Browse the book with Google Preview »
The contemporary mystery scene is a stimulating place for reader and writer alike.
—Jon E. Breen, in The Fine Art of Murder
This book examines how police procedurals are used to clearly and effectively convey a fundamental geographic and literary theme—"sense of place." Not only is sense of place essential to creating an authentic locale for the plot of the novel, an authenticity that is absolutely necessary to preserve credibility, it also serves as a source, sometimes the sole source, for exposing thousands of readers to other places. Popular, escapist literature in particular is sated with insidious but powerful insight into places and cultures, some exotic, some familiar. Simply because literature may be popular and escapist does not diminish its impact. People may read popular literature to escape, but they cannot escape from the descriptions and impressions of places that are such an integral part of the plot. In these cases, fiction and geography don't just meet; they unite in imaginative and provocative ways to further the agendas of each.
Most of this book focuses on how geography, and particularly sense of place, is used to further the goals of literature to produce an effective and enthralling plot. Concomitantly, fiction, specifically the police procedural genre, is used as a powerful communicator of sense of place. The question that arises concerns why fiction is such an effective vicarious conveyer of sense of place.
[A] person often brings to literature an attitude that is more relaxed, more responsive, less inclined to prejudgment than he or she might bring to a textbook. Fiction . . . does encourage the mind to explore more willingly and freely. (Salter and Lloyd, 28)
If true for fiction in general, this is even more true for mysteries, when the need for entertainment often challenges the reader to read insatiably to deduce the solution of the mystery before it is revealed by the author. Seldom sedate, but always escapist, the police procedural, as with all detective fiction, requires the reader to think, to match wits with those of the investigator in the narrative, and to participate in the investigation. It has evolved as a particularly popular genre of the murder mystery, a genre in which the demands of the police procedural format and the evocative power of place engage each other in a cohesive and mutually beneficial relationship that makes many of these novels place-based police procedurals.
The sense of place found in these police procedurals is more than simply backdrop for the plot, the use of place more than simply a setting for the crime. Rather, place is an essential ingredient in the commission, discovery, and resolution of the crime. The use of place in mystery novels is just one specific example of how place is employed in all narrative fiction to further the effectiveness of the plot. In these kinds of mysteries, much of the intrigue is a function of locale. Place becomes an essential—maybe the essential—plot element. Nowhere else could these kinds of murders have occurred; they are culturally and contextually specific. Without a sense of place, be it the Navajo country of Tony Hillerman, the Yorkshire of Peter Robinson, the Australian Bush of Arthur Upfield, or the Moscow of Martin Cruz Smith, the plot of these mysteries is needlessly enigmatic. Scores of police procedurals can be classified as place-based.
Herein lies the purpose of this book—an examination of how and how effectively authors weave place into the tapestry of the plot of police procedurals, and how they elicit in readers a sense of place through popular, escapist fiction.
Part of the allure of the place-based police procedural is provided by a tension that necessarily arises in writing about places between what is familiar and what is not. The reader is exposed to images, sounds, smells, behaviors, and cultures that are new and unfamiliar, all the while being fed situations and circumstances that are recognizable and familiar, providing the basis for empathy and personal association. Even in exotic places, the key to success is in a careful and realistic depiction of the human condition, making our heroes and heroines real people with foibles and shortcomings like the rest of us, and who struggle with many of the same problems we all encounter in our daily lives. The trick is to engage the imagination of the reader. It is in the reading process itself, in the intense interaction between reader and text "that the special quality of the tale of the detective becomes evident." The more the plot can captivate with what is familiar, the more easily it can entreat a reader to accept the unfamiliar. Engaging the imagination of the reader is essential to solidifying the bond between reader and protagonist. Once the bond is forged, the author has clear sailing to feed us sense of place.
This book examines the sense of place found in place-based police procedurals from two complementary perspectives, namely the perspectives of author and reader. How an author uses place as an integral part of the plot has everything to do with enhancing the effectiveness of a story. At the same time, place-based police procedurals create a complex and realistic sense of place in a reader's mind. Two basic criteria govern the selection of mysteries to be discussed. First, they must be police procedurals, with some generous tolerances. Second, the series selected must be placed-based—place must be an important plot element.
Most police procedurals turn into series. The series examined in this study range in number from two (P. M. Carlson's Marty Hopkins series) to twenty-nine (Arthur Upfield's Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte series). The fact that most authors have produced series based on the same police officer is an extension of the effectiveness of the police procedural. Once readers identify with a given protagonist or group of protagonists, they became committed and dedicated fans of the entire series, often waiting impatiently for the next novel to find out how their heroes and heroines have fared. In Finding Moon, which breaks away from his Navajo tribal police series, Tony Hillerman felt compelled to soften the disappointment experienced by avid Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn fans who had been waiting patiently to find out how our heroes' lives were progressing, and to assuage any fears that the series may be at an end. Hillerman is well aware of the source of his literary success:
To my fellow desert rats, my apologies for wandering away from our beloved Navajo canyon country. The next book will bring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphom of the Tribal Police back into action.
