One of the things that I say to friends who question why I like crime fiction, and rate some of it so highly, rather than solely reading 'literature' along the lines of the Booker Prize lists etc, is the way the best crime fiction is about a lot more than merely the solving of a crime; the best crime fiction can evoke a fantastic sense of place and setting, be filled with marvellous and complex characters, and tell us a little about humanity and the world around us. In many cases the best crime writing does this far better than some noted literary fiction, especially when it comes to addressing contemporary places and issues that many 'literary' authors shy away from. Many crime writers are also known not just as good storytellers in terms of plotting, but masters in terms of evoking the setting of their crime tales. From the crime and thriller writers I've spoken to and interviewed this year for various feature stories, it certainly seems that creating a rich sense of place is something quite important to most of them, whether it's Paul Cleave's Christchurch, Stuart MacBride's Aberdeen, Vanda Symon's Dunedin, Craig Russell's Hamburg, or Jonathan Kellerman or Gregg Hurwitz's Los Angeles. So I was quite interested to read a recent-ish article by award-winning US crime writer CJ Box, for Britain's The Guardian, about the 'Top 10 US crime novelists who own their territory'.
In the article, which you can read here, Box (who sets his own novels in the Rocky Mountains) says: "The dirty little secret about the very best contemporary crime novels is that it often doesn't matter much who did it and why, but where the story is set. Solving the crime is simply a vehicle to travel through the territory. Reading the best crime novels about specific locations by authors who live there and own their home turf is like visiting with the ultimate know-it-all guide who moonlights as a voyeur."
He then goes on to list, with reasons and recommendations, ten US locations and the authors who best evoke or 'own' those distinct settings. It's an interesting list - a mix of authors I've read and haven't yet read. There's some slam-dunks I could pick without even reading his article; eg James Lee Burke for his lush and vivid Lousiana settings, Tony Hillerman for his Navajo reservation settings in the southwest. I also agree with Box that I would pick Michael Connelly as the crime writer who best evokes modern Los Angeles (perhaps blasphemously to all the Chandler devotees out there) - although that location is certainly well-represented crime-wise, with other authors such as Kellerman, Hurwitz, Robert Crais and T Jefferson Parker also providing a great contemporary insight into the City of Angels.
In terms of other authors who evoke a particular location well in their crime novels, I would perhaps add Jack Kerley for his Alabama settings, so richly-drawn in his Carson Ryder series of novels (he reminds me in a way of a slightly less-lyrical James Lee Burke, in terms of scratching at the humid surface of rich 'southern' settings). Gillian Flynn is also very good, in her two books thusfar, at evoking the seamy cities, foreclosed farms, and hooker-filled truckstops of America's bleak Midwest. Young wunderkind Michael Koryta gives a nice sense of Cleveland and Ohio, a lesser-covered major US city and state, in his Lincoln Perry novels.
Of course, when you look outside the US, the list gets even longer in terms of particular crime authors who paint vivid word-pictures of particular places. In major UK cities alone, there is Tom Thorne's London, as written by Mark Billingham, Logan McRae's Aberdeen, penned by Stuart MacBride - and of course can anyone think of crime and Scotland without Ian Rankin's wonderful evocation of Rebus's Edinburgh.
In New Zealand, Paul Cleave is doing a stirling job giving Christchurch (if a dark version of the city) a character-like presence in his standalone thrillers. Vanda Symon evoked the rural New Zealand south very well in her debut OVERKILL, and is know doing a similarly great job with her Dunedin settings (in THE RINGMASTER and CONTAINMENT). I was pleasantly surprised by how well debutant Alix Bosco evoked various aspects of contemporary Auckland this year in CUT & RUN - and Dorothy Fowler gave a nice sense of rural Northland in WHAT REMAINS BEHIND.
What are some of your favourite crime writers, in terms of those who vividly evoke particular locations? What are some of the best-written cities and regions, in terms of crime? Do you agree or disagree with CJ Box's list? Who would you add or delete? Is Michael Connelly the crime novelist who gives the best sense of modern LA? Who evokes London the best? New York? Do you enjoy crime novels with a great sense of place - or do you prefer ones focused solely on story/the investigation? Thoughts and comments welcome.