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.
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.)
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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.