The rise of the regional American mystery novel
Feb 5, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 20 • By JON L. BREEN
Detective fiction was born in Paris, where Edgar Allan Poe set "The Purloined Letter" and his other tales of C. Auguste Dupin. And it was reared in London, where Arthur Conan Doyle placed his adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
These pioneers influenced their successors not only in narrative conventions and structural techniques but also in the use of urban backdrops. There were notable exceptions (Melville Davisson Post placed his Uncle Abner tales in rural nineteenth-century Virginia), but for most practitioners, fictional detection remained a city game -- and a very small set of cities, at that. For decades, the vast majority of American mystery novels were set in New York or Los Angeles. Occasionally Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, or Miami might make an appearance, but Indianapolis, Seattle, and Cleveland were -out of luck.
Even the few cities that did appear proved interchangeable: The corpse in the library could be found in the wealthy enclaves of any metropolis; the body in the back alley could be found just off the poor streets of any city. The New York of S. S. Van Dine and the early Ellery Queen lacked much local detail. The characters in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930), though surrounded by creeping fog and San Francisco street names, could have played out their quest for the Black Bird anywhere -- as proved by the number of mysteries given purely fictitious locales: When Ed McBain, for example, created the 87th Precinct for his series of novels that began in 1956, he set them in a New York-ish city called "Isola," so he wouldn't have to keep track of every change in Manhattan police procedure.
Few writers today would choose a similar route. Lilian Jackson Braun is an exception: Pickax, the central city in her cat mysteries, is "anywhere you want it to be." But most mystery stories nowadays let you know on the first page exactly where they're set -- and never let up. The current mystery scene might almost be defined as local detail run wild. You want Akron? We got Akron. We got Albany, Albuquerque, Amarillo, Anchorage, Annapolis, Atlanta, and Augusta. Something interesting has happened to American mystery fiction.
The increase in regional detail came gradually. With The Big Sleep in 1939, Raymond Chandler gave a vivid portrait, both admiring and jaded, of Los Angeles. The mature Ellery Queen brought a terrorized New York to life in the serial-killer classic Cat of Many Tails (1949). A. B. Cunningham's Sheriff Jess Roden series, published throughout the 1940s, was firmly set in rural Kentucky, while Phoebe Atwood Taylor made distinctive use of her Cape Cod background in the series of 1930s and 1940s novels about Asey Mayo. Dorothy Salisbury Davis's The Clay Hand (1950) memorably depicted the West Virginia coal-mining country.
Introducing a 1963 reprint of the Davis novel, the New York Times's influential mystery critic Anthony Boucher expressed a desire for "more regionalism in the American suspense novel." He got his wish, in spades -- among other things, by inspiring Marvin Lachman to undertake the research that has now finally been issued in a classic study, The American Regional Mystery. The book is a tour of the United States via its crime fiction, beginning with New England and moving westward. In its 542 pages, every state is represented, with additional entries on Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. Unsurprisingly, New York and California have the largest number of entries, while Delaware and North Dakota have the smallest.
For the most part Lachman sticks to fictional crime, though there are often references to real-life murder cases and occasional references to true-crime books, such as Edward D. Radin's Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story (1961), set in Fall River, Massachusetts. Though names like Joyce Carol Oates and Shelby Foote turn up in the index, Lachman confines himself primarily to the mainstream mystery. (The chapter on Maine, for instance, has no reference to horror specialist Stephen King, most of whose works are at least borderline crime fiction.)
Few commentators have the breadth of knowledge, soundness of judgment, and writing talent of Lachman. In large crime-fiction reference books, I can usually find a multitude of errors, but Lachman's are frustratingly rare. (The best I could do is the niggling error that actor George Sanders was the detective in only one of the two ghost-written novels published under his name, and I'm pretty sure Lachman's claim, also made by Stuart M. Kaminsky, that Los Angeles's smog was a common butt of radio jokes in 1940 is almost a decade too early.)
It's easy for a traditionalist to be cynical about the current regionalist explosion. At a time when detective-story writers seem to outnumber readers, newcomers need to find a niche -- and, far too often, it's a previously untapped geographical background. Then, too, with major publishing conglomerates favoring potential bestsellers over midlist titles, longer and longer books are being demanded. You have to fill all those extra pages with something. Unnecessary characters, repetition of plot points, irrelevant personal details, and columns of sentence-fragment dialogue can only get you so far. So why not throw in some regionalism and local color?
Indeed, "local color" proves a better description than "regionalism." The Oxford Companion to American Literature defines local color as emphasizing "customs, dialect, costumes, landscape, or other peculiarities that have escaped standardizing cultural influences." Regionalism "differs from local color in that it lays less stress upon quaint oddities of dialect, mannerism, and custom and more on basic philosophical or sociological distinctions."
If, as this definition implies, local color is incidental and regionalism organic, then most of the titles discussed by Lachman are examples of local color rather than regionalism. The great era of local color and regionalism in American fiction was at its peak in the years after the Civil War, dominated by such writers as Bret Harte, Kate Chopin, Joel Chandler Harris, Hamlin Garland, and Sarah Orne Jewett. Regional differences in America have been in decline ever since.
