MEANER PAS­TURES

Des­ti­na­tion crime nov­els make bet­ter travel com­pan­ions than guide­books, writes Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

EV­ERY mys­tery novel has a ge­og­ra­phy that, de­pend­ing on the skill of the writer, pro­vides the stage for the ac­tion and gener­i­cally plays a crit­i­cal role in the plot or so­lu­tion. Crime writ­ers un­der­stand how place ex­poses char­ac­ter and that ev­ery road to perdi­tion and re­demp­tion de­mands a street di­rec­tory. For the trav­eller, noth­ing can il­lu­mi­nate a des­ti­na­tion as well as read­ing a crime book about the place you are visit­ing.

Set­ting is not only about road names, the colour of phone boxes and the taste of the wine; the best nov­el­ists ex­plore the idea that place is fate. When traf­fic on the Los An­ge­les free­way stalls sus­pi­ciously, how does the coked-out sus­pect re­act? What does two weeks of drench­ing Mon­tana rain do to the crime scene or blis­ter­ing Mi­ami sun to the body? Why does Ed­in­burgh’s milky sun­shine, hazy and blurred like a drunk’s best in­ten­tions, al­ways make the de­tec­tive so fa­tal­is­tic?

No other form of fiction so vis­cer­ally catches the mood and his­to­ries of cities, their dis­tinct tone. Crime writ­ing taps into top­i­cal so­cial con­cerns us­ing its familiar for­mu­las to pro­duce sus­pense­ful nar­ra­tives of place.

In the early 1970s, still fas­ci­nated by Ray­mond Chan­dler, who I had dis­cov­ered at an early age, I was able to walk the mean streets of Los An­ge­les, fol­low­ing his rest­less hero Philip Mar­lowe, bask­ing in the ‘‘ spe­cial brand of sun­shine’’ that he imag­ined fall­ing there. There was an ethe­real kind of em­pa­thy in read­ing the nov­els as I wan­dered the lo­ca­tions that had in­spired the mas­ter of the hard-boiled novel.

Un­able to drive an Oldsmo­bile con­vert­ible with the top down like the private eye, I still found, with care­ful plan­ning, that most of Chan­dler’s LA could still be vis­ited by pub­lic trans­port, ac­ces­si­ble for in­spec­tion by voyeuris­tic read­ers. I sim­ply looked up the des­ti­na­tions in the nov­els.

Forty years later, you will find that the struc­tures and streets are mostly gone (though many place names re­main), but if you travel in Chan­dler’s foot­steps it’s still easy to find ho­tels with chipped gilt mir­rors and white stucco apart­ment blocks with fret­ted lanterns and tall date palms in their court­yards. There are empty swim­ming pools, too, sur­rounded by the re­mains of lawns dot­ted with red­wood loung­ing chairs with badly faded pads hang­ing off them.

One of the plea­sures of read­ing a great crime novel is step­ping back into its pages and be­ing trans­ported and en­thralled by this spe­cial sense of place. The vi­car­i­ous trans­fer is even more spell­bind­ing when you walk out of the ho­tel lobby into the mean streets about which you have just been read­ing.

I vis­ited Mi­ami sev­eral years ago with a copy of Carl Hi­aasen’s Skinny Dip in my pack. There is a touch of the laid-back, gui­tarand-ham­mock sound of Jimmy Buf­fett in this par­tic­u­lar Hi­aasen, an in­ti­macy and wist­ful­ness run­ning be­neath the la­conic fi­nesse of his writ­ing, though never ele­giac enough to make you lose your faith in the ter­ri­ble for­eign­ness of the US.

For Hi­aasen, Mi­ami is all of south­ern Florida, which ge­o­graph­i­cally is one me­trop­o­lis from Palm Beach in the north all the way south to Key West with its mar­gar­i­tas and Ernest Hem­ing­way look-alike com­pe­ti­tions.

‘‘ I talk about this whole huge area where there are more than five mil­lion peo­ple and it seems, some days, when you read the news­pa­per it is just not on the planet earth any more,’’ he once told me in an in­ter­view.

In Skin­ny­Dip , Hi­aasen kind of goes riff­ing, like Buf­fett in Mar­gar­i­taville, let­ting his novel mooch its own way. He never cheats the reader out of pos­si­bil­i­ties, the mad­ness of the hu­man heart as dis­qui­et­ing to him as the ooz­ing corpses of al­li­ga­tors in the back of a pass­ing Humvee.

Which I didn’t see though I did only just avoid be­ing run down by candy-red Dodge Rams straight out of the novel. And I stayed de­murely out of the way of swag­ger­ing dudes wear­ing 8cm snake­skin shit­kick­ers.

Hi­aasen nails Florida dead cen­tre: its lan­guid sleaze, clam­orous tide of hu­man­ity, racy sense of prom­ise and breath-grab­bing beauty. He wants his read­ers to care as deeply as he does, to cel­e­brate it, marvel at it and laugh about it.

Hu­mour is a form of free­dom in the face of pow­er­less­ness for Hi­aasen as his Florida is over­run by cor­rup­tion. It can ren­der the read­ers im­po­tent, too; you catch your­self laugh­ing out loud, sur­prised and em­bar­rassed even at the sound, es­pe­cially if you are read­ing in pub­lic.

