City Mysteries Have Their Places

Article excerpt

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 Leaphom 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. …