Saturday, January 8, 2011

Come Fly With Me*

In real life and in crime fiction, a murder can take place just about anywhere. Small towns, big cities, vacation paradises, "regular" middle class streets, all have been the scenes of murders. Some settings, though, just seem to lend themselves to a mystery novel because they're exotic and somewhat mysterious. In fact, readers are sometimes drawn to books because of their exotic or mysterious settings.

For many people, it doesn't get much more exotic and mysterious than Egypt. Ancient ruins, a rich history, all sorts of rumours about curses, a very different culture…. those factors can make for a fascinating setting for a mystery. We get a sense of that in Agatha Christie's short story The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, which appears in her collection Poirot Investigates. In that story, noted archaeologist Sir John Willard dies suddenly after he's discovered and excavated a supposedly-cursed ancient tomb. Then, two more people associated with the expedition. Neither of those deaths by itself might cause much notice, but Willard's widow is worried that the deaths are related, and that the curse might be real. So she asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Egypt and look into the matter. When they do, they find that someone has been using the curse as a "cover" for the real motive behind the deaths.

Christie also uses Egypt as the setting for Death on the Nile, which tells the story of the shooting murder of beautiful, wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. She and her brand-new husband Simon Doyle are taking a honeymoon cruise up the Nile when she's shot. Poirot is on the same cruise, as is Colonel Race, one of Christie's recurring characters. Together, they investigate the case. At first, it seems as though Linnet's former best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort is the killer. However, it's soon proven that she couldn't have committed the crime, so the two sleuths have to look elsewhere. In the end, Poirot discovers who really killed Linnet and why. Throughout the novel, Christie gives readers a sense of the mystery and the exotic appeal of Egypt. For instance, at one point in the novel, the cruise ship stops at the temple of Abu Simbel:

"The steamer was moored to the bank and a few hundred yards away, the morning sun just striking it, was a great temple carved out of the face of the rock. Four colossal figures, hewn out of the cliff, look out eternally over the Nile and face the rising sun."

Christie set other stories in the Middle East, too, and those stories also capture that exotic setting.

Another setting that many people find exotic and mysterious is Laos, where Colin Cotterill's novels featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun take place. Laos has a very old culture and a unique sense of spirituality and mysticism. Both contribute greatly to this series. Dr. Siri is Laos' chief medical examiner during a time (the 1970's) when the traditional culture of Laos clashed with the new order of military rule. So in these novels, we see a great deal of the exotic appeal of this setting.

For a lot of people, the Australian Outback's also considered an exotic, mysterious setting. The 40,000-year-old Aboriginal cultures have exotic appeal, and the setting itself is rugged and parts of it quite remote. "The Outback" is a sort of catch-all term for several places in Australia and there are differences among them. But in general, when people who don't live there think of "The Outback," they often conjure up images of wild territory, unusual animals and a fascinating set of cultures that have developed there. Those images are part of the appeal of series such as Adrian Hyland's Emily Tempest novels. Emily Tempest is an interesting sleuth, half Aborigine/half White, who feels the pull of both of her cultures. Hyland shares the rough beauty of the land as well as the fascinating Aboriginal culture to which Tempest belongs.

South Africa is another location that many people find exotic. I can see why, too. I had the opportunity to visit South Africa once, and had an unforgettable trip. The land itself is unique and (this is just my opinion) beautiful. The 'photo you see is a tiny example; it was taken at the Pilanesberg Game Preserve, about two hours from Johannesburg (and yes, that's an elephant in the middle of the foreground). But quite a lot of the land is also wild; it's easy to imagine a murder or murders taking place there. There are a wide variety of cultures, too in South Africa, and that variety adds to the appeal of novels that take place there. Perhaps that's part of the reason for the popularity of work such as Deon Meyer's and Jassie Mackenzie's. These authors share with us, in very different ways, the beauty, the danger and the appeal of that part of the world.

Another setting that's often thought of as exotic is India. Of course, there isn't one "Indian" setting because the country's large and extremely varied. But for crime fiction fans who don't live in India, part of the appeal of novels that take place there is the very fact that the settings are quite different from what readers are accustomed to experiencing. That's one reason why H.R.F Keating's Inspector Ghote series (which is set mostly in Mumbai) and Tarquin Hall's Vish Puri novels (set in Delhi) have attracted fans. It also may be why authors such as Robin Cook have set some of the action in their novels in India.

