Defining Place in Crime Fiction

Every reader of crime fiction - mysteries - knows that one of the great allures of the genre is the puzzle and the related issues of deducing, ratiocinating and solving the crime. This process leads to re-establishing order in the crime – disordered society and the imposition of justice. There is, however, another most important dimension of the genre that is too often ignored by readers and not fully appreciated by writers, and that is the setting or the geography over which the hero and villain and red herrings traipse. Its importance is unique to the genre and all too often taken for granted by the reader. Can anyone imagine the Sherlock Holmes stories without the fog and dirty back alleys of London or the country houses and moors of the English countryside? Even the mystery-hating Edmund Wilson, book editor of the New Yorker in the 1940s, confessed that the "Doyle stories were literature on a humble but not ignoble level" and that he loved the "admirable settings." Mysteries and place are, very importantly, a required partnership. Examine for a moment the premise of a mystery. There is an ordered society in which a crime is committed that creates disorder. Enter the crime solver - policeman, detective, or ordinary hero - who deftly (usually) catches the criminal and solves the crime, returning order to the society so rudely disarranged (there are recent exceptions in some post-modern and quite creative mysteries –see my column on Italian mysteries, for example).. Obviously the place is critical because it is the milieu or context thrown into disorder. This place must be real and must help the reader understand much of what follows in the plot and search for the perpetrator. The physical setting, type of legal system, types of people involved, the accessibility of the place of the crime, and many other characteristics are critical to the story and important in order to understand what is transpiring. Place characteristics such as climate, human culture, type of government, and much more must be explicit or implicit for the reader to fathom what is going on and to have some notion of how the system works. In outstanding mysteries, the place - the geography- is a critical element in the story and can play a variety of roles in the search for the criminal and the search for justice.

Settings in fiction, as in any literature, are not simply static stages where the action takes place. In reality there are many types of settings and they can be very complex. The late and great writer Eudora Welty expressed the significance of place well - "Besides furnishing a plausible abode for the novel's world of feeling, place has a good deal to do with making the characters real, that is, themselves and keeping them so." Even more to the point she writes, " Place…never really stops informing us, for it is forever astir, alive, changing, reflecting, like the mind of man itself. One place comprehended can make us understand other places better. Sense of place gives equilibrium; extended, it is sense of direction too." It is clear that she understands both the importance and complexity of place in fiction - an understanding that has been rarely, if ever, fully elucidated by any other writer or scholar. The notion of place being dynamic is a critical issue. Places are ever changing in many ways. Not only does weather and climate change, but the content of place changes, imbuing it with new content and meaning. The atmosphere of a room, a forest, a valley all can change and do become altered, altering the tension of a place. A setting well managed in a story can indeed be an important part of the plot and contribute to the action greatly.

It should also be noted that we are discussing here something that is not "regional" writing. The concept of regional writing is somewhat silly inasmuch as all fiction is regional. As Eudora Welty notes, "Regional, I think is a careless term as well as a condescending one, because what it does is fail to differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art.  Thomas Hardy, Cervantes, Turgenev and authors of the books of the Old Testament, all confined themselves to regions, great or small - but are they regional?  Then who from the start of time has not been so?"  Clearly "regional," implying some limited content and scope is an unacceptable and erroneous idea.

Regarding settings or place in mysteries (and in fiction in general) there are two broad types - the physical environment and the cultural environment. The physical environment can be further divided into two subsets, human created environments (rooms, urban structures, gothic mansions, etc) and natural environments. The latter are usually of a larger scale and include such places as deserts, islands, weather and climate and all other types of natural phenomena. The cultural environment is diverse and complex and is made up of the socio-economic characteristics of places. Such environments can have enormous impacts on stories, plots and even characters. The context of such places as rich English drawing rooms creates a very different texture for a story than the economically depressed coal towns of western Pennsylvania. Ethnicity, language, affluence, class, education and much more are readily conveyed by particular settings much more subtly and seamlessly than attempts to describe these characteristics specifically.

Settings can also be static or dynamic. A physical environment can change very rapidly and change the atmosphere of the story and even affect the action very significantly. Storms may erupt, floods may rush into the area, and natural elements may alter the psychology of the story as natural processes impact on the scene. Alternatively, the physical environment may simply provide an aesthetic context for a story and, although static, may importantly create a mood or even a message for the reader. Cultural settings too may be dynamic or static. Many of the Sherlock Holmes stories change contexts from posh, upper class manors and characters to terrible opium dens of inner London. Contemporary urban mysteries can take the reader from the rich suburbs to the slums of the inner city with the attendant change in types of characters and surroundings. Some examples of the various types of settings may help define more clearly the variety and importance of the place -geography- in mysteries.

One of the best examples of using the physical environment to enhance a story is the writing of Dana Stabenow who sets her mysteries in Alaska. What follows is a description of the North Slope of Alaska from her novel, A Cold-Blooded Business:

[It] 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 by 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.

This is a marvelous description, which roots the reader in a mighty place and grandly sets the stage for action. The rest of the novel does not disappoint in any way.

