The Evolution of U.S. Mystery Settings  

The United States has been a remarkable generator of crime fiction over the last 100 or so years. The early American writers such as S.S. Van Dine (aka Willard Huntington Wright), Ellery Queen (aka Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee), Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and many more, created a very popular and very urban set of crime fiction stories. Almost all mysteries were set in cities of some considerable size - rural settings were rare. A non-urban example can be found in the Uncle Abner mysteries by Melville Davisson Post set in pre-Civil War Virginia. They had a Christian theme and were a bit corny as well as rustic. Also, A.B. Cunningham wrote a series in the 1940's in which Sheriff Jess Roden patrolled the woods of rural Kentucky.

Places, settings, or the geography of mysteries have been greatly expanded beyond the mean urban streets and the exotic locales that were the usual scenes of the crime – venues certainly emphasized by the hard-boiled writers. The alienation and violence of the mean streets characterize most of this work. Gradually, bucolic rural places, suburbs and small towns began to appear in many mysteries. After WWII, suburbs and exurbs became more common venues for writers as population and markets grew in these areas. Increasingly the wide open spaces and wilderness areas attracted writers and appealed to readers – thus grew the popularity of such places as Alaska, the great American deserts and other rugged areas of the country.

Local color or specific types of cultures also attracted writers and readers. Juanita Sheridan’s Hawaii-set mysteries were “different” and featured the first full fledged female Asian sleuth. Robert Irvine created a fascinating series set in Utah and reflected the Mormon influence on place with his hero, Moroni Traveler. Native American mysteries appeared as demonstrated by the works of Jean Hagar focused on Cherokee life in Oklahoma and Jake Page’s novels set in New Mexico.

The category of “regional writers” often used to describe many non-urban mysteries is not very meaningful in that all mysteries and most literature are to some degree regional or they are without context and specific content. Mysteries must be set in places, and all places are a part of one or more regions at some scale. Archer Mayor’s stories set in Vermont are no more regional than Chandler’s set in Los Angeles or Linda Barnes' set in Boston. Each of these places is bound up with a regional culture that may include a special language, dialect, traditions, and much more. They also are part of a national culture just as all of us have many identities, from our ethnicity to our religion or nationality. Mysteries that are truly well written must capture the particular content and flavor of the specific place where the action occurs and over which characters cavort, which, in turn, are affected by the region and country where it is located. All the best known and most popular mystery writers are well known for the place in which they set their stories. Chandler conjures up Los Angeles, Mickey Spillane, New York, Robert Parker, Boston, James Lee Burke, Louisiana, and Nevada Barr, U.S. National Parks. Crime fiction writers have taken the mystery to every corner of America and “regional writers” are only regional in the sense that their setting is specific and identifiably bounded and they usually know it well. I’ve always thought that Eudora Welty’s comment was quite accurate - “ Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Cervantes, Turgenev, the authors of 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?” I cannot improve on that thought!

Some so called “regional” writers are among the best selling and best-loved authors across the country. Authors such as Tony Hillerman whose plots center around the Navaho country of the Southwest, Sue Grafton whose heroine plies the California Left Coast, and Sara Paretsky’s hard-boiled V.I. Warshawski who knows Chicago’s geography well are known and sold nationally and internationally. In fact, one of the major attractions of American crime fiction is that it provides the reader with mysteries set in every part of the country and can introduce readers to regional cultures, characters and crime as well as a national culture. Mystery settings act as both windows into particular cultures, local mores, dialects etc. and, mirrors in which we can see our American selves and our foibles, virtues, failures and sorrows.

There are obviously also certain general themes in the different parts of the country related to regional mores and cultures. Gay/lesbian characters and themes are more prevalent in urban settings, especially large cities but less likely in certain states and regions such as the areas noted for strong Christian values. These latter, often in the southern states, are more noted for cozies and less violent types of action. Good examples are found in the novels of Carolyn Hart set in South Carolina or Rita Mae Brown in Virginia. Most academic mysteries are found in the Northeast and Midwest. Amanda Cross’ English professor mysteries are set in New York, J.S.Borthwick plots a series in northern New England (Maine and New Hampshire), and M.D. Lake (aka Allen Simpson) has a campus cop solve crimes at a fictional University of Minnesota.   Ethnic mysteries are more likely to be found in the great cities of the country where immigration flows have offered opportunities to newcomers. Examples can be found in Cuban-born Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s Lupe Solano who solves crimes in Miami and Michael Nava’s gay Chicano lawyer from Sacramento, California.

Environmentally oriented mysteries are often associated with more rural, topographically rugged areas such as Alaska, the Southwest and Northwest. Places such as Florida, New Orleans and California, where environments are being despoiled by development, are also noted for such themes - works by Carl Hiaasen in Florida, Marcia Muller in California and M.T. Kingsley in Louisiana are good examples. There are exceptions, of course, to each of these generalizations but, by and large, the broad trends are clear.

A few excellent references regarding settings or, in some cases, landscapes, include Scene of the Crime by Earwaker and Becker that is a guide to the landscapes of British detective fiction. It is actually more of a field guide with photos, etc. rather than a discourse on the role of settings. The Foreward by P.D. James is worth the price of the book! An American version of this type without photos was produced by Marvin Lachman - The American Regional Mystery - [dreadful title!!]. It has a wealth of anecdotal information about writers and their places but also does not really address the conceptual issue of settings.

There are an unfortunately large number of mysteries in which the place is irrelevant - they could, in fact, be set anywhere in that the authors make little or no use of the setting. Such placeless stories are increasingly disappearing as readers demand to know where the story is set and often buy books that deliver a place or region to them, even though it is a vicarious experience. It is also my assumption that writers who are vitally aware of the place where they set their characters and plots always deliver their readers superior and delightful adventures for the mind.

George Demko, August 15, 2007

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