By Margaret Lucke
Mystery editors love it when authors write regional.
Some years ago I had the opportunity to interview a dozen editors of major mystery lines for an article I was writing for the newsletter of the Northern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
One of the questions I asked them was: "What do you look for in a manuscript? What excites you enough to make you say, 'Yes! I want to buy this book.' "
The answers were consistent across the board. Almost everyone that one thing that really grabbed them was a strong sense of place, a vividly depicted regional setting.
I thought, Seriously? Don't these people ever travel?
New Yorkers have a reputation for taking a myopic view of the rest of the country, probably the rest of the world. You may remember the famous New Yorker cover by Saul Steinberg, "The View of the World from 9th Avenue," in which two blocks of Manhattan, filled with buildings, people, and cars, occupy two-thirds of the space. Beyond them, the rest of the country is narrow, dull, and flat, except for a few upthrust rocks. China, Russia, and Japan are skinny white lines on the far side a Pacific Ocean that is barely wider than the Hudson River.
On second thought, I could see why the editors might appreciate mystery novels set in other locales for them a chance to gain some valuable perspective.
Because, really, isn’t that what they offer to all of us? A book with a well-depicted setting lets us walk the streets, be they mean or otherwise, in the characters' shoes. We see the sights they see, breathe the same air, and understand the world they inhabit just a bit better.
I realized that I'm with the editors--one of the great pleasures of reading mysteries, or any fiction, is the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a world that is new and fresh to us because it’s different from our own. When the setting is a place we’re familiar with, we get to see it from a new angle--mysteries set in San Francisco, close to where I live, have shown me aspects of the city I'd never have discovered on my own.
Thanks to mysteries, I've visited Arizona (J.A. Jance and Betty Webb), Baltimore (Laura Lippman), Boston (Robert B. Parker), Boulder, Colorado (Stephen White), Kansas (Nancy Pickard), London (Deborah Crombie), Luxembourg (Chris Pavone), New York (Lawrence Block), Quebec (Louise Penny), San Francisco (Susan Shea and John Lescroart), Santa Barbara aka Santa Teresa (Sue Grafton), the Shetland islands (Ann Cleeves), Singapore (Nury Vittachi), Tennessee (Sharyn McCrumb), Texas (Terry Shames and Lee Child), and Yorkshire (Peter Robinson). And that's just in the past year.
I won't claim that reading a mystery about a place is being than being there for real. But the cost of a book is more reasonable than a hotel and plane fare, and you can cover a lot more ground more quickly. Armchair travel has its merits.
Those editors were on to something.