Sunday, September 12, 2010

You See it Your Way, and I See it Mine*

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?

The title of this post is a line from the Eagles' The Best of My Love.


  1. I love how the way you describe something can colour someone's perception of it. You aren't lying about what is there, just choosing adjectives with certain connotations or ommitting some of details in favour of others. As a result, 100 authors could all describe the exact same place but if we then had artists painting a picture from their descriptions, we would end up with 100 very different paintings.

    Thanks for sharing this discussion and providing the great examples.

  2. Fine post about the different ways we see a place. The backdrop is so important for the story (which is why I love village or country settings more than cities - the crimes are quieter), and I am sure the writer´s background and general view on life influences his/her way of seeing a place. One writer sees injustice and slum, another one sees the middle class, semi-detached houses and the shady parks.

  3. Cassandra - Oh, I think you're right. I'll bet you really would have a different painting of the same place for each person who wrote about that place. It's interesting, too, about choice of words and emphasis. You're exactly right that different words evoke different things, so a choice of a word can make a great deal of difference, can't it? That's one thing I really like about language...

    Dorte - Thank you :-). I agree completely about the writer's perspective, too. That point of view makes a great deal of difference and usually comes through in the story. That's one reason I sometimes think it's interesting to learn a bit about an author and get a sense of her or his perspective.

    You're right, too, that backdrop and kind of murder really do "match" in a good mystery. Or if they're jarringly different, there's a good reason why. Interesting point...

  4. I know with me, description is not my strong suit. Perhaps I should write more but, I know I don't read it much so I think, why write it.

    Anyway, I love reading description of London and England more than that of the US because it's so full of history. For instance, when Edward Martin describes places in the Lake District, I often go and look it up to see if it truly as beautiful as he says. And it is.


  5. Clarissa - Description is always a bit tricky, isn't it? Too much of it weighs a book down. Not enough and there is no sense of place. I agree with you that Martin Edwards does an excellent job of evoking the Lake District in his novels. I look some of those places up, too, and you're right; they're beautiful. One of these days I'd like to visit.

    I like to read about places with a lot of history, too, although again, I do get disappointed if a book is so focused on place that the plot gets "lost in the shuffle."

  6. Another wonderful post to show how we each see things different even if we're seeing the same thing. I guess it's like having five witnesses to a crime and each one sees it differently. I enjoy the fact that you can visit the same city with different authors and see different aspects of the city and life in that area and era.

    That's one of the many reasons I enjoy your posts so much too. You can take a book that I've read and give me a different look at it that I've missed. It's like adding another layer to a wonderful dessert. Thank you.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Mason - *blush* You are perilously good for my ego. Thank you :-). I agree; when we see a city from different perspectives, it really is quite similar to listening to five or six different witnesses' accounts of a crime. All of them may be correct (unless a witness is lying) as far as they go, but they all give different perspectives.

    You also bring up an interesting point about era. I didn't want to get too deeply into time periods in this post; it's long enough as it is. But I've always enjoyed books that let me see how a city "grows up," so to speak, in different eras. Maybe I'll do a post on that sometime and look at books that take place in a city in different time periods. Thanks for the inspiration :-).

  8. So true. What a place is, depends so much on who is seeing it, isn't it? And can you believe it, I never even noticed Katherine Gray lived in St. Mary Mead!

  9. I'm always concerend about perspective. Does the reader see the same vantage point I do? I've never been to Boston, but since half the events from my book happen there, I'd better get it right. That's where research comes in. With Google and Google Earth, I'd better get it at least 80 percent correct.

    Stephen Tremp

  10. I'm reading about St. Mary Mead in Murder at the Vicarage, so I'll be looking at it a bit differently now!

    Perception is everything, and even mood on the day can change a person's view of their environment. I love Dunedin, but even this place can feel dull when I'm feeling blah.

  11. What a superb post. You have certainly given me much food for thought because I suspect this issue partly explains why sometimes I feel as a reader that a book offers a great sense of its location and at other times I don't.

    About the only example I can think of off the top of my head is the two views of Botswana that I've seen depicted in crime fiction recently. The one in Alexander McCall Smith's version is largely gentle and full of nice, ordinary people going about their day-to-day lives encountering problems that are big to them but small on the overall scale of things. The Botswana depicted by Michael Stanley in A Carrion Death is harsher, showing the seedier side of things but also shows how the wealthy live too. At least in part these differences would be explained by the perspectives of the two protagonists: a private detective in a small town versus a professional police officer in a larger city. Both books do however show some similarities, the main one I can remember is that helping one's family is very important to Botswanans (not sure if that's what you'd call residents of Botswana).

  12. An interesting post Margot. Just to add another perspective, you can also consider the reader's perspective and since there are multiple readers there are also multiple perspectives. It also makes a difference whether the reader is familiar or not with the country, city or place in which the action takes place.

  13. Rayna - You are right; it really is so much a matter of perspective, isn't it? We all do see things differently. And the funny thing is, I never really had it sink in at first, either, that Katherine Grey lived in St. Mary Mead. And then I read in a book of Agatha Christie trivia, and thought, "How could I not notice that?"

    Stephen - Oh, you are so right! When you're writing about a place, it's so important to have a good sense of it, and get the little details right that are going to make that place seem authentic for readers who live there or who've at least been there. And yes, the Internet is a lifesaver, isn't it?

    Vanda - Oh, I hope you're enjoying The Murder at the Vicarage. Personally, I think Miss Marple's character changes much for the better as the series goes on, but that book gives one an interesting picture of the village. And you're absolutely right, I think; mood can have a lot to do with one's view of a place. That's why I like it when characters and places are fleshed out enough to give the reader a sense of what a place is like when the character is in different moods, or the weather changes, etc...

