The global success of Jane Harper’s The Dry signals that great writing will always win out, but it also reminds us that for many readers the setting, the place is as much a character as the protagonist and others. While her “place” is out in rural Victoria in Australia, a far cry from the outback, it captures the unique atmospherics of a country town. That setting is so powerful it effectively influences the action, storyline, and message of the entire book. Put another way, the setting in The Dry has a direct impact on the characters and their activities.
That is the power of “crime and place”, the sub-genre in which I locate my Superintendent Chris Le Fanu novels that take place in 1920s south India, and especially in the city once known as Madras but now called Chennai. Many reviewers have been kind enough to say that Madras is actually a character in the books itself, and critics from Madras are content that I have the city “right”. That gives me great satisfaction because making the city a core part of the books was entirely the intention.
Along the way, I have been prompted in that direction by some marvelous writers.
Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series springs immediately to mind. Anyone who has seen the television series will know why. The books are set in southeastern Sicily, in large towns like Ragusa and Agrigento as well as in a myriad of coastal locations, hamlets, and villages. Italians now go on Montalbano pilgrimage tours to all the locations, and I admit that my wife and I have joined them. Camilleri places people beautifully in that dry, bright, rocky landscape with its marvelous history and wonderful food. That food is a key part of the “place” for Camilleri, and I been in at least one of the restaurants that feature in the television series.
The lesson here is that the “place”, the landscape in which everything takes place, has a direct and immediate impact on the behavior of characters, so shapes the story and the plot.
Another Italian-based series helped steer me in this direction, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti books more or less taught me the geography of Venice – I once spied her at a restaurant on the water along the Guidecca there, brush with fame. The first time I went to Venice I “knew” where to go, simply from having read Leon. That is a sure sign “place” has primacy, and of how hard Donna Leon worked to ensure the locational context was just right in impelling Brunetti’s reaction in any given circumstance.
It was almost certainly Ian Rankin who first persuaded me that “place” was a major factor in crime fiction. I went first to Edinburgh early in 1979 and loved it immediately, so when the Rebus books began appearing almost ten years later they became “must reads.” They have continued to be so because they are magnificent guides to the city, as habitués at the Oxford pub now perhaps lament. The city shapes Rebus and all the other characters who reflect the language, habits, and outlook of the place. That is heightened when Rebus leaves the city because just a few miles away becomes a foreign country, and as for Glasgow, well…
Once we start thinking about this, many other examples spring to mind including Michael Connolly’s Bosch in Los Angeles; Parker Bilal’s Makana in Cairo; Colin Cotterill’s Siri Paiboun in Laos and Michael Walters’ Nergui in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Anyone who has visited any of those places immediately senses the genuine nature of the portrayal not just of characters but also of locations and associated nuances.
That is not restricted to the contemporary, either. Ruth Downie achieves the same marvelous sense of place in her series set in Roman Britain and featuring Gaius Petreius Ruso. To read those great books is to be there, and Ruth really can write. She gave me one of the great contrasts. I asked her once to whom she looked for dialogue because she is so good. “Elmore Leonard,” came the answer. So the crackling dialogue for a reluctant sleuth in Roman Britain is inspired by one of the great American masters. You have to love crime writers.
So how do you get to “know” a place? By being in it is a great start. Paul Thomas’s Ihaka books remain among the best of New Zealand crime fiction. That is because he has a marvelous insight into Auckland and a sharp ear for the argot of his renegade Maori cop and all of those with whom he comes in contact.
Research helps. I got lucky in that I wrote a Ph.D. thesis on the south Indian nationalist movement in the 1920s and 30s, so spent a lot of time in Madras and the region. All that work is now fed into the Le Fanu novels, even if it takes a form very different to the explanations and descriptions placed into the academic work.
That immediately references audience, thinking about which also helps shape the “place” as described by a writer. What will intrigue/shock/repel/captivate/puzzle the reader? Finding the unique or the distinctive helps – think Colin Farrell’s role In Bruges. That was as much about place as story, and that is the same with books. What makes the difference?
Spotting change, disruption, continuity, challenge and disaster help. Madras in the 1920s was much in transition politically, socially and economically. The British faced a major challenge to their rule from Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. The city also had a significant Muslim population, and after the First World War and the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim community began to wonder what the future held. Then, within the Hindu community, the first signs of Hindu nationalism were emerging and that included the politicisation of untouchables now known as dalits. And on top of all that, economic stress saw large numbers of people stream into Madras from the countryside in vain search of work.
There is natural tension in all this, and a natural source of characters who can populate that specific landscape to create something that really did not get repeated quite in that form anywhere else in the world.
© 2018, Brian Stoddart. All rights reserved.
Brian Stoddart is now based in Queenstown, New Zealand, having lived and worked in eleven different countries around the world and traveled through many others. He writes the Superintendent Chris le Fanu historical crime novels set in 1920s India and has also written seventeen non-fiction works. Those include A House in Damascus that was an Amazon No 1 in Middle Eastern Travel; Saturday Afternoon Fever that remains a definitive text on the role of sport in Australian culture and other works on Caribbean cricket, biography and academic works on India. He is also a serious photographer and delivers lectures on cruise ships.