Pushing the Town Away*

Ordinary TownsMany crime fiction fans will tell you that a sense of place is important in a story. Some themes and larger issues may be universal, but most of us want to also see something distinctive in a story that speaks of a particular place or region. And that’s straightforward (if not easy!) in a place that’s got something to sell, if I may put it that way. For instance, some places are tourist destinations. Others are exotic to most readers. A place may have breathtaking scenery or be the kind of faded, dusty small town where you can just imagine nasty things happening. And that can add to the suspense.

It can take some creativity to make a setting interesting if it isn’t a major capital, a physically lovely setting, or a deliciously creepy one (I’m looking at you, Jamaica Inn!). But there are authors who make it work. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot investigates two deaths. One of them is the sudden death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie. When his family gathers for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, and she herself tells the others to pay no attention to what she’s said. But privately, people do wonder whether she might be right. And when she becomes the second death the next day, everyone is certain she was. The family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and together, they look into the matter. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this case is Abernethie’s brother Timothy, who was very unhappy with the terms of his brother’s will. So Entwhistle pays him a visit in the Yorkshire town where he lives. It’s not an eerie sort of place, but it’s certainly not a ‘delightful English village’ either. World War II has left its mark on the economy, so the place isn’t exactly prospering. Yet, it’s also not a ‘ghost town.’ And it’s very interesting to see how Christie gives readers a sense of the place.

K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series takes place in the small Western Pennsylvania mining town of Rocksburg. Balzic is the chief of police there, and as the series evolves, we get to know what the town of Rocksburg is like. It’s a working-class sort of place, and not particularly pretentious. It’s been hit by the economy and by the slow change over time from mining to service and other industries. But it’s not eerie or dilapidated. It’s got schools, churches, banks and so on – in short, a normal sort of town, if you can say that any town is normal. There is lovely mountain scenery in that part of Pennsylvania – trust me – but Constantine doesn’t focus on it as a rule. Rather, the town comes alive through the ways in which Constantine depicts the people who live there. We get a strong sense of place not because Rocksburg is a tourist destination, or because it’s in view of a particular geographic landmark. We get that sense of place from the day-to-living that happens there.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. Her dream is to become a detective, and she’s already started her own company, Falcon Investigations. She’s targeted the new local mall, Green Oaks Shopping Center, as a place where crime is likely to occur, so she spends a lot of time there. Kate lives in a rather dispirited Midlands town, but she actually finds it quite interesting. She’s content with her detection company, too. But her grandmother Ivy believes the girl would be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams for the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go, but is finally persuaded by her friend Adrian Palmer. She and Palmer take the bus to the school, but only Palmer comes back. A massive search is undertaken for Kate, but she is never found. Years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa is working one of the stores in the mall. One night, she has an unexpected encounter with Kurt, a security guard at the mall. They strike up an awkward kind of friendship, and, each in a different way, they go back to the past and we find out what really happened to Kate. The town where the novel takes place is hardly a tourist destination. It’s an everyday town with everyday people. O’Flynn depicts it as lackluster, but not really desperately poor or creepy. And it’s just that ‘blah’ sort of dreariness that sets off Kate’s incandescent personality.

Several of Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels take place in Maardam, a fictional Northern European city. It’s never said so, but a lot of people think of it as a Swedish town. Like other cities in that part of the world, Maardam has long, cold winters and shorter summers. But it’s not really remarkable. It doesn’t have the rugged natural beauty that you find in the far north of Sweden and Norway. It’s not an exciting tourist stop. And there isn’t a major ‘draw,’ such as a famous university. The town isn’t crumbling, but at the same time, it’s not a wealthy place, either. In short, it’s a rather unremarkable place. Yet Neser makes the place real through the interactions among the characters. These novels gain their sense of setting from the lifestyles of the people in the stories more than from Maardam itself, if I may put it that way.

And then there’s Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks. Fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally worked up the courage to leave his abusive father, Joe. He knows that staying where he isn’t an option. But he’s been kept so locked away that he doesn’t really know how to function in the larger world. As he’s leaving the house, he meets Billy Benson, who’s stopped by. Billy takes Adam under his wing, as the saying goes, and the two leave together. As the next week goes by, they learn a great deal about each other, and we learn some uncomfortable truths about both of them. We also learn how each is connected to the disappearance ten years earlier of a boy named Nathan Fisher. The week also brings Adam and Billy plenty of danger as they get mixed up in real trouble. The novel is distinctly Australian. But the town itself, in suburban New South Wales, isn’t exotic or famous. It’s neither run-down nor glittering with wealth. It’s got the sort of places you’d expect, with nothing really extra-special. And that rather ordinary sort of setting shows how the sorts of things that happen in the novel could happen in any ‘regular’ town. And that makes them all the more psychologically powerful.

Setting really does matter in a novel. But the setting doesn’t have to be a famous place, or a wealthy one. It doesn’t have to be an especially creepy place, either. The key is in the way the author uses the setting.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dream Academy’s Life in a Northern Town.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Håkan Nesser, Honey Brown, K.C. Constantine

28 responses to “Pushing the Town Away*

  1. Margot, I love the example you use of the Mario Balzic series. It depicts a place and a time through the characters and the lives they are living. Such a great series.

