Sunday, July 13, 2003

Scenes of the crimes

A bloody body in Edinburgh. A frozen, severed arm in North Bay. SANDRA MARTIN talks to mystery writers who take you where tour operators won't go

Saturday, July 12, 2003

You know the routine: Work lands you in a new city, you have an hour between appointments and you want to cram in the high spots. Do you grab a cab, head for the tour bus, or wander around the main square, trying to keep your bearings while you soak up atmosphere?

None of the above. If you are smart, you have planned ahead by checking out the crime-fiction section of your local bookstore. Forget the old cliché, if this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium. Instead try: If this is Bombay, read Leslie Forbes; for Moscow, check out Martin Cruz Smith; for Venice, Donna Leon; for Chicago, give Sara Paretsky a whirl; and if you find yourself by chance in Botswana, Alexander McCall Smith is your man. Under no circumstances should you head to North Bay without packing a Giles Blunt or two.

In the literary world, crime-fiction writers are trusty travel guides. They will entertain you en route, expose you to the social, economic and political issues festering beneath the spires and cupolas, and take you places most respectable tour operators are too scared to venture.

In fact, entrepreneurial tourist operators have clicked on to the trend by offering guided tours of Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles, Ian Rankin's Edinburgh, Colin Dexter's Oxford, featuring rambles through the seedier parts of town and stops at the pubs haunted by Rebus and Morse. The owners of John's Grill in San Francisco, the place where Sam Spade dined on chops in The Maltese Falcon, have capitalized on the connection and turned the diner into a shrine to author Dashiell Hammett.

A sense of place has been integral to crime fiction since at least the days of Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue or Wilkie Collins's Woman in White 150 years ago. All of the best crime novels are built like three-legged stools: character, story and place. Strip away one of these and either the book totters to a conclusion or the reader falls off long before the murder is solved and finds something more absorbing to read.

Transporting the reader to a particular place is essential, argues Margaret Cannon, crime-fiction columnist for The Globe and Mail. There are two ways of doing this, in her opinion. Either you can have an imaginary set of stock places, as Agatha Christie did in the manor house or the vicarage where she set her whodunits, or you can describe a room or landscape or a city so superbly that it becomes transformed into a place of mystery and suspense.

Poe did it with Paris by gaslight, she says, adding that "anybody who has read any crime fiction at all can describe Sherlock Holmes's room right down to the tobacco he kept in a pipe slipper."

Two of her favourite examples are the settings evoked by Raymond Chandler and James Lee Burke. Chandler remade Los Angeles to suit his fictional purposes in his Philip Marlowe series, she contends, while Burke's prose is so potent you can "smell" Dave Robicheaux's Louisiana. With writers of this quality, place is not just part of the narrative, it is a character.

Ian Rankin makes no bones about the fact that Edinburgh is an essential character in his bestselling series of police procedurals about dyspeptic and cynical Detective Inspector John Rebus. In Toronto on a 24-hour junket for Book Expo Canada last month, the dark-haired Scottish writer took time out from book signings to chat about his own connections with Edinburgh. "I started writing the books because I wanted to make sense of Edinburgh," he said candidly, over a glass of water -- unlike his creation Rebus, who never seems to say anything without a double whisky to hand.

Rankin arrived in Edinburgh at age 18, the first person in his family to go to university. "My parents were very working class," he explained. They never owned their own house, or a car, his sisters left school at 15 and 16 and he grew up feeling very much like the cuckoo in the nest. He always wanted to read books and sit in his room scribbling poetry, a fact that he kept hidden from his family. "I think they thought I was doing drugs," he shrugs. "That would have been more understandable." Having spent much of his teenage years loitering on the periphery of local gangs, he arrived in Edinburgh and found it a complex, enigmatic city in which people kept their secrets behind thick stone walls and net curtains.

"There was the city that the tourists saw," he remembers, "or were allowed to see -- the castles, the monuments, the festival. And then there was another, hidden Edinburgh, where there were massive problems with heroin and AIDS and HIV."

He came to crime fiction after a literary meander worthy of one of his own subplots, through Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Spark's novel, set in a private girls' school, is about the proper refined Edinburgh -- an Edinburgh that Rankin feels never existed. Although Stevenson located his classic novel in London, he was really writing about Edinburgh, Rankin says, through the character of Jekyll, a repressed man riddled with heinous urges.

While Rankin was ostensibly working on a PhD about Spark, he was really trying to turn himself into a Stevensonian-style writer with Edinburgh as his central character. His first few Rebus books were supposed to be updatings of Jekyll and Hyde, but because he pitched them as crime novels about a repressed detective haunted by his past, nobody realized his intention. He even called his second Rebus novel Hide and Seek, but nobody caught on, or so he says.

