Fri
Jun 9 2017 3:00pm

Setting a Mystery: Where Do You Like Your Mysteries to Take Place?

Read an exclusive guest post from R. Jean Reid about the importance of setting in mysteries, and then make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of her latest novel, Perdition!

I’m a sucker for a windswept, desolate, craggy coastline, far from civilization and safety. At least when I’m safely sitting in my armchair reading about it in a book. In real life? Maybe backed up by a close-by car in good working condition and a few stalwart friends. (Perhaps I enjoy these books because it’s the sort of setting that seems to call for an amber glass of aged single malt to sip while reading.) Books such as Tana French’s Broken Harbor and Aline Templeman’s Dead in the Water. Or Vera, the British TV series. 

What is setting, and why is it so important to mysteries? Other books as well, but I’d argue that setting is a crucial element in the mystery. What would happen to Miss Marple if she was taken out of her English village? Much of what drives those books is the seemingly safe and bucolic setting and what secrets can be hidden in such places. Some locations—221B Baker Street—are as iconic as their detectives. Nick and Nora, with their martinis, wouldn’t be the same without Manhattan. 

These are just some of thousands and thousands of settings, so I pondered: which do readers prefer? Is there any consensus in what kind of setting or settings work best for mysteries? Ah, social media to the rescue. 

Or not. 

I posted the question: What mystery settings have you found particularly effective or evocative? Can you say why?

The answers I got ranged from, “I'm a sucker for suburbia. I'm all about the foulness seeping up into the world of picket fences, double garages, big backyards. I love when evil enters the world of the banal,” to “the woods in the dark, with only the moon providing a sliver of light. Tall trees, no clear trails, the night time noises made by bobcats, alligators, etc.” 

In my totally unscientific survey (methodology—throw a question up on Facebook and go with the answers of those who like me enough to respond), a few trends did appear. Readers seemed to like to get outside their usual haunts and their current time period. Some samples:

30s-40s film noir setting. Everything appears to be in black and white (lighting, clothing and gritty setting).”

“The interwar period, 1920s-1930s is glamorous and dangerous. A (gay?) hotel in Brighton Beach in 1928 would be something I would pick up for sure.”

“Historical mysteries set in England, all time periods, though I am drawn to books set during WWII.”

Post WWII New York. A glittering time in the city, with a darkness and corruption just under the surface. And the time period, pre-personal digital devices, forces the protagonist and all of the characters to use their brains instead of relying on instant answers or communications access. Telephone booths, anyone?”

Several people mentioned Barbara Peters’s Egypt and Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher series set in 1920s Melbourne, adding they liked to learn things about places and times they didn’t know. 

If there was any predominating trend, it was for historical mysteries, followed by isolated in the woods and the moors. After that, it was all over the place from the 'burbs to New York City to the high desert to abandoned hotels. 

I write two series, the Nell McGraw one set in a fictional town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, based very loosely on the place I grew up in. I shoved in an extra county to make four on the coast instead of the three the maps show. The other series (Micky Knight as J.M. Redmann) is set in a very read New Orleans, where I currently live.

The both have their advantages and disadvantages. In the fictional one, if I need a bar, a house, a long desolate road, a swamp to dump dead bodies, I just create it on the spot. However, Google Maps doesn’t help with the roads in a made-up town. If I want to know how long it takes my characters to get from one place to another and how to get there, every inch of pavement has to be imagined. Including discussions of how a secluded bayou can eventually come out close to where the harbor is and how a marsh fits in-between them. The only map is in my head, and distance is not fun to fix in the editing. 

Often time when reading, we don’t think about the setting. It’s just there (pun intended). But as I did to my myriad friends on Facebook, let me suggest you think about the setting. Maybe by considering what locations you like—or don’t—you can add to your reading list. Find your favorite location and go there fictionally. There are many windswept, desolate coastlines just begging for a body to wash up after all. (And many single malts to sample as well.) 

Read an excerpt from R. Jean Reid's latest novel, Perdition!


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R. Jean Reid lives and works in New Orleans. She grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Roots of Murder is the first book in the Nell McGraw series. Mystery Scene says, “Roots of Murder combines a gripping mystery with well-honed literary fiction.” She also publishes as J.M. Redmann, the author of -award-winning series featuring New Orleans private detective Michele ‘Micky’ Knight.

