Sunday, May 23, 2010

City Streets Don't Have Much Pity*

When many people think of excitement, things to do, or opportunities, they think of cities. Cities seem to have more job opportunities, more places to go, and more options. Cities can develop personalities of their own, you might say, and there are many people who wouldn't live anywhere else. But, as anyone who's ever lived in a city can tell you, they're also often more dangerous, more crowded, more stress-inducing and more expensive than living in a suburb or small town. It's no wonder that many fine crime fiction novels and series take place in cities. For a fictional murderer, it's easier to remain anonymous and to hide any connection to the victim(s). For the crime fiction author, there are lots of opportunities for plots.

Many people think of Agatha Christie as an author of "English village" and other small-town stories. But some of her stories take place in cities. For example, much of the action in Third Girl takes place in London. That's the story of Norma Restarick, a troubled young woman who goes to Hercule Poirot for help because she thinks she may have committed a murder. When she meets Poirot, she says that he's "too old," and leaves without even giving her name. With help from his friend, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot tracks down the girl's identity, but by the time he does, she's disappeared. Ariadne Oliver runs across Norma and her boyfriend, David Baker, at a café. When Baker leaves the café, Oliver decides to follow him. She's soon lost in an area she doesn't recognize, but manages to follow Baker to his flat. She makes a brave show during her visit, but when she leaves, she gets even more lost, and we get a sense of how dangerous a city can be when Ariadne Oliver is knocked unconscious and ends up in the hospital. In the end, and after another death, Poirot and Oliver find out about the murder Norma Restarick thinks she committed, and they discover who the real murderer is.

At Bertram's Hotel
is another example of one of Christie's novels that are set mostly in London. In that novel, Miss Marple travels to the upscale Bertram's Hotel for a holiday. She stayed there as a girl, and it's interesting to see through her eyes how the hotel - and London - have changed through the years. We sense again that, while parts of London have a glittering, sophisticated veneer, things can be very different beneath the surface. While Miss Marple is at the hotel, Canon Pennyfeather, another guest who's admittedly absent-minded, leaves the hotel for the airport. Realizing he's left on the wrong day, Pennyfeather returns to the hotel, only to be knocked out. He wakes up much later at quite a distance from the hotel, with no idea where he's been nor what's happened. Then, he finds out that someone looking very much like him was at the scene of a train robbery during the time he was blacked out. At the same time, Elvira Blake, a hotel guest, is nearly shot one night while she's returning to the hotel. Later, the hotel commissionaire, Michael "Micky" Gorman is killed. In the end, Miss Marple is able to piece together how the Canon's disappearance, Elvira Blake's brush with death, and Micky Gorman's murder are connected by a hidden network of relationships.

There are many authors, of course, whose series take place almost entirely in a city. For example, Ian Rankin's John Rebus novels take place mostly in Edinburgh. Like most large cities, Edinburgh has both glitter and squalor, and both are evident in the Rebus stories. For instance, Hide and Seek begins with the discovery of the body of Ronnie McGrath in a gone-to-seed housing development. At first, the death looks like just another junkie's overdose. But when Ronnie's girlfriend reveals a warning he gave her to hide - and that there was danger - Inspector Rebus begins to believe that there's more to this death than a simple overdose. As Rebus looks into the death, he finds that it's connected with some of Edinburgh's most respectable and "high-class" people - and with other deaths. In this novel, Rebus moves between the low-class, seedy neighborhoods of Edinburgh and expensive estate agents, gaming clubs and other haunts of the wealthy and powerful.

New York is the setting for many fine crime fiction series, including Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder novels. Scudder's an unlicensed private investigator who, as he himself says, "does favors for friends." In the beginning of the series, Scudder's a heavy drinker who left the New York City Police Department after he accidentally caused the death of a young girl. Later, he joins Alcoholics Anonymous, and slowly rebuilds his life. Through Scudder's eyes, we see the New York beneath the high-rise surface. For instance, in When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, Scudder reminisces about some cases he solved in the mid-1970's, when he lived in a hotel and spent most of his time in local bars. In one case, he and some friends are in a Morrisey's, an illegal Irish bar, late one night when the bar's held up. At first, the Morrisey brothers are not interested in having anything about the holdup get out. Scudder soon discovers that that's because they know whom the holdup men represent and are afraid of them. In another case, Scudder agrees to clear "Tough Tommy" Tillary, an investment salesman, of the stabbing death of his wife, Margaret. And then there's the case of Skip Devoe, a bar owner who's got two sets of books: one he shows to the Internal Revenue Service and one that he keeps privately. When his private books are stolen, Scudder agrees to find out what happened to them. As Scudder searches for answers in these cases, we get to see the New York that you don't see in travel brochures.

And then there's Chicago. Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski series and Mark Richard Zubro's Paul Turner/Buck Fenwick series are both set there. Through novels like these, we get to see the unique personality of "The Windy City." For instance, in Paretsky's Tunnel Vision, Warshawski's office building on the Loop is about to be demolished. She's the only tenant who's holding out against the powerful Culpepper Brothers, who own the building and want to sell. Against that backdrop, Warshawski finds a homeless family living in the building's basement. She's trying to figure out how to help them, but gets distracted when Darraugh Graham, her most important client, asks her to find a community service placement for his son, Ken, who was arrested for computer hacking. Warshawski wants to place Ken at Home Free, a charitable organization. But she's rebuffed at first. Then, one of its board members, Deirdre Messenger, is murdered, and her body found in Warshawski's office. In the end, Warshawski connects that death to some ugly cases of domestic abuse in high places.

