Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Location, location, location...

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.


  1. I prefer one that focuses on the story/investigation but also has a good sense of place. I would rate a story with a good plot and weak sense of place over one with a good setting but poor plot.

    One of my favorites that have both is Eliot Pattison's mystery series set in Tibet and featuring Shan Tao Yun, a former investigator in Beijing who made the mistake of continuing an investigation that reached too high into party circles. He ends up in a Tibetan work camp, a Chinese version of the Russian Gulag. It's very strong on physical location, the Tibetan culture, and also Tibetan Buddhism and some Taoism. Recent problems the Chinese are having with the Uighar people were featured in an earlier book by Pattison.

    Another is Giles Blunt's mystery series set in a small town in Canada. He also keeps one reminded of where one is. In one novel set during a snow storm, that snow storm didn't disappear after the first chapter or two, as it would have in so many novels, but played a role throughout. Another was set in Spring, during the "Black Fly season" and again the depiction was so complete that I vowed I would never go up there during the Spring.

    I would also mention Batya Gur, who, unfortunately died a few years ago. She was a marvelous Israeli writer who provides a great plot, interesting characters, and a sense of the milieu that the mystery takes place in. The first of hers that I had read was a murder of an English professor, and her depiction of the various academics had me assigning names from my own experience as a grad student, and also of the politics and infighting found in peaceful academia. Another was set on a kibbutz, and she provided a portrait of one that certainly told me more than I had even suspected about life on one.

  2. Like Fred, I think plot is very important. Why call it crime fiction otherwise. On the other hand, I certainly prefer modern crime fiction with a strong sense of place and compelling characters over old novels which merely sketched the characters.

    NB: Paul Cleave is definite on my 2010 list (his Cemetery Lake fits both the challenges I participate in).

  3. Craig - Just wanted you to know there is an award for you on my blog.

  4. What a good post! says I, since you seem to be echoing many of my own opinions. ;) I have a special fondness for vintage crime fiction for the simple reason that it says an awful lot about the time it's set in, without purporting to be some sort of "ultimate novel of its time".

    One example more to your point that I can give you is Kjell Eriksson, a local Uppsala writer. He paints great pictures of an Uppsala that doesn't get written up as much, the working-class side of town instead of the academic, uni side. I think he's translated so I'd recommend you to give him a try!