Emerging Issues: City Mysteries Have Their Places

May 17, 2010

by Bill Barnes

Decades ago, American detective novels were mainly set in New York City or Los Angeles. One observer puts the proportion at 50 percent. Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe and Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald dominated the detecting field.

Not anymore. Now, murder mystery stories are set in lots of places, reflecting the vitality of local cultures, growing interest among readers in the varieties of American life, and the ingenuity of writers who are rooted in distinct places.

Local color matters and the color in a lot more places matters. For fans of this sort of entertainment, this is a great boon.

Sara Paretsky's altogether wonderful V.I Warshawski sleuths her way around some seedy parts of the city of Chicago. Phoebe Atwood Taylor's Asey Mayo mysteries are set on Cape Cod.

The detecting among the Old Order Amish in Wayne County, Ohio, is handled by a college history professor in P.L. Gaus' novels. Walter Mosley opened a new perspective on Los Angeles with the Easy Rawlins series. 

Maybe the phenomenon is part of the continuing democratization and decentralization of American life and the broadened distribution of popular culture since WWII?

Marilyn Stasio, who writes the "Crime" column for the NY Times Book Review, says that "just about every cop, P.I. and amateur sleuth is obligated to operate by the local rules."

A decade ago, Marvin Lachman provided a 542-page critical tour of America through its crime fiction in his "The American Regional Mystery." At www.librarything.com, a talk exchange produced lists of crime novels set in every U.S. state. Another site, www.MysteryPlaces.net, lists more than a thousand mystery novels "with a good sense of place," and has a separate listing for cities.

Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee do their deducing on the Navaho tribal lands. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum finds the bad guys in Trenton, N.J. And, Elmore Leonard writes about Detroit crime with a startlingly distinctive set of characters.

In her edifying little book, "Thinking about Detective Fiction," P.D. James (the reigning grande dame of the English detective novel) declares that setting can add credibility to the intellectual puzzle of the murder mystery, and it can establish the mood of the novel. Where setting is strongest, it can exert "a unifying and dominant influence on both the characters and the plot."

Furthermore, a greater sense of place and ambience, claims crime fiction analyst and historian Otto Penzler, "moves the genre away from mere puzzles to fully developed novels."

John Freeman, a two-time Edgar Award winner, suggests that over the past 20 years, it has been crime fiction, with its detailed attention to local settings, more than any other form of literature that has "most closely observed" the realities of day-to-day urban life, "the ruptures and rifts in American cities."

This focus on local and regional detail in mystery novels, writes Penzler, will provide "a more accurate view of life in these 50 United States" than most scholarly studies.

The murder can reflect the setting - for example, in Chandler's "Big Sleep" or George Pelacanos' series set in Washington, D.C., neighborhoods. Or, the dead body can contrast sharply with its place - Margaret Truman's novels about murder in official Washington come to mind.

Setting is not everything, of course. Attention must be paid to characterization, plot, theme and writing.

And sometimes, setting hardly matters. Readers of Agatha Christie will recognize that Miss Jane Marple could only exist in St. Mary Mead, an isolated (fictional) English village that is unmapped, but thoroughly realized. Christie's Hercule Poirot, however, could make his "little gray cells to function" in any major European city.

Global competition is omnipresent, even in crime fiction. Last year, National Public Radio did a series of interviews with crime novel authors about their city settings. The sites range from Eastport, Maine, to Portland, Ore., to New Orleans ... and then from Beijing to Berlin to Istanbul and from Glasgow to Bangkok. The recent fad for "Nordic detectives" is based on the excellent murder mysteries that have emanated from Scandinavia. (The NPR series is online at www.npr.org in the "Crime in the City" archives.)

At the end of the 1948 film noir murder mystery, "The Naked City," directed by Jules Dassin and filmed on the streets of New York City, the narrator declares "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them." Today, there are more than 300 million stories in America's many and wondrously various localities; crime fiction is telling more of them.

Share your favorite city or town murder mystery - or the ways your city is capitalizing on locally-set detective stories to create a sense of place or events - at the NLC Blog: CitiesSpeak.org. A link is on the www.nlc.org home page.

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Comments about his column, which appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issues" topics can be sent to him atbarnes@nlc.org. To view previous columns, visit the Emerging Issues webpage at www.nlc.org (in the menu for "About Cities").