or steak or pizza. More recently it has asked me to choose salads.

And I suspect social bias may be at work when I am asked to pick the sushi. I wonder if computer users in, say, the rural Midwest or South get the same question. One day I expect to get nine pictures of beer, six with funny, quirky, zany names, three without, and to be asked to prove I'm a robot ant click the three shitty, piss-thin, mass-market, best-selling, corporate-produced American beers.

Alan Glynn worked an Xbox into his most recent novel. I don't remembers if cell phones figure into his work, but I trust any crime writers to pick up on the dark side of contemporary consumer technology, it's him.

And yes, one day people will get used to the novelty of cell phones, and the trope of the detective's phone running out of power or losing coverage at a critical moment will replace the old one of the protagonist not being near a phone at a critical moment.

June 24, 2015  

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