Taking Us There

Many of my own happy memories of Ed Hoch resurfaced with Doug Greene’s post about the much-missed author on this blog last week. Ed and I spoke almost every week over the seventeen years we worked together as writer and editor, and it was an eagerly anticipated event when Ed and his wife Pat (another dear friend) would drive down from their home in Rochester for a weekend of walks, shopping, food, and conversation. That’s a long way of saying that I knew and treasured Ed the person as well as I knew and treasured Ed the writer. But curiously, I think Ed’s fiction gave me at least as much insight into his personality as the times we all spent together. There were things about Ed you’d just never guess if you’d met him but not read his fiction—things that seemed almost a contradiction if you had. One of those apparent contradictions relates to his fictional settings—and that, in turn, connects to a topic that has interested me for a long time: writers and their use of land- and cityscapes.

Ed Hoch’s ability to devise one clever and convincing puzzle plot after another became so legendary over the course of his career that it overshadowed, I think, another extraordinary, and to me equally remarkable, talent. Ed had eleven different series running in EQMM at the time of his death. Of those, seven regularly employed settings that were foreign, exotic, or historical: the Michael Vlado stories were set in a gypsy stronghold in Romania; the Rand spy cases in places like Egypt and Pakistan; the Susan Holt stories in Japan and other business destinations; the Stanton and Ives tales anywhere in the world a courier might go; the Ben Snow Westerns throughout the American Southwest; the Alexander Swift historicals in Revolutionary War New York and Philadelphia; and the Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories in early twentieth-century New England.

Ed’s readers, as we know from correspondence received over the years, assumed he was a traveler. He was anything but. Ed rarely ventured out of New York State unless it was to go to a mystery convention in the U.S. or Toronto. He did tour England and Ireland, but never set foot in a non-English-speaking country. In his life, Ed was the quintessential creature of habit, happy with the routines (especially foods) he was familiar with, unlikely to seek the unusual. But in his fiction, another side of his personality emerged. Those exotic settings weren’t painted in as paper backdrops for his plots; you felt you were there—and you would always enjoy the trip. I won’t say that Ed’s settings were “evocative” in the sense in which that term is most often applied to fiction (I’ll get to that later), but they were entirely believable. And how he managed that with no personal experience of the places he visited remains, for me, a mystery. It would be easier to understand if he’d concentrated on a particular foreign or historical setting, as H.R.F. Keating did with his series set in India or Barbara Nadel in her books set in Turkey: Over time, it might be expected that the research and writing would coalesce into a solid sense of place. For Ed, a new unknown location found its way into his fiction every few months. The only stories he wrote set consistently on his most familiar ground were the Captain Leopold procedurals, based in a city modeled on Rochester, and although it was a story from that series for which he won the Edgar Allan Poe Award, I personally do not count the Leopold series with my favorites, precisely because I never found its setting as well developed as those employed in his foreign or historical stories.

In the work of a fiction writer you catch glimpses of the person behind the work that would never be granted to you in any other way; in Ed’s stories I see someone who had a secret sense of adventure, even if he visited his many destinations only through research and the power of his own imagination. I suppose some will see Ed’s interest in exotic locations as fueled by the need to come up with new and unusual elements for the whodunit plots he had to construct every month for his EQMM stories. I think that was probably part of it, but I doubt that he could have conveyed his locations so convincingly if he didn’t have a genuine sense of the romance of the distant and unfamiliar.

The role of place in fiction, however, often goes beyond providing a realistic and believable backdrop for the story; landscapes and cityscapes can also have a strong emotional impact on the reader, and I think that’s what’s usually meant when an author’s settings are described as evocative. I’m drawn to stories that have this dimension and interested in what it is about physical settings that can move us in the context of a story. In a 2007 interview for Arch Literary Journal, Joyce Carol Oates said: “I find landscape to have a spiritual, or psychological, or emotional value in the text, and that becomes like a character. . . . My apprehension of, say, the city of Detroit, would probably not be somebody else’s . . . a landscape or a cityscape is basically an entity that has no animation in itself . . . we’re bringing to it . . . projecting onto it. . . . I get very excited when I read a text that evokes a place, because to me, it has, as I say, this kind of shimmering spiritual value. It’s not just inert and dead . . . .”

