Wednesday, May 16, 2018


Four Authors Who Know their Place 

The popular adage has it that it is not the destination that is important, but the journey. A look at mystery novels, however, might suggest it’s the places through which that journey passes that make all the difference. Mystery writers know that to lose control of their characters can be catastrophic; interesting perhaps, but catastrophic nevertheless. The same is true of their plot; except in this case, it’s not even interesting, just, well, catastrophic. But settings are the one element of a mystery story a writer may allow a little free rein; to become undercoat or highlight, background or frame. Settings are where writers get to indulge themselves, too. And the best ones do.

In The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radliffe allows her settings to assume a central role. Through a chiaroscuro interplay of light and darkness descriptions emerge of classical landscapes with more moods than a troubled teenager. Omniscient and brooding, these settings are also laden with symbolism, tying the novel to contemporary theories of painting, transporting readers effortlessly between the worlds of literature and art.

Charles Dickens also revels in his settings, and again uses them to wonderful effect. Here, though, the goal is not to glide between disciplines, but to overwhelm the senses. A journey through a Dickensian city, be it Paris, London, or the fictional Cloisterham of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is to experience olfactory overload. The alleyways echo with street vendors’ calls, the gritty, coal-laden air settles on the skin, the sweetly rancid smell of rotting vegetables fills the nostrils. For Dickens, a setting is not merely a place to set a novel; it vies to become a character in its own right.

Both Radcliffe’s classical landscapes and Dickens’s Victorian cities would have been familiar to their readers, but setting in contemporary works often serves to introduce a reader to an unfamiliar world. But this doesn’t mean it can’t serve another purpose. Or several of them. In A Cold-Blooded Business, author Dana Stabenow describes Alaska’s North Slope in a few skilfully-crafted sentences that manage to cover six hundred square mile stretch of terrain, five thousand feet of geologic deposits and an overview of the local flora and fauna. Setting as geography, history and ecology, all in a couple of paragraphs. And then, there is the Gabarone of Alexander McCall Smith’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Here, the setting provides a gentle, lilting rhythm against which equally gentle dramas play out. The settings here are not developed in any great detail, but they seem to exist as they do in real life, hovering unnoticed in the background until a character make a specific point of visiting them; the balcony of the President Hotel, for example, where Mma Ramotswe sometimes takes her tea.

Each setting plays its part in a mystery, but there is for writers perhaps more freedom to explore the possibilities than with any other element of the story. Writers are often asked if they have advice for those new to the craft. Mine would be simple. Keep control of your characters, and even firmer control of your plot. But when it comes to your settings, be content to let them lead you where they will.

Steve Burrows is the author of The Birder Murder Mystery Series A SHIMMER OF HUMMINGBIRDS is the latest instalment, out in the US now. 

Audubon marks release of U.S. Birder Murder editions with prize giveaway.
The first four Birder Murders – with their edgy new covers – are now available in the U.S, and the Audubon Society is marking their arrival with a prize giveaway of five copies of A Shimmer of Hummingbirds,. To enter, just visit…/win-copy-murder-mystery….and follow the directions. The contest is open until May 21. Good luck.

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