Criminous Places: The Geography of Mysteries

Mystery and detective fiction has come of age in the last few decades, a fact clearly verified by the number of conferences on the genre, the growth of college courses focused on mysteries and the plethora of reference works published on this vast literature. Interestingly, it is rare to find a conference, course, or reference that examines the role of settings or place–geography–in the genre. Some of the most distinguished and comprehensive reference tomes either ignore the topic completely or make desultory genuflections with a paragraph or two on "settings".

Carolyn Wells in The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913) cautions writers only "not to choose too low life for your scenes" (p. 288). The venerable Mr. Haycraft in his distinguished Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1941) argues that the "setting should not be too drab or commonplace or sordid"!! Even worse he notes that "the less exotic the scenes, the better they will serve the essential interests of verisimilitude." Given such comments it may be better that mystery specialists continue to ignore the role of place. In fact, most reference volumes focused on mysteries do ignore the role of setting.

This essay attempts to right the aforementioned situation by focusing on the importance of place in mystery fiction. As Eudora Welty notes in her essay, "Place in Fiction", (in The Eye of the Story, Vintage Books, NY, 1979), "the truth is, fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of ‘What Happened’?" It should also be obvious to the reader that place in a mystery story or novel, when creatively handled, can transport one into the story, rendering the characters and plot more vivid. Further, the geography and, in some cases, the changing geography over which the story transpires, can be important to the plot, often playing a role in the solution of the mystery. Characters must "fit" the place in which the action takes place. The physical landscape can create an atmosphere to enhance and enliven a story with great effect. A few examples are in order here.

At the very general level, some authors set stories in geographic contexts that become a most important part of their series. Tony Hillerman’s southwest Navaho country of dry mesas, arroyas and incredible vistas combine with Native American characters to create a powerful and magnificent geography that readers enter in each novel. Arthur Upfield’s Australian stories starring Napoleon Bonaparte, the half caste sleuth, are the best and most vibrant descriptions of the outback that exist even today. Landforms, climate, indigenous populations, outback culture and more are captured in these remarkable stories. Even Conan Doyle tempts us to the foggy, foul alleys of London and the evil moors of the exurbs.

Other specific examples may be more illuminating. Dana Stabenow in A Cold-Blooded Business describes the North Slope of Alaska, "stretched across northern Alaska for six hundred miles, from the Chukchi Sea to the Canadian border. A hundred mile slide north from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean, the slope was one enormous delta for the hundreds of rivers and streams that rose in the Brooks and flowed to the Beaufort Sea. Eighteen inches of delicate, spongy tundra insulated two thousand feet of permafrost, five thousand feet below which was the oil formation. Seven inches of annual precipitation froze the tundra into a barren, inhospitable desert for ten months of the year, and then in June and July relented to melt into a soggy garden of Arctic poppies and northern primroses and Siberian asters, where trumpeter swans and Canadian honkers and snow geese and green-spectacled eider ducks fed and bred with equal abandon" (p.22). Now let the action begin, we are rooted in a mighty place!

Urban Geography and urban geographic change (spatial processes) are captured remarkably by such writers as Sarah Paretsky and Linda Barnes. Paretsky in Deadlock (Dell, 1992) notes "My apartment is the large, inexpensive top of a three - flat on Halstead, north of Belmont. Every year the hip young professionals in Lincoln Park move a little closer, threatening to chase me further north with their condominiums, their wine bars, and their designer running clothes. So far Diversey, two block south, has held firm as the dividing line, but it could go any day". Or Barnes’ "Combat Zone" in Boston - "Oh, the [Combat Zone] has changed some since my cop days. The pizza shack has a fresh coat of red paint, already covered with graffiti. "Liberate El Salvador" it says over and over, interspersed with Spanish insults involving Alberto’s mother and a dog. The peek-a-boo theater has new tinted window glass. Developers are eating in the vacant lots and empty buildings. Some of the porno shops have fled to Saugus, Revere, Stoughton, any unsuspecting town that’ll take them. The market is still there but the Pussy Cat Lounge is gone, its infamous runway sold at auction". These are stunning "neighborhoods" captured in mid-change and enhancing the story with relish. Similar micro and macro landscapes are vividly drawn by James Lee Burke (see, for example, A Stained White Radiance) in Cajun country and K.C. Constantine in the dreary "coal patches" of depressed western Pennsylvania (e.g. The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes).

Some innovative authors also solve crimes with geographic knowledge of the setting. Philip Craig uses his knowledge of the Martha’s Vineyard tides to solve the murder in The Woman Who Walked Into the Sea. Jan Burke uses knowledge of the quality of regional water chemistry to identify a mutilated victim in Goodnight Irene.

These are but a few, simple examples of the beauty, significance and dynamics of geography in the mystery genre.

A Brief Look at U.S. Settings

The venerable U.S. expert and publisher of mysteries, Otto Penzler, once remarked that "too many mysteries have been set in Florida" (Michelle Bearden, "Death by Locale", Publishers Weekly, 1993). Clearly he knew little about the geographic facts. A rational geographic explanation for the mystery novel settings should include at least three reasons or determinants for the selection of settings. Clearly the primary reason is that of the market. Thus one would expect settings in heavily populated places to predominate. Second the attraction of esoteric locales should play some role. Third, it can be hypothesized that writers choose places they know best for their setting and thus set stories where they live. The accompanying map illustrates the validity of these hypotheses and Penzler’s error inasmuch as New York and California clearly outclass the Sunshine State in setting popularity. Florida is joined by Illinois, Massachusetts and Connecticut as the next most important locales. Obviously, the market variable is a strong explanation. The relative importance of Maine is interesting. It may well be explained by the combination of exotic locale and a popular residence for mystery writers. Louisiana and Texas reflect exotic locale attraction and the relatively recent migratory shift to new resource regions of the U.S. If the data were available for the last ten years, there would certainly be some interesting new patterns emerging as the mystery has moved increasingly to rural regions (e.g. Joan Hess’ Maggoddy, Arkansas and Sharon McCrumbs’ Appalachia) and such environmentally interesting places as Montana, New Mexico and Alaska. Even the authentic geography of settings is interesting and dynamic.


The samplings noted above certainly illustrate the importance of geographic veracity in the genre. Well written geographical descriptions enhance the plot, reflect reality more vividly and accurately, and anchor the story in a place that matters. If a story can be set anywhere, it is a literary orphan devoid of life in its most meaningful sense. Every crime and character must have a place or it is indeed lost and diminished. Place - geography - truly matters!

George J. Demko, June 2006

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