For a long time, Rankin says, he felt guilty about making Edinburgh darker and more desperate than it really was, but he had to be true to the character he had created. "A detective like Rebus can only see certain aspects of Edinburgh," he says. "He will go for a meal with his girl and they will come out of the restaurant and she will say, 'Look how beautiful the castle looks tonight' and all he sees is a crime scene waiting to happen." His feelings have been mollified by the hordes of tourists coming to Edinburgh demanding to do the Rebus trail, which invariably ends up in the Oxford Bar where Rebus and Rankin both drink.

Writing from a sense of place came naturally to Peter Robinson, the Yorkshire-born, Toronto-based author of the Inspector Banks novels. "That was one of my interests as a poet," he explains, adding that he wrote his PhD thesis at York University on the sense of place in contemporary British poetry. "I don't know that writers consciously do it," he says, pointing out that "an Agatha Christie could take place in any country," while the sense of place in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles is "almost like an extra character" that precipitates the action.

Robinson, a native of Leeds in the north of England, is proof that a crime writer doesn't have to inhabit his fictional locale to make it real to his readers. Anybody can dig up facts about street corners, restaurants and local landmarks. What marks the difference between a book that limps along and one that captures the wanderlust of a reader is the passion -- whether it is love or hatred -- with which the writer creates his crime scenes.

It was absence that sparked Robinson's descriptive passions. He began writing crime fiction only after he immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s. These days, while he sets up his laptop in the east end of Toronto, his imagination still wanders around the dales of Yorkshire where he was born and raised. In fact, he was driven to reading and writing crime fiction as a doctoral student and a frustrated poet much enamoured of traditional narrative poetry replete with capital letters and rhyme.

He now realizes that a lot of the images and impulses from his poetry found a happier home in crime novels written about a character who could have been his alter ego. Robinson deliberately made Banks physically different from himself -- short and dark-haired -- and wrote about him in the third person to distance the character from his creator. "We probably shared very similar childhoods, and when we hit the age of 18, we went in different directions. I went into literature and the arts, and he went on a course that took him toward the police as a career. So our paths have diverged and run in parallel universes ever since."

Canadian Giles Blunt sets his crime novels (Forty Words for Sorrow and his new one, The Delicate Storm) in Algonquin Bay, a fictionalized version of North Bay. Although he was born near Windsor in the southern part of Ontario and spent a couple of decades in New York, North Bay, the town where he lived from ages 10 to 17, is the place -- despite bugs in the summer and frozen nostrils in the winter -- that he calls home.

"I lived in the U.S. so long that North Bay is completely exotic," he says. "It astounds me that people live in such a place." It is so cold in the winter that "it hurts your face to go from the house to the car," and the summers are "brutally" hot with "plagues of black flies" starting on Victoria Day. "I remember going on an ill-advised camping trip with some friends after we moved up there," he says with a laugh. "I think it was the first time I ever got angry at God. I was about 12."

Setting is about much more than geography. It is an opportunity for writers to send a message to readers about social or political issues.

Think of Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, in which Renko exposes us to the dying days of the Cold War in a much more telling way than vast numbers of magazine or newspaper articles could do. Similarly, Alexander McCall Smith, who lives in Edinburgh and writes in Vancouver, sets his Precious Ramotswe novels in Botswana because he wants to show that this is one African country that, despite AIDS, has had a fairly stable and peaceful history since independence.

People write best about places that evoke passionate feelings, says British crime writer Val McDermid. "Otherwise the writing becomes flat on the page." She has written a series of books about a private detective named Kate Brannigan that piece together a social history of Manchester in the 1990s. "It was the place where I lived and the place where I worked [as a journalist] and the place that excited and stimulated me and I wanted to write about it," she said during a visit to Book Expo in June.

McDermid wrote Killing the Shadows after a holiday trip to Toledo in Spain. What a fantastic place to have a serial killer operating, she thought, staring at the honey-coloured medieval buildings nestled atop a mammoth chunk of rock towering over the Tagus River and thinking of Toledo's bloody history dating back through the Civil War and the Inquisition all the way to Roman times. She dumped the body of a young tour guide in La Degollada, a gorge named after a gypsy woman who had been found there centuries earlier with her throat cut. And she hung the sodomized corpse of an American graduate student from the manacles adorning the façade of the monastery church of San Juan de los Reyes.

Inspiration does not always flash so quickly. McDermid fell in love with the White Peak district of Derbyshire in northern England when she moved there from her native Scotland in 1979 and spent 20 years trying to figure out a way to use the limestone landscape in a novel. The mysterious, narrow, twisting dales and the little rivers that disappeared in the summer and rose up again in the winter got under her skin in a "weird" way, and it took her a long time and a rereading of W. H. Auden's poem In Praise of Limestone to find a way of combining plot and atmosphere in what became A Place of Execution.

"There is a wonderful bit in the middle of the poem," she recalls, "where he says something about how they lead constrained lives in their narrow valleys, and never go out into the wider world, but when one of them goes to the bad, we all understand why. And that was like the penny dropping."

