As a reader I tend to prefer books set in the West or Southwest because as a child my parents took me camping a lot and I have been to locations across Texas and almost every western state. You take me to say, Martha’s Vineyard, that is one thing. You move that mystery with the required adjustments to New Mexico and you already have me hooked before I open the book. I may not notice the fact that you use the same house in multiple books. But, you get the details wrong on a location I have been too such as the sunrise or a well-known landmark and I will notice that big time. A sense of place is incredibly important to me. Please welcome back Jeanne of the Bristol Public Library as she has some thoughts about the importance of place in a mystery. This is part one of a two part guest post.
Location, Location, Location: A Very Personal View of the Power of Place
Kevin has been very generous in giving me a space to ramble on about various things connected to mysteries. Lately I’ve been thinking about places. The main questions in a murder mystery are usually who, how, and why. I happen to think where is an important ingredient, at least in the books I enjoy. True, there are some books that get by without letting a reader know much about the setting beyond the necessities such as murder location and possible exits. Those can work just fine, but for a series I like to have some idea of where in the world I am. The inciting incident for all this was when I realized I had no idea where a particular book was set. It was Generic Small Town USA, which was a little disappointing.
Where really encompasses a lot of things, I realized belatedly, and so this little essay has expanded accordingly. I apologize in advance!
Houses, or buildings in general, are important. That’s where the action is and those aforementioned exits and entrances. Let me start by saying that I am directionally challenged. I am terrible at spatial relations. My house has two stories. When I hear a noise or spy a leak in the basement, I have no idea as to what room upstairs is the point of origin. I laughed at one my cats for peering intently down a grate and then running up the downstairs cat tree to stare up at a grate because I knew that was the wrong grate. Of course, the cat had the last laugh because she was right and I was wrong. She understood the layout of the house better than I did—or do.
So when I read a description of a house or village in a book, I never envision the physical layout of the setting. Authors can get away with moving streets or rooms to their hearts’ content and I will probably never notice. The “probably” is only in there because one book I did read recently had a character step into a room from the kitchen and I would have sworn that she couldn’t have gotten there from the kitchen, but since I’m used to being wrong about such things, it didn’t worry me unduly.
On the other hand, I have friends who definitely do not have that problem. They can draw maps of St. Mary’s Mead and throw in a floorplan of Miss Marple’s house. They can describe each shop and house in Three Pines. They know if an author gets it wrong, and they adore authors who provide maps or floorplans. The latter has definitely fallen out of favor; I remember them from some of the classic locked room mysteries. Maps, however, still show up. The last one I noticed was in G.M. Malliet’s Max Tudor series, where endpapers show readers all the features of Nether Monkslip.
Some readers notice if an author re-uses structures. One friend was a fan of Barbara Michael’s books, but gave up in disgust on one because “it was the same damn house” that had figured in at least two other books. (I, of course, noticed nothing.)
While architecture doesn’t make much of an impression on me (see spatial relations above), a few well-chosen details of structure or furnishings can convey a feeling for an area. Breezeways in houses or the occasional pie safe or gingerbread trim give clues. Of course, just say the word “brownstone” and New York pops into mind. I couldn’t even tell you what a real brownstone looks like, but Rex Stout made that description such an integral part of the Nero Wolfe novels that I have a knee-jerk reaction to the term.
One house I do picture is the one inhabited by Dixie Hemingway in the Cat Sitter Mysteries by Blaize and John Clement. Dixie shares a house with her brother and his partner, but she lives in an apartment over the garage. I couldn’t draw you a diagram, but I feel I know the house well enough to borrow Dixie’s bathroom should the need arise.
At this juncture, I decided to take pity’s sake on the readers and save my comments on non-building aspects of place for another post. You’re welcome.