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).