Friday, September 4, 2009

Setting and Atmosphere

I mentioned in an earlier blog that the setting of a mystery novel can play as important a role in the mystery as anything else does. In fact, sometimes the setting seems almost to be a character itself.

Carefully chosen settings add atmosphere to a mystery novel. They can even affect the kind of murder that takes place. This picture, for instance, was taken on the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, north of Johannesburg, South Africa (It's hard to see, but there's an elephant in the photo, right in the middle). In a setting like this, you might imagine certain kinds of murders and motives for murders. For instance, you might imagine a gun or knife being used in a murder that took place here, but not, say, a poisoned box of chocolates. You could imagine a motive having to do with, say, stolen diamonds or poaching, but not with Mob activity. In other words, the setting affects the kind of murder, just as the murderer's psychology does.

Robin Cook has used medical settings frequently, and they add to the atmosphere of his novels. In Godplayer, Marker and Critical, for instance, the murders are committed using medical means. The hospital setting shapes these murders. It shapes the motives, too. In Fatal Cure, the motive for murder has everything to do with the running of the hospital that's the setting for much of the novel. Janet Evanovich uses setting effectively, too, to shape the murders and motives that her sleuth Stephanie Plum investigates. The working-class Trenton setting of many the Stephanie Plum series lends itself beautifully to the kinds of murders in which she gets involved. For instance, in Two For the Dough, Plum investigates a murder that leads her to a self-storage company, a funeral home and a low-class motel, among other places. The sort of murder she investigates here, and the motive for it, are a good fit with the blue-collar atmosphere of the novel.

My own Joel Williams novels take place at Tilton University. I chose a college campus setting because many college campuses are rich in history and even better, there are a wide variety of people there from a wide variety of backgrounds. The campus atmosphere lends itself to all kinds of motives for murder as well as kinds of murder. The fact is, too, that I'm very familiar with campuses, so they appeal to me. I'm not the only one, either. John Alexander Graham chose a campus for The Involvement of Arnold Dreschler. The campus was an excellent choice of setting for that novel, too, because the mystery had to do with a radical activist - a natural fit for a campus.

Sometimes, of course, the setting is in stark contrast to the murder. For instance, in Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party, a young girl is murdered in the home of an eminently respectable pillar of the local community. Christie's fictional detective Ariadne Oliver says, "It doesn't look the sort of house there'd be a murder in, does it?" The setting actually puts the murder in stark relief; it calls attention to the murder.

Because the setting is so important to a murder, whether it "matches" the murder or is in stark contrast to it, I think the best mystery authors describe the setting so that the reader really sees it. Of course, there's a balance between making sure the reader can see the setting, and taking too much attention away from the mystery itself. But setting is important enough that the best mystery authors really take the reader there. Some of my favorites: Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana setting (The No. 1 Ladies' Detection Agency series); Agatha Christie's St. Mary Mead (the Miss Marple series); Crozet, Virginia (Rita Mae Brown's Mrs. Murphy series) and Oxford (Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse series). I also like Moose County (Lilian Jackson Brown's Cat Who...) series, but I agree with many critics who say the setting has taken precedence over the mysteries in that series.

What do you think? How important is setting to you? Which settings do you like best?

One more thing:

Here are the answers to the last night's challenge to match authors and novels to first lines:
1. B
2. C
3. A
4. E
5. D

Hope you enjoyed it : )

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