A Boston book agent asked me an odd question on the phone the other day: “Do you mind,” he said with some hesitation, “if my author’s mystery is set locally?”
“Of course not,” I said. “Most mysteries need to take place somewhere, and every somewhere is local.”
The agent’s next comment floored me. “Many editors, especially New York ones at big houses, disagree. They’re afraid the mystery will be dismissed as ‘regional.’”
I’ve been thinking about our exchange ever since. And though I’ve been around long enough to see both sides of most questions, I had a hard time seeing much gray in this one.
All told, I’ve published about a dozen or so mysteries or thrillers. Whenever I think about them, the first thing that comes to mind is where they were set. Bill O’Reilly’s Those Who Trespass, which was what I termed a journalistic thriller, was set in a dozen or exotic places, from the Falkland Islands to Martha’s Vineyard. O’Reilly’s sense of place was, so far as I could tell, accurate—O’Reilly had spent time in all these places—and they added color to a novel otherwise short on description.
Ken Morris, a native Californian, set both his two financial thrillers (Man in the Middle and The Deadly Trade) largely in the San Diego area, a long distance from the Wall Street that’s the norm for this sub-genre. He lived in San Diego. It made sense for the action to take place there.
Elliott Light set his two Shep Harrington Smalltown mysteries (Lonesome Song and Chain Thinking) in a fictional Virginia town, most likely a composite of several real ones he knew well, but spread the action to Washington, DC and other parts of the Commonwealth. It seemed sensible for his stories to unfold in small town America, and I vividly recall, years after editing his mysteries, the ways in which he described his settings. Cliché though it may be, he made the main fictional town a character in the story, and we did our best to use small towns as a hook for publicizing the first book.
Jeffrey Cohen, my fellow DeadGuy blogger, placed his three Aaron Tucker mysteries (For Whom the Minivan Rolls, Farewell to Legs, and As Dog is My Witness) mostly in suburban New Jersey, with several memorable detours to Washington, DC. That decision seemed right then, and seems right now—Jeff knew New Jersey, having lived there much of his life, and giving these mysteries a New Jersey orientation made the novel-writing (his first, so far as I know) just a tad easier for him, I suspect.
Libby Sternberg set her Bianca Balducci mysteries (Uncovering Sadie’s Secrets and Finding the Forger) in Baltimore. Why not? She lived here and, I suspect, loves the place.
Finally, Andy Harp will debut with a military thriller—A Northern Thunder—this fall. It involves an ex-Marine on a dangerous mission to North Korea. Harp, an ex-Marine, has never been to North Korea. Few living Americans actually have. But the book wouldn’t be the book without North Korea as the prime setting. Harp, I believe, carefully studied the country’s topography, economy, government, and politics, among other things, and making all of them a part of his story gives it layers that are instructive without being didactic.
There are editors, I suspect, who believe that centering your mystery in a single place limits your marketing efforts, because residents of San Diego, for example, don’t want to read about suburban New Jersey. Better, it’s said, to do mysteries more like horror thrillers—set the action in Anywhere, USA, keep the reader guessing, and enlarge your potential buyer universe, especially overseas.
To that line of thinking, I say, “No, no, no!”
I can’t speak about horror thrillers—I haven’t published one yet—but I like traveling places when reading mysteries, much as I like watching Anthony Bourdain visiting interesting places on the Travel Channel. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I even bought a copy of Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, read it, and stopped by a few of the San Francisco locales he included in that detective novel.
I recently edited a mystery, written by a talented new novelist, which is set in Seattle, where he himself had lived a few years. I’ve visited Seattle briefly myself, and his mystery gave me a better feel for the place. In fact, as I recall his novel, I think first of the setting, and second of the characters and plot.
Does a mystery set in a single, recognizable place limit the marketing? Absolutely not. Even non-Americans like to read mysteries set in specific U.S.environments.
Do readers want their mysteries set in at least one recognizable place? Certainly!
As long as travel remains the favorite pastime of most people—and that aspiration will undoubtedly last our lifetimes and well beyond—readers, whether they know it or not, will want and seek the vicarious pleasure of using their mysteries to travel.