I flew to Belfast last year, the place the lo­cals call ‘‘ the city of the cranes’’, with Eoin McNamee’s noirish Res­ur­rec­tionMan in my Sam­sonite. It’s a bril­liant lit­er­ary crime novel about the Trou­bles, at­mo­spheric in a man­ner that con­jures up a sod­den city as sor­did as Dick­en­sian Lon­don.

As it quickly turned out, this fit­ted a pe­riod that’s al­most oblit­er­ated un­der new sky­lines, re­gen­tri­fied wa­ter­side de­vel­op­ments, ritzy new ho­tels and a long-last­ing cease­fire.

I read at night sip­ping Jame­son, trans­fixed by the city’s dread­fully sad past. Dur­ing the day I found no ev­i­dence of sec­tar­ian as­sas­si­na­tions or mil­i­tary gun em­place­ments and the news­pa­pers showed no pho­to­graphs of en­try and exit wounds. There was only an in­spir­ing sense of a beau­ti­ful new work-in-progress in Belfast, so colour­ful that, like Bono, I needed per­ma­nent shades in the new ho­tels.

But McNamee pro­vided an ir­re­place­able sense of con­text as, like any vis­i­tor to that once-tragic city, I be­came for a while a player in a chang­ing cul­ture.

Also last year, in Bos­ton, I went in search of mur­der sites from Den­nis Le­hane’s great novel Mys­tic River , which Clint East­wood made into such a com­pelling movie. It took a cou­ple of trips to the cold river, the tem­per­a­ture in the high 30s, af­ter a close read­ing of the book, an ed­u­cated guess, a concierge’s ad­vice and some imag­i­na­tion.

Le­hane’s work, in par­tic­u­lar, re­veals the com­plex neigh­bour­hood struc­tures, un­spo­ken rules and re­la­tion­ships of places such as Dorch­ester and South Bos­ton. It’s al­ways a some­what out-of-body feel­ing to walk through th­ese precincts, know­ing th­ese worlds ex­ist and that the chances are you will never be part of them.

I wasn’t able, ei­ther, to dine at the Fed­er­al­ist in Bos­ton’s posh Bea­con Hill where Robert B. Parker’s fa­mous sleuth Spenser, a no­to­ri­ous foodie, takes a fe­male friend for mar­ti­nis and Chilean sea bass in sev­eral nov­els. Though it was easy to imag­ine Parker or Le­hane en­ter­tain­ing their Bri­tish pub­lish­ers at the plush Lang­ham Ho­tel’s Julien Bar, where I was stay­ing, its Euro­pean set­ting a Bos­ton de­light. Or their de­tec­tives telling women they had met there how many das­tardly foes they had van­quished.

Car­ry­ing a city’s crime lit­er­a­ture with you pro­vides an il­lu­mi­nat­ing way to travel through genre fiction’s uni­verse, your own life in­su­lated from the hate­ful and the ran­dom. Your ho­tel room is as safe as Eden be­fore the fall. And you know there is al­ways more to come. For me at least.

My wife ap­pears to be tir­ing of what she calls my ‘‘ blood-boiler’’ ex­cur­sions into the dark­ness of mur­der and may­hem. There is the south­ern Cal­i­for­nia that Michael Con­nelly, Jonathan Keller­man, Ger­ald Petievich and Robert Crais con­tinue to keep in the crime fiction main­stream, Michael Dib­den’s Italy and Robert Wil­son’s Por­tu­gal. I add to the tee­ter­ing pile be­side the bed weekly.

I’m mak­ing plans for my in­de­fati­ga­ble nov­els to steer me around Ian Rankin’s pub­strewn gloomy Ed­in­burgh, Colin Dex­ter’s schol­arly Ox­ford, Ruth Ren­dell’s Sus­sex coast and the Bene­dic­tine abbeys, brood­ing shore­lines and 20th-cen­tury nu­clear power plants of P. D. James’s Suf­folk.

As James once wrote, it is be­cause set­ting is ‘‘ so fun­da­men­tal to de­tec­tive fiction’’ that its afi­ciona­dos swarm in or­gan­ised groups to visit places as­so­ci­ated with best-loved au­thors. Crime nov­els pro­vide a guide not only to real places but to the phys­i­cal ori­gins of fic­ti­tious set­tings and the re­la­tion­ship of the writer to the place that has given rise to the novel. They blend spe­cific lo­ca­tions with broader cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal back­drops.

For the trav­eller, a crime book be­comes a gazetteer, a ge­o­graph­i­cal in­dex link­ing in­spi­ra­tion to lo­ca­tion, en­abling us to nav­i­gate streets and al­ley­ways, coasts and marshes. Surely there can be no bet­ter way to ex­haus­tively trek across a city or coun­try.

Crime scene: Clock­wise from main pic­ture, Flesh­mar­ket Close in Ian Rankin’s Ed­in­burgh; Rankin; Ernest Hem­ing­way look-alikes; Ray­mond Chan­dler

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