Friday, November 6, 2009

Local Color

Mystery novels don’t take place in a vacuum. In a well-written mystery novel, the plot and characters are affected by the place and culture within which the novel takes place. When the story shares that place, the local people, and the local culture with the reader, the story takes on a more distinctive character. Novels that include what’s often called, “local color” draw the reader in on several levels. First and foremost, of course, is the plot. A mystery novel needs a solid plot and interesting characters, and when “local color” contributes to the plot, that can make it all the more interesting. On another level, “local color” gives the reader a different set of perspectives, interesting information on what may be a new place, and some memorable characters.

Sometimes, the murder itself is tied up with the “local color.” In those mysteries, the murder victim is local, the murder is related to local events and people, and the solution comes from understanding the place and the people. That’s what happens in several Ellery Queen mysteries, often collectively known as the Wrightsville mysteries. In one of them, Calamity Town, Queen investigates the murder of Rosemary Haight, whose brother, Jim, is married to a daughter of Wrightsville’s leading family, the Wrights. Jim is the chief suspect in the murder, but as Queen begins to look into the crime, he finds that Jim’s not the only one. Rosemary’s murder turns out to be intimately connected with the Wright family and with Wrightsville. That’s also the case in Ten Days Wonder, in which Queen returns to Wrightsville to help an old friend, Howard Van Horn, figure out what’s behind a terrifying series of blackouts he’s had during which he may have committed some terrible crimes. While Queen is visiting the wealthy Van Horn family, Howard Van Horn’s stepmother, Sally, is murdered and Queen ends up investigating her death. He finds a network of secrets, all connected with the town and its past, as he searches for the truth about Sally Van Horn’s death. In The King is Dead, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are summoned to Bendigo Island, a small, closely-guarded island owned by tycoon “King” Bendigo. They’ve been sent for to find out who’s been threatening Bendigo’s life. When he’s mysteriously shot one night, the Queens begin to look into Bendigo’s past. What they find is that once again, the town of Wrightsville and its local citizens play the central role in the murder. In all of these books, we find that the “local color” is intimately connected with the mystery.

Martin Edwards’ (his blog is here) Lake District mysteries also feature intimate connections between the local people and places and the mysteries that are at the center of the novels. For example, in The Coffin Trail, Daniel Kind, an Oxford history don, moves to the Lake District with his girlfriend, Miranda, where they take up residence at Tarn Cottage which, it turns out, has a dark history. Years ago, it was the home of Barrie Gilpin, a sufferer of Asperger’s Syndrome, who fell to his death shortly after the brutal murder of a young woman, Gabrielle Anders. It was always assumed that Gilpin was responsible for her death. Kind actually knew Gilpin, though, and doesn’t believe he was guilty. Kind’s also interested in the case because his father, Ben Kind, was the chief investigator. When Ben Kind’s former junior partner, DCI Hannah Scarlett, is named to head a special cold case division, she reopens the Gilpin case, as she’d always thought Barrie might be innocent. What Kind and Scarlett find is that several local people had reasons to kill both Anders and Gilpin, and that the history of Brackdale and its people figure strongly in the solution to this mystery. The Cipher Garden, which also features Kind and Scarlett, focuses on the murder of Warren Howe, an unpleasant landscaper. Although Howe’s wife, Tina, was suspected, she had an alibi, so nothing could be proven. Years later, Scarlett gets her cold case team involved in the case when the police receive an anonymous note naming Tina as the killer. Meanwhile, Kind gets involved when he finds that the old mystery behind the layout of his cottage’s garden is connected to the landscaping firm that used to employ Howe. He and Scarlett eventually find that the solution to the mystery of Kind’s garden and the mystery of Howe’s death are tied to the local town history. In The Arsenic Labyrinth, Hannah Scarlett and her cold case team are sent to the area near the village of Coniston, where they’ve been tipped off that they’ll find the body of Emma Bestwick, who disappeared ten years before. When they find a second skeleton, fifty years older, near Emma’s, the team begins questioning the locals and trying to piece together Emma’s disappearance and death, and find out who the other victim was. As Scarlett and her team uncover the truth behind Emma’s death, Kind looks into the other death, and in the end, both find that the murders are related to the local history. In all of these novels, the local people are integral parts of the murder mysteries, and the deaths that Scarlett and Kind investigate all have their roots in this “local color.”