We also see both the upscale and the ugly side of Chicago in Zubro's Another Dead Teenager, in which Detectives Paul Turner and Buck Fenwick investigate the brutal murders of three teenagers. Their search for answers takes them from the homes of some of Chicago's most famous citizens to gritty sex shops and abandoned warehouses.

We learn about Venice through the eyes of Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti. In novels such as Blood From a Stone, The Girl of His Dreams, and Through a Glass, Darkly, Leon shows several sides of Venice. There's the "touristy" Venice (which Leon pokes fun at in several places in the novels). Then, there's the way Venice really works: social standing, connections and money are often more important than anything else. Leon's novels also bring out some of the challenges that Venice faces, such as immigration, pollution and corruption. And yet, through it all, Brunetti loves his city, and we also see its charm and attraction.

No discussion of crime fiction series set in cities would be complete without a mention of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, and the Los Angeles that Bosch knows. Bosch is a detective for the L.A.P.D., so he's seen murder at all levels and in all of Los Angeles' neighborhoods. In many of the novels, such as The Black Ice, Trunk Music and The Brass Verdict, Bosch uncovers sordid connections between those at Los Angeles' highest levels and the seamy underside of life in that city.

There are many other authors, too - too many for me to list here - whose novels share a city with us. I'm sure you could think of lots that I haven't mentioned. Cities really do allow for lots of different interactions between people at all levels of society. They also allow for many possible plot points and subplots, as well as a rich variety of characters. What's your view? Do you enjoy series focused on cities? If you do, which are your favorites?

The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh's In The City.


  1. For the most part I enjoy novels where the protagonist interacts with the various levels of society in their big city life. As you said there are so many levels that can lead to very intriguing plots. However, I have read a couple of novels which seem to focus more on the city than on the story. There is length details of the city but few about the characters involved. Those type novels I find lacking.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - I know exactly what you mean; I've read novels like that, too, where the author spends more time describing the city than telling the story. There's a balance, I think, between giving enough description so the reader really feels the location, and giving so much that the reader loses sight of the plot. Sometimes, authors lose sight of that. When they don't, though, as you say, there are lots of opportunities for people of all kinds to mix in a city.

  3. I'm not big on city's as settings, particularly if the writer assumes that readers have knowledge of the city in the first place (many stories set in New York, Seattle, etc). Sorry, have no clue where that place was and have no idea what is near it so I've lost track of where the characters are.
    Still, the city can be an interesting setting if used well and there are certainly things that work in city settings that wouldn't work elsewhere.
    Thanks for an interesting post.

  4. Cassandra - That does make it harder, when the reader isn't familiar with the city and finds it hard to follow along with the writer's description. If location in a city is going to be a critical part of a story, I always think maps are helpful. And I agree - cities can be useful settings for certain kinds of plots that just would be possible in another setting.

  5. I prefer country or village settings, but with good writers I am always willing to give up any principle and enjoy their story anyway :D

  6. I particularly like the realistic way the authors you've mentioned feature "The Big City" in their novels. I've never been to NYC but Lawrence Block, with his Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr novels, and Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, pique my interest in visiting there. Robert B. Parker does the same for Boston; likewise, John Sanford and P.J. Tracy for Minneapolis-St. Paul. I think these authors give a wonderful "feel" for their cities that cannot be duplicated in a travelogue or tourist brochure.

    Michael Connelly's Los Angeles is appealing to me for the opposite reason--I am familiar with LA. Connelly always seems to capture my feelings and sentiments when describing sections of LA. When he describes areas around Dodger Stadium, the San Fernando Valley, or downtown LA, I get the sense that we have a special kinship because that's how I'd describe those areas.

    I also find that these authors use travel in-and-around their cities to help establish time-lines for their stories. Harry Bosch might only be 10 miles from the crime scene, but it takes him over 30 minutes because of rush-hour traffic. Lucas Davenport might take 3 hours to reach the crime scene, even driving at breakneck speed, because it's in a remote part of Minnesota. I'm not sure why--maybe it adds to the novel's realism--but I prefer these short descriptions of the journey from "A" to "B" over having the sleuth just "arrive" at the scene.

  7. Dorte - I like your perspective : ). When the writing is strong, the plot is well-done and the characters well-drawn, setting matters less.

    Bob - I know exactly what you mean about realism when an author is describing a city. I don't live in L.A., but I've been there several times, and yes, it can take 40 minutes to an hour or more to go just 10 miles, depending on which 10 miles it is, and when. I think the reader finds it easier to identify with a sleuth when the reader can think, "Oh, yeah, that freeway/highway/motorway does get backed up. It can take forever to get from A to B on that road." Same thing, I think, with parking woes, weather, city quirks, and so on. As long as the author doesn't go on too long, I like that touch of the real.

    Funny you'd mention what you've learned about NYC from McBain and Block. I've been to New York several times (although not in quite as run-down places as some of the characters in those novels go), and so when I read those stories, I can sense how real they are. I respect authors who show readers what one or another city is really like, and you've given some fine examples. Thanks