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