Sometimes, “local color” isn’t directly tied to the murder in a mystery novel, but it provides perspective on the characters that are involved. That’s what happens in Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder, in which Torrey Tunet, Deere’s sleuth, gets involved in the murder of historian John Gwathney. Tunet’s just returned to her home in the Irish village of Ballynagh when she meets a young girl, Sharon O'Faolain, who’s supposed to have been met at the bus stop by her “Auntie Megan.” It turns out that “Auntie Megan is Megan O'Faolain, Gwathney’s secretary and possible lover, who’s also a friend of Tunet’s. When Tunet takes Sharon to Gwathney Hall, she finds that John Gwathney’s just been shot, and Megan O'Faolain is the most likely suspect. Torrey Tunet doesn’t believe that her friend’s guilty, and so she begins asking questions and poking into local affairs. What’s interesting about this novel is that we see these events through the eyes of the locals as much as we do through Tunet’s eyes, and that local perspective adds a really interesting depth to the story.

Agatha Christie also used “local color” effectively to add depth and perspective to many of her novels. For instance, in The Murder at the Vicerage. Miss Marple’s first appearance, the quiet village of St. Mary Mead is rocked when old Colonel Protheroe is found murdered in the study at the village vicarage. Protheroe was roundly hated, so there’s no shortage of suspects. They include his daughter Lettice, a recently-arrived artist, Lawrence Redding (with whom everyone says Lettice is romantically involved), and the colonel’s much-younger wife, Annie (who really is having an affair with Redding). Protheroe has also angered many of the other residents of St. Mary Mead, including the vicar, Leonard Clement, from whose perspective the story is told. When Inspector Slack is sent to the village to investigate, he finds that his greatest help comes from Miss Marple, who really doesn’t interact with the suspects very much. Instead, she interacts with the vicar and his wife, with other neighbors, and with some of the other spinsters in town. Still, she and Clements are able to provide Slack with the solution to Protheroe’s murder. “Local color” is richly provided in this novel because it’s told from the point of view of the one of the town’s long-time residents, who knows about everyone’s doings. The murder plot itself, and its solution, might have taken place in another setting, but the “local color” of this novel adds a great deal of interest to the story.

Christie also introduced more exotic “local color” in some of her other novels. For instance, in Murder in Mesopotamia, Appointment with Death and Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot travels in the Middle East. Throughout these novels, Christie describes the desert heat and scenery. She also describes local characters such as tourist shop owners, dragomen, camel drivers and beggars. While those particular characters don’t figure directly in the mysteries, they add a richness and depth to the stories. They also add authenticity. For instance, Murder in Mesopotamia takes place on an archeological dig. The Middle East setting and character are a natural “fit” for the novel.

Some authors weave “local color” into both the plots and the backgrounds of their novels. For instance, Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache (Three Pines) series shares the local color of rural Québec with the reader. It also turns out that the local people and local history play parts in the murders that Gamache and his team investigate. The same is true of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. In those novels, the Venice setting and the local people and history are as important to the novels as is the central plot; in fact, they are often tied together. “Local color” also serves as both the background and an important plot element in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In those novels, the people of Gabarone, Botswana and its local culture are central to the mysteries that Precious Ramotswe and her assistant, Grace Matsuki, investigate. That’s also true, although to a lesser extent, in Roderick Jeffries’ Inspector Alvarez series.

What’s your view? Do you like novels that feature “local color?” Do you find that “local color” distracts you from the central plot?


  1. I like novels that feature local color. It anchors the reader to the place of the story. I don't think the plot suffers from it unless there's too much of local color and the focus shifts away from the plot.

    I've been reading Susan Wittig Albert's books, the Beatrix Potter series, and like them very much. They've got just the right amount of local color. Reading them makes me feel I'm part of the community described in the books, observing without having the possibility to comment :).

  2. Andrea Camilleri's novels have the all local colour, the delicious food and the Mafia of Sicily. I am certainly not distracted because they are usually more about characters and the atmosphere than plot.
    John Lawton's Troy series wonderfully evoke the atmosphere of wartime London and that is a supplement rather than a distraction to some very underrated books.
    Much of Colin Dexter's Morse books rely on the academic back stabbing and town and gown conflicts of Oxford University.
    I am never distracted because I don't think I read as much for the plots as I used to but more because of the background and the characters. That could be because I can't remember all the plot intricacies after I have gone 100 pages.

