South Atlantic Mysteries

In moving from the Middle Atlantic region to more southerly climes it may be useful to pause and examine the overall distribution of mystery settings for the U.S. The map on my website at US Maps uses data extracted from Hubin's Crime Fiction,Vol 2 (Garland Press, N.Y. and London, 1994) and portrays the distribution of mystery settings for English language novels from 1750 to 1990. Unfortunately, the data are not broken down by time period which would be very revealing!

The map clearly reflects the signal importance of the states of New York and California where the plethora of large cities and thus large reader markets are critical. Massachusetts, Illinois and Florida are next in terms of setting frequency followed closely by Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Maine. The latter is a bit odd given its dearth of cities and its small population but perhaps it is favored by its picturesque natural settings and the fact that many writers live there! Note as we move southward that many fewer mysteries have been set in Delaware, West Virginia, the Carolinas. Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia (the latter unseen given the scale of this map).

BUT, inasmuch as we are concerned with the best place writers, quantity is not as important as geography! West Virginia is interesting in that one of the great early mystery writers set many of his stories here. Melville Davisson Post wrote the Uncle Abner series in which his God-fearing hero ingeniously solved crimes on the frontier of the 1840s. More recently, Sharon McCrumb uses the state and much of Appalachia in general to weave her remarkable tales in three different series. She can be funny, spiritual, and clever but she always paints some of the most beautiful landscape images of the region I have ever read. She also knows the culture and the history well.

The capitol, Washington, D.C., strangely enough is a place of thin pickings for outstanding place writers. Perhaps most mysteries set here are international thrillers and consequently power rather than place matters! A clear exception is George Pelecanos, one of the best ever D.C. writers. His work is dynamic, intense and he knows the territory from the Mall to Georgetown and the suburbs with a vengeance. A truly outstanding place writer is Laura Lippman who will give any reader a delightful, accurate and irreverent perspective on Baltimore. She is really very good!

(There are some very well known persons with presidential affiliations who use the capitol and environs as a mystery venue but in this column ghostwritten novels are not considered).

Moving further south into Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, we are almost exclusively in the realm of women writers. In North Carolina, Margaret Maron has created a fiesty character in Judge Deborah Knott and her stories capture the clash of the traditional and modern in today's South. She has an masterful feel for the region and all its contradictions. The debut novel of Sarah Shaber, a cozy campus mystery set in Raleigh, Simon Said, (St. Martin's - 1997) is redolent of tobacco fields, minor league baseball and southern culture. Rita Mae Brown has a lively but light touch in her stories set in Crozet, Virginia but also has an excellent sense of place. Kathy Hogan Trochek captures the essence of Atlanta, its neighborhoods and sense of transition from the Old South to a modern urban business hub.


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