Many 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.