Landscape and the Regional Mystery Novel

Many mystery novel enthusiasts enjoy reading about new locales and learning about unfamiliar cultures. Regional mysteries combine the joys of armchair travel with the excitement of suspenseful plots. Readers can “visit” exotic and unfamiliar destinations such as Egypt in Elizabeth Peters’s novels, Navajo country in Tony Hillerman’s books, or Australia in Arthur Upfield’s novels (see, for example, my posts on Crocodile on the Sandbank and Skeleton Man). The regional novel is a fairly recent development in the mystery genre, corresponding to a more diversified cast of characters and a greater emphasis on realism.

The term “regional mystery novel” has been defined in various ways. Van Dover identifies a region as “a place that has resisted homogenization into a national culture,” a locale that has its own “regional prejudices, institutions, dialects, religious and social affiliations, ethnic distinctions and so on” (1998, 1140). He disqualifies metropolises from this definition. But as Demko points out, “Mysteries must be set in places, and all places are a part of one or more regions at some scale.” What distinguishes novels as regional is the role that this setting plays in the narrative. In some mystery novels, place is inconsequential. But in mystery novels such as Swan Peak or The Hound of the Baskervilles, the landscape permeates the narrative and is inseparable from it.

What is the attraction of the regional novel? Readers can experience the joys of travel vicariously. “It’s a fun way to see the country on a limited budget,” notes one bookshop manager (Bearden 1993, 61). Few people can afford to visit all the amazing places in the world. Readers are able to extend their knowledge and enlarge their circumscribed existence by imaginatively visiting different locales. They gain insight into different cultures, combining knowledge and pleasure as they satisfy their curiosity about other lands. Readers also temporarily escape from the pressures of their own lives by immersing themselves in other places and cultures. Pastoral, exotic, and alien environments are particularly alluring.

The most skilful mystery writers use landscape to not only reflect characters but also shape them. Individuals are products of their environment and are strongly influenced by their surroundings. The award-winning children’s author Katherine Paterson insists:
Setting for me is not a background against which a story is played out, but the very stuff with which the story will be woven. The characters will not determine the setting, but the setting to a great extent will determine both what they will be like and how they will act. (1995, 95)
For novelists and readers alike, places can be deeply evocative and highly memorable.

Themes and ideas cluster around settings. We reassess our own culture after reading about other ones. As Demko observes, “Mystery settings act as both windows into particular cultures, local mores, dialects etc. and, mirrors in which we can see our American selves and our foibles, virtues, failures and sorrows.” By removing us from familiar locales, novelists such as Tony Hillerman, Donna Leon, and James Ellroy (see, for example, my post on The Black Dahlia) make us look anew at our everyday surroundings.

The next time you get the urge to travel to Boston, Florida, or Dublin, pick up a mystery novel by Robert B. Parker, Carl Hiaasen, or Ian Rankin.

Bearden, Michelle. “Death by Locale.” Publishers Weekly. October 11, 1993, 60-64.

Demko, G. J. Landscapes of Crime: The Geography of Crime Fiction. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~gjdemko/

Paterson, Katherine. “In Search of a Story: The Setting as Source.” In A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children. New York: Plume Books, 1995.

Van Dover, J. K. “Regionalism of the Mystery and Crime Novel.” Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 2: 1139-60. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.