Making more of your setting

I’ve just read the excellent Deadfall, by Linda Fairstein (one of my regular favourites) and it struck me that there are some books that go beyond merely setting a story in a specific place; the very tentacles of the story worm their way through the whole location.  There’s some extra special about that kind of book – you’ve moved beyond mere entertainment and are now expanding your knowledgebase.  And I think it probably requires more skill than the average location – not just enhanced and detailed research, but also the ability to share information without an audience feeling like they’ve sat through a lecture on the subject of your choice.

Fairstein has achieved this trick in a number of her books.  Deadfall itself centres around the Zoological Park in the Bronx and also makes use of abandoned subway lines and trains.  It’s a real and vivid location that’s shared with Alex Cooper, the protagonist, at the same time as it’s shared with us as the reader.  Cooper’s partner, Mike Chapman, resident historian, shares his knowledge with us.  The curator of the zoo itself shares her knowledge.  We get taken on a tour of the zoo and finally we get involved in a chase through those same haunted and abandoned enclaves.  It’s an excellent choice for a setting because let’s face it, what could be spookier than being trapped in a zoo where you’re not sure whether the threats coming from the animal animals or the human ones. Genius!  But Fairstein doesn’t miss the chance to illuminate us and the reader it left feeling enriched by the experience.

There’s a couple of other authors who I think do this really well.  For me, the Bryant and May series brings London to life.  Christopher Fowler‘s characters, first met in Full Dark House, inhabit a modern day London.  But in a similar way to Fairstein, Fowler shares a vivid and detailed history of the city through a series of experts and uses the more modern characters as the eyes of the reader.  Arthur Bryant is the expert of the paranormal and supernatural – don’t let that put you off these novels!  They investigate modern crimes but they all have historical and sinister overtones of a Britain ruled by folklore and superstition.  It’s a brilliant combination and always leaves me feeling like I’ve learned so much from the experience – not just about the city I once called home, but also about the history of the entire country.

Frieda Klein in Nicci French‘s …well, their Frieda Klein novels (starting with Blue Monday) stalks the streets of London as her relaxation.  One of her favourite pastimes is to trace the routes of the lost rivers of London.  I mean, can you think of anything more both threatening and entrancing than these lost wildernesses under the city streets?  There’s some profound here about the encroachment of humanity onto nature.  It’s an interesting theme which I’ve also seen replicated in the Bryant and May novels – a theme that I guess you can trace all the way back to Blake’s London – human attempts to control nature.  These nighttime meanderings of Frieda Klein link the reader right back to the hidden heart of the city.  I think I also find this particularly intriguing because I’ve always loved walking London at night – at university I spent a few nights just walking all over the London – there’s something really appealing about a city that is so vast but at the same time so walkable.

The authors I’ve mentioned above are all masters of their craft.  I think this true connection of setting and story can only be something that comes with lots and lots of practice – where does the balance lie between sharing information and overloading information?  How do you make sure your writing doesn’t sound like a wikipedia page?  For me, Sheffield is currently a backdrop for the novel.  It isn’t yet enmeshed in the story although I’m trying to make it relevant.  I suspect it’s going to take me time and effort to embed the city into my writing as successfully as those name-dropped earlier.  A couple of my crime writing partners however are already effectively writing their settings into the very core of their stories: the talented Mark Wightman is setting his novel in 1930s Singapore and the location seeps into the very pores of the novel: and the equally talented Nicola Monaghan is staying closer to home and crafting a novel around the hidden caves of Nottingham.  I can but hope and try!

Do you have a favourite setting for a crime novel?  Do you enjoy the opportunity to learn as well as be entertained or do you find it distracting?

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