Detective novel as geography lesson

Many people class detective novels as trashy, throwaway fiction; ok for passing the time in hospital or on a long journey, but adding nothing to the reader’s life or intellectual development. I won’t get into an argument here about doing the Times crossword vs solving fictional crime before the end of the book, and I won’t try and persuade anyone of the elegance of prose in, say, a Ross Macdonald or Stephen Dobyns novel. However, I will try and show how culturally enlightening it can be to have wide-ranging tastes in crime fiction.

Proust and a handful of nineteenth-century Russians aside, in my family the most-read works in translation are undoubtedly detective novels. From Simenon’s Maigret to Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano via Henning Mankell, my dad and I have travelled the world on the back of a crime novelist’s pen. OneMonkey’s dad has been watching French, Swedish, and Danish crime series on TV recently, now dismissing the British adaptation of Wallander as second-rate, and barely stomaching the first episode of an American remake of one of the other Scandinavian series. Would he even be tempted by a subtitled European sitcom? Unlikely.

Crime fiction more than any other genre seems to be rooted in a sense of place, more often than not a real place. Read enough of them and you too can walk the streets of 1990s LA with Robert Crais or 1930s San Francisco with Dashiell Hammett, the deserted canyons of 1940s California with Raymond Chandler or the backstreets of Paris with Georges Simenon. While the settings are often fictionalised versions of a real town, or even a fictional town placed within a real area, some writers do use real locations quite faithfully, which is where the modern miracle of Google maps comes in.

Noting that Saratoga Springs was a real place while reading a Charlie Bradshaw book by Stephen Dobyns, I looked it up on a map. That gave me a sense of where it was, and how far from Albany and other locations sometimes mentioned in the books, and is as far as I would have been able to go in the past. Enter Google and its street views. I can walk down the main street following Charlie from the pool to his mother’s hotel, or see the race track entrance as Victor sees it. I can immerse myself in the town and its make-up. Of course I’m not expecting all the streets that Dobyns mentions to be real, I’m not even expecting him not to take liberties and make the town hall visible from a street where actually all you’d see is the looming library. However, that extra element, beyond his descriptions, of seeing the width of the streets, the trees, the age and style of buildings, the jostling of old and new – it’s certainly more entertaining than any Geography lesson I had at school. I don’t think I’d use a detective novel as a guide book to a foreign city, but they can open up an easy doorway to a different world.

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