J. Sydney Jones, author of a historical mystery series set in Vienna that has raked in enough starred reviews to create his own constellation, has recently started a blog devoted to the role that a sense of place plays in mysteries. So far he has interviewed Leighton Gage about Brazil, Matt Rees and his take on Palestine, Rebecca Cantrell on Berlin, Vicki Delany and her series set in British Columbia, Philip Kerr and his Bernie Gunther series set in Berlin (what a hotbed of intrigue), Cara Black’s Paris …
And now me. Me and my obsession with Chicago.
Like so many readers, I am an armchair traveler (and may be so forever – the thought of having to endure an overseas flight without a book in my hands for the final hour is too horrible to contemplate). I teach a first term seminar on international crime fiction and love discovering places and cultures with students who have no idea where Laos is on the map (but either know or are themselves Hmong people living in Minnesota) and have never encountered Aboriginal Australian communities (who face challenges that are not unlike those of Ojibwe and Dakota peoples living in our state). Reading helps me map the world and its peoples and gives me a sense of where I stand. A good sense of place is important to me as a reader.
Recently Laura Miller at Salon decided to stir the pot a bit by responding to writers rules (inspired by Elmore Leonard’s famous rules that include sage advice like “leave out the parts people skip”) with her reader’s rules for writers. She says bluntly “The components of a novel that readers care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, atmosphere/setting.” I agree about the elements, but I don’t think I would put them in that order or consider any of them optional. It’s sort of like saying “The components of a curry that are important are curry, x, y, and z; if you can’t manage them all, just heat up some curry powder because that’s essential.” Yeah, but . . . She also says (and it’s probably accurate) that the quality of the writing is not important for many readers. James Patterson’s success is ample evidence of that. But I can’t read a book that grates on my nerves with clunky writing. Nor can I make it through a novel that is all sparkling prose but no story, no characters, no setting.
The comments on her essay are predictable: littrature is all boring rubbish; only philistines read popular fiction, which is all formulaic rubbish. A pox on both their houses. Just give me a well-written story with characters I care about doing something that matters in a world that feels real and I’ll keep turning the pages.