About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Are Rural Mystery Series more Unique than Urban Mysteries?

My thought for this post was inspired by a post, Calling Out Around the World, of Margot Kinberg at her excellent blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. She wrote about how crime fiction can be used to teach students about the culture of lands and peoples. As an example she drew on the Donna Leon’s series and Andrea Camilleri’s series, both from Italy, which demonstrate how Italian people approach food and dining.
I posted a comment which referred to three series which I consider so closely connected with their location that they could not have been set anywhere else in the world. They are:

1.) The Nathan Active mysteries of Stan Jones set on the northwest coast of Alaska;

2.) The Walt Longmire series of Craig Johnson set in Wyoming; and,

3.) The Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte mysteries of Arthur Upfield set in Australia.

A common element of each series is that it takes place in a rural area.

It has led me to think that it is more common, easier seems inappropriate, for a mystery series to be a full part of its setting if it takes place outside a big city.

Each of the above series has a physical location that is very much a part of each series. Nathan Active is stationed in a village where life is still dependent on the resources of the land of that region. Walt Longmire is sheriff of a rugged county on the edge of the mountains. Bony goes to different communities and locations far from urban Australia with the countryside being an important part of each book.

Each of the books draws heavily of the lives of the people who live at those locations for the mysteries.

For comparison I have picked three examples of prominent sleuths whose mysteries are set in big cities:

1.) The Sherlock Holmes mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle;

            2.) The Nero Wolfe mysteries of Rex Stout; and,

            3.) The Harry Bosch novels of Michael Connelly.

Sherlock Holmes is automatically identified with London. Undoubtedly the mysteries draw on London locations and London residents but I suggest Doyle could have placed Holmes in Oxford or Edinburgh and the mysteries would have been equally effective in the different cities.

Nero Wolfe is always remembered for residing in his Brownstone on West 35th Street in New York City. The persons who came to see him were representative New Yorkers but I think he could just as well have resided in a home in Chicago or St. Louis and had the same people coming to his home to resolve mysteries.

Harry Bosch lives in a house perched over a Los Angeles canyon and has spent the last 20 years of his fictional life, but for a brief retirement, working for the LAPD. As I think about the series I believe he could live on the hills of San Francisco and be a member of the SFPD and solve the same crimes.

I think big cities as bigger communities make it harder for a series to be as close to the community unless it is placed within a group or area of the big city.


  1. Bill - First, thank you for the kind remarks. That means an awful lot to me. You make a really well-taken point in this post, too. Cities, if you think about it, are groups of small communities. So within one small part of a city (I'm thinking of Kerry Greenwood's Corinna Chapman series for instance, which takes place in Melbourne)one can have a series that is closely linked to its setting. But in other series (for instance P.D. James' Adam Dalgliesh series which takes place in London) there is often less of a connection. That said though, I think there are certain series (e.g. Tarquin Hall's Vish Puri series that takes place in Delhi) that are unmistakeably linked with their communities. As you say, it isn't nearly as easy as with a smaller community and it takes a very deft hand. You've given us a lot to think about, Bill, for which thanks.

  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I was sure you would have good insights into the proposition. Your examples are terrific illustrations of big city communities. Until I spent quite of time in Toronto in the mid-1990's I had not appreciated the neighbourhoods around downtown.

  3. A thought-provoking post, Bill. I wonder if the rural/urban distinction is something that is also dependent on whether one is reading a book set in an area one knows nothing about? For example, more Swedish novels I read are set in towns, and I find them extremely good accounts of communities in those towns. There are also rural Swedish books too, of course, equally convincing about a sense of place. I've never been to Sweden so perhaps these accounts are equally vivid to me?

    In the UK, we have a thriving crime fiction landscape, with novels set in most of our main towns and country areas. I have to say on thinking about it that I find some of the urban ones just as telling (location wise) as the rural ones - a good author conveys a setting well wherever that setting is.

    Quite a few of the urban UK novels, for example, use a London location, but set their books in the London micro-environment ---- and convey much about attitudes of one part of London to another which in reality is entrenched among Londoners and always has been, eg the nuances of property values, where is the best "villages", north/south of river, etc.

    Some UK authors do both - urban and rural - and do it well. Val McDermid is an obvious example. Martin Edwards writes a series set in the Lake District (rural) and another about a lawyer set in Liverpool (urban) - and the setting is integral to the books in each case.

    Of course there are always generic settings that don't have a strong location element, and equally there are books where the location overpowers the narrative. I guess I am going to end by writing that it is very hard to generalise! I do know that visiting California a couple of years ago was significantly enhanced by, eg, thinking of Harry Bosch books while in LA (the street names and locations such as Echo Park, so exciting!) and of Sue Grafton while in Santa Barbara.

  4. Maxine: Thanks for the comment. It was interesting to hear your perspective, especially on UK crime fiction. Is a micro environment different from a neighbourhood? I think for a series to be closely connected to place there needs to be a closed or clearly defined community in which it is located.

  5. Maxine: Thanks for the comment. Maybe you could do a post on whether they are different.