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