5 “Setting-As-Character” Crime Novels For Your TBR Pile
The late great Donald B. Westlake once said, “New York as a character in a mystery would not be the detective, would not be the murderer. It would be the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn’t going to tell it.”
Westlake, a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master and three-times Edgar Award winner, was a master at crafting complex capers set in a vividly offbeat New York City. In his prolific body of work, an atmospheric setting was as crucial a literary element as conflict, and in fact often propelled it as proficiently as his characters did.
As a reader, I’m drawn to fellow contemporary crime novelists who, like Westlake, create settings that function as character. You can’t lift Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski from Sonny’s Bar on the South Side of Chicago and rehome her in, say, a Nantucket inn. You can’t swap Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan’s Fells Point row house for a Seattle skyscraper condo. Their lives, and plotlines, can only unfold with exquisite precision where their gifted authors have set them.
As a novelist, I tend to begin a book with a broad-strokes premise—What if an abandoned baby grows up to become an investigative genealogist who helps people discover their biological roots, but can’t uncover her own? The next questions arise in tandem—not just Who is she? but also Where is she?
In my latest psychological suspense trilogy, we meet infant foundling Amelia Crenshaw in a Harlem Church on Mother’s Day, 1968 (Little Girl Lost); follow her to upstate Ithaca in 1987 and 2016 (Dead Silence) and come full circle to her expectant parents in the Deep South in 1967 (The Butcher’s Daughter). Amelia’s story would be very different if it hadn’t been driven by time and place—a riot-torn urban neighborhood in the turbulent aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination; autumn leaf-strewn brick paths burgeoning with backpack-toting Ivy Leaguers and an eighties music soundtrack; a Spanish-moss draped low-country coastal island in sultry southern summertime.
Here are five excellent setting-as-character crime novels that should go at the top of your To-Be-Read list:
Little Comfort by Edwin Hill
The Edgar and Agatha-nominated Hill launched his Hester Thurby mystery series with this compelling read about a quirky Harvard Librarian turned amateur sleuth. As the charismatic, fast-talking heroine picks up the cold trail of a long-missing and notoriously charismatic mystery man, Hill’s vibrant narrative depicts with equally evocative detail the crystalline snow crunch in the dead of a Boston winter and the damp must of a deserted lakehouse in a long ago New Hampshire summer:
They went up the narrow staircase to one of the many bedrooms, where they found a Victrola and stacks of 78s, and old photos hanging on the walls of men holding oars and wearing what looked like black underwear.
“They all went to Exeter,” Sam said, opening a dresser drawer and sliding a hand beneath a pile of mismatched sheets. “Bingo,” he said, holding up a dog-eared copy of Flowers in the Attic. Whenever they came to these lake houses, Sam took something—a matchbook from a long-ago wedding, a seashell, a postcard – something easily misplaced but not forgotten.
He shoved the book into his waistband and cranked the Victrola. “Will we be friends after you leave?” he asked.
“We’ll always be friends,” Gabe said. At least he hoped they would be.
They sat quietly till the record slowed, and Sam turned the crank again. “Do you want to dance?”
Gabe sat still.
“I don’t want to,” Gabe said, but soon he was swinging around the room and laughing, with Sam in the lead, doing something he called the foxtrot, even though he seemed to be making it up as he went along. When the record slowed again, Gabe wished Sam would turn the crank one more time. Instead, they listened to the sounds of the lake: water lapping at the shore, insects pinging against screens, a coyote crying in the distance.
Pretty As A Picture by Elizabeth Little
Little’s first novel, Dear Daughter, won the Strand Critics Award. She channels her inner Agatha Christie in her second, a fast-paced, locked-room whodunnit that unfolds on an isolated Delaware island. On location with a legendary director, quick-witted, charmingly klutzy film editor Marissa Dahl provides a wry, astute narrative that enhances conflict large and small amid a clashing cast of supporting characters: eccentric local residents still reeling from a decades-old unsolved murder; egotistical, glamorous Hollywood types filming a fictionalized version of the crime; and a pair of offbeat teenaged aspiring true crime podcasters. Our first glimpse of the coastal setting is depicted through our heroine’s eyes as she’s whisked over the night sea:
The island sneaks up on me.
Bet you didn’t know an island could do that. But this one does, and not just because I’ve been doing my best not to look at the water.
It sits just barely above sea level, broad and flat, skimming across the water like an oil slick, the two-story buildings along the shore line concealing the bulk of the island from view. There’s not much else to look at: A modern lighthouse sits atop a crumble of rock just south of the docks; to the north, a roller coaster and Ferris wheel peek out from behind a cluster of trees. In the distance, on the far eastern end of the island, is a rambling, hulking structure—a hotel, if I’m lucky. A hospital, if I’m not. It’s too dark to trace the specifics of its outline, but I’d guess every light in the place is turned on: I count forty-seven visible windows in three higgledy-piggledy clusters. This has to be our destination.