There are many superb examples of dynamic physical environments, especially examples where the changing physical geography actually plays a role in solving the crime. The late Philip Craig used the changes in the tides off Martha's Vinyard to solve a crime (see The Woman Who Walked Into the Sea). In this novel the tides have definite patterns and deposit material including dead bodies - at predictable places if one knows these patterns. Arthur Upfield's novels, set in the Australian outback, frequently employ a dynamic change in environment as an integral part of the story. Drought, flood, windstorms and other natural events are often major features in his stories. In his novel, The Tom Branch (published in Australia as Bony and the Black Virgin), a dreadful drought plays a major role in the plot. He describes the end of that event as follows.

All men were immobilized. Local creeks carried water for the first time in years. Frogs that had lain dormant for years deep in the ground emerged from the sodden earth and skipped and croaked and courted in the short time before the invasion of the birds took place. The cicadas bored their way up from the depths, creaked and groaned whilst beridding themselves of old bodies and taking on new ones, plus wings. The bardee grubs came from the tree trunks and up from tree-roots to split their skins and emerge as great winged moths the size of a man's hand, and from every termite's nest myriads of winged insects poured like smoke from miniature volcanoes to take part in the nuptial flight. The day following the night of the deluge was the day of the winged insects. The birds came on the second day, darkening the sky above Lake Jane, blotting out sections of its far shore, churning its surface by their ceaseless landings and take-offs. In mid-morning of the third day, John Downer called Bony to see the leaping grass and herbage, and the next morning every sand dune, every sand area, was changed from red to green. Within one week the wind was waving the tops of fields of grass.

In the context of the novel this is a remarkable event and has an enormous impact on the main characters and the story in general. Upfield, in fact, often uses Australian physical geography and natural events such as floods, sand storms, etc. as a defining event in his Bony stories and to great effect. It is almost as if he has injected a new and powerful character into the plot.

Static human-created environments are the most common in all fiction and often slighted by authors. In the mystery, such settings are often very important to the story. It is interesting to note that Edmund Wilson, a crime fiction detractor (see the New Yorker, October, 1944, January, 1945, and February, 1945), admitted to a secret love of the Sherlock Holmes stories and noted that the success of their general effect "owes its real originality not only to the queer collocation of elements, such as those I have mentioned above, but also to the admirable settings: the somber, over-carpeted interiors or the musty, empty houses of London, the remote old or new country places, always with shrubbery along the drives; and the characters – the choleric big-game hunters and the high spirited noble ladies – have been imbued with the atmosphere of these settings…" The curmudgeonly Mr. Wilson makes my argument very well indeed. And many of the best crime fiction writers today carry on the Doyle tradition of producing human environments that are notable and significantly contribute to the plot as well as enhance the aura surrounding the characters.

Dynamic human environments are more difficult to find but can be very effectively used in a story. Some outstanding examples can be found in some of work of current American writers. For example, note this example of dynamic urban geography in Sara Paretsky's Deadlock (Dell, 1992):

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 blocks south, has held firm as the dividing line, but it could go any day.

One gets an excellent sense of a city in flux and the changing context of the plot.

Another superb example can be seen in Linda Barnes' novel, The Snake Tattoo (St. Martin’s, N.Y) in which she describes a section of Boston:

Oh, the Combat Zone has changed since my cop days. The pizza shack has a fresh coat of 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 up the vacant lots and buildings. Some of the porno shops have fled to Saugus, Revere, Stoughton, any unsuspecting town that will take them. The market is still there but the Pussy Cat Lounge is gone, its infamous runway sold at auction.

This is a wonderful and witty description of a place in process of change, colorfully described and contrasted a bit later in the novel with the posh and plush suburbs of Boston.

There is another dimension to settings that is quite subtle and complex. A masterful author can also imbue the location with deeper meaning – a sense of place. This sense of place is something greater than the combination of locational descriptors; it is an ambiance conjured up by nuanced writing that captures the aura, the abstract and real components of a place in a special way that allows the reader to feel, smell, and even touch the setting - a sum that is greater than the parts. Conan Doyle conveyed an atmosphere in many of his works that emanated from his descriptions of the physical environment, the cultural milieu, the action of the characters and the suspense in that place. A superb example is found in the Hound of the Baskervilles in which a remarkably eerie sense of the moor envelops the reader. Doyle creates similarly remarkable place atmospheres in the alleys of London and in the home counties surrounding the great metropolis. Contemporary writers such as James Lee Burke (Louisiana), K.C. Constantine (Pennsylvania coal towns), Laura Lippman (Baltimore), also convey that special sense of place that becomes real to the reader. There are many other outstanding examples that clearly illustrate the special nature of a sense of place.

Settings or the geography in a novel can make the difference between a dull piece of work and one that literally captures the mind of the reader and transports that person to a new place and environment. One of the greatest pleasures in reading is to look forward to picking up a book once started and stepping into that special venue and atmosphere created by an author. One can learn from the physical geography and be enlightened by the cultural geography and be enthralled by that special sense of place created by a writer who knows her or his place. And the reader is obviously blessed by the experience of a vicarious transfer to a new and wonderful place.

George Demko   June 24, 2007

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