It’s beginning to look as though some of the best travel writing today is being wedged in between the flimsy covers of crime novels.
I wish I had a pound for everyone who went to Istanbul because they’ve read one of my crime stories. Royalties being what they are, maybe I do? But I mean, an extra pound: crime, believe it or not, sells locations. Laura Lippman pops up when you click on Baltimore’s official visitor website, because Laura tells Baltimore for grown-ups.
Forget the ghouls who want to pick their way down every alley stalked by Jack the Ripper. I’m talking about the way crime novelists have become travel writers—and the greatest travel writers since the travel genre died. I’m talking about a class of books in which the location is almost a character in its own right—a slew of fantastically good fiction which not only gives you puzzles and solutions, as any good book should, but also takes you away on a trip to an unfamiliar city, or to an unknown corner of the earth, and shows you how it works, warts and all.
A couple of years ago I was in Venice with my family. I had a little research of my own to do, and we naturally did the sights, and rode a vaporetto or two, and took a turn out to the islands of the lagoon. We did what parents with children do, which is to trade a visit to the Accademia, or to a musty old church with some splendid Bellinis, for a few rounds of cicchette in a café by the Grand Canal, or a double-scoop ice cream on the Zattere.
And as we walked, like a million other tourists then, before and since along the corridors of Venice, we kept coming up against one weird phenomenon: Africans selling immaculate, impeccable knock-off designer handbags for a few dollars.
A handful of guys selling fake goods isn’t a phenomenon, it’s part of the modern urban stream. But this was sensational: dozens of men, all gangly and black, cheerfully knocking down Fendi and Gucci bags that defied criticism for a tenner, right outside the stores selling the same bags for hundreds of dollars. Now and then, they’d pack up and flit. The policeman strolled by. They re-appeared. Asking price—sixty dollars. Deal price—twenty.
It isn’t easy getting casual information in Venice. There are precious few Venetians around, for a start; they have an impenetrable accent anyway, and aren’t so excited about being buttonholed by curious strangers. Hotel concierges do not, on the whole, break into enthusiastic explanations of the local crime scene (and if you don’t believe me, try it someday). Lyrical about the delights of Harry’s Bar, or the genius of Goldoni, the guide books were uniformly mute on the subject of angelic Africans and their handbags.
So who told us what was going on? Donna Leon.
At the time, her latest Inspector Brunetti book, set in Venice, not only explained the phenomenon: it revolved around it. Venice, awash with visitors, needs Donna Leon like a hole in the head; but the visitors may need Leon. To be honest, having satisfied my curiosity, I forgot most of the details, but they were astonishingly vivid at the time: I do recall learning that the bags were churned out in local factories, doing the illegal manufacture at night and the legal by day. The Africans were the victims of some immigration scam.
Crime novels aren’t really about plots. Plot, they say, is a rental car. You can pick up the basic plot of every crime novel as easily as a Hertz rental at the airport. Somebody dies, somebody lies, and when the inspector has figured it out, you drop the plot back in its parking space.
They are about the drive. What makes one crime novel better than another is the way the characters emerge from the setting. What matters is who’s in the car, and what they make of the landscape as it unscrolls against the windscreen. Plot may be a rental car—but a novel is a road trip.
‘The sun had descended into a flattened red orb on the western horizon, and in the scarlet wash of the afterglow the flooded tree trunks in the swamp seemed suffused with firelight, and you could see an empty rowboat tied up in the black stillness of the bayou’s far bank, the wood as dry and white as bone.’
This perfect little evocation of the landscapes of southern Louisiana comes not from the pen of a travel writer, but from a hard boiled crime thriller called Burning Angel by James Lee Burke, whose territory this is. He brings along the crooks and the contractors, the hoods and bums and grifters and hookers who populate the region where the tourist seldom ventures—though he also shows you how the fancy French Quarter in New Orleans may be underpinned by crooked money, too. He catches the rhythms of speech of black and white, the tensions, the hopes, in novel after novel.
Further south, Carl Hiassen speaks for Florida, his crime capers standing up against the condos and the contractors and all the shady businessmen who would sell the virgin landscapes of southern Florida for a nickel in profit. James Ellroy’s fractured narratives chronicle the casual corruption of postwar LA; Joe Landsman gives you Texas—where geography professors have apparently been using crime novels to teach their courses.
The art of mingling murder and mayhem with powerful evocations of place is not new. Arthur Conan Doyle was at it in the 1880s, when his Sherlock Holmes stories almost single-handedly created a sense of London enveloped in fog, with gleaming cobbles and rattling hansom cabs.
Crime writers tell it the way it is. Unlike most travelogues, they tell you things you didn’t know, and things you may rather not have found out—and if they get it wrong, they had better watch out. Their readers soon let them know. So they tell you how the city ticks, how it smells, how it goes to work, about the drink and the housing projects.
And provided the murders don’t spoil your appetite, they may even tell you what to have for lunch, and where.
Jason Goodwin is the author of Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, among other award-winning nonfiction. The Janissary Tree, his first novel and the first in a series featuring Yashim, was published in May 2006 to international acclaim.
Go here to read an exclusive excerpt from The Janissary Tree.