She still had to work out the myriad details about the child living in an isolated, incestuous community who goes missing and why her friends and family are so grudging in their co-operation with the police. They clearly love the missing girl, and want her back, but that loss is pitted against the fear of letting the police know a diabolical secret about their past.

Reading Execution, I was struck by how even though serious practitioners of heinous fiction eschew the locked-room murders of, say, Agatha Christie, they still have to find a way to create an isolated crime scene -- the lonely house on the outskirts of the village, the village cut off from the city, the woman who misses the bus and walks home late at night. The problem is the same -- putting victim and murderer in each other's sights; it is the setting that has changed.

"The whole structure of the way we use place is actually a big trick to pull the reader into the book," McDermid says. "The more convincing you can make your world, the easier it is for the reader to suspend his or her disbelief about the things they know you are lying about."

Just as there are conventions about putting real people in fiction -- you can't ignore the historical record by changing known biographical facts such as death and birthdates -- there are unwritten rules about how you use geographical locations. Writers who violate them risk destroying their imaginary pact with readers. A writer such as Rankin has Rebus drinking in an actual pub and walking down real streets so that readers who know Edinburgh can identify landmarks and visualize themselves in the same setting. Then, based on that reality, the writer creates a fictitious but convincing crime scene.

If you want to write about a nightclub where drugs are dealt, it is best not to give it the name of an actual club, unless you are willing to risk a lawsuit. Similarly, you can't put a raunchy nightclub in the wrong part of town. Readers who know the area won't believe it and will lose faith in your story. The final level at which a sophisticated crime writer uses setting is to make a particular place universal so that readers can transfer from the page to their own experience. You may not know Paretsky's Chicago, for example, but in reading about it, you are reminded of certain aspects of your own city.

No matter how many books they write, or sell, there is one thing that all crime writers seem to have in common: the feeling that they don't get enough respect for what they do. J.D. Singh of the Toronto bookstore Sleuth of Baker Street, says crimewriters have a lot of trouble shaking the feeling that they are second-rate despite a growing number of scholarly articles praising their work as "real" literature. So why don't they switch to writing mainstream novels? Partly it is habit. Like actors who have created a famous role, crime writers with a memorable character can find the mould so comfortable they don't want to risk breaking it. And the pressure from publishers and fans to keep writing a sure thing is enormous.

But there is more to it than that. Unlike many mainstream novelists, crime writers are enthralled by storytelling. They are drawn to books that have beginnings, middles and ends, even though the form has now become so stylized that a reader cannot expect the three parts to be in the traditional order. Solving the puzzle is often the least important part of crime fiction, with all sorts of writers, from Ruth Rendell to Rankin to Robinson, telling us who did it to whom on the very first page. It is the why, not the how, that intrigues them and keeps us turning the pages.

Novel guidebooks

A reading list of other crime-fiction novelists and their favourite locations:

Total Recall by Sara Paretsky -- Chicago

The Wailing Wind by Tony Hillerman -- New Mexico

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett -- San Francisco

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen -- Miami

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane -- Boston

Death of a Hawker by Janwillem van de Wetering -- Amsterdam

Auprès de ma blonde by Nicolas Freeling -- Netherlands

The Russia House by John le Carré -- Moscow

Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfred Garcia-Rosa -- New Mexico

Wonderland by John Brady -- Dublin

From Doon with Death by Ruth Rendell -- Suffolk, England

Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James -- London, England

Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett by Georges Simenon -- Paris

The Angst-Ridden Executive by Manuel Vazquez Montalban --Barcelona

Cabal by Michael Dibdin -- Rome

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon -- Venice

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith -- Italy

The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson -- Prague

The End of Lieutenant Boruvka by Josef Skvorecky -- Prague

The Third Man by Graham Greene -- Vienna

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene -- Havana

Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg -- Denmark and Greenland

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett -- Cairo

The Bank of Fear by David Ignatius -- Iraq

Alexander McCall Smith

The Kalahari Typing School for Men


"In a dry country like Botswana, shade netting made all the difference to a plant's chances, keeping the drying rays of the sun off the vulnerable green leaves and allowing the earth to retain a little of any precious moisture left over from watering."

Ian Rankin

A Question of Blood

Edinburgh, Scotland

"The car was parked on North Castle Street, but they walked past it, heading for George Street. Directly ahead of them, the Castle was illuminated against the ink-dark sky. They turned left, Rebus feeling a stiffness in both legs, the legacy of his trek across Jura."

Raymond Chandler

The Long Goodbye

Los Angeles

"Everything was the fault of the smog. If the canary wouldn't sing, if the milkman was late, if the Pekinese had fleas, if an old coot in a starched collar had a heart attack on the way to church, that was the smog."

Val McDermid

Killing the Shadows

Toledo, Spain

"The first body had been found in a deep wooded gorge running down to the River Tagus about a mile from the city gates. According to local custom, the gorge boasted the revolting name La Degollada -- the woman with her throat slit."

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