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.)