>Place and Crime Fiction

>Welcome to today´s guest blogger, Rob Kitchin. Thank you very much Rob for obliging me.
See my review of Rob´s debut, and a blog post by Rob on “Landscape and Crime“.
Remember to think about – and comment on – Rob´s question: I’d be interested to learn your thoughts about crime fiction and place.

When Dorte asked me to contribute a guest post I was very flattered, but unsure what to write about. After a bit of consideration, given that most of my time is spent working as an academic geographer, I offered to try and write a short piece on the role of place in crime fiction. It’s not my area of specialization, and I should have done some research, but not knowing what I’m talking about hasn’t stopped me before so I didn’t let it here either.

While the crime genre is clearly defined by its focus on criminal activity of various kinds, the milieu in which that activity occurs is, I would argue, a central component of any good mystery because it provides vital context. Crimes take place somewhere, shaped by the setting in which they occur and which, in turn, re-shape that place in their aftermath. Crime fiction is thus a genre that generally takes place seriously, often on multiple levels – as a descriptive backdrop, as context, as a clue, as a solution, as a puzzle, as ambience. Whilst a story could, in theory, be set anywhere, much crime fiction is interwoven with the geography of a specific location so that the setting and its landscape become a core element of the plot, in much the same way as the characters do. As an illustration, here’s a passage by Raymond Chandler, who always vividly described the rooms, streets and landscapes that his Private Investigator, Philip Marlowe, prowled.

I got down to Montemar Vista as the light began to fade, but there was still a fine sparkle on the water and the surf was breaking far out in long smooth curves. A group of pelicans were flying in bomber formation just under the creaming lip of the waves. A lonely yacht was taking in toward the yacht harbor at Bay City. Beyond it the huge emptiness of the Pacific was purple-gray.
Montemar Vista was a few dozen houses of various sizes and shapes hanging by their teeth and eyebrows to a spur of mountain and looking as if a good sneeze would drop them down among the box lunches on the beach.
Above the beach the highway ran under a wide concrete arch which was in fact a pedestrian bridge. From the inner end of this a flight of concrete steps with a thick galvanized handrail on one side ran straight as a ruler up the side of the mountain. Beyond the arch the sidewalk café my client had spoken of, was bright and cheerful inside, but the iron-legged, tile-topped tables outside under the striped awning were empty save for a single dark woman in slacks who smoked and stared moodily out to sea, with a bottle of beer in front of her. A fox terrier was using one of the iron chairs for a lamppost. She chided the dog absently as I drove past and gave the sidewalk café my business to the extent of using its parking space.
I walked back through the arch and started up the steps. It was a nice walk if you liked grunting. There were two hundred and eighty steps up to Cabrillo Street. They were drifted over with windblown sand and the handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly.
Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely (1940)

For me, a crime novel that manages to create an entire lifeworld – which captures the sights, smells, tastes, sounds and textures of a location, as well as the essence of its people, its architecture, its social relations and culture, its political and legal system, and its economic life – enhances the reading experience because it fosters in the reader an acute sense of place. Through such writing one intuitively comes to know a place, and over several books in a series, as more and more details and layers of information and insights are revealed, one doesn’t just inhabit the psychological lives of the main characters but their geography too. As such, the books become travelogues that reveal much more about a place and the lives of people living there than any Lonely Planet guide. For example, in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series one comes to know the landscapes and communities of Trenton, New Jersey. On the first page of the first book Evanovich conjures up in a few short words ‘the burg’. From then on I have that place in my mind’s eye, providing a snapshot to which I gradually colour in detail.

Morelli and I were both born and raised in a blue-collar chunk of Trenton called the burg. Houses were attached and narrow. Yards were small. Cars were American. The people were mostly of Italian descent, with enough Hungarians and Germans thrown in to offset inbreeding. It was a good place to buy calzone or play the numbers. And, if you had to live in Trenton anyway, it was an okay place to raise a family.
Janet Evanovich, One For the Money (1994)

As Evanovich demonstrates, creating a sense of place does not need to rely on heavy and laboured description of each locale. It can be fostered quite lightly. It can also be created suggestively through what people do in each locale (in the same way as we can come to know a character through what they say and do, rather than a description of what they look like or their thoughts). The kinds of books I tend to enjoy tend to be driven by dialogue and action, with relatively light description of characters and place, and little reflection and introspection. I’m thinking here of authors such as Joe Lansdale, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, Janet Evanovich, Philip Kerr, Katy Munger, Peter Temple, Laurence Shames, and Ian Rankin. Despite having relatively thin descriptions of places, they nonetheless manage to convey a lasting sense of East Texas, Los Angeles, Trenton (New Jersey), Berlin, Raleigh (North Carolina), Melbourne, the Florida Keys, and Edinburgh. That they do this is because, regardless of writing style, these authors understand that place is critical to the crime stories they tell. For example, I don’t know about you, but after reading this passage from Peter Temple, I was in this bar and I knew the old fellas.

