Saturday, July 14, 2007

Setting in fiction: It helps if you live there

The fine blog Detectives Beyond Borders recently had a discussion about the significance of setting in crime fiction. Peter was commenting on an assertion by Clive James that many of today's international crime novels are so crammed with geographic detail that they are essentially guidebooks.

I've had the same reaction, most recently to "A Small Death in Lisbon," where the protagonist's steps through the city are described in such detail that it begins to sound like a guy following Mapquest directions.

But then it occurred to me that such detail is a lot easier to appreciate if you're actually familiar with the place being described. Then it's not a distraction at all; it's evocative. At least that's been my reaction to the three novels James Lee Burke has set in my hometown of Missoula, Mont.: "Black Cherry Blues," "Bitterroot," and "In the Moon of Red Ponies." I know very well every road, river, building and landmark mentioned in those books. For me, that recognition enhances the illusion of reality on which all novels depend. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Burke lives in Missoula part of the time, and is among the very best writers in the business.

My question is: Have you read many books set in the city where you live? Do you find them more or less enjoyable as a result? I'm now in Wichita, Kansas (it's a long story), and the only book I've read that's been set here is Scott Phillips' "The Ice Harvest," which was made into the flawed movie of the same name. In that book, and in the movie, it was the lack of setting that annoyed me -- the story could have unfolded anywhere. But maybe the lack of distinguishing characteristics is one of things people perceive about Kansas. (It's not quite true, by the way).

10 comments:

Peter said...

Actually, I was taking issue with James' implication not so much that current "international" crime novels have too much detail, but that such detail is all they have.

In the past year or two, I've read one story and (part of) one novel set in Philadelphia. In the novel, whose title I can't remember, two mobsters find their victims and force them into a car a block from where I live. They take them on a block-by-block drive that reads like a set of Mapquest directions to a bridge, where they kill one -- a block or so from where I used to live. The detail of setting was tedious.

David Goodis' descriptions in his story "Black Pudding," on the other hand, are terse evocations of settings. They made a familiar place new, one might say.

The only conclusion I draw is that David Goodis was a much better writer than the other guy, whose name slips my mind along with the title of his novel.

==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Peter said...

You might be interested in this http://sandrablabber.blogspot.com/2007/07/sense-of-place.html, from another blog I've visited recently.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Uriah Robinson said...

I enjoyed that part of The Death List by Paul Johnston that was set in Dulwich and Ruskin Park where I used to live. The lead character crime writer Matt Wells takes his daughter to school in Dulwich Village, an oasis of extreme wealth in my day.
The village is only a few hundred yards from Dulwich College, where Raymond Chandler went to school.
I must admit I switch off a bit when geographic details of places I can't relate to are mentioned.
The really good writers are those that can take you to a place you have never been and make you feel the heat of Louisiana, or the cold of Iceland without writing a tourist guide.

Maxine said...

I love the "placeism" in crime fiction novels -- it saves you actually having to go to these places.
I do agree that it can be overdone, though -- I could never get on with J Lee Burke for this reason and similarly for the Robert Wilson I've read.
However, when an author gets it right, it really enchances the book in my view. eg Diamond Dove, Coroner's Lunch -- or Robert Crais, Michael Connelly and many other series novelists -- I've been reading lots of great "euro noir" recently about Scandinavia, Ireland etc, when I have become effortlessly immersed in the "place" as part of the atmosphere of the book.
At the end of the day I guess it boils down to how well the person can write, as to whether they get the balance write.

Maxine said...

Sorry, make that "right" at the end there!
Will take advantage of the PS to mention Italy -- Carofiglio and Camirelli -- I belive Uriah there in your comments would concur in these cases.

Peter said...

Maxine, I'm going to take the liberty of interpreting your comment, or at least of putting my own spin on it.

You say "placeism" in crime novels "saves you actually having to go to these places." Perhaps that's another way of saying that it's easier to derive a vivid sense of place from a book about a location one has not visited; there's so much more work for the imagination to do.

Perhaps I say that especially because you included Diamond Dove on your list. I've never been to the Australian outback, so I eagerly soaked up all the wonderful detail Adrian Hyland provided. An author writing with similar detail about a place I knew might run the risk of of overwhelming me with description. Re Coroner's Lunch, have you been to Laos?
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Becky said...

Hardly any novels are set in my city, so I've never really had the pleasure of trying to figure out whether it's a good experience or not. I do think it might bother me if an author "got it wrong" somehow. But I have developed a deep affection for the city of London through the countless novels I've read that take place there. I finally visited the city after years of reading about it, and found that I knew a lot more about it and its neighborhoods than a typical American visitor might. Very gratifying.

Dave Knadler said...

Becky, I know what you mean about London -- I've read so many books set there that I felt like coming home on my first visit a couple of years ago.

I expect it'll be the same in Edinburgh, if I ever visit there: Ian Rankin's books have sketched out quite a mental map of the city for me. I'll have to see how accurate it it.

Lauren said...

Well, as an Edinburgh-er (sort of - I'm transplanted from Oz, where I'm currently on holiday), I did feel I knew the city a bit better when I arrived because I'd read so much about it from Rankin. However, as I've never liked Rebus that much (long story), it was rather like having memorised a map. There was no emotional attachment. Now that I actually know the city, I'm going to see if the books mean a bit more to me.

On the other hand, I read Frank Tallis's two murder mysteries set in turn of the century Vienna well after I'd come to know and love the city, and felt like I was wallowing in the nicest sort of nostalgia. Possibly to the exclusion of my critical faculties, because the books do suffer from a Robert Wilson-like information overload, unless you're obsessively interested in Austrian cultural history. (That would be me.)

Er, to belatedly introduce myself, I'm a blogless Scottish-based Australian, who lurks on Peter's blog and has found her way here too.

Dave Knadler said...

Very pleased to meet you, Lauren (if exchanging posts on a blog can be said to equal an acquaintance.) Australia and Scotland are both on my short list of places to visit before I get too much older.

I get the sense that Edinburgh is a city with an interesting past, but now given over totally to tourists and the upwardly mobile. Is that so?