Urban and Regional Mysteries: Not so Guilty Pleasures

Ann Forsyth's picture

With vacations upon us many students have been asking me what they should read over the winter break. Certainly it is possible to catch up with planning classics and thought-provoking books and several earlier blogs have highlighted these options. However,for those wanting to escape and learn something as well, a number of mystery authors write books that both investigate crimes and evoke a sense of place. The following list highlights just some of this range-there are hundreds more of course (and if you scroll for the bottom you will find links to other lists). It is focused on those that really engage with the place rather thanseeing it as merely a setting for a crime.

Contemporary Settings

CaraBlack's detectives, the rather too beautiful Aimée Leduc aided by her (partner stature-challenged René Friant), specialize in computer crime but find themselves in many tight spots in urban settings. Each novel is set in adifferent part of Paris and provides a strong account of specific social groups and physical features.I'm not typically a fan of series with heroines who can run in high heels but Aimée's and René's computer savvy and the rich descriptions of Paris make these worth reading.

Sara Parestsky's V.I. Warshawski novels and Eleanor Taylor Bland's Marty MacAlister series are both set in the Chicago area with appealing heroines. In addition, by reading both one can experience African American and white experiences of this city. Parestsky focuses generally on the central city area and unlike many mystery writers who run out of steam, her novels seem to get better with each addition to the series. Taylor Bland's main character is a widowed, single-parent police officer working in the suburbs and is a well plotted series. Both use the metropolis as an important frame for the action.

Qui Xialong's Inspector Chen Cao focuses on political maneuvering and corruption in Shanghai in the 1990s. The pace of the novels is slower than some but this means that the reader gains insight into the local social and urban scene.  S.J.Rozan is by training an architect. Her two sleuths Lydia Chin and Bill Smith work typically in New York but also in Asia. Rozan's training is not always at the forefront but they are well crafted even when more narrowly focused on the crime rather than the location. Former architecture professor Barry Maitland's series with David Brock and Kathy Kolla has similar subtle descriptions of London.

HistoricalMystery Novels

Of course Britain is a center for crime novels-from medieval mysteries to police procedurals. Ann Perry's two main nineteenth century series-one featuring Charlotte and Thomas Pitt and the other William Monk and Hester Latterly-both range across a variety of locations and social classes, typically in London. Latterly, however, has worked in the Crimea and the novels generally engage with social and political concerns of their time.

Surprisingly engaging are Larry Millet's novels based on the premise that the parts of Sherlock Holmes' life not covered by Conan Doyle's stories were largely carried out in Minnesota. The series, by a journalist from the Twin Cities, is particularly strong in describing 19th century Midwestern life, Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods, and the Minnesota landscape.

There are of course many more examples of historical novels with an urban or regional emphasis including those dealing with governmental processes. For example, Simon Levak sets his series in Aztec Mexico with the sleuth Yaotlworking for Montezuma's bureaucracy. It contains very detailed descriptions oflife in Aztec cities--from infrastructure to religion.

PeriodMystery Novels

Of course many earlier mystery novels-those written in the late nineteenth and earlier to middle part of the twentieth centuries-not only evoke urban and regional landscapes of a particular period but were part of that period. Obvious examples include Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles-based mysteries of the mid-20th century. However the range of such novels is far wider. Maj Sjöwalland Per Wahlöö, evoke Sweden in the 1960s and 1970s with detaileddescriptions of urban life in a social democracy featuring police officer Martin Beck. A series of novels from the 1920s through the 1960s, Arthur Upfield's Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series, features an engaging sleuth with mixed aboriginal and white parentage and with skills that would top those of Sherlock Holmes. The character is a police officer based in Queensland who manages to be assigned to cases in almost every part of mid-20thcentury Australia. Upfield spent substantial time living and working in rural and outback Australia. It'san Australia that no longer exists but is richly described.

For More Information

Of course there are many other urban and regional mysteries. For an interesting list of other books, see the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association list of 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th century: http://home.comcast.net/~dwtaylor1/booksellers.html. I have read many but the surprise star of this list for me as Nancy Atherton's Aunt Dimity's Death. Another useful compilation of lists by a variety of groups is at http://www.sldirectory.com/libsf/booksf/mystery/topic.html and is classified by numerous dimensions. It includes extensive lists for the U.S. by city and region and for the rest of the world by country. One link is to a list of urban mystery writers compiled by NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=13795507

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.


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