When I think of the stories I’ve read whose evocation of place has struck me profoundly, most of them do seem to involve the projection of something personal onto the landscape—not in the sense that one could say, I see this, that, or the other about the author in the way this place is depicted, but in the reader’s experiencing a reaction to the landscape, through the work, that must ultimately come from the author’s very subjective experience of it. It’s not coincidental, I think, that the authors whose landscapes have affected me most write of their home places; places where they grew up, often; places, as Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the 2010 Smithsonian article “Going Home Again,” “where you find yourself in your most haunting dreams. . . . the dreams most embedded in memory, thus encoded deep in the brain: the first memories to be retained and the last memories to be surrendered.”

If any proof were needed of the power of landscape in fiction, one could point, I think, to Joyce Carol Oates’s own work; her novel The Falls and her EQMM stories “Happiness” and “Honor Code” come to mind, all set near her native Lockport, New York.

In mystery fiction, no name is more closely associated for me with evocative settings than Doug Allyn, nine-time winner of EQMM’s Readers Award. Doug Allyn’s most memorable stories, for me, are those set in the North Michigan woods where he spent his boyhood, and in the Missouri hills brought to life for him through family stories. Landscapes, in other words, with which he has an intimate personal connection. Who can forget “Icewater Mansions” or “The Scent of Lilacs,” to name just two of the many Allyn stories in which setting is transcendent—where it’s as important as the characters or action of the story.

Reviews of Southern writers often comment on the importance of place. My reading of Southern fiction isn’t extensive, but I’ve found that landscape has an important role in the stories of several of EQMM’s contributors with Southern roots. In 2006, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we published an issue devoted to New Orleans and Hurricane-relief organizations, with all of the issue’s stories set in New Orleans. Some writers chose for their setting historical New Orleans, some the modern city prior to the storm, some the city at the heart of the hurricane’s fury, some the ravaged remains of New Orleans immediately after Katrina. In nearly all of the stories, the city of New Orleans is infused with what I think is appropriately called (to use Joyce Carol Oates’s words) a “spiritual value”—though it is a different such value for each author. O’Neil De Noux’s story “When the Levees Break”     will always be for me the picture burned into consciousness of New Orleans post-Katrina, and not because of the accuracy of his descriptions of the effects of the storm but because of the sense he somehow manages to create of a city struggling with its wounds like a single living organism.

I’ve been able to take only a few small stabs at quite a large subject here. But if you find the role of landscape in fiction as interesting as I do, I hope you’ll join the conversation. —Janet Hutchings

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4 Responses to Taking Us There

  1. This is another wonderful tribute to Ed Hoch and to his talent. As a reader, I love getting lost in a setting. I like it best when setting behaves as a character. Often the place has a compelling influence and can instigate crisis. One classic example is Rain by Somerset Maugham.

  2. david dean says:

    A sense of place is important to almost all stories, I think. In a novel the author has all the space in the world to create, or capture, the setting of his story. The short story writer has a more difficult task in my opinion. With only a few strokes he must conjure up both the setting and the atmosphere he wishes to convey–no easy task. In Jack London’s short story “To Start A Fire,” he manages to do this almost entirely through the actions of his sole character trying to survive the hostile wilderness. Even so, we the readers get a very vivid description of that world without a single break in the action. I’ve read entire books that failed to accomplish this. Novel or story, it’s a difficult feat to pull off.

    I remember a story by Ed called, “The Vorpal Blade,” in which I thought he surpassed himself with his setting concerning German duelists. I spent a three and half year militaty stint there and felt transported right back. As Janet pointed out, Ed had never even been there! It’s a testament to both his talent and imagination to have been able to do that. Few others would have dared or suceeded.

  3. Doug Greene says:

    Elspeth Huxley’s 1930’s novels set in African vividly capture the late days of Colonial rule, and John Wylie’s reflect the early period of independence. The most expressive example of setting to plot may be Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, with its London of Hansom Cabs and gaslights and fog — all in a world where, as Vincent Starrett put it, it is always 1895.

    I just re-read — for the first time in 19 years — Ed Hoch’s “The Problem of the Phantom Parlor” (EQMM, June 1993), in which he again takes a traditional plot device and puts his own spin on it — in this case, the vanishing room or house. Both Queen and Carr had done variations of the impossible crime, but Ed’s is entirely original.

  4. Jeff Baker says:

    All Ed Hoch had to do was a bit of research for some “local color” in a story. His “Kansas In August” is set in my native Wichita, Kansas. I’d swear I’ve been in the bar in the story and that I know those kids from McConnel Air Force Base and the University!

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