As promised, in late 1996 Hillerman returned to the Navajo surrounds to continue the exploits of Leaphorn and Chee in The Fallen Man. His "fellow desert rats" did not fail him, providing The Fallen Man with a place at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for several weeks.
William Marshall learned his lesson the hard way. In the mid 1980s, he departed the ever-popular streets of Hong Bay, Hong Kong, and the exploits of Harry Feiffer and officers of the Yellowthread Street police station, to take up fictional residence in the Philippines. After fourteen years, Marshall had tired of the Feiffer series, believing that he had taken it as far as it could be developed. Fans, however, believed differently and sent Marshall a clear message by not buying the Manila Bay series. Marshall got the message and returned posthaste to Yellowthread Street with Frogmouth in 1987. What is interesting in the Marshall case is that not only had the public become addicted to the Feiffer series, so also had Marshall himself, apparently. The Manila Bay series lacks the humor and sarcasm that characterizes the antics of the Yellowthread Street gang. Marshall continues to work on improving the Manila Bay series; yet, to the relief of a dedicated and expectant following, the Yellowthread Street series continues on into the late-1990s.
This addiction speaks to the value of developing a series based on the same characters and places. Over time, the author is able to add, reinforce, and change earlier images and impressions. The picture and setting become more complex, more real, and more familiar as the series evolves. The same places are revisited, new places are visited, and the sense of place is strengthened and expanded. A police procedural series is only one way to approach sense of place, but it is clearly effective.
The need to examine only place-based series and to separate the sense of place from character and plot development necessarily excludes some of the most commonly used venues for murder and some very popular series. Ed McBain, Hillary Waugh, and K. C. Constantine exemplify some of the better-known masters of the art whose works, based in New York City (the fictional Isola), Stockford, Connecticut, and Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, respectively, are not included in this book. European favorites like George Simenon and Donna Leon are also excluded. This exclusion in no way suggests that their series are not some of the finest or most popular police procedurals. They are. It means, however, that they fail to meet the place-based criterion of this study. For these giants of the police procedural, generic settings are used as backdrops, and the unique characteristics of places do not figure prominently in the commission, discovery, or resolution of their crimes.
For the most part, readers have been inundated with images of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, where most TV series, movies, and novels are set. These have become generic places, where the place itself is not essential to the development of the plot. This parallels certain successful TV police series like Hill Street Blues, in which it is never revealed explicitly where the station is located. Most viewers assumed that Hill Street Blues took place in New York City. In fact, it could have been any large northeastern U.S. metropolis. Identifiable features of New York City that could have been used to further plot development were not. Compelling character development, a team of police officers working on a number of different cases, employing real-life police procedures, categorize this series as a police procedural, and an effective one at that. Yet, clearly it was not place-based. Interestingly enough, Dragnet, the "father" of radio and TV police procedurals and often credited with initiating the demand for the development of the entire genre, was clearly based in Los Angeles. There was no ambiguity of place, even if the environs of LA were not employed as extensively as they might have been.
New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are familiar places that provide the benchmark for readers evaluating other places, which I might take great liberty to refer to as "exotic places" for murder—places that the vast majority of the reading public are not familiar with and, as a result, are more accepting of the authors' interpretations. The less familiar a person is with a place, the more he or she has to rely on another's perspective. This applies to simple descriptions of landscape, social convention, cultural artifacts—in other words, all human and physical characteristics of a place.
At least one London-based police procedural series presents just the opposite scenario. P. D. James is a giant of British murder mysteries; yet, recently her novels have come under attack for weak character development, which is an interesting criticism given the great extent to which she elaborately and painstakingly crafts each character. Original Sin won high praise, however, for its sense of place, where the role of a single place, Innocent House, is an extreme example of place becoming the essential plot element. P. D. James emerges, then, as the only real representative of the London-based police procedurals. Most other police procedurals set in London fall into the generic places category.
A similar schism is found in Italy, the locale for a number of mystery series. Comparing the Venice of Michael Dibdin and Donna Leon is to examine two excellent police procedural series. But when it comes to being place-based, the Dibdin novels excel in capturing the essence of place-based police procedurals; whether the Vatican, Rome, Venice, or Naples, location is absolutely necessary for the respective plots of each. Although Leon includes a number of excellent descriptions of Venice, these descriptions are not necessary plot ingredients. The police procedures of Dibdin's Aurelio Zen, on the other hand, are depicted in far more detail and far more realistically than those of Leon's Guido Brunetti. The Zen novels are included in this book, and the Brunetti series excluded, even though I highly recommend Donna Leon to any fan of the murder mystery. Her novels simply do not meet the criterion of being place-based.
