The rise of the regional American mystery novel
Feb 5, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 20 • By JON L. BREEN
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."