Saturday, July 3, 2010

Oh, But Ain't That America*

Today (or tomorrow, depending on where you live), the U.S. is celebrating Independence Day. It’s traditional to celebrate with cookouts, fireworks and parades, but that all sounds a bit tame for the crime fiction fan. So I thought it might be fun to take a look at some of the rich variety there is in American crime fiction. American crime fiction includes cosy mysteries, “hard-boiled” novels, thrillers, police procedurals, and historical crime fiction. There are amateur sleuths, private investigators, police detectives and FBI operatives. There’s so much diversity that it’s hard to know exactly where to start. So, here, from “sea to shining sea” is a snapshot of the range of crime fiction that comes from the United States.

East Coast

When many people think of the East Coast, they think of large metropolitan areas like New York City. Plenty of crime fiction takes place there, too, which I’ll mention in a moment. But there’s plenty of crime fiction that takes place in smaller areas. For instance, Philip R. Craig’s J.W. Jackson series takes place on the New England island of Martha’s Vineyard. Jackson is a fisherman and part-time investigator who’s focused on his wife and his children. He’s got strongly-held, admittedly old-fashioned views, and Craig gives us a fascinating look at the land and culture of Martha’s Vineyard in these novels.

And then there’s the town of Paradise, Massachusetts, which is featured in Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone novels. Stone, a former minor league baseball player, has had to start his life over in Paradise after leaving the L.A.P.D. in disgrace. He’s got several personal demons, including alcoholism and a complicated relationship with his ex-wife. Through Stone’s eyes, we get to see that small New England towns aren’t at all the peaceful havens they seem to be in real estate and travel brochures.

John Lindermuth’s Sticks Hetrick series takes place in Swatara Creek, Pennyslvania, near the state capital in Harrisburg. Hetrick is the retired police chief of the town, and also serves as mentor for the town’s new police chief, Aaron Brubaker. Rural Pennsylvania is also the setting for K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series. Balzic’s the police chief of Rockford, in Western Pennsylvania. In both these series, we get to see East-Coast small-town life that’s not nearly as placid as it seems.

As I mentioned a moment ago, it’s impossible to think of the East Coast of the United States without thinking of large cities like New York. Lawrence Block’s sleuth, private investigator Matthew Scudder, shows us the seamy side of this metropolis in the Scudder series. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series also shows us how dangerous life in New York can be. And of course, no mention of New York-based crime fiction could be complete without bringing up Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Hammer’s adventures take us through all levels of New York society, and are a fascinating look at the city of his day. There’s so much other fine crime fiction based in New York that I could devote a whole post (or more!) to it, and perhaps sometime I will. But for now, suffice it to say that New York crime fiction has certainly made its mark.

From Trenton, New Jersey comes Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. She’s a bounty hunter who works for her cousin’s bail bond agency. Crime cuts across all levels of society, so Plum gets to meet people from all walks of life. But her background is working-class Trenton, and through her eyes, we see what life in New Jersey is like for “ordinary people.”

Not surprisingly, much Washington, D.C. crime fiction has to do with the law and national and international politics. Vince Flynn’s and Margaret Truman’s novels are good examples of this kind of crime fiction. Warren Adler’s Fiona Fitzgerald novels touch a little more on the personal lives of the Washington elite, but they still often deal with politics. Not all D.C-area crime fiction is political, though. For instance, Alan Orloff’s Diamonds for the Dead, which takes place in Northern Virginia, is the story of Abe Handelman, whose sudden death from a fall down the stairs leads to the discovery that he was much wealthier than anyone thought – and that a fortune in diamonds that he had has disappeared.

The South

Southern crime fiction is just as varied as East Coast crime fiction is. Authors such as Rita Mae Brown and Elizabeth Spann Craig show us the culture of the small Southern town. Brown’s sleuth, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen is the former postmistress of the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. She’s insatiably curious, and so, frequently gets mixed up in crimes she would have been better off leaving alone. Harry shows us the network off relationships and the old-fashioned Southern courtesy you can find in small Southern towns. Craig’s Myrtle Clover is a former schoolteacher in Bradley, North Carolina. Her son, Bradley’s police chief, would much rather his mother not get involved in sleuthing, but in a way, that’s precisely why she does get involved. Under the name Riley Adams, Craig’s also got a new series featuring Memphis restaurant owner Lulu Taylor. Ann George’s Southern Sisters mysteries feature Birmingham, Alabama sisters Mary Alice and Patricia Anne, elderly matrons of their extended family. This series blends comedy, Alabama culture and murder as the sisters investigate.

