A Sense of Place: Raymond Chandler, Sherlock Holmes, and Spies Coming in From the Cold
Of course, crime fiction is about good ideas: who did it? The butler did it, they all did it, the detective did it, the narrator did it. We know who did it but will they be caught? We know who did it, but we don’t know what the ‘it’ was that they did.
Of course, crime fiction is about character: the coolly analytic consulting detective; the forensic scientist; the hard-drinking private eye; the priest, as eager to save the soul of the murderer as to catch him; the retiring cop, pulled back for one last case. And on the other side there’s the master criminal, the drug baron, the jealous lover, the serial killer, the religious maniac.
So there is the what and the who, but just as important is the where. When you think of your favorite crime novels, a year after you’ve read them, you’ve probably got a fairly dim memory of the plot; perhaps you’ll remember the protagonist and perhaps two or three of the supporting cast. What is likely to stay with you most is the setting: rainy New York streets, smoky clubs in Paris or Berlin, an island off the coast of Devon, an Oxford college, a train wherever it is that the Orient Express gets stuck in the snow.
Advice for anyone writing a thriller: you’ve got your story and your characters but where does your story take place? London? Well, which part of London? Notting Hill, Whitechapel, the Isle of Dogs? These are all different places with different meanings. Why does it have to be there? What does it bring to the story? What does it smell like? What does it sound like?
We could have chosen as many examples as there are great crime novels: from the heat of Chester Himes’s Harlem to Donna Leon’s damp, corrupt Venice; Elmore Leonard’s Florida compared and contrasted with Carl Hiaasen’s Florida. But here are ten examples where the location gets equal billing with the stars.
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
In maybe the first, and maybe the greatest, detective story of all, Wilkie Collins gives us a treasure trove of puzzling delights: a locked room, an intricate plot, multiple narrators, a terrific cast of characters including, of course, the rose-loving Sergeant Cuff, and the beguiling sense that we as readers, in sifting through documents and contradictory accounts, become like detectives ourselves. Above all, as in The Woman in White, he gives us a seductively eerie Gothic setting. Much of the novel takes place in a mansion in Yorkshire, a house of creaking stairs and twisting corridors and concealed compartments, whose garden is a moonlit nightscape, and near where the shivering sands wait like a formless grave. The realist plot unfolds in a weird world of dreams and nightmares.
The Sherlock Holmes stories
When you reread Conan Doyle’s great stories, it’s surprising how cheerfully slapdash most of the plots are – and how little that matters. (As pure mysteries, GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are far cleverer). The relationship between Holmes and Watson was, of course, a miraculous invention that’s been imitated ever since. But just as important is the most famous fictional address of all time: 221b Baker Street, with its roaring fire, tea served by Mrs. Hudson, and a cab at the door, bringing another client. And beyond that the foggy streets of London, the gin shops and opium dens, the wharves by the river, the slums in the East End and the grand squares of the West End. Conan Doyle didn’t just write stories, he created a world we want to live in.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
It may be heresy to say so but Philip Marlowe is a rather one-dimensional hero and Chandler’s plots veer between being elaborately intricate and utterly incomprehensible. What makes the books truly great is the perfect match between Chandler’s baroque prose and the squalid urban setting he applies it to: ‘Rain filled the gutters and splashed knee-high off the pavement. Big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying giggling girls across the bad places.’ According to legend, even Chandler himself couldn’t remember who killed the chauffeur, but when you’ve read the book you’ll never forget General Sternwood slowly dying among his hothouse plants or his Los Angeles of hotel lobbies and sleazy nightclubs and streets where the rain never seems to stop.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
Le Carré’s breakthrough novel has everything: a brilliantly wrought plot; the two anti-heroes, Alec Leamas and George Smiley. Most revolutionary of all was its setting as the ultimate anti-James Bond story. Instead of dry martinis, blondes and casinos, we’re in a world of cheap bedsits, corner shops and a doomed, sad love affair with a librarian. It’s a post-war, post-imperial England where it’s cold, nothing works and the electricity company cuts off your power when you can’t afford to pay your bill of nine pounds four shillings and eightpence. The weather is bad and the food is terrible, whichever side of the Iron Curtain poor Alec Leamas finds himself. Crucially the disenchantment was as much in the setting as in the cynical story le Carré was telling. He had some fine novels to come but he was never again quite as tough and unsparing.