I parked a block away, two wheels on the kerb in a one way street, and made the run for the Prince. I could have found it by smell: a hundred-odd years of spilt beer. My grandfather used to drink there. So did my father. His dark, intense face is in the faded photographs of Fitzroy Football Club series of the late 1940s on the wall near the door marked GENTS.
There are only a few dozen Fitzroy supporters left who remember my father; to them I represent a genetic meltdown. Three of these veterans were sitting at the bar nursing glasses of beer and old grievances. As I stood brushing rain off my sleeves, they looked at me as if I were personally responsible for Fitzroy’s 36-point loss to despised Carlton on Saturday.
‘Three in a row, Jack,’ said Eric Tanner, the one nearest the door. ‘Played like girls. Where the hell were you?’
‘Sorry men,’ I said. ‘Business.’
‘Three sets of eyes with the combined age of 220 examined me. They all held the same look. It was the one the boy in the gang gets when he is the first to put talking to a girl ahead of kicking a football in the street.
‘I had to go to Sydney,’ I said. ‘Work.’ I might as well have said I had to go to Perigord for truffles for all the exculpatory power this statement carried.
‘Should’ve taken the team with you,’ said Wilbur Ong.
‘What kind of work does a man in Sydney on a Satdee arvo?’ said Norman O’Neill in a tone of amazement. These men would no more consider being away from Melbourne on a Saturday in the football season than they would consider enrolling in personal development courses.
Peter Temple, Bad Debts (1996)

In my own modest efforts to create some sense of place for Dublin I try to combine physical description with some basic history and facts about the location, along with some sense of what is happening there. In The Rule Book all of the places detailed in and around Dublin are real locales. When I was writing the book I visited each place, spent some time there and took photos I could consult later. Given that the geometry of the city is an integral part of the story I also took GPS coordinates. I wanted locals to be able to feel that they recognized parts of the city and for others to get a sense that they could visualize and inhabit the landscape. The extent to which I’ve managed to achieve that you can judge for yourself from the following passage set in O’Connell Street, a key location in the book. It ends with the vista reproduced on the front cover.

McEvoy stood at the three metre wide base of the steel spire and looked up towards where it tapered to a thin point one hundred and twenty metres above. It had been erected in 2003 to replace Nelson’s Pillar blown up in 1966 by the IRA. At the time McEvoy had thought it a tremendous waste of money – it cost a fortune, you couldn’t go up it, and it was boring; just a bloody big spike rising into the sky. His opinion hadn’t changed with time. He lowered his face and looked around at the street-lamp lit scene, dragging the smoke from his cigarette deep into his lungs.
The spire was positioned in the middle of a crossroads, standing on a strip of pavement that separated the double lanes of O’Connell Street, one of the widest thoroughfares in Europe, fifty metres in width. Off to one side was Earl Street, a short pedestrian area leading onto Talbot Street that led down past the bargain basement shops to Connolly Station. Opposite was Henry Street full of high street, brand name shops. On the corner of Henry Street was the GPO – the general post office – a long, squat, stern looking building with a grand central portico of six, wide classical Ionic columns, still pockmarked with bullet holes from the 1916 rising. On top of the portico, looking down onto the street, were the three statues of Mercury, Hibernia and Fidelity.
McEvoy set off on a circuit, walking to the north corner of Henry Street, then alongside the drab, four storey shop fronts, the dark brown portico of the National Irish Bank, up as far as McDonalds, still doing a brisk trade to gangs of teenagers and bewildered looking tourists, then across to the central reservation again. Standing next to a giant statue of a running hare set on a wide plinth, part of a temporary exhibition of Barry Flanagan’s sculptures running the length of O’Connell Street, he looked back toward the spire through some thin trees just gaining their new leaves.
The area was still relatively busy. Buses and taxis trundling their way up both sides of the reservation, office workers heading home after a few Friday night drinks, early revellers disgorging from buses and traversing between bars, tourists fresh in on weekend city breaks wandering aimlessly seeking the sights and the craic, and a handful of plain clothes guards trying to get a sense of the space.
He weaved his way through the traffic to O’Brien’s sandwich shop and headed back towards Earl Street, pausing to look down its length, past the entrances to Boyers’ and Cleary’s department stores to the smaller shops beyond, and then right at the spire blocking the route to Henry Street, people waiting at the traffic lights to cross, a timer counting down the seconds until the lights would change. It reached zero and the pedestrians surged forward, across onto the central reservation, streaming either side of the spire, heading for the far side.
He continued down O’Connell Street, past Abrakebabra, the smell of cooking meat and fries wafting out onto the pavement reminding him that he’d once again barely eaten all day, the saucy underwear in Ann Summers’ window display, to the imposing frontage of Cleary’s, mimicking the GPO opposite with twelve flat columns along its length, a large black and gold clock hanging above the entrance. Restrained neoclassical style buildings, their fronts a mix of limestone, granite, red brick and Portland stone, their roofs capped with copper, stretched down the rest of the street to the Liffey. He crossed the road back to the central reservation at the statue of radical labour leader, Jim Larkin, his hands held aloft, behind him the spire rising up through them. He drew to a stop and looked at the way he had come and then across to the GPO.

Usually I’m much more economical in the description of a place but, given the importance of this location, in this instance I wanted to provide a more detailed picture. Indeed, The Rule Book mainly consists of a series of short scenes of dialogue and I suspect that that is the longest passage between conversations in the entire book! Hopefully it gives some sense of O’Connell Street at ten o’clock on a Friday night.

In conclusion, my argument is basically that crime fiction is not simply a genre defined by crime, but one also highly sensitive to place (and, of course, time). Place provides vital context and structure, not simply a backdrop. I don’t know the extent to which others agree with that sentiment – one of the problems of being a geographer is the tendency to slip into spatial fetishism; that is we think that space and place is critical to everything! I’d be interested to learn your thoughts about crime fiction and place.

About Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

I am a Danish teacher. In my spare time I read, write and review crime fiction.
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