J.D. Rhoades’ Jack Keller series is more “hardboiled” and so, is harder-edged than the other Southern authors I’ve mentioned here. Keller is a bounty hunter in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In his line of work, he gets into all sorts of highly dangerous situations. He’s caught between warring crime gangs, chased, kidnapped and targeted for murder. This series has what you might even call a pulp fiction character to it.

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels also sometimes have a hard edge to them. Robicheaux is a New Iberia, Louisiana police detective who breaks at least as many rules as he enforces. Through Robicheaux’s eyes, Burke shows us how beautiful – and how dangerous – Louisiana is.

The Midwest

Many people associate the Midwest with Chicago, and of course, there’s lots of crime fiction that takes place there. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels are full of the unique flavor of Chicago. Mark Richard Zubro’s Paul Turner/Buck Fenwick series is also rich with Chicago culture and scenery.

Scott Turow’s legal thrillers are also based in the Midwest, in fictional Kindle County. While Turow doesn’t have just one protagonist, several of his characters appear in more than one of his novels. For instance, Rusty Sabich, the deputy prosecutor at the center of Presumed Innocent, appears again as a district court judge in Innocent. John Sandford’s Prey series takes place in Minneapolis, and features maverick police detective Lucas Davenport. Davenport isn’t exactly a “by the book” sort of police detective, but he’s achieved a certain amount of celebrity because of his record of getting criminals off the streets.

The Midwest, of course, is also full of smaller cities and small towns. For example, Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series takes place in the small town of Painter’s Mill, Ohio. In that series, we get a strong sense of the rural Midwest town, surrounded by farmland. We also get a real sense of the distinctive Amish culture.

The West and Southwest

Even though this area of the United States isn’t as populous as some other areas, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any crime there. Just ask Boulder, Colorado psychologist Alan Gregory, Stephen White’s sleuth. Gregory frequently gets mixed up in crime through his patients and former patients. But he also gets involved in investigating crimes when they seem to be the work of serial killers or other psychologically unstable murderers.

C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series features Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, who has to be prepared for just about anything, since he’s often out on patrol by himself. Sam Hilliard’s sleuth, Mike Brody, also has to be prepared. He’s a former Special Forces operative, now owner of an extreme adventure company. Both of these sleuths face just as much danger from the land as they do from the criminals they catch.

Perhaps no author has called more attention to or evoked a clearer picture of the American Southwest than Tony Hillerman. His sleuths, Navajo Tribal Police Officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, are two of the best-known sleuths in American crime fiction. They patrol a huge area of land that can be just as threatening as any criminal, and they both seem to be a part of that land. In Hillerman’s novels, we get a real sense of the Navajo culture, too.

The West Coast

West Coast crime fiction isn’t just about Los Angeles, but Los Angeles is the setting for some of the best-known West Coast mysteries. Raymond Chanler used it as the setting for his Philip Marlowe novels, and through those novels, we see a portrait of all sides of Los Angeles, from the wealthiest to the grittiest.

But times have changed since Marlowe, and so has Los Angeles. Michael Connelly captures modern Los Angeles brilliantly in his Harry Bosch series. Bosch investigates all sorts of Los Angeles crime, among the very rich and powerful, the poorest of the poor and in between. Marshall Karp’s Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs series also takes readers through all levels of Los Angeles society, and Hollywood-based writers such as Stephen J. Cannell and Daniel Depp show us the dark side of filmdom. And Walter Mosley shows us postwar Los Angeles through his Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins series.

Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delware is also Los Angeles-based. He’s a retired psychologist who’s persuaded to go back into practice by his police-detective friend. He’s got a special interest in children, so quite often he helps to investigate crimes against children, or involving children.

West Coast crime, of course, also includes Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, whose “turf” is San Francisco. And then there’s Ross McDonald’s private investigator Lew Archer, who works throughout Southern California.

Today’s West Coast crime also features Jeffrey Deaver’s Kathryn Dance, top interrogator for the California Bureau of Investigations, and of course, Sue Grafton’s sleuth, private investigator Kinsey Millhone.

As if this wasn’t a varied enough set of American sleuths, there are also sleuths like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee and Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn, who solve crime in different parts of the country.

So there you have it: a necessarily very, very brief peek at the diversity in American crime fiction. I know I’ve left out plenty of American authors. Which are your favorites?