Tony Hillerman's novels of Navajo tribal police are closely involved with the unique beliefs of their characters and thus could take place nowhere else. The Salt Lake City mysteries of Robert Irvine take their particularity from the pervasive influence of the Mormon Church on Utah life. But -- despite their riot of superficial local color -- most contemporary big-city thrillers could be transplanted to any other big city, just as most small-town whodunits could pack up and move to any other small town, with only minor changes.
So which of these thousands of local mysteries should we bother with? Lachman's comments for the most part are descriptive rather than critical: If you live in Wisconsin and want to find a list of books set nearby, The American Regional Mystery is the place to go. But Lachman includes enough expressed or implied criticism to give some zest to the enterprise.
Phyllis A. Whitney, still active in her late nineties, is perhaps the most conscientious and certainly the widest ranging American mystery regionalist. Lachman repeatedly praises her impeccable research into such locales as Palm Springs (Emerald), Monterey (The Flaming Tree), East Hampton (The Golden Unicorn), Palm Beach (Poinciana), the Blue Ridge Mountains (Rainbow in the Mist), Hawaii (Silversword), Newport (Spindrift), San Francisco (The Trembling Hills), and Sedona, Arizona (Vermilion).
Lachman's book may revive interest in such once-famous writers as the often devalued old-timer Leslie Ford, whose variety of locales may be second only to Whitney's. Ford's racial attitudes don't always please Lachman, but she provided solid regional detail of Washington (The Murder of a Fifth Columnist), rural Tennessee (Burn Forever), the Chesapeake Bay (Ill met by Moonlight), Baltimore (The Girl from the Mimosa Club), Hawaii (Honolulu Story), Mississippi (Murder with Southern Hospitality), Philadelphia (The Philadelphia Murder Story), Reno (Reno Rendezvous), and Yellowstone (Old Lover's Ghost).
Two other rediscoveries winning Lachman's praise are Doris Miles Disney's tales of Connecticut and Juanita Sheridan's account of Hawaii. Among the contemporaries Lachman most values are Archer Mayor (Vermont), John Dunning (the Amish country in Pennsylvania), Bill Crider (Texas), Margaret Maron (North Carolina), the late Robert Campbell (Chicago), and Carl Hiaasen (Florida). These, of course, are expected recommendations. The greatest benefit of Lachman's work may be the relatively obscure writers he commends, such as Richard Hilary, whose series about an African-American private eye in Newark is proclaimed as good as Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series. Margaret Page Hood is credited with "the first good contemporary series about Maine," John Billheimer's The Contrary Blues is "West Virginia's best mystery," and Thomas Lipinski's private eye series "may prove to be the best of all about Pittsburgh."
To purists, the short story is the natural vehicle for fictional detection; indeed the first great writer of American regional mysteries, Melville Davisson Post, almost invariably wrote in that form. Lachman values the mystery short story more than most commentators, and he recommends a group of writers from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine who are unlikely to be familiar to most readers: David K. Harford on the Allegheny National Forest; William T. Lowe on the Mohawk reservation that borders Quebec; Marianne Strong on the Pennsylvania coal country; and Kenneth Gavrell on Puerto Rico.
Lachman's negative comments are less frequent. A longtime resident of the Bronx, he is most critical of mysteries set in his former home. Bob Reiss and Jerome Charyn are charged with exaggerating the borough's unattractive aspects, while Richard Fliegel is faulted for lack of regional detail. (Lachman prefers the Bronx mysteries of S. J. Rozan and Tom Philbin.) Richard Parrish, author of a series set in mid-century Arizona Indian country, is accused of anachronism. Richard Ellington is reproached for racist attitudes toward Puerto Ricans in a 1950 novel, and Ellito Paul for stereotyped Indians in the 1940s. The authors of more recent books, Stephen Wright and Tom Tolnay, are both charged with questionable taste in their use of real-life Hollywood celebrities in fiction.
One of the most negative assessments in the book is reserved for Caleb Carr's 1994 bestseller about Theodore Roosevelt and New York in the 1890s, The Alienist, in which "unnecessary history lessons" and anachronisms "pad the novel to 597 pages."
The complaint reflects the final cautionary note of Lachman's introduction: "By the 1990s, settings were sometimes described in such great detail as to become intrusive and were poor substitutes for strong plotting and story telling. There is a danger that if detective fiction continues to emphasize lengthy description and depressingly serious subject matter, readers who originally chose the genre for intelligent escape may desert it."
Still, even the traditionalist will admit a well-realized geographical setting can add entertainment value to a mystery novel. It can also educate and enlighten. The most respected of contemporary American regionalists, Tony Hillerman, whose books have been used as school texts on the Navajo country, achieved this stature without padding his books with irrelevant information and without retreating from the features that make detective fiction a unique genre. Writers of regional mysteries could not find a better model.
The winner of two Edgar awards, Jon L. Breen is the author of six mystery novels and writes the "Jury Box" column in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.