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53 comments
peter greene
1. shanachie
I always look for a sense of history in the settings of mysteries. Craig Johnson's Absaroka county is fictitious but is has an air of the old west. James Lee Burke's New Iberia, Louisiana exists but I think he makes it more sinister than it actually is in reality. In long running series the place becomes another character. Denis Lehane's Boston, Janet Evanovich's Trenton, and Chandler's Los Angeles all evoke a particular attitude and McBain's Isola puts forth an anonymous big city feel.
James Joyce
2. JamesPatrickJoyce
I definitely enjoy different times and places, with mysteries and thrillers.
John Smith
4. jsmith2jsmith
I vote for a small English village where all is not as it seems.
Jeanette Jackson
6. lindahl
I read mysteries that take place in many different locations.
Barbara Lima
7. barblima
I remember those times, I would love to read this!
Andrew Jensen
8. atinman
I really like mysteries that are set in real places. Opening the satelite view on Google Earth and seeing the gas station described in the book is a way to bring a sense of reality into the novel. Ian Rankin's Edinburgh. Jo Nesbo's Norway.
LabRat517
10. LabRat517
I don't care where the mysteries I read are set as long as the descriptions are well done. It's the vivid details that bring me into the story so I can picture it in my mind clearly. When an author can create characters and their world well it is a joy to read. Take Rex Stout, for example. Anyone who has read his books can picture Nero Wolfe, Archie, and the brownstone.
john frost
11. jackfro
like mysteries set in foreign locales, particularly Scandanavia
Michael Carter
12. rubydog
Wind swept coast or marshy fen.
Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Thanks!
13. Lucinda
I love setting in the south.
pearl berger
14. beach
Setting makes the novel come alive. It definitely influences the plot. The moors, Cornwall and Scottish highlands.
Karl Stenger
15. Stenger
The South since I live in S Carolina.
Laurence Coven
17. Holmes
Love those suspense tales set in a forest or windswept heath where not only the killer is your foe but so is nature and the elements. Also there's no help, and whether you're a boy or a girl, to survive you have to fight and fight alone, totally dependant on yourself as to whether you live or die.
Pearl Berger
18. Sunshine
Intriguing. Wonderful post. Locale fascinates me greatly. Gives my imagination work. The Adirondacks, London during WW2.
Vernon Luckert
19. vl4095
I love historical mysteries in real places and will often go to Goggle Map and look at the location.
22. fritterbit
I like mainly American towns and cities.
Theresa
23. theresajs
I'm with another person that commented - that as long as the author can describe the place so that I can see it in my mind I'm good!
(though I am partial to dark, creepy woods!)
thanks for this giveaway!
Lori Provenzano
24. Mountainesque
I suppose I'm in the 'Or not' camp. I like varying familiar and unfamiliar locations to both exercise my imagination and let the details sink in a little more effectively.
25. rosegrower
Miss Marple did occasionally leave St. Mary's Mead.
Deborah Dumm
26. deb730
i never realized how much work goes into writing a book.
ellie lewis
27. italia
Locations which give the story depth and resonate with me. They could be American, Canadian and European.
Barbara Bolam
28. Toodles
I like locations that I myself would never venture into, i.e. cemeteries after dark, deserted buildings in big cities or swamps.
29. mrstrooper
I love to travel so anywhere new is nice!
Linda Greene
32. lgreene
Southern states with kudzu settings intrigue me.
Carol Lawman
33. juju2cat
I love English locations, particularly if there are woods and an old cemetary nearby. I hate snow in real life and so too hate to read about it but I love Norwegian/Scandinavian novels so I grit my teeth when reading about it snowing over and over again.
Karen Hester
34. rosalba
I enjoy foreign locations - India, Italy, Scandanavia
Catherine Myers
35. ktpotat
I like them to take place all over the world.Some of my favorites are in Oxford, London ,Scandanavia and Iceland.
Gayle Mercer
36. mittentip
I've visited Manhattan twice personally, but I've walked the streets countless times with Archie Goodwin and Bernie Rhodenbarr. I've strolled the streets of Oxford with Morse, and slinked around shady antique auctions with Lovejoy. Reading this article and the posts left by others has given me new territory to explore.
susan beamon
37. susanbeamon
I don't have a specific location I like above all others. I like them all, as a part of the story. Imaginary places are the easiest to like. When a story is set in a real place, especially a place that I have lived in, it sometimes can get annoying. I live in the Denver Metroplex. I have lived in several parts of it. I also lived in Boulder. I once read a mystery where the detective started in Boulder at 9am, drove I-25 to downtown Denver and visited several people, drove to Parker for lunch, left there about 1pm, drove to Golden to meet a lawyer, drove back to downtown Denver, went to Stapleton (the book was a while ago) to meet a plane, and finally drove back to Boulder, arriving there about 5pm. That could be done if you never got out of the car and had only green lights with no rush hour traffic. Locations can be distracting, so I guess the less precise, the better for me.
Susan Morris
38. Samfor3
I love mysteries set in coastal locations in New England or wooded areas of the northeast or northwest. Secluded areas with local charm and down to earth characters.
L
39. LStirling
I like all types of settings, but I think placing the event within a place everyone normally feels most comfortable makes it very scary. I also like the chance to learn about other places and time-frames from the setttings of novels. New Orleans is a great city to base some mysteries in!
Kyle Johnson
40. kylecar94
The setting is important to all stories, but in a mystery can really be a character all by itself.
Sally Schmidt
41. bigcootie
Fascinating post. New to me author, think I would love both the series. I like the craggy, creepy locaitons.
42. Linda A
Setting important in choosing books for me.
vicki wurgler
43. bison61
I like rural areas, a farm lots of trees and water
44. Polly Barlow
I like to read mysteries that take place in countries that I have seen.
Sabine Blanch
45. Schlauberger
Sounds like a good read... Thank you for the chance.
Mary Ann Woods
47. puttputt1198eve
I read "Rebecca" when I was in junior high school and have loved that English-windy-mountainous coastline setting ever since.
Deb Philippon
49. DebP
I enjoy the Scandinavian locations, and I also like historical mysteries.
Marisa Young
50. Risa
You can travel the world and all types of settings through mysteries. Would love to read this book.
Carol Kubala
51. ckubala
Wilderness stories have always appealed to me. It's a broad locale that can take me many places.
I've read wonderful reviews of Perdition and would love to win a copy.
Suzanne Shields
52. AmeK
Historical mysteries are a big favorite of mine. What intrigues me the most is when the main character moves from one type of setting to another, such as living in a city and then moving out to a rural section. I like seeing how they handle such a change and if/how it makes a difference in the story.
Suzanne Shields
52. AmeK
Historical mysteries are a big favorite of mine. What intrigues me the most is when the main character moves from one type of setting to another, such as living in a city and then moving out to a rural section. I like seeing how they handle such a change and if/how it makes a difference in the story.
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