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp’s Little Pink Houses.

Happy Fourth of July to my fellow Americans!


  1. Happy July 4 Margot - and thanks for the run down on American crime fiction

  2. Margot have a great July 4th. Thanks for your overview of American crime fiction.

  3. Thanks again, Margot. And Sylvia thanks you, too. :)

    To the Western category, I'd like to add Wyoming's Craig Johnson and his excellent Walt Longmire series, as well as Margaret Coel's wonderful series partially set on the Wind River Arapahoe Reservation. I could go on and on when I get started on our Colorado and Wyoming authors, but instead, I'll add Minnesota's William Kent Krueger (who was born in Wyoming, by the way) who has the outstanding Cork O'Conner series.

    So many books, so little time.

  4. Kerrie - Thanks for the good wishes! And it's my pleasure to go on and on about crime fiction from any author!! : ).

    Jose Ignacio - Thank you : ). And any time you want someone to go on at great length about crime fiction - to the point of boredom - just let me know ; ).

    Patricia - Oh, my pleasure. I do like the Sylvia Thorn novels. It's funny you would mention Margaret Coel (and I'm glad that you did!). I almost included her fine work, but the post was getting long, so I didn't. So I'm very glad you did. And also, thanks for the recommendation for Craig Johnson and William Kent Krueger. I'd heard of them, but not read any of their work. Now I have some new authors to "meet" - very cool!

  5. Margot,
    Thanks for including me in this stellar line up. Enjoy the holiday.

  6. John - My great pleasure! You certainly belong there : ). Enjoy the holiday, yourself.

  7. Happy Fourth of July, Margot.
    I was wondering what you would come up with today, and wasn't at all disappointed.

  8. What an honor to be mentioned with these other writers! Thanks, Margot.

    I've been meaning to try the Robicheaux books--thanks for the reminder to add Burke's books to my summer reading list!

    Happy 4th of July!

  9. Happy Fourth of July, Margot. But it is a sad day for Britain and I blame the treacherous French for the loss of our finest colonies. ;o)

  10. Rayna - Why, thank you! And thanks for the good wishes.

    Elizabeth - Thanks, Elizabeth: ). And it's my pleasure to include you; I've learned quite a lot from your work, and it's certainly an example of fine Southern-style mystery writing. I think you'll like James Lee Burke; his novels have such a sense of place, and the plots are engaging.

    Norman - Nice of you to be sporting about it and send along your good wishes ; ). After all, it certainly couldn't have been anything Britain did or didn't do... ; )

  11. I wonder if there is any state who has not spawned a mystery?

  12. Patti - Good question! My first instinct is that there's probably been at least one mystery novel that takes place in every state. But without a few weeks to do some research, I can't say conclusively. I'll bet it's pretty close, though.

  13. I'm Canadian and I live in Mexico so I don't really do 4th of July but I love the look around the country you did here today.

    I love the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout set in NYC. When I think NYC, I think of that series, with Archie resembling the classic PI.


  14. Happy Fourth of July, Margot!

    And thank you for this fabulous tour of the States (I just wish I could forget all about shipping).

  15. Clarissa - Why, thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed the "tour." And I agree - Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are classic New York icons. Thanks so much for mentioning them : ).

    Dorte - Thank you : ). I'm glad you enjoyed the "snapshots." I know what you mean about shipping costs *sigh*. Having books sent is just soooo costly!

  16. For me as a reader, mysteries are always linked to place. I love Travis McGee and John D. McDonald let me fall in love with a Florida we don't hear enough about. I also like travelling the California highway with Kinsey Millhone or checking out the desert with Hillerman's gang. Thanks for the tour through the states. I hope one day that folks will think Kitty MacDonald when they hear about Nova Scotia!

  17. Jan - Oh, I know exactly what you mean about Travis McGee! And of course, nobody does the desert like Chee and Leaphorn, or California's freeways like Kinsey Millhone. And I can't wait until Kitty MacDonald is Nova Scotia for readers. I'm looking forward to getting to know her.

  18. Thanks again, Margot, for a great essay. I hope you had an enjoyable 4th of July. Here in Denmark we commemorate the day in the Rebild Hills with a lot of attendance from danish emigrants and/or their offsprings. A real festival.

  19. Palle - Thanks : ) and thank you for the good wishes. It sounds as though you have a lovely commemoration, too. I hope that everyone had a good time.