>In real life and in crime fiction, a murder can take place just about anywhere. Small towns, big cities, vacation paradises, “regular” middle class streets, all have been the scenes of murders. Some settings, though, just seem to lend themselves to a mystery novel because they’re exotic and somewhat mysterious. In fact, readers are sometimes drawn to books because of their exotic or mysterious settings.
For many people, it doesn’t get much more exotic and mysterious than Egypt. Ancient ruins, a rich history, all sorts of rumours about curses, a very different culture…. those factors can make for a fascinating setting for a mystery. We get a sense of that in Agatha Christie’s short story The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, which appears in her collection Poirot Investigates. In that story, noted archaeologist Sir John Willard dies suddenly after he’s discovered and excavated a supposedly-cursed ancient tomb. Then, two more people associated with the expedition. Neither of those deaths by itself might cause much notice, but Willard’s widow is worried that the deaths are related, and that the curse might be real. So she asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Egypt and look into the matter. When they do, they find that someone has been using the curse as a “cover” for the real motive behind the deaths.
Christie also uses Egypt as the setting for Death on the Nile, which tells the story of the shooting murder of beautiful, wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. She and her brand-new husband Simon Doyle are taking a honeymoon cruise up the Nile when she’s shot. Poirot is on the same cruise, as is Colonel Race, one of Christie’s recurring characters. Together, they investigate the case. At first, it seems as though Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort is the killer. However, it’s soon proven that she couldn’t have committed the crime, so the two sleuths have to look elsewhere. In the end, Poirot discovers who really killed Linnet and why. Throughout the novel, Christie gives readers a sense of the mystery and the exotic appeal of Egypt. For instance, at one point in the novel, the cruise ship stops at the temple of Abu Simbel:
“The steamer was moored to the bank and a few hundred yards away, the morning sun just striking it, was a great temple carved out of the face of the rock. Four colossal figures, hewn out of the cliff, look out eternally over the Nile and face the rising sun.”
Christie set other stories in the Middle East, too, and those stories also capture that exotic setting.
Another setting that many people find exotic and mysterious is Laos, where Colin Cotterill’s novels featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun take place. Laos has a very old culture and a unique sense of spirituality and mysticism. Both contribute greatly to this series. Dr. Siri is Laos’ chief medical examiner during a time (the 1970′s) when the traditional culture of Laos clashed with the new order of military rule. So in these novels, we see a great deal of the exotic appeal of this setting.
For a lot of people, the Australian Outback’s also considered an exotic, mysterious setting. The 40,000-year-old Aboriginal cultures have exotic appeal, and the setting itself is rugged and parts of it quite remote. “The Outback” is a sort of catch-all term for several places in Australia and there are differences among them. But in general, when people who don’t live there think of “The Outback,” they often conjure up images of wild territory, unusual animals and a fascinating set of cultures that have developed there. Those images are part of the appeal of series such as Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels. Emily Tempest is an interesting sleuth, half Aborigine/half White, who feels the pull of both of her cultures. Hyland shares the rough beauty of the land as well as the fascinating Aboriginal culture to which Tempest belongs.
South Africa is another location that many people find exotic. I can see why, too. I had the opportunity to visit South Africa once, and had an unforgettable trip. The land itself is unique and (this is just my opinion) beautiful. The ‘photo you see is a tiny example; it was taken at the Pilanesberg Game Preserve, about two hours from Johannesburg (and yes, that’s an elephant in the middle of the foreground). But quite a lot of the land is also wild; it’s easy to imagine a murder or murders taking place there. There are a wide variety of cultures, too in South Africa, and that variety adds to the appeal of novels that take place there. Perhaps that’s part of the reason for the popularity of work such as Deon Meyer’s and Jassie Mackenzie’s. These authors share with us, in very different ways, the beauty, the danger and the appeal of that part of the world.
Another setting that’s often thought of as exotic is India. Of course, there isn’t one “Indian” setting because the country’s large and extremely varied. But for crime fiction fans who don’t live in India, part of the appeal of novels that take place there is the very fact that the settings are quite different from what readers are accustomed to experiencing. That’s one reason why H.R.F Keating’s Inspector Ghote series (which is set mostly in Mumbai) and Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri novels (set in Delhi) have attracted fans. It also may be why authors such as Robin Cook have set some of the action in their novels in India.
There’s exotic appeal, too, in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana. That’s part of the reason, perhaps, that James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels have such appeal. For instance, in A Morning For Flamingos, Robicheaux is tracking down the man who shot and killed his partner Lester Benoit. As Robicheaux searches for the Benoit’s killer, Burke shares the Cajun and Creole cultures and spiritual beliefs of the area, as well as the striking scenery and the language. Readers get a strong sense of the unique flavour of that part of Louisiana.
And then there are settings like Las Vegas. Las Vegas isn’t exotic in the same way that places with more history and culture are, but the tourist part of the area is flashy and dramatic, and with its history, the gambling and the rugged setting around the city, readers can easily imagine a crime would take place there. It’s little wonder that novels such as Faye Kellerman’s Moon Music and two of Michael Connelly’s novels, part of Trunk Music and all of Void Moon, take place there. There are other novels, too, of course, that are set in that city.
Of course, the thing about “exotic” is that it’s different for everyone. People who live in an area probably don’t consider it exotic and mysterious, even though others do. What about you? Which places “count” as exotic for you? Which novels have you read because they took place in an exotic setting?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Frank Sinatra song.