One of the many appeals of crime fiction is the sense of place that a good mystery novel can give. Setting is, of course, an important part of any well-written story and it’s no different in crime fiction. In fact, the setting often lends a lot to the mystery of the novel. I’ve read more than one criticism of a crime fiction novel in which the reviewer said, “It could have taken place anywhere; I had no sense of place.” That’s how important setting can be. The thing is, though, that every place seems different when seen through different eyes. The answer to, “What’s _______ like?” depends on whom one asks. A quick look at just a few places in crime fiction shows how different the very same place is when seen from different characters’ perspectives.
For example, there’s a big difference between the Edinburgh of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, and the Edinburgh of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie. Rebus’ Edinburgh is urban, sometimes very seamy and dangerous, and often corrupt. Rebus can’t really imagine living and working anywhere else, but you could say he sees the city through working-class eyes. In his role as a police officer, Rebus sees things that a lot of civilians don’t see, and it’s given him a a somewhat jaundiced view. Still, he acknowledges the physical beauty of parts of the city
The Edinburgh we see through Isabel Dalhousie’s eyes is quite different. She’s the editor of Review of Applied Ethics, so her viewpoint is not that of the jaded police inspector. Dalhousie’s view of Edinburgh captures the history of the city, its smaller, quiet districts and the unique Scottish culture. In a very literal way, Dalhousie shows us the taste of Edinburgh, too, as we experience Scottish bakeries and cafés, cooking and meal rituals. These two views of Edinburgh are so different that it’s hard to believe that Rebus and Dalhousie live and work in the same city. Yet, they do.
We also see very different Oxfords, depending on which crime fiction sleuth’s perception one reads. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse certainly spends his share of time at the university. Several of the deaths he investigates are of dons and other “university types.” But his Oxford also consists of pornography theatres, all sorts of pubs, seamy hotels and run-down areas of the city. Morse has no illusions about the city; in fact, you could say he has some sympathy for some of the city’s less-reputable people.
Quite different from this view is that of Joan Smith’s Loretta Lawson. She teaches English at Oxford, and spends most of her time at the university and with other “university types.” So although some of the action in Smith’s novels takes place off-campus, we see less of the “town/gown” conflict from Lawson’s perspective than we do from Morse’s point of view. There’s yet another view of Oxford in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, when Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College. On one hand, we do see the less-than-perfect nature of the university as Vane investigates some disturbing acts of vandalism and other unpleasant events at the college. On the other hand, we also see what you might call the “nostalgic” point of view as she looks back on her years as a student. These different perspectives also give one very different views of the same city.
New York, of course, is such a large and diverse city that there would almost have to be a wide variety of perspectives on it. Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder certainly sees the “underbelly” of the city. He’s a PI and recovering alcoholic who sometimes gets mixed up with some very shady people. So Scudder’s New York is a city of dangerous alleys, dingy bars and decrepit apartments. We also see that seamy New York in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series.
On the other hand, Mary Jane Clark’s Dying For Mercy takes place among the very wealthy of New York. Clark’s Eliza Blake is a television host who moves among New York’s highest circles because of her work. In this novel, she plans to attend a party in the very exclusive Tuxedo Park community. When her host apparently commits suicide, Blake gets caught up in an intricate case involving a twenty-year old murder. This novel shows us quite another view of New York City. There are many other novels and series, too, that take place in and around New York City, and show us different faces of the same city.
The same is true of London. Because London is such a large and diverse city, it, too, has many faces. For instance, there’s the wealthy, upper-class London we see through the eyes of P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh. Of course he also investigates murders that take place in poorer neighborhoods as well, but we really get a view of London as a member of the “well-born” class sees it in these novels. One of the things that’s interesting about Dalgliesh’s view of London is his interest in architecture; we learn quite a lot about the physical look of London as we view the city through Dalgliesh’s eyes.
We see a completely different London from the perspective of Michael Robotham’s Detectives Vincent Ruiz and Alisha Barba. In novels such as Lost and The Night Ferry, Ruiz shows us the seamier side of London. As these detectives solve crimes, we see the London of child-sex traffickers, prostitution, and crime rings. We visit some of the nastier areas of the city, and through these detectives’ eyes, we learn about a very unsafe city. There are lots of other novels and series, too, that take place in London; these are just two examples.
One reason we see such different views of the same place is that the protagonists are quite different people with different backgrounds. Police are bound to have different perspectives from civilians, for instance. People with well-educated and wealthy backgrounds are likely to see the same place differently from those with less-educated or less-well-off background.
Sometimes, this difference comes from where the characters live. For instance, Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti has a very different view of Sicily from the view held by Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano. Brunetti is a proud Veneziano, who’s rather suspicious of anyone from “the South.” In fact, one of the many things he dislikes about his boss, Vice-Questore Guiseppe Pappa, is that Pappa is a Sicilian. Montalbano, on the other hand, is a Sicilian. He loves his home and he’s got no patience for people from the North who try to dictate what will happen in his Questura.
You’ll notice that the books I’ve mentioned so far are from different authors. Each author has his or her own perspective, and that comes through in the way the characters see the place where they work. What about two different views of the same place in books written by the same author? We see that in Agatha Christie’s work.
In Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey, who’s been for the past ten years companion to wealthy Mrs. Hartfield. When Mrs. Hartfield dies, everyone is surprised at the fortune she has to leave. Most surprised is Katherine Grey, to whom she leaves her wealth. When the will is settled, Katherine decides to do some traveling, and ends up involved in much more adventure than she could have imagined.
Katherine Grey lives in the village of St. Mary Mead. So does Christie’s Miss Jane Marple; oddly enough, the two never meet, although in a village, one might have expected they would. Though Katherine Grey’s eyes, we see a St. Mary Mead of “regular,” “ordinary” people. Life in the village doesn’t change very much, and we can see how Katherine might be eager for new scenery. Through Miss Marple’s eyes, we see a slightly different St. Mary Mead. She’s lived in the village all her life, and she loves her home. She’s honest about people’s faults – in fact, Miss Marple is an expert on human nature – but as the novels progress, we see why she likes her home so much. There are similarities in the perspectives these two characters have about their homes; St. Mary Mead is a village, so it’s much smaller and less diverse than a large town or a city. Also, both characters are women from the same cultural and ethnic group, so their views are likely to have some commonalities. Still, it is interesting to see the same village through two slightly different pairs of eyes.
Space doesn’t let me mention all of the other places that we see from different points of view. What’s your opinion? If you’ve read different books that take place in the same city, what do you think of the various perspectives you’ve read?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles' The Best of My Love.