Crime fiction writers tend to consider plot and character to be the most important elements. Setting is a minor consideration, something a writer should take care of only if they have time. Beginning a novel with setting is considered an amateurish move that could turn off readers looking for action.
While this take has an element of truth to it—a static setting with disconnected descriptions of buildings or the weather may bring the pace to a crawl and dump extraneous information on the reader—for my money, sense of place can propel the story forward and make it more meaningful. When strongly connected to character and plot, setting makes a book stand apart.
Unfortunately for crime fiction fans, bookstore shelves are packed with “thrillers” that take place in “New York,” also known as “any city in America.” But outside the confines of standard commercial fiction, it’s easy to find books using setting to their advantage. Here are five titles to check out—and note that three of them are from independent publishers and one is self-published.
Cannibals by Jen Conley
Jen Conley’s brilliant short story collection published by Down & Out Books takes place in a part of southern New Jersey known as the Pine Barrens. I grew up not far from there in Connecticut, yet I knew almost nothing about this area before reading Cannibals. The Pine Barrens is a rural, working-class region that—while located between two of the country’s largest metropolitan areas, New York City and Philadelphia—has more in common with the small towns of the Rust Belt.
In the title story, a girl is walking through the woods to meet her brother at a grocery store when a group of drifters confronts her. The forest in Cannibals isn’t a calm, tranquil place—instead, it’s where characters become lost or hunted, and it plays a significant role in several stories. In “Escape,” a young woman flees a massacre at a rural farmhouse, heading into the darkness of the woods to escape a killer. In “Howling,” beat cop Andrea Vogel searches the forest for a missing person when a man hears “cries for help. A howling. Like something’s being broiled alive.” This rural sensibility is balanced against suburban elements: 7-Elevens, beer-and-shot bars, and bowling alleys, which don’t offer much hope either.
The worries of the characters reflect the setting as well—living with the damage Hurricane Sandy did to the coastline, a trailer close to being ripped apart during a vicious thunderstorm, the constant pressure of living paycheck to paycheck. Not to mention the Jersey Devil lurking in the background of several stories.
As reviewer Rory Costello puts it:
“Jen Conley can lay claim to a rare distinction: staking out a piece of America and making it her own literary turf. The way she evokes the Pine Barrens of New Jersey—the natural landscape and the towns—is very vivid and powerful.”
Skull Meat by Tom Leins
Ah, the wonderful world of UK regionalism. I picked a Tom Leins book here, but I could have just as easily selected another Brit grit title by Ray Banks, Paul Heatley, Allan Guthrie, Nigel Bird, Paul Brazill, or Math Bird, who takes a fascinating look at Welsh crime fiction at Down & Out Books.
Back to Leins: Skull Meat is a short, intense journey into Paignton, a coastal town in southwestern England. Leins’s Paignton is like an open, festering wound on the underbelly of a failed society. Here’s the brilliant start of the second chapter:
When you see the sun rise in Paignton it looks like a collapsed lung filling with blood.
The atmosphere is as dark and deliciously depressing as they come—the vomit-slick floors of pubs, the scummy offices of criminals, a decrepit local hospital. The characters reflect the place as well, almost to the point of blending with it so the reader can’t tell them apart:
I drift towards him, boots sticking to the dirty linoleum. He’s on mop duty, but he looks far too ill to be working anywhere. Anywhere but the Dirty Lemon, that is.
Perhaps Leins’s next book should be a traveler’s guide to Paignton. Although, maybe it’s a place that’s better to read about than to visit…
A Place to Bury Strangers by Grant Nicol
Who knew that life in Scandinavia could be so dangerous? I thought they had all that democratic socialism with its free health care and organic, farm-raised prison systems.
Anyway, I haven’t read much in the so-called Nordic noir genre, but here’s one worth checking out from Fahrenheit Press. A murder in Reykjavík leads Detective Grímur Karlsson into a case that exposes wide-ranging corruption in Icelandic government and industry.
Author Grant Nicol, an ex-pat from the UK, also incorporates plenty of detail on the country’s culture and contemporary problems, like drug addiction and immigration. While some of the book takes place in the capital, Nicol also takes the reader to the remote, frozen forests and the raging Gullfoss waterfall. A Place to Bury Strangers takes a country outsiders rarely think about and makes it real.
Confessions by Kanae Minato
Japanese writer Kanae Minato has written 14 novels and three short story collections, but only two have been translated into English: Confessions and Penance. I’ve picked Confessions here because I enjoyed it more, though Penance is also worth reading and provides a better window into Japanese culture.
But Confessions, sheesh, this book knocked me on my ass. Once it gets its hooks in you, watch out! In both books, Minato prefers to let the characters tell the story directly through techniques such as one character writing a letter to another character or—as in the opening scene in Confessions—a teacher speaking to her class. This choice makes her writing deeply personal to the point that the reader feels uncomfortably close to the characters—who do some pretty fucked up things. And it has a sweet tagline: “Her pupils killed her daughter. Now she will have her revenge.”
The sense of place in Minato’s books is expressed through Japanese cultural norms. Penance focuses on traditions, rural-urban dynamics, and wealth inequality; Confessions focuses on family relationships, the pressures of school, the aimlessness of modern life, and justice.
Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang
I’m not usually a fan of police procedurals, a genre that’s often trapped in clichés. But in this first novel of the Jack Yu series from SoHo Press, Henry Chang makes excellent use of Chinatown to escape the tried-and-true New York City of Law & Order. Chang brings the reader into the smoky dive bars, karaoke joints, gambling parlors, and dumpling shops and offers strong portrayals of the characters who inhabit them.
As a cop who works in and is from Chinatown, Yu is often going back and forth between two worlds. He’s an ambitious investigator who genuinely wants to help his community, but this often means undermining the criminal organizations that have supported it. On the other side, he’s often frustrated with racism in the NYPD and its lack of investment in protecting neighborhoods like his. Chang renders a complex depiction of this iconic neighborhood that many New Yorkers don’t know much about.