Setting the scene (Crime Fiction)

Crime fiction is well-known for its contribution to the literature of place. Think of your favourite writer, and you will almost invariably link their work to a particular setting, whether it’s Donna Leon’s Venice, Peter Temple’s Victorian country towns or Sara Paretsky’s Chicago. Crime and geography seem to often go hand in hand.

The night air was thick and damp. As I drove south along Lake Michigan, I could smell rotting alewives like a faint perfume on the heavy air. Little fires shone here and there from late-night barbecues in the park. On the water a host of green and red running lights showed people seeking relief from the sultry air. On shore traffic was heavy, the city moving restlessly, trying to breathe. It was July in Chicago.

Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only

Paretsky is writing in the tradition of hard-boiled detective fiction; like Chandler and Hammett, she sets her novels in the dark, grimy streets of American cities. Henning Mankell writes bleak, deeply unsettling crime novels from Sweden; claustrophobically small towns, icy tundras and silver birch forests are his settings. Ian Rankin, author of the Rebus series, shows his readers parts of Edinburgh that tourists never see while Donna Leon describes Venice in all its architectural beauty and grandeur, revealing the corruption and ugliness beneath the gilded surface.

I am interested in the emphasis given to setting and atmosphere in crime fiction; they seem to play such an integral part in the genre. I’m not sure why this is so, and I’d welcome comments on this. Do you have a favourite crime writer whose work is closely tied to a particular place? And why does this setting seem to be so important to their fiction?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Setting the scene (Crime Fiction)

  1. sdz

    Crime fiction isnt my favourite,but I agree with your comments about the way the location is integral to the plot in this genre. Really I read Donna Leon for the insight into Venice that is from the perspective of the residents rather than the usual tourist viewpoint [ how does his wife cook those amazing meals in the middle of the day and lecture at the university as well? :-)]. I loved Inspector Maigret novels for the same reason.I guess there are only so many plots you can use for a crime story, and often I find them rather repetitive, so I really need something more to make a satisfying read! If the writing is vivid and engaging, the locale can add the extra ‘spice’ to keep me reading to the end!
    [I now follow the rule that if any book doesn’t get me in its grip in the first three or so chapters, thats it!! – too many books, too little time!]