I’ve been thinking a lot about the settings of crime novels recently. I think this is partly because I have recently read so many books where the location of the crime has seemed as crucial to the book as the plot. I’ve just finished Lawrence Block’s excellent A Drop of the Hard Stuff for example which revisits an old case of the detective Matt Scudder and contrasts present day New York to the city of the early eighties. Block’s Matt Scudder thrillers are imbued with the spirit of New York and those of us who have read his books for years have seen the city change through the writer’s work. Likewise, I finished Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man over the summer. The nearest I’ve been to Ystad is Malmo although I would love to go there one day as Mankell’s books have brought the town alive to me. And it’s not just old favourites. Cold Justice by Katherine Howell, recommended by Bernadette at http://reactionstoreading.com/ made me think nostalgically of my visit to Sydney a couple of years ago. And these literary references can develop a life of their own. Oxford runs Inspector Morse tours, Shrewsbury has a Brother Cadfael trail and Edinbugh a two-hour Rebus walk.
But there is something to be said for the fictional place too. I grew up reading Agatha Christie and the village of St Mary Mead I can envisage in my head. Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham is less easy for me to explore geographically but I can identify the type of Sussex town she is referencing. And Peter Robinson’s Eastvale seems to embody all those North Yorkshire towns with their cobbled squares and undulating surrounding countryside. I suppose the advantage of fictional places is that you can shape the place to fit the action. If you need a bridge, invent one. A church with a crooked spire? Put one in the north of the village. And these fictional places aren’t just small. Sue Grafton’s Santa Theresa is a sizable city although I’m not sure how closely it resembles the real life Santa Barbara.
So which do I prefer? I suppose I would have to say genuine locations mainly I suppose as they can make a book come alive. But I suspect my teenage years reading Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell have left me with an abiding affection for the invented place.