    Bernadette - Why, thank you :-). I find it interesting, too, how some books can really appeal to a person and draw her or him in, and others simply do not. I think there are a lot of factors in that, but place is certainly one of them. And the way the characters feel about the place and how they see it certainly affects the flavour of the book.

    Thanks, too, for that wonderful example of exactly and precisely what I mean. Both The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and A Carrion Death show the reader Botswana, but they show different sides of the same place. Or, if you prefer, they show different perspectives on the same place. Both may be entirely accurate, but they are quite different. As you say, certain things are similar, but the reader gets two different views of the same place.

    Jose Ignacio - Oh, yes, the reader's perspective is very important, isn't it? If the reader is familiar with a place, she or he is going to have a completely different view from that of a reader who's only visited once or twice, or who has never been. For some readers, reading a book is like a visit home. For others, the same book is a trip to a faraway place. That's possibly another reason why if ten readers read the same book, they have ten slightly different perspectives on the places in the book.

  14. What a great post! I agree with what Bernadette writes about Botswana viewed by AMcCS and MS - both very interesting, I thought, and not at all sentimentalised in the former case - but different.

    I also apply this to Iceland - it is so fascinating reading the books of Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir, both of which provide plenty of local atmosphere. The authors' styles are different but their settings are recognisably the same country. However, reading Michael Ridpath's Fire and Ice was quite a different perspective, Iceland written by a visitor rather than a resident, so a more detached perspective, focusing on scenery, asides comparing crime rates in Iceland to those elsewhere, and so on -- all excellent, but different.

    The other place I am now very wary about is Bologna. John Grisham wrote a novel about a man who runs off from the US and lives there, adopting and coming to love the Italian way of life. (this was a much better part of the novel than the actual plot). However, having recently read two Carlo Lucarelli books and one Barbara Baraldi book set there, I am really scared ever to go there, it sounds ghastly! A hotbed of pimps, gangsters, assassins, brothels, unstable teenagers and mad women.... ;-)

  15. Maxine - Why, thank you :-). And yes, Bernadette is quite right; those two views of Botswana are so interestingly different, aren't they? I'm glad you mentioned that the Botswana we see in Alexander McCall Smith's novels is not idealised. There is less violence, etc., but it is still, I think, honestly portrayed.

    I'm also really happy you brought up Iceland. It's a small place, and you might think, "How many different perspectives on a small place could there be?" But there are. Indriðason's and Sigurðardóttir's protagonists have two different ways of looking at Iceland, even though they are both natives. Ridpath, of course, gives another. If you read all three authors' work, you might think you're reading about three completely different places, and I find that really fascinating.

    I had to laugh when I read your comment about Bologna. I haven't read the Baraldi book, but from what I have read, yes, I'd say one would have to be quite careful if one travels there. It's a good thing, isn't it, that crime fiction authors don't write travel brochures..

  16. Ok, my last comment just got lost so I'm a bit miffed...but here we go again...

    One of the interesting things to me about reading international authors is learning about the cities and countries about which they write. While his books are a great read, Dan Waddell does not bring the city of London into his books as a character. BUT, Christopher Fowler in his Bryant & May series casts London in the starring role. He covers everything from the city's history to the occult to modern changes in architecture and society. Really well done.

    Personally, I want my setting to be another character in the book. Sure, this stems from my love of the place about which I write--Nashville, TN. But it also helps to inform the reader and give them a sense of place. There's also something to be said for all the locals reading your works--they want to see places they know described!


  17. Michele - I'm sorry your last comment got "eaten;" that is so annoying, isn't it? You make such an interesting point that as readers, we want to get a sense of where a book takes place. We want to feel, if you will, that we're there, where "there" happens to be. Of course, the perception we get of "there" depends on who's telling us about it and which character's perspective we are seeing. But yes, I think the setting can really play a vital role in a book, and the Bryant & May series is a terrific example of how the author can do that without overloading a book with too much "tell" and not enough "show."

    I try to do the same thing that you do - convey a sense of place, so the reader knows where s/he is. And I had to smile when I read your comment about locals reading one's work. One of my beta-readers spent many years in the part of Pennsylvania that's the setting for my Joel Williams series; her input on conveying that sense of place is invaluable.

  18. I read a lot of English novels and am always struck by how much "class" influences the England I read about. This doesn't happen in US novels nearly as much.

  19. Patti - Isn't that really interesting how certain factors play such an important role in novels that take place in some areas, but not in others? I'd say it's probably because those novels are written from the point of view of characters who have a particular place's backgrounds and assumptions. Class certainly is a major factor in a lot of British novels and I'd agree; it's less important in U.S. novels.

  20. There I was feeling silly that I hadn't noticed it- can't believe you didn't either. But the villages they live in are such different ones, I am not surprised.

  21. Rayna - That's just it; the two do live in different villages (although geographically, it's the same village. No need to feel silly, because then, I would have to feel the same way, and that would never do ;-).

  22. Setting can add so much to a novel and it's an aspect I'm trying to focus on. You're so right, Margot, that different characters experience their settings in their own way. This is the one advantage of writing from different POVs as I do; the reader is given many perspectives of the same place. Well, that's the theory, anyway.

  23. Elspeth - Thank you for tying together point of view and setting! You are absolutely right that they are related. I think of how two characters, say, from two different social classes, might look at the same place. You know, Upstairs, Downstairs. There are lots of other examples, of course, besides that, and I think they all support exactly the point you're making.