There's exotic appeal, too, in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana. That's part of the reason, perhaps, that James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels have such appeal. For instance, in
A Morning For Flamingos, Robicheaux is tracking down the man who shot and killed his partner Lester Benoit. As Robicheaux searches for the Benoit's killer, Burke shares the Cajun and Creole cultures and spiritual beliefs of the area, as well as the striking scenery and the language. Readers get a strong sense of the unique flavour of that part of Louisiana.

And then there are settings like Las Vegas. Las Vegas isn't exotic in the same way that places with more history and culture are, but the tourist part of the area is flashy and dramatic, and with its history, the gambling and the rugged setting around the city, readers can easily imagine a crime would take place there. It's little wonder that novels such as Faye Kellerman's
Moon Music and two of Michael Connelly's novels, part of Trunk Music and all of Void Moon, take place there. There are other novels, too, of course, that are set in that city.

Of course, the thing about "exotic" is that it's different for everyone. People who live in an area probably don't consider it exotic and mysterious, even though others do. What about you? Which places "count" as exotic for you? Which novels have you read because they took place in an exotic setting?

: The title of this post is the title of a Frank Sinatra song.


  1. Place matters to me a great deal - I found on trips to England and Ireland that I was seeing the landscape through the filter of the books I'd first encountered them in. In my own books - I like to use the travels I've made to make a rich environment. The beauty of making it your home is pretty strong too. My first mystery is set in Peggy's Cove, one of the unique spots in the world - the second in Annapolis Royal within the historic gardens and the star fort. Such fun to make it happen near home so that people who travel here can exclaim - 'oh I know that place!'

  2. Jan - I think most of us do as you do; when we travel to a place, we see it through the lenses of the books we've read. I know I did that when I was in South Africa (at least at first) and in other places I've been, too.

    And I agree about sharing your own home, too. One of the joys of writing is showing readers the true beauty of where the writer lives. I've done that myself, actually, and it's a lot of fun. It's like welcoming guests into one's home.

  3. I enjoy Alexander McCall Smith's Mma Ramotswe books set in Botswana. I also enjoyed Inspector Wexford's visit to China in The Speaker of Mandarin, although that was not Rendell's best book. It was just interesting to see Wexford outside of Kingsmarkham.

    My favorite setting involves a combination of an exotic place and an exotic time - Shrewsbury in the early Middle Ages in the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.

  4. Book Mole - Oh, I'm a big fan of McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, too! I'm very glad you brought that up, because I'd meant to mention it and space got away from me, you might say.

    And you bring up another interesting kind of novel: the kind where a sleuth from one setting travels to an exotic one: like Wexford in Speaker of Mandarin and Harry Bosch in 9 Dragons. That's an interesting premise, too.

    And I'm also happy that you mentioned Ellis Peters' Cadfael novels, because I like them, too :-).

  5. I think you hit on it when you said we probably don't find where we live exotic. When an author can take a location and give it a bit of mystery and intrigue, it takes on a new look to us. That's one thing that keeps me going back to authors. When they can transport me to the place in their book, now that's exotic to me.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - You put that quite well. Readers want to be transported to the place and time that the author's describing. That's what's so appealing about places we think are exotic. And yes, I like it, too, when the author makes his or her own "home place" exotic :-).

  7. I know it's not exotic but I love the English moorlands. It's a place for me that provides a wonderfully eerie/suspenseful feeling without anything happening. I do have to agree with you about India and the middle east, I love Kiplings tales. The smells, the bustle, the sights all add that little extra.

  8. Clarissa - Any place can be exotic, really, and I agree that the moorlands is a wonderful setting for a good mystery. I love the atmosphere of well-written novels placed there :-).

  9. I second Jan- when I visited London, I was looking at it through the filter of all the stories I read.
    Each of them is a great answer. And I personally like books set in India, as long as the setting is realistic. Bombay is a GREAT setting for crime fiction- unfortunately, there is so little of it set in this city.

  10. Rayna - I did the same thing the first time that I visited London; I saw it through the lens of what I had read. It turned to be in some ways just what I'd expected and in many ways quite, quite different.

    And I would absolutely love to set a story in Mumbai; I don't know the city or its culture well enough to do that, but from what I've read, it really would be a wonderful place for a good mystery...