Fair warning: this is going to be a much more opinionated blog post than many that I write. Normally I try very hard to be objective in my crime fiction posts, partly because I don’t have a corner on the truth market and partly because people have different tastes and priorities when it comes to crime fiction. I’d hate to live in a world where there wasn’t room for variety. And that’s sort of what this post is about.
An excellent post from Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan has got me thinking about where novels and series are set. Bill makes the point that there’s a lot of pressure on Canadian authors to set their books in the U.S. Not being Canadian I’ve not felt that pressure, but his post convinced me that it’s there. And that’s what’s got me thinking of the settings for novels and series.
Setting is one of the fundamental elements of a crime novel (well, of any novel). It colours the story, affects the characters and sometimes it’s related to the murder or other crime at hand. For instance, Adrian Hyland’s novels featuring his sleuth Emily Tempest take place in Australia’s Outback. The land itself, the climate and other aspects of that setting have an awful lot to do with the way the stories progress and the way the mysteries are solved. You could even argue that the murders Tempest investigates depend heavily on that setting. At least I think they do. To move that series to another place would fundamentally change it and I’ve a strong feeling that change would not be for the better. And yet those novels have been received with a great deal of critical and popular acclaim. Why? They’re good stories and part of the reason they are is that they are set in a unique place.
Bill’s post specifically features Canadian authors who’ve felt pressure to place their series in the United States. But think what would be lost if that happened. Here’s just one example. Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes place in the province of Québec, where Gamache is a member of the Sûreté du Québec. Many of the novels take place in the fictional small rural town of Three Pines, where there is the unique mix of French and English language and culture that makes that part of Canada distinctive. That particular setting doesn’t just add a nice background to the series (although it does do that). It permeates the characters, it motivates some of what they say and do, too. The setting is woven through this series so that to set it anywhere else would in my opinion detract from it. Has that hurt Penny’s popularity? Um, I don’t think so. Her work sells very well and I can see why. I truly admire her writing, her style and her characters. But those characters are Canadian. That writing is Canadian. That’s part of what makes this series special.
Gail Bowen is perhaps a less well-known Canadian author than Penny is, but she too has had success. Her Joanne Kilbourn series has reached thirteen novels, and that’s saying something. Her novels are well-received, and in my opinion deservedly so. They are also uniquely, distinctly Canadian. For instance, Kilbourn is a political science academic and a political TV commentator. So in the novels we learn a lot about provincial (the series is based in Saskatchewan) and national politics. Those politics are Canadian, not United States, and that’s part of their appeal. If I want to know about U.S. politics all I have to do is turn on the television or read a local paper. Trust me. Part of what makes Bowen’s series distinctive is that they are not something I experience every day. My point here is that they are solid, strong and successful stories without having to be U.S. stories. The Canadian setting and background are part of what makes them good stories. There are many other Canadian authors of whom I could say the same thing.
One could say a similar thing about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series from Alexander McCall Smith, one of the most popular series of mysteries there is. This series doesn’t take place anywhere near the United States. It takes place in Botswana and is uniquely, distinctly Botswana in character. The series protagonist Mma. Precioius Ramotswe is among many other things very proud to be African and particularly proud to be from Botswana. In the novels we learn a great deal about the Botswana way of life and not in a self-conscious ‘This is a multicultural series’ sort of way. Rather, the setting is carefully woven through the stories and quite honestly, I couldn’t imagine it set anywhere else. If you’re a fan of this series, you know what I mean. And the fact that the setting isn’t ‘same-y’ only adds to its appeal, and certainly hasn’t taken away from its commercial success.
The New Zealand settings for Paddy Richardson’s novels are woven through them as well, and add much to them. Hunting Blind is set on New Zealand’s South Island and features Dunedin psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson. A patient’s revelation spurs Anderson to search for the person who abducted her younger sister seventeen years earlier. As Anderson follows the trail, we get a real sense of what life on South Island is like. It’s woven through the novel and honestly, the story wouldn’t be the same if it was set somewhere else. Neither would Richardson’s Traces of Red which is set in and not far from Wellington. As TV journalist Rebecca Thorne searches for the truth about a terrible triple murder, we learn about New Zealand television. We learn about life in the Wellington area and in some of the more rural areas around that city. And the fact is, the story wouldn’t work (at least in my opinion) if it wasn’t set there.
I think there’s something else that’s important here too (told you this was an ‘opinion piece’) and that’s the author’s voice. We are all deeply affected by our backgrounds, whatever they are, and part of those backgrounds is where we live and how we identify ourselves. Authors are no different when it comes to voice. Each author develops a distinctive voice that is coloured by her or his background. To ask a distinctly Canadian author to ‘change voice’ to make a story ‘more American’ risks taking away part of that author’s authenticity. To ask a distinctively Australian author to ‘change voice’ and make her or his work ‘more American’ does the same thing. The same’s true of any other author. The author’s voice is a unique part of what makes a story special and changing that voice takes away from that ‘specialness’ (yes, I can make up words; I am a linguist and I have a license ). It also detracts from the ‘feel’ of a story.
Does this mean that authors should only set their novels in their own countries? Absolutely not. Angela Savage for instance is an Australian author whose novels are set in Thailand. Her protagonist is an Australian PI Jayne Keeney who lives and works in Bangkok. In these novels, the Thailand setting adds a great deal to the novels and honestly, I’d be hard put to imagine the stories taking place elsewhere. There are other excellent stories too that are set in places other than the author’s home country. But in those stories, as in Savage’s, the setting is distinctive and the author’s voice is distinctive.
And that’s part of what (to me anyway) makes crime fiction such an appealing genre. It’s varied. Do I like American settings? ‘Course I do. Do I like ‘American voices?’ Um, yeah. I’ve got one. But there are all sorts of different voices telling unique stories that are distinctively flavoured by their settings. I for one wouldn’t want it any other way. It would be very, very unfortunate for the genre if it were homogenised that way, and it isn’t necessary for commercial success. I sincerely doubt that Agatha Christie would have had nearly as much success as she did if she’d based her novels in New York or St. Louis. Her stories are distinctly English, just as she was.
There. I’ve had my say. I feel much better now. Thank you. Your turn…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s Complicated.