by Helen Currie Foster
Try to imagine a mystery without its setting. What? You’re having trouble?
Open a mystery and be denied the setting. What? You’re getting irritated? Why?
We use our senses to smell, to see, to hear, to feel a setting. We LIVE in our own settings, with their dimensions of sight, smell, sound, touch, with plants to see and smell and touch, other humans to love or fear. We use all our senses to apprehend a setting, and we imagine with those senses when we engage in a mystery setting. A mystery without a setting? Our imaginations would feel so deprived.
And if we’re talking about a “regional” mystery without a setting—what’s the point? I read about Venice because I want to feel I’m there as well as follow Guido Brunetti around his favorite canals. If it’s one of Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie mysteries I want to ride with Bernie in his beat-up Porsche, with Chet in the front seat (his tongue hanging out of course), cruising through the Arizona desert.
Texas mysteries? Local color, please. Note that term “color,” that appeal to our senses! The color of eyes and landscapes, the sound of accents and music, the feel of dry wind or thunderstorms, the scent of salsa and barbecue, saddles and blankets, cedar and limestone, creek water and cypress trees. We want it all.
We mystery writers face so many decisions. Protagonist? Characters? Point(s) of view? Tenses? Oh yeah, the plot? But perhaps paramount? Setting.
At last year’s Bouchercon conference in Dallas, Elizabeth George told a rapt audience (including me) that in her Lynley series she begins with the setting. She described visiting various settings and how the characters emerged in her imagination—from the place.
Alexander McCall Smith agrees that in his novels, location is as important as the characters. “Place is often terribly important to us,” he said. “And to describe it is to describe our feelings for the world.” Our feelings for the world! Or at least, for the world of that setting.
Smith describes how he begins a book: “I mentally write the first paragraph and, on occasion, the last paragraph. With these two elements in place, all that remains is to write the bits in-between. The first sentence is very important. For me, that can set the whole tone of the book, and once I have the first sentence the task of writing proves relatively easy.”
His first sentence usually drops us directly into the setting, as in To the Land of Long Lost Friends (Pantheon Books 2019):
“Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, doyenne of private investigators in Botswana (not that there were any others, apart from her assistant, Grace Makutsi), wife of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (garagiste and past chairman of the Botswana Motor Trades Association, citizen of Botswana)—that same Precious Ramotswe was sitting in the second row of chairs at the open-air wedding of Mr. Seemo Outule to Ms. Thato Kgwadi.”
The paragraph continues: “It was a hot day in October, a month of heat and unremitting thirst for the land and all that lived upon the land: the cattle, the wild animals, the small, almost invisible creatures that conducted their lives in the undergrowth or among the rocks, creatures whose very names had been forgotten now. They were all waiting for the rains…”
We know we’re in Botswana at an open-air wedding where we’ve learned of the sleuth, her partner, and her husband, but the rest of the paragraph tells us even more: it’s hot and dry October, a time of “unremitting thirst for the land and all that lived upon the land: the cattle, the wild animals, the small, almost invisible creatures that conducted their lives in the undergrowth or among the rocks…”
We’ve felt how the protagonist, Precious Ramotswe, lives and breathes awareness of her country, where all creatures—human and otherwise, even the invisible creatures whose names have been forgotten—are waiting for the rains. What an appeal to imagination! Maybe this setting has extra appeal for readers in central Texas who know all too well the unforgiving heat of August, its crunchy dry grass, cracks in the soil, and desperate deer, waiting for a rousing thunderstorm to refill dry water tanks and refresh even the “small, almost invisible creatures” that surround us.
So a mystery setting is much more than a GPS setting. Accuracy’s important, as Rhys Bowen emphasized in her presentation to HOTXSINC (Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime): the writer risks losing all credibility with mistakes in location or description. But the mystery setting must include how the characters feel about the setting—which reveals more about the characters.
