Mapping the Settings of English Language Mysteries
1749 - 1994
In general, from the beginning to the present, mysteries have been urban-oriented. Cities with their high population concentrations and great income inequalities were the scene of most crimes. Cities also were the locations of newspapers, journals, communication systems, police forces and more from which news of crime were broadcast and where the market was most lucrative. In the early years, especially in Great Britain, there were also the Manor House settings for crime fiction that may have been semi-rural but were basically connected to large urban centers. The first “official” mystery was set in Paris and written by E.A. Poe in his The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841).
There was crime, however, in rural regions although such acts and places rarely attracted the attention of crime fiction writers. It is interesting to note that Conan Doyle was aware of the issue when he had Sherlock respond to Dr., Watson’s comment in the Adventure of the Copper Beeches. Watson exclaims-“Good heavens, who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?” Holmes knowingly replies- “They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside”!! And that may be so, but urban crime and places have dominated the genre even to today despite a bit more attention placed on beautiful settings like the American southwest and the mountains of the west. In the many maps I’ve put on this website one can get a sense of the most and least popular settings for English language mysteries.
An examination and analysis of the variation of mystery settings is an interesting and important exercise in that much can be learned about markets, the popularity of places and much more. To a great degree, the places where mysteries are set are largely determined by the size of the market, the exotic and interesting nature of places, and, in part, by the residence or place experience of the writers. Markets are critical inasmuch as publishers know that mysteries set in large urban markets will have a built-in market for sales. The average reader (assuming that one can make such a generalization) will be very interested in reading a mystery set in a context with which they are familiar. In a sense they want to look into a mirror and see their community as depicted by a writer, even if only to check the accuracy of that author. Thus, large urban centers such as New York and Los Angeles, are, and have been, very popular places to set a story. Places are faddish in that certain places have cachet at a given time and are replaced by other locales as tastes and information change. Relatively popular places for most Americans such as New Orleans and San Francisco attract readers, as do exotic places such as Venice or Paris.
Currently, in the U.S. writers such as Tony Hillerman have created a great interest in the Southwest and the culture on the indigenous Navaho people. Rural and natural regions such as Alaska have also become popular with the work of Dana Stabenow and other Alaskan writers. National parks as incorporated into mysteries by Nevada Barr are special places and many read them as preludes to a visit. And finally, settings are decided by writers who are aware they must know their place to write a credible story and thus settings depend to a great degree on the residence or the experiences of writers in certain places. Some of the saddest works in the mystery genre (as in fiction in general) are those in which the author is basically ignorant of the place where the story is set. There are an unfortunate number of examples particularly in works set in foreign locales and in academic settings (which for a non-academic is a foreign place!).
The maps I’ve put on this website depict the settings of mystery novels in English from 1749 to 1994. The analysis is based on the data provided by Allen J. Hubin in his Crime Fiction: A Comprehensive Bibliography. Unfortunately the individual entries in this massive data set are undated so that it is impossible to determine what shifts have occurred in the popularity of settings. The cumulative data, however, are interesting and useful but do not reflect the dynamism of mystery settings that has obviously transpired in the last few decades. For example, there has been a significant increase in mysteries set in places like Alaska, Montana and other rural regions of America. These trends are unfortunately drowned out by the cumulative nature of the information. Despite the lack of time specificity on settings changes the information are useful and interesting.
There can be no doubt about the most popular states for mystery settings in the U.S. – New York and California are far and away the most popular venues for crime fiction writers. Both states have had stories set there more than 2,000 times! Obviously the large populations and large cities in both states have much to do with their rank. The second most popular states are Illinois, Florida, Massachusetts, and Connecticut for much the same reasons as New York and California. Texas, Pennsylvania and Maine make up the third group but the latter seems not to fit. Maine has a small population and few large cities. There are, however, a number of writers who live there and it is a scenic state. The fourth rank is filled by a number of states where between 100 and 200 stories have been set and there is a large swath of states where the settings are not very popular. There seems to be a very discernable market orientation to the concentrations.
The city map of mystery settings is very interesting (I do not name the cities because I want my students to have a mental map that allows them to identify cities by general location). New York City and Los Angeles stand out markedly as both have had between 2000 and 4,000 stories set there by 1994.The next rank includes Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Again the map clearly shows the urban bias discussed above.
On the world map one can see that, other than the United States, Great Britain and France are the most popular venues for mysteries. Australia and Canada, and Germany make up the next rank followed by a number of countries including Mexico, Spain, Ireland, Austria and South Africa. Examining the world cities map, excluding U.S. cities, London is as important as New York and Paris ranks very high. Clearly these are important and, for many, exotic places. Berlin, Rome, Vienna and Moscow are also important in a relative sense, being either romantic or mysterious. Of the other maps, the one that fascinates me is the Asia map. As a Korean veteran I am not surprised to note that the Koreas have fewer that 20 mysteries set there. A forgotten war and a forgotten setting! Also note worthy are the relatively large number of stories set in Japan and the few in the Muslim Middle East.
I am certain that settings have changed considerably since 1994 and that there would be a significant increase in mysteries in rural places such as Alaska, Montana and other non-urban places. These maps are, however, a start and I hope a provocation for others to do more tracking of the places that writers find interesting and reader find fascinating.
George Demko July 8, 2007
Return to Main Menu