Welcome to another installment of mysterious places or excellent landscapes of murder. One of the world's most literate crime fiction writers, P.D. James, is quoted as saying, "What gives any mystery writer the claim to be regarded as a serious novelist is the power to create a sense of place and to make it as real to the reader as his own living room". Amen!
In this issue we move to the Middle Atlantic states - New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. New York has more mysteries set there than any other state in the Union, and most of them are set in New York City. Unfortunately, many are indifferent to their place. One of the titans of the genre, Rex Stout, covered Manhattan with skill via his fascinating hero Nero Wolf and, more recently, Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter) does the Big Apple very well, even if he does use fictitious names for sections of the city. George Baxt created a very unusual tec in Pharoah Love, a black, gay, cop who treads the seamier sides of Gotham. If you want humor with your geography, you must read the talented Donald Westlake who sets his stories all over the boroughs of the city. One of my favorite NYC writers is S.J. Rozan who's Chinese American P.I. (Lydia Chin) starts in Chinatown and races all over Manhattan delivering color and texture with great skill. Sandra Scoppetone's lesbian P.I. operates out of colorful Greenwich Village and Marissa Piesman has her delightful female, Jewish lawyer kvetching all over the metro area. Margaret Maron, a writer with great sensitivity to place and culture, wrote her early series with NYC as the venue ( her more recent series is centered in North Carolina) and they are excellent. Incidentally, the legendary Dashiell Hammet set only one novel in New York, The Thin Man!
Upstate New York is well described and covered by Stephen Dobyns with his Saratoga Race Track stories and Stephen Wilcox captures the natural beauty of Albany and rural points north.
In New Jersey, Janet Evanovich plunges the reader into the blue collar, ethnic confines of Trenton with great panache and humor while Valerie Wilson Wesley gives a grand tour of the mean streets of Newark with her black, female tec, Tamara Hayle. Given that so much of "Joisey" is a suburb of New York or Philadelphia one should try John Katz and encounter the soccer moms and yuppies of the burbs.
K. C. Constantine is my very favorite Pennsylvania writer (in fact, one of my very favorite writers!). His remarkable stories are set in a mythical Rocksburg, an ethnically stressed, dying coal town where the lumpen proletariat and a compelling, anti-hero police chief deal with increasing depression and crime. A bit more west, Thomas Lipinsky covers an "urban reborn" Pittsburgh. And, to the east, Tamar Myers does a wonderful job in the Pennsylvania "Dutch" country, depicting the regional culture with a light touch. Gillian Roberts and Lisa Scottoline know Philadelphia very well indeed. Scottoline's lawyer tec is a particularly well oriented sleuth. Jane Haddam is focused on the Philadelphia Main Line (she also has a series set in New York using the psuedonym, or perhaps her real name, Orania Papazoglou). A new writer, Robin Hathaway, has set her first mystery, The Doctor Digs a Grave, in the Philadelphia/New Jersey area and it is superb in terms of the geography.
I admit to ignoring some prolific authors (e.g. Lawrence Block, Mickey Spillane) but they don't quite measure up in terms of place (in my opinion)!!
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