Here’s the beginning of Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise (copyright 1951; Scribner Paperback Fiction 1998), with her series protagonist, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard:
“Grant paused with his foot on the lowest step, and listened to the shrieking from the floor above. As well as the shrieks there was a dull continuous roar; an elemental sound, like a forest fire or a river in spate. As his reluctant legs bore him upwards he arrived at the inevitable deduction: the party was being a success.
“He was not going to the party. Literary sherry parties, even distinguished ones, were not Grant’s cup of tea. He was going to collect Marta Hallard and take her out to dinner…The roar of the party’s success came flooding out through the open doors on to the landing, and Grant paused to look at the yelling crowd asparagus-packed into the long Georgian room and to wonder how he was going to pry Marta out of it.”
Ever felt like that, dear reader? Ever dreaded having to walk into a “roaring success” of a party with a “yelling crowd asparagus-packed”? I’m betting most of us (with our share of introversion) have “reluctant legs” in such situations. On Tey’s first page we learn Grant’s a “presentable escort,” a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard, and can “afford to dine at Laurent’s.” But his “reluctant legs” indicate how this privileged character feels about even a “distinguished” literary sherry party. By dropping us into this particular London setting Tey helps us identify with her protagonist by his reaction to that setting. We walk with his “reluctant legs” up those steps. We understand that he (probably like us) is there because he feels an obligation, and, despite his feelings, he’s a man who meets his obligations.
Setting’s critical for regional mysteries. “The setting may define the mystery: an Arizona book, a Missouri story, a Cape Cod [or a Texas] mystery. In regional mysteries, the setting is more than mere background. The setting influences the characters and plot. It drives the story.” (Emphasis added.)
Texas writer Tex Thompson pointed out in her recent presentation to HOTXSINC that one way to dial up the conflict in our mysteries is to dial up the contrast between the character and the setting. For example, is the protagonist a fish out of water? In my Ghost Cat, the protagonist Alice practices law in a small Texas town but fears any firearm other than a flare gun and feels like a complete impostor on a horse.
One engaging archeological mystery dive is Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway Series set on the marshes of Norfolk, England. Ruth, a forensic archeologist, is often called to help local police when bones are found at construction sites. She feels many disconnects—unmarried mother of a daughter, slightly overweight, harassed by her university department head––but takes pride in her competence as a sharp-eyed and professional archeologist. She lives on a lonely road by the coastal saltmarsh, where water meets land, a liminal area with Bronze Age artifacts buried deep. Her love for this location drives the plot and enriches her character:
“Her favourite place. Beyond her front garden with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is nothingness. Just miles and miles of marshland, sported with stunted gorsebushes and criss-crossed with small, treacherous streams…Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves it so much.”
I wonder if archeology offers a challenge to our own imaginations. Just north of Austin is an archeological site including the “Gault Assemblage.” Very careful long-term excavation and documentation of the site now reveal human occupancy up to 20,000 years ago—much earlier than traditionally thought. The dates for human habitation in North and South America keep moving further and further back. And why wouldn’t early people have chosen this area? It’s on water…there’s chert available to chip into powerful tools…the nearby plains furnished buffalo. Similarly, recent breakthroughs in dating Neanderthal tools have pushed back dates for their culture by several hundred thousand years. Most artifacts of that age are lithic (rock points, rock knapping), and it takes sustained imagination and examination to understand what our ancestors were up to. It takes human imagination, staring at a biface point, looking at a reassembled cobble, to see the chipping techniques our ancestors developed, to begin to grasp the complex reality of their daily lives—their setting. Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.
In a way mystery-writing is archeological. In our imaginations we excavate clues from the past—perhaps an imagined past—to recreate what happened, or could have happened. We recreate in our imaginations what our characters saw, smelled, heard, felt…and did. Maybe the more richly we imagine the setting, the more the characters can come alive.
Okay, trowels up. Back to the trenches. Well, not archeological—but fingers on keyboards, pens on paper.
Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series, her latest, Ghost Cat, was published in April 2020. She is also author of The Bloody Bead, a Bullet Book Speed Read, co-written with Manning Wolfe.