Location, location, location

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.

12 thoughts on “Location, location, location

  1. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – A fine post about location! I must say I enjoy both fictional and real setting. Either can give me a sense of place, really. That said, though, if a setting is real, I like the author to be accurate. I especially notice inaccuracies if I know a place well. But even if I don’t, if I get a sense that the setting isn’t authentic, that’s off-putting for me.


  2. Good question! I suppose I must like real locations, I do love a sense of atmosphere in books. But a lot of these places I haven’t been to and maybe never will, so I don’t know how I’d know about the accuracy or, indeed, if they are just made up. I’ve just finished Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter which is a marvellous novel, brilliant. It has a great sense of atmosphere but so far as I can tell, set in a fictional hamlet in Mississippi. I enjoyed the locational aspects of the book so much, but then I love it when I read a book set somewhere I do actually know (so long as it is accurate, as Margot points out!).


    1. So you would recommend Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter? It looks an interesting plot and I think the deep south makes a good crime setting. As you say it is important that a sense of atmosphere is created whether the setting is real or fictional.


      1. Yes, CLCL is brilliant. I’d not been that keen on reading it but the day after it won the gold dagger I saw it in the library, so decided fate had decreed I should read it. It is totally marvellous. I’ll be reviewing it at Petrona soon. I can’t believe it isn’t going to be in my top 5 books of this year, and it’s been a great year so far….


  3. For me it depends on the genre. For dark mysteries I prefer realistic settings while I am fine with fictional settings for cosier stories. They always seem fairly unworldly anyway 😉

    And I don´t mind writers taking liberties as long as it is clear that they didn´t do so by mistake.


  4. As you say I think there is a lot to be said for both kinds. One of the strongest series in terms of location for me is Sara Paretsky’s novels based in Chicago…I had such a strong image of the place in my head from reading the books that when I visited for the first time there were things that seemed half-familiar – it was quite surreal. For Australia I find Melbourne and Victoria (the state Melbourne is capital of) seems to get captured best in crime fiction – Corinna Chapman’s cosy series set in the inner city, Jarad Henry’s BLOOD SUNSET capturing a different, darker side of the same place, Peter Temple and Garry Disher too.
    In the end I think I agree with Margot – it has to feel authentic even if it’s fictional – there are some books that don’t feel authentic even if they are set in a real place. and others that feel totally ‘real’ even though the setting is fictional.


    1. I thought about including Sara Patetsky in my post. As you say she presents a strong image of the city. When she sets her scenes in the Chicago docks, it always sends a shiver up my spine.


  5. kathy d.

    I love books with a good sense of place. Of course, V.I. Warshawski’s adventures in Chicago, where I grew up, entice me. But I like to learn about cities new to me, as Glasgow in Denise Mina’s books, Stockholm in Sjowall/Wahloo’s series, Venice in Donna Leon’s. I guess I gravitate to big cities, as that is what I know, but I surely enjoy vicarious vacations in Camilleri’s Vigata, Sicily or in Sue Grafton’s California locales.
    My preferred mode of travel is virtual, so I have the fun but no expenses, lines or frustrations, except getting the right book.


    1. I’ve never been to Chicago Kathy but some really good friends I had in London were from Chicago and (if I remember right) Brown County?
      They were a great bunch of people and I have this image of it being quite a liberal city which is daft as I am basing my assumptions on a group of people I met. I would love to go there one day.


  6. kathy d.

    Chicago is a mixed city of University of Chicago students and staff, other colleges, museums, art schools, and students and staff. Hyde Park is historically very liberal. And there are now Latino communities in the North Side, African Americans on the South Side, lots of communities everywhere else.


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