To Tell You the Truth by Gilly MacMillan
Past and present, fact and fiction collide in this critically acclaimed new release about a troubled woman whose childhood was devastated by her brother’s unsolved disappearance, and whose marriage to an insecure husband is teetering. Both the author, bestselling British crime novelist Gilly MacMillan, and her heroine, bestselling British crime novelist Lucy Harper, reside in Bristol, England, a hilly riverside city rich in maritime history, ancient archaeology, medieval architecture, and modern industry. When Lucy moves into an eerie fixer-upper mansion adjacent to her old neighborhood, she can no longer escape the truth about her past or the secret that haunts her:
It was close to dawn and the darkness was tinged blue and friable. I made my way downstairs cautiously, not wanting to turn lights on, because that would make the fact of this house more real, but it meant I was spooked by each unfamiliar feature as it emerged from the gloom.
I sat at the kitchen table facing the expanse of window. It was noticeably quiet here compared to our flat. I was used to waking up to traffic noise, a background drone of sirens, the rumble of trains. Here, there was birdsong and it occurred to me that I should take pleasure in it, but instead I couldn’t help imagining baby birds in their nests, bald, vulnerably and needy, beaks stretched wide open to reveal bottomless red gullets.
Unholy City by Carrie Smith
Resilient NYPD Detective/cancer survivor Claire Codella stars alongside an equally strong and sturdy New York City in this gritty, gripping police procedural. This third title in Smith’s Killer Nashville Reader’s Choice Award-winning trilogy is an effective standalone set in an authentic and diverse cityscape. She transports the reader from dimly lit, far-flung street corners to gleaming, iconic thoroughfares as Codella and her sparring partner Detective Brian Haggerty trail a killer who left a murdered corpse in the vintage churchyard. The setting is depicted in an early scene in which historic and modern-day Manhattan collide:
She decided to check on the bed of Moroccan mint she’d planted last month. She turned right and followed a path that ran along the limestone wall of the parish house. The Romanesque architecture reminded Rose of a medieval castle, and whenever she walked here alone, she sensed the confluence of past and present. The church archives said that two hundred years ago, this Manhattan Valley neighborhood had been a vast stretch of farmland known as Bloomingdale. Wealthy city dwellers from the southern tip of Manhattan had spent their summers on estates overlooking the Hudson River, and those estate owners had built and worshipped at St. Paul’s. Who, she wondered now, had tended her garden back then?
Untitled Novel #7 by Alison Gaylin
The Edgar Award-winning Gaylin frequently writes about New York’s Hudson Valley, a scenic amalgamation of early American architecture, working farms, gilded age estates, bustling commuter depots and riverfront dive bars. In this world, complex modern domesticity encompasses local tradesmen, blue bloods, aging hippies, and transplanted urban hipsters alike, and Gaylin excels at using it to intertwine familial and crime drama as she did in If I Die Tonight, set in her fictional Havenkill. She revisits the locale in her latest, about a grieving mother thrust into a deadly, vengeful game of cat and mouse that builds to a twist you won’t see coming:
Havenkill is one of those picturesque Hudson Valley towns—full of historic plaques and statues of men on horseback and window boxes and white colonial buildings with lacquered black shutters. Matt and I used to love to spend long weekends at Havenkill bed and breakfasts when we lived in the city, daydreaming about moving to the town (which I believe is technically a hamlet). We can be just like George and Mary Bailey, we’d say. But they really were just daydreams. The truth is, there’s something we both found slightly off-putting about Havenkill – a judgy, insular quality behind the Bedford Falls veneer. The big, unapologetic cross in the town square at Christmastime; the hardness in the eyes of some of the smiling store owners—especially when you’d mention you were visiting from the city, the enormous historic mansions at one end of town and the tiny tract houses on the other, never the twain shall meet.
About The Butcher’s Daughter by Wendy Corsi Staub:
Investigative genealogist Amelia Crenshaw solves clients’ genetic puzzles, while hers remains shrouded in mystery. Now she suspects that the key to her birth parents’ identities lies in an unexpected connection to a stranger who’s hired her to find his long-lost daughter. Bracing herself for a shocking truth, Amelia is blindsided by a deadly one. NYPD Detective Stockton Barnes had walked away from his only child for her own good. He’ll lay down his life to protect her if he and Amelia can find out where—and who—she is. But someone has beat them to it, and she has a lethal score to settle. Amelia and Stockton’s entangled roots have unearthed a femme fatale whose family tree holds one of history’s most notorious killers. And the apple never falls far…