    • Isn’t it a fine series, Tracy? I don’t think it gets the attention it should, really. And you’re right; it really does depict setting and so on through the way the characters live and interact.

  2. I’m going to have to check out What Was Lost, that setting sounds a little like one of the towns I lived in my late teens. So much of British crime fiction is set in major cities – I quite like David Mark’s use of Hull which does depict ‘life in a northern town’ – I know it’s a city but love the song 🙂

    • I love the song too, Cleo. There’s something about it.. As to What Was Lost, I think you would really like. It’s (in my mind) a terrific depiction of the life in that sort of blah-but-not-horrible town. And I have found Kate Meaney’s character to be unforgettable. I think you’d also like the past/present connection. And thanks for reminding me of Mark’s Aector McAvoy novels. I need to spotlight one of them some time soon.

  3. I really enjoy books with a strong sense of place like Ann Cleeves and Elly Griffiths. The place can help set the mood and even foreshadow future events. That was actually something I found disappointing about The Luminaries. The book had such an amazing setting – a gold rush town in New Zealand in the 1800s and yet none of that really came through to me. The action could have been anywhere.

    • I know what you mean about both Cleeves and Griffiths, AGCR. Both really do weave a strong sense of place into their work. And it does, as you say, set mood and serve as a solid foreshadowing tool. It’s interesting, too, that you didn’t get as much of a sense of place from The Luminaries, when there was a lot of potential for a sense of that context.

  4. If I had to pick one, I would certainly rate the depiction of Wrightsville in Ellery Queen’s CALAMITY TOWN as a noteworthy example of this.

    • Oh, yes, Wrightsville! Thank you, Sergio! In that one, The King is Dead and Ten Days Wonder we see Wrightsville in all of its non-glory, and you’re right; it’s a great example of this. I appreciate your filling in the gap.

  5. I love novels set in ordinary places where extraordinary (and terrible) things have happened. The first one that comes to mind is Nancy Pickard’s “The Virgin of Small Plains.”

  6. I enjoyed the Birmingham, Alabama setting of Anne George’s ‘Southern Sisters’ mysteries. I don’t know anything about Birmingham but it always seemed like a nice but ordinary place in the books, and I loved how she had her characters use the same shops and restaurants throughout the series. I kinda felt I could find my way around and know where I could get some good fried chicken if I ever ended up in Birmingham by accident…

    • Birmingham has quite a history, FictionFan. In that way, it’s anything but ordinary. But I agree completely with you that it’s very nice when you see the same shops, restaurants and so on used throughout a series. It does give one a sense that one could be dropped into the town and know where one is. I feel that way about Rankin’s Edinburgh, actually, although of course it doesn’t ‘count’ as an ordinary, ‘blah’ sort of place.

    • That is interesting, FictionFan. I grew up in Birmingham, AL and lived there until I went to college. I only read the first of these books, and honestly don’t remember how much like B’ham I thought it was. I will have to try more of them. One of them features an Elvis impersonator and Vulcan and that sounded worth trying.

      • OK, now I must renew my acquaintance with those books, Tracy…

      • I remember that one – and that Mouse lived on the wrong side of the mountain or something, so only got the rearview of Vulcan, so to speak! I love these books – they’re real comfort reading, and I loved the sense of community in them most of all. I’d be interested to know how authentic the picture of Birmingham actually is… 🙂

  7. Margot: I thought of the small town Saskatchewan mystery series by Nelson Brunanski set in Crooked Lake which is the fictional name for a town 80 km down the highway from where I live in Saskatchewan. The series is partly attractive to me because it has a setting I am very familiar with in real life.

    • You know, Bill, I thought of Crooked Lake as I was planning this post. It is a very nice ‘regular’ sort of town, and Brunanski uses it very effectively as the backdrop for his stories. I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  8. Col

    Setting plays a big part in my reading enjoyment. I’m probably a bit more of an urbanite than a rural fan. Pronzini and San Francisco. Block and New York are a couple of favourites. I do mix it up though with my reading.

    • I can see why you like Block and Pronzini so well when it comes to depicting setting, Col. Both are experts at giving the reader a real feel for, respectively, San Francisco and New York. I think Michael Connelly does a good job depicting Los Angeles, too.

  9. I like Agatha Christie’s villages, from St Mary’s Mead onward: I think she did a good job of creating them and the people in them. There’s a good one in The Moving Finger.

    • I like that one too, Moira. And I think you’re right that Christie did a solid job of showing village life and the characters who lived in such places at the time she was writing. You get to see the everyday comings and goings, and I think that gives a sense of place-through-lifestyle.

  10. Pingback: Stacking The Shelves (August 29) | Cleopatra Loves Books

  11. Margot, sometimes I’m so engrossed in the story that I overlook the setting, to the extent I don’t even realise if there was a setting or not. The one setting I like to read about are in western fiction, probably because it’s all very romanticised.

    • Interesting point, Prashant. I wonder if that’s part of the appeal of Westerns for a lot of people – that romantic version of what it might really have been like. And of course the setting would contribute to that.

  12. Arthur Upfield’s mysteries featuring Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte – Bony, to his friends – do a fine job of using the Australian outback to give a real sense of place. It’s most noticeable, I think, in books such as Man of Two Tribes where the outback really is a powerful central character in the book.

  13. I agree with you about needing that sense of “place” in a story. I want to see and FEEL the environment… 🙂

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