Friday, August 15, 2008

Friday Free Associating: A Sense of Place

This morning on Morning Edition I listened to the latest installment of Crime in the City, a series of profiles of crime writers. What these writers have in common is that they have all written crime novels in which a sense of place is an important element. By sense of place, I (and the NPR folks) mean the unique landscapes, local customs, history, language quirks, and distinct populations that are part of certain cities and countries. I find recently that I am much more interested in reading a crime novel with a distinct sense of place than I am one that is set in a more generic landscape. Some authors are so good at creating a sense of place that the place can seem almost like a character or an agent provocateur.

This morning's installment profiled Colin Cotterrill who is the author of The Coroner's Lunch, which I read and wrote about back in October. His newest book is called Curse of the Pogo Stick. I haven't read this yet. He's also got at least two others in the series about Dr. Siri Paiboun, the only coroner in Vientiane, Laos.

My search for a sense of place led me also to the Arnaldur Indrithason mysteries (here and here), which are set in Iceland, and to an assortment of other mysteries by Scandinavian authors. Right now I am reading Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten, which is set in Goteborg, Sweden. It's long and detailed, and took me a while to get into, but I am liking it a lot now.

Another author who excels at creating a sense of place is Alexander McCall Smith, whose books set in Botswana (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series) are wonderful. As mysteries, they are not all that unique, but it is the Botswana landscape and culture that draws me in every time. And here's another fact: the place itself needn't be all that unique. The Trenton, New Jersey setting of the the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich is so much a part of those books, you can't even imagine them set anywhere else. As mysteries those books are just stupid, yet they have millions of devoted readers, including me.

I think I will write to NPR and suggest that they profile Indrithason soon.


Anonymous said...

Two other crime writers who come to my mind, who I think make the places their characters live in, come alive are James Lee Burke, and his Dave Robichaud in New Orleans; and of course the immortal Raymond Chandler, and his Phillip Marlowe in 1940's Los Angeles.

As for Alexander McCall Smith, I can attest, as someone originally from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) - a country contiguous to Botswana - that his Botswana novels wonderfully re-create the atmosphere of the 1950's Rhodesia in which I grew up!!

Anonymous said...

I have recently read the Helene Tursten novels that are translated into English and have loved them, particularly the domestic vs work issues Irene faces.
If you like these you might also enjoy Lisa Marklund, also Swedish, who writes about a journalist who also tries to juggle work with a rather messy domestic life.
I did like the first few Stephanie Plums but I have given up reading them now as the joke has worn thin for me. But they are very popular.
I hope NPR does profile Indridason!

LINDA from Each Little World said...


Just been catching up on your books. You write such informative and thoughtful reviews with just the right amount of story to set the stage. My niece got me to sign up for goodreads which is a site for people to share books/reviews etc. Here is my link.

I am hoping to officially start a blog by the end of the month but it will probably be more like my newspaper column, so I like the idea of having a spot to put my book stuff.

Is the Nicola of Vintage Reads, the Nicola of Persephone or just a coincidence in name and book choices? Do you know?

I'm currently reading Anne De Courcy's bio of Snowdon which is quite fascinating but she does use very quirky and dated phrases like "infra dig." She does things in her writing that jump out at me and stop the flow of the story while I ponder "why did she say that?" She also editorializes in spots where it seems inappropriate.

Anyhow, always enjoy a visit to your blog. Bookmarked you on the home computer.

Linda Brazill

Becky Holmes said...

Linda, I did wonder about Nicola also, but it seems like Nicola Beauman already has her own forum at the Persephone web site. Nicola of Vintage Reads, tell us more about yourself! We like the books you like! Linda be sure to send your blog URL when you get it started.

Becky Holmes said...

Maxine, I did send the suggestion to NPR but I got a form e-mail response. My husband tells me he thinks the series is over.

Elsje said...

Indridason is the name the books are published under in my country. Must be the same author! Strange...

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