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
Cruz Smith’s 1981 breakthrough novel was a revelation and the revelation was almost entirely in the setting. The story is a Chandleresque one of a weary detective investigating corruption, but what made it startling and unique was that it was set in Soviet Moscow, a place almost nobody could go and almost nobody knew anything about. The grim portrait of the rotten underbelly of Soviet life felt wonderfully fresh – how did Cruz Smith know about Moscow’s mean streets? (His follow-up, Polar Star, set on a Soviet factory ship was even more pungently grim – and we mean that as praise.)
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The historical thriller is a genre unto itself and there are many fine examples but Umberto Eco’s staggering debut is the very finest. His 14th century monk-detective, William of Baskerville, and his assistant, Adso, are a brilliantly clever medieval Holmes and Watson but Eco brought to his task a lifetime’s saturation in the history of the period. The reader feels entirely immersed in the world of this imaginary Benedictine abbey, a world not just of bricks and men and animals but of books and words and chants and passions and beliefs. It’s a very gripping story that has been twice filmed but it’s also a world that you can deliriously loose yourself in.
One Step Behind by Henning Mankell
Mankell was the great inaugurator of ‘Scandi-noir’ but the world of his detective, Kurt Wallander, is not Scandinavia as we thought we knew it. This is not the world of pine forests, lakes, fjords, mountains, skiing and skating in the winter and long summer evenings. The southern Swedish province of Skåne is a very different place, barer, flatter and, through Mankkell’s eyes, much, much bleaker. For Mankell, who divided his time between Sweden and Mozambique, southern Sweden is also a political landscape, where something, somewhere has gone terribly wrong, and in this novel it can be seen in the old family farms as much as in the failing cities.
The Dry by Jane Harper
Jane Harper’s debut novel is about the murder of a mother and her young son and the terrible secrets a community holds. It is also vividly and oppressively about the Australian outback. Set in a small and poor farming community a day’s drive from Melbourne, the novel opens with blowflies on a wet wound, and the grim story unfolds under a burning blue sky, the sun a blow torch, the land parched, the river just a scar on the dusty ground. It is an extraordinary evocation of a hostile landscape – burning hot to the Scandi ice cold – where insects rattle and buzz, birds of prey shriek, the drought has driven everyone nearly mad, and hatred has taken root in the dry lands.
Dark Pines by Will Dean
Scandi noir becomes noirer in Deans’ first Tuva Moodyson thriller. Tuva – a deaf, bisexual reporter on a local paper in a small town in Varmland – sets out to investigate the grisly murders that have been happening in the surrounding forests (though she is terrified of forests and tries to avoid entering them – which is when you know she will have to). Never mind the plot, which is good verging on absurd. It’s the setting that unnerves and captivates. Swedish forests have never been darker; Swedish trolls never more creepy; Swedish ice never icier; Swedish elks never more sinister. The novel manages to turn a pile-up of tropes into something so weird and grim and intoxicatingly baroque that you want to cheer – and to hide under the covers, because it’s a terrifying cold world out there.
The Long Drop by Denise Mina
This recent (2017) novel is a fascinating hybrid. It retells the true story of Scotland’s worst serial killer, who was executed in 1958 with Mina’s own (highly controversial) speculation about what precisely might have occurred. It takes place mainly over one night as Manuel and a friend drink their way, horribly and, in the end, disastrously, across Glasgow. Part true-crime novel, part-fiction, the book is also an extended, non-fictional portrait of a city that is about to be demolished, entirely and swept away by what is now the modern center of culture that is 21st century Glasgow. It makes this remarkable book something very unusual: a nostalgic elegy for a squalid, brutal urban landscape that we’re probably well rid of. What a difference there is between the places we want to live in the books we read, and the places we want to live in real life.