Location, location, location
Article by: Janette Dalgliesh
I have a confession to make. I’d love to be a fearless traveller, jet-setting my way around the world, getting to know the intimate secrets of exotic cities and distant locations, trekking Nepal or riding bareback across Mongolia.
But the reality is, I like my pillow too much. I might talk it up big, but scratch the surface and I want five-star comfort, my own hire car, decent roads and an early night with a good book.
I’m not much of a traveller.
The good news is, I don’t have to be. I watch loads of documentaries that take me deep into remote rainforests, up impossible mountain heights and across windswept savannah. But my favourite way to virtual-travel, without a doubt, is between the pages of good crime fiction.
Location can appear so powerfully in crime fiction that it almost becomes a character in the story. For me, a strong sense of place is not essential in other kinds of fiction. As long as I have enough visual information to imagine the characters and figure out what they’re doing, it doesn’t usually matter what city or village or paddock they’re in.
But with crime fiction, that sense of place is enthralling. And without it, a book just won’t do it for me. Obviously that’s one reason I’m a fan of Tara Sharp, with her connection to the rarely-explored and rich variety that is Perth, one of my favourite cities in the world!
So why is location important? To begin with, from a purely practical point of view, the local legal system matters. Can civilians carry weapons? What powers do police or private investigators have? Are vigilantes accepted and encouraged? What other agencies – government or otherwise – might exist? Which drugs are legal, or at least decriminalised? How about prostitution? Bioethical issues?
At a deeper level, location provides a connection to the cultural and political landscape through which our heroes move, and the societal norms that prevail. What gender roles are standard? Are there tensions between the rhetoric of law-and-order and the reality of widespread corruption? Is there a war brewing, or are we in the aftermath of one? How are children viewed—as rare and precious beings, or a cheap and easy workforce?
Each of these can provide key narrative elements for a writer, in endless combinations.
But for me, the best part of a good location is the visceral, sensual flavour of it. The tiny details which bring a place to life. The crawling traffic. The hot dry dust. The frozen wastes. The malls and diners, the scrubby bush, the pubs and theatres and churches and brothels and dives.
Shane Maloney’s version of Melbourne is very like the real Melbourne that I’m familiar with, and he draws it for the reader with fine dexterity, backed up by excellent research. For his bumbling amateur detective, Murray Whelan, the political climate isn’t just a backdrop; it’s a crucial part of his life. Whelan connects with, and gets embroiled in, a variety of typically Melbourne sub-cultures. The older, darker forces of the union movement, the incestuous world of arts politics and the worst of sleazy sports corruption all come under the microscope—and they do it in ways that unmistakeably spell out “Melbourne”. This isn’t just about geography or the layout of a park; it’s about the soul of the place and I love to visit!
Elizabeth Peters Amelia Peabody books have a similar effect on me, even though her Egypt is that of the 1890s through to the 1920s, now long gone. She takes us from the archaeological digs of Dashur, Amarna and Luxor, replete with heat, sand and musty, bat-filled burial chambers, to the filth-strewn back alleys of Cairo and the colonial extravagances of Shepheard’s Hotel. I know this is fiction, but it resonates with my childhood memory of the old Semiramis Hotel, where I stayed in an opulent suite with my mother, and our trip to the Great Pyramids. That faint echo between her fictional, historical Egypt and the Egypt of my own history, is sufficient to let me relax into the rest of her locations.
Alexander McCall Smith has written several different series of books, each set in different locations. The location I’m familiar with is Edinburgh, home to his 44 Scotland Street series. His description of “…the towering stone edifice of Warrender Park Terrace, with its giddy attic windows breaking out of the steep slate roofs…” takes me straight back my time in that city. I even lived in an apartment building up four flights of stairs, exactly as described in the first novel, 44 Scotland Street—right down to the musty smell in the flatshare bedroom. Ah, memories…
So it’s not surprising that when I read his No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, I feel confident relaxing into his depiction of Botswana and the world of Mma Precious Ramotswe, where formality and good manners are the order of the day and the mysteries can as easily be a missing dog, a husband devoured by a crocodile or even suspected muti killings. It’s a wonderfully exotic and deeply foreign place for this white-bread, London-born, middle-class girl.
Janet Evanovich’s version of New Jersey, as seen through her Stephanie Plum series, is no less exotic. Although Plum is a product of “the burg”, a respectable, all-American, blue-collar corner of Trenton, she embraces the fact that crazy drivers, armed madmen, sticky heat and unbreathable air are all part of the landscape in Jersey. I suspect I’d find Plum’s Jersey utterly terrifying, but I love to visit through the pages of Evanovich’s books.
Perhaps one day I’ll get my travelling mojo on, and visit Botswana and New Jersey, and all those other places detectives do their thing. But for now when I catch myself jonesing for somewhere different, I’ll take myself off to fiction-land.
Where do you like to go?