  3. I do like local color as long as the author hasn't written a setting dump. Midsomer Murders is so much fun because of the setting(s). Morse in Oxford is great (I see Uriah thinks so, too.)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Christine - You put that quite well. When a well-written novel has some local color, the reader feels anchored to the place and people in the story. In that way, local color adds a touch of reality to the novel. And I agree, Albert does that well; I admit I haven't read her Cottage Tales series, but the China Bayles stories certainly have a nice touch of local color.

    Norman - I know what you mean about reading a mystery as much for background and characters as for the plot. I've found myself doing the same thing. That's why I think local color can add a lot to a story. I'm glad you brought up Colin Dexter's Morse stories; that "culture clash" between the town of Oxford and the university is so interesing and you're right; it's an important part of those stories. And of course, thanks for bringing up Camillari's and Lawton's books; both series make such effective use of local color that the reader is drawn right in.

  5. Elizabeth - You're right; the kind of setting the author creates is a big factor in whether that local color adds to or detracts from the story. And I agree 100%; one of the big appeals of the Morse series for me is that Oxford setting. Both the town and the university are such intriguing and appealing places, and they add a lot of character to the novels.

  6. I like local color when it's skillfully incorporated. I am sometimes surprised at how even a great writer, like Jeffrey Eugenides, overdoes it with his use of Detroit history in MIDDLESEX. Parts of it sounded like it came straight from a history text.

  7. Patti - That's exactly the risk a writer takes when s/he includes "local color" - overdoing it. When a book's got so much local history that it's a burden on the reader, that's distracting. I haven't read Middlesex, although I liked The Virgin Suicides, but I know the kind of thing you mean. When "local color" isn't woven well into the plot, it's a detriment.

  8. I also love local colour, but I think you and your readers have taken all my best examples.

    Well, perhaps I should mention S.J. Bolton´s Sacrifice. It is not a flawless thriller, but I loved the local flavour of that one.

    And of course there is also Ann Cleeves´ Shetland series ...

    (Better stop now and leave some examples for other readers) :D

  9. Some examples of the local color I love: Craig Johnson's series set in Wyoming, Peter Bowen's series set in Montana; John Burdett's series set in Thailand and Colin Cotterill's set in Laos. I've put in a few thousand miles' worth of armchair travel in these series alone.

  10. Yes, I like local colour ("placeism") very much - when done well, it is one of the reasons I like crime fiction: the details of what it is like to live in places where I don't live and may never visit. The Oslo of Jo Nesbo, Uppsala of Kjell Ericksson, Melbourne of Peter Temple, LA of rather a large number of authors, etc. I agree that an author needs to create a believable world without sounding like National Geographic or a travelogue, though! I like your example of Martin Edwards: I think he achieves this pretty well for the Lake District. Val McDermid set one of her recent novels in the same location, and I thought this also worked well, in examining some of the issues of farming v tourism v traditional ways of life.

  11. Dorte - I like your examples very much!!! I'm especially glad you brought up the Ann Cleeves series; isn't that a great example of the way local color can work in a series? I always feel as though I'm "right there...."

  12. I much appreciate your comments about the Lake District Mysteries, Margot. Thank you.

  13. My great pleasure, Martin - They are compelling and very well-written stories. I admire your style, your characterization and your plot development.

  14. Cathy - You've given some fabulous examples!! I haven't read Bowen, but I really do like Cotterill's series. You couldn't have put it better - who needs a passport with authors like that? : )

    Maxine - You make such a good point about how important it is for an author not to sound like National Geographic! I had to laugh when I read that one : ). Authors like Temple, Edwards, and Leon (and many others) who can really weave the essence of a place into the story have the ability to teach one about a place without it sounding like a geography lecture. Like you, I sometimes enjoy reading a story as much for that sense of "placeism" as for anything else.

  15. I like Maxine's word - placeism. One of the reasons I read books from all over the world is for the local colour - it is one of my favourite things and I find I tend not to like books that could take place anywhere quite so much as books that are clearly taking place in a particular place and time. People above have given great examples - I would perhaps add Alexander McCall Smith's NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY series and Deon Meyer's DEVIL'S PEAK as works which both evoke Africa (though in very different ways).

  16. Bernadette - There is no doubt about it; Smith's a genius at giving the reader a sense of place and conveying that unique feeling that only good local color gives. It's one of many, many reasons why I'm a fan of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. He uses description, language, and so much else to really give the reader the sense of being in Africa.