It should be noted that certain series have a historical and personal advantage—the first introduction to a place, done well, tends to remain a reader's favorite. Case in point is the New Orleans of James Lee Burke. I was mesmerized by his flavor of the "Big Easy," so much so that although his series broke away from the police procedural genre after the first novel, I had decided to use the exploits of Dave Robicheaux as representative of sense of place in New Orleans in any case. Robicheaux' return to police work after the second novel relieved my need to loosen the rules. The same can be said of Paco Taibo, since only one of his novels in translation is a true police procedural. But, as the sole representative from Latin America, and as the purveyor of a very notable sense of place, allowances are made.
Series suggested by other avid murder mystery fans carry a similar advantage. In addition to Burke, Upfield, Marshall, Dibdin, Lindsey, Gur, Dexter, and Melville were all authors recommended by people with contagious enthusiasm, whose opinions I value. An author might like to think these would have been included in any event; but being suggested by friends and colleagues as being particularly strong in their sense of place had its effect.
The result here is a selective sampling of some of the best place-based police procedurals from a representative number of places—thirty-three series in all. This is not an exhaustive study, although that was an original, naive, and certainly overly ambitious intent. More appropriately, the purpose now is to discuss a new and fascinating approach to murder mysteries, while explicitly identifying the power of popular literature in conveying to readers a sense of place.
Chapter 2 sets the context for the study and introduces a specifically place-based approach to police procedurals, focusing on their ability to generate a sense of place. Description, dialog, iconography, and attention to detail emerge as valuable literary devices to integrate sense of place into the plot.
With the spadework done, we launch into the police procedurals themselves in Chapters 3-9. They are divided geographically. Chapter 3 begins the journey in North America, examining the Navajo country of Tony Hillerman, Jean Hager's Cherokee country, the Houston and Latin America of David Lindsey, James Lee Burke and Julie Smith's New Orleans, the Lawrence County, Indiana, of P. M. Carlson, the Seattle of J. A. Jance, Susan Dunlap's Berkeley, and the Canadian north of Scott Young. The tour of the Americas ends in Mexico with the translated works of Paco Taibo II.
Chapter 4 returns to the British Isles where the police procedural has of late gained stature equal to the traditional British whodunits. There is the London of P. D. James, the Oxford of Colin Dexter, the Yorkshire of Peter Robinson, the Glasgow of Peter Turnbull, and Bartholomew Gill's Dublin.
Chapter 5 moves across the Channel to the European continent where we explore deadly artistry set in Michael Dibdin's Italy, Nicolas Freeling's provincial France, Janwillem Van der Wetering's Amsterdam, and Sjowall and Wahloo's Stockholm.
The next four chapters offer some untraditional contexts for murder mysteries. Russia is the scene of the murders examined in Chapter 6, where the Moscow of Martin Cruz Smith and Stuart Kaminsky provides places for dead bodies. In Chapter 7, we visit the Orient where Seicho Matsumoto and James Melville offer two quite different approaches to murder in Japan, William Marshall guides through the streets of Hong Kong, and Christopher West offers a relatively new series set in communist Beijing. In Chapter 8, we travel to other places for murders in Batya Gur's Israel, H. R. F. Keating's Bombay, James McClure's South Africa, and the Australia of Arthur Upfield. An interesting and intriguing twist to the murder mystery is uncovered in Chapter 9, which examines murder mysteries based in the historical past. These include the Imperial Rome of Lindsey Davis, the seventh-century China of Robert Van Gulik, the Victorian England of Anne Perry, and Michael Pearce's turn-of-thecentury Cairo.
Chapter 10 concludes the investigation with some final comments about future places for uncovering mystery, murder, and mayhem, and about the "authenticity" of the senses of place presented in the murder mystery novels. Do they, as a whole, "get it right?" How do we assess the accuracy of the places portrayed? Is our predicament any different from similar predicaments in other more serious kinds of literature ? The Fictional Works Cited at the end of this book provides complete lists of the novels of the series discussed in this book. Because of continuing additions to many of these series, I can only guarantee that the lists are complete as of summer 1999.
No doubt, numerous queries will ask why I failed to include "what's his name, my favorite detective." I am well aware that for each one written about, there are two or three others I haven't addressed. It is impossible to include all series in this one volume. The sampling of police procedurals could easily have been two or three times as large. Keep in mind that a number of excellent series have been excluded because they failed to meet the basic criteria or because the place they depict is already well represented. My primary purpose is to bring to light a different, characteristically geographical approach to the police procedural and to underscore the power of the murder mystery novel to convey a sense of place. The series used to help make that point provide a sampling, if an extensive one, of what is available. Further inquiries into other places for murders will be the grist for future investigations and many additional hours of pleasurable reading.