When it comes to mysteries, it’s all about location, location, location.
Sometimes the setting of a novel can become a character in its own right. The author manages to create a sense of place so palpable that the reader is transported from his or her armchair to an arroyo in New Mexico or the barren, snow-covered landscape of a dark Lake Michigan.
Much of the renaissance in mystery writing is due to this sense of place. It was, in fact, Michael McGarrity’s Tularosa that took me to those New Mexico ravines, dry and parched one moment, but the site of killer flash floods the next. It was Steve Hamilton’s A Cold Day in Paradise that took me to a (real) town named Paradise in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the middle of winter. (I actually visited Paradise on a subsequent road trip in summer and found it much less dramatic.)
It seems most cities and many small towns have a mystery series set in them, as authors try to distinguish these plot-driven novels and their standardized characters with a feel for some landscape or gritty urban setting that satisfies the longing of readers to escape from wherever they are.
I love a sense of place, whether in a mystery or other novel, or in a news story. I wrote a book called The New Superregions of Europe that took me to many obscure corners of the continent, where I saw firsthand how vibrant history remains tied to a specific geographic location.
This love of place led me to take part in a 50-state challenge in Goodreads’ mystery, crime, and thriller group, where the goal was to read a mystery set in each of the 50 states. I only made it through a baker’s dozen (New Mexico, Michigan, Rhode Island, Florida, New York, Alaska, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Nevada, Vermont, Virginia, and North Dakota), but I enjoyed every one of them.
The hyper-localized mystery is a sub-genre where a self-published author is on equal footing with a New York Times bestseller. I found Capriati’s Blood by Lawrence De Maria (who writes a regular column for the Independent) as compelling in its descriptions of Staten Island (along with a crackerjack plot and sympathetic hero) as Edgar Award-winner Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva, set in Providence. Castle Cape, an excellent romp through the frozen coast and choppy seas of Alaska by self-published author C.L. Withers, saved me an arduous trip because I now feel like I’ve already been there.
Closer to home, the novels of George Pelecanos, set in a District of Columbia past and present, and Laura Lippman, set in Baltimore, benefit from the backdrops in the nation’s capital and in the country’s most underestimated city (which deserves its nickname, Charm City).
The list goes on. Is Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series so wildly popular because it’s set in Trenton or in spite of it? Is Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski so intriguing because she takes us through the mean streets of Chicago? Let’s not forget the classics—John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, whose life on a Florida houseboat can only be described as idyllic, or Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who makes the confines of a Manhattan brownstone seem like paradise.
Read a mystery and dig your toes into a new and different place.
Darrell Delamaide is a writer and journalist in Washington, DC, who blogs about books at Cogito Ergo Sum. His historical thriller, The Grand Mirage, recreates the Middle East of 1910 from contemporary travel accounts, letters, and memoirs.