Scenes of Crime

Who can doubt the importance of setting in crime fiction? We tend to think of a preoccupation with place, an idea that the town or city where a crime novel is set may become as much a ‘character’ as the suspects and cops, is a modern concept. But even if we go back to the very first detective story, Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, the setting does add something to the story - hence the title. And the Sherlock Holmes stories gained a great deal from the foggy, gas-lit London setting that we associate with so many of them.

On balance, though, it’s true that setting is now more important than ever in crime novels. It affects not just the type of story that is written (you won’t get a bank heist in St Mary Mead, or a vicarage poisoning in L.A.) but also the style. In my own case, I write the Liverpool-based books featuring Harry Devlin in a different way from the Lake District Mysteries in which Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind explore cold cases in rural Cumbria. The urban books tend to be faster-paced, the rural novels more focused on the evolution of slow-burning relationships, jealousies, and intrigues.

A brand new reference book, Following the Detectives: real locations in crime fiction, edited by Maxim Jakubowski and published by New Holland Press, takes as its theme the settings of some of the finest of all crime series. I ought to say at the outset that two of the 21 chapters – those treating Colin Dexter’s Oxford and Ellis Peters’ Shropshire - were written by me. So I am not unbiased; but I do think that the other 18 chapters are fascinating.

So, for instance, we have Barry Forshaw writing about Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, Simenon’s Paris, Henning Mankell’s Sweden and Donna Leon’s Venice, Jeff Kingston Pierce on Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco, Peter Rozovsky on Arnaldur Indridason’s Iceland, and Oline Cogdill on John D. Macdonald’s Florida. There is plenty of discussion about the flavour of the locations, and why these particular authors make the most of them. I liked, for instance, the idea of Indridason ‘excavating’ the soil of his native country, in which – happily – there are relatively few murders in real life. Barry Forshaw explains how Mankell shows the cracks in Sweden’s apparently attractive and ethically responsible society, and the connection between setting and story is constantly reiterated.

The book is lavishly illustrated, with plenty of maps of key settings. Happily, from my point of view, the authors were not required to compile the maps! We just had to highlight key places featured in major texts, and the publishers did the rest. I certainly like the maps of Oxford and Shropshire – very cleanly and attractively put together – and I think that crime fans who visit the locales discussed in the book will find the maps useful.

It isn’t possible to write a reference book about the genre that is totally comprehensive, and inevitably this volume has a number of conspicuous omissions. P.D.James, Margery Allingham, Jim Kelly and Ruth Rendell do not feature, and this means that East Anglia – a setting for a number of splendid detective stories - is not covered. Liverpool and the Lake District miss out (shame!) and so does Shetland, setting for Ann Cleeves’ acclaimed quartet of novels featuring that likeable cop Jimmy Perez. Further afield, the coverage ranges widely to include authors such as Michael Stanley (South Africa) and Marek Krajewski (Poland); I hadn’t heard of the latter, but I’m encouraged now to search out the books. And that, perhaps, is one of the great merits of this kind of reference volume – it provides signposts to fresh reading matter that one might not otherwise have noticed.

The question now for a budding crime author, of course, is what setting one can choose that has not been done to death already. It’s tempting, if defeatist, to suggest the Moon. But wait! Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe have already ticked that particular box, in an entertaining futuristic novella called One Small Step. Nothing new under the sun, then...

(This article first appeared at www.bookdagger.com)