World building is a tricky thing. Get it wrong and you bog people down, spending more time describing a street than it would take a person to walk down it. Get it right and the reader can absorb the culture, history, look and feel of a place without skipping a beat.
Some, like Robin Robertson’s noir poem The Long Take, invoke place and culture in fresh and unexpected ways. Some, like Chris Brookmyre’s cri-fi sci-fi crossover Places in the Darkness take us to unearthly places and yet still create a clear sense of identity that by the end of the book feel utterly natural. Proof that any place, no matter how far-flung, can be made a convincing character when written well.
Here are four crime novels that took me places.
New Orleans in 1919 and a serial killer is loose. The Axeman commits his crimes against a vivid backdrop, a city of swagger and noise, of oppression and violence. An example of how a location’s spirit must be captured for it to be effective.
‘Most of the neighbourhood was there, the club members, the five bands, the street kids, the happy stragglers, and the deceased’s family too. Music and noise blared through the thin walls of the house and out across the ward like a siren, promising good times that called yet more hopefuls to the party.’
It’s the presentation of a place not through its structures but its people, an image of how they live and how they want to live. People make a culture, they define what a place is, and it’s through the people of a location that its true heart is revealed.
An obvious choice, sure, but the L.A. of Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet is a city alive, a grubby, lurid, intoxicating place. Every description is a punch, every conversation littered with the feel of the dark side of the 50’s.
‘Musician’s Local 3126 was on Vine Street just north of Melrose, a tan Quonset hut sandwiched between a doughnut stand and liquor store. Hepcat types were lounging around the front door, scarfing crullers and coffee, half pints and short dogs of muscatel.’
Every page drips with an intense sense of place, of an environment where nothing that glitters is golden. Like few others, Ellroy captures the tone.
M. J. McGrath
Unlike an urban location, or any place familiar to many readers, setting a novel so far from most people’s experiences brings a different set of challenges. Here it’s less about making the familiar sing than about correcting misconceptions, or adding real, human depth to a shallow existing knowledge. Colour must be given to the perception of a landscape that’s blanketed white, a culture so distant made to feel near, familiar.
‘The tundra here was, if anything, more beautiful than at Autisaq, a jewel box of saxifrage and Arctic poppies set off against soft limestone gravel; fields of black basalt splashed with map and blood-spot lichen…’
McGrath’s great achievement is taking a place alien to most and sweeping the blur of distance away, making it real.
A city known for one thing, mentioned only in conjunction with an increasingly horrifying political reality. A novel has to cut through the images that immediately spring to mind when the city is named, a collection of grand buildings and stereotypes, and show us what lies beyond for its people.
‘They passed more houses and an intersection and then a very old church, and down at the end of the road they saw a striped barrier erected by the county and behind it, beside the railroad tracks, thick woods and vines in full summer green.’
What Pelecanos does so well is show the city behind the TV image, the reality that runs far deeper than any bulletin can show. Even a city so ubiquitous can hold a world of unknowns.
An unlicensed private investigator fights crime and corruption in a Scottish city, burdened with a history that is compellingly different from the one we think we know. Saviors is two novels in one volume, a thrilling new series by award-winning author Malcolm Mackay.
Darian Ross is a young PI struggling against his family legacy (father in prison, criminal brother) in the independent kingdom of Scotland. In earlier centuries, when the Scottish empire stretched all the way to Central America, Darian’s home city was one of the country’s busiest trading ports. But Scotland is not what it was, and the docks of Challaid are almost silent. The networks of power and corruption are all that survive of Challaid’s glorious past.
In In the Cage Where Your Saviors Hide, Darian takes the case of the fascinating Maeve Campbell: her partner has been stabbed. The police are not very curious about the death of a man who laundered money for criminals, but Darian’s innate sense of justice and his fascination with Maeve irrevocably draw him into her world, where no one can be trusted.
In A Line of Forgotten Blood, Police Constable Vinny Reno–both a friend and a valuable contact for Darian’s unlicensed PI firm–is desperate for help in finding his missing ex-wife, and clearing his own name. A thread of a clue leads to one of Challaid’s oldest, wealthiest banking families, the Sutherlands. But pulling one thread can unravel a whole tapestry, and soon things are moving too fast for even the most powerful people to control.