“The American Regional Mystery” (by Marvin Lachman)

Last week’s post inspired some discussion on the role of fans within the mystery community.  This week’s guest post is by one of our genre’s most distinguished fans, Marvin Lachman. In addition to the work he mentions in his post, Marv has written reviews of mystery short stories, collections, and anthologies; he regularly assists in the selection of nominees for the Barry Awards (which requires reading virtually every mystery short story published each year); and he produced the sequel to John Nieminski’s index of EQMM, which he updates yearly.
In his reply to last week’s post, J.F. Norris said: “People have no idea what kind of exciting discussions can take place if they would take the time to pay homage to those who came before the current crop of writers.”  Anyone who’s ever had a chance to talk mysteries with Marv Lachman will know how true that is. . . . Janet Hutchings

Though my book, The American Regional Mystery, was published in 2000, I still receive questions about regional mysteries. Someone even labeled me “Mr. Regional Mystery.”

Now, virtually every American mystery novel has a regional component, with considerable space devoted to the geography, speech, climate, and environmental problems that are peculiar to the book’s setting. That wasn’t the case in 1969, when puzzle and plot predominated. That year, in The Mystery Lover’s Newsletter, I began a series on regional mysteries with an article on New England. I continued my series there until they ceased publication in 1973, and then I finished the series in The Armchair Detective through 1977.

Many years went by. I retired from my “day job,” allowing me to read and process the many regional mysteries published in the 1980s and 1990s. Finally, I finished my book, which managed to win the Macavity Award and an Agatha nomination for 2000. Ironically, by that time I began to have some reservations about regional mysteries.

I began to believe that overlong regional mystery descriptions were increasingly becoming a substitute for strong plotting and puzzle, the elements so prominent in the work of Ellery Queen. Their mysteries attracted me to this genre way back in 1943. Though I decried some regional mysteries, I was well aware that the best mysteries combine detection and local atmosphere. Examples include Queen’s Cat of Many Tails (1949) and their Wrightsville series about New England.

Among the many other regional mysteries I recommend are the following:

NEW ENGLAND—Jane Langton’s The Transcendental Murder (1964; reprinted as The Minuteman Murder, 1976), a book combining history and detection).

BOSTON—Robert B. Parker: Most of his Spenser series, especially Ceremony (1982), and his non-series book All Our Yesterdays (1994).

NEW YORK CITY—Annette Meyers’s The Big Killing (1989), with its accurate picture of Wall Street, and most of the books of Linda Fairstein, beginning with Final Jeopardy (1996).

ALBANY—For the site of next year’s Bouchercon, try Richard Stevenson’s mysteries, beginning with Ice Blues (1986). They emphasize the politics of New York’s capital.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Though their books may have been ghostwritten, the mysteries of two Presidential offspring, Margaret Truman and Elliott Roosevelt, contain much good regional material.

VIRGINIA—Leslie Ford’s The Town Cried Murder (1939), regarding colonial Williamsburg, and Rita Mae Brown’s Murder at Monticello (1994).

FLORIDA—Almost anything by John D. MacDonald, especially A Flash of Green(1962), probably the first ecological crime novel.

CLEVELAND—Those who attended the 2012 Bouchercon were probably introduced to the work of Les Roberts, whose The Cleveland Connection (1993) refers to the time when the city had so much pollution that its Cuyahoga River “caught fire” when sparks ignited debris there.

MICHIGAN—Until now I have only mentioned novels. The short stories of Doug Allyn contain much regional description (plus superior plotting) of its Upper Peninsula. An example is his “Icewater Mansions” (EQMM January 1992, set along Lake Huron. In 1995 it was expanded into a novel with the same name).

DETROIT—Recently, Loren D. Estleman has been writing short stories about Hollywood and old films, but his series about private eye Amos Walker contains some of the best descriptions of Detroit. He has also written five novels, beginning with Whiskey River (1990), about sixty years of Detroit’s crime history.

TEXAS—Full disclosure: Bill Crider is a friend and has been for over thirty years. I can’t allow that to keep me from recommending his many series, especially the one about Sheriff Dan Rhodes of rural “Blacklin” County.

NEW MEXICO—When I first read Tony Hillerman, I lived in New York and didn’t fully appreciate until I moved to New Mexico what a good job Hillerman did on capturing the three cultures (Hispanic, American Indian, and Anglo) in that state. Start by reading the first, The Blessing Way (1970), and go on from there. For other pictures of New Mexico, try Walter Satterthwait’s The Hanged Man (1993) on Santa Fe style and any of the books of Michael McGarrity.

LAS VEGAS—Writing of that city, Don Winslow, in While Drowning in the Desert (1996), calls it “a combination of unlimited space and unlimited money unconstrained by common sense or good taste.”

UTAH—Though his religion has not become a major issue, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has made people somewhat more aware of the Mormon faith.  Robert Irvine’s mysteries, such as Baptism for the Dead (1988), emphasize that “Life in present-day Utah continues to be inextricably intertwined with Mormonism.”

LOS ANGELES—The lifestyle of that city is largely based on the automobile. Charlotte Armstrong’s short story “The Case for Miss Peacock” (EQMM February 1965) involves a retiree, newly moved there, who is questioned by the police because she is walking and cannot produce a driver’s license for identification. They are not impressed when she offers to show them her library card. Of course, Raymond Chandler was perhaps the first great regional writer, and his books depict Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s. Many decades later, it is Michael Connelly who is the great L.A. writer.

SAN FRANCISCO—Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and that city are closely connected, so much so that someone once spray-painted “Miles Archer was shot here,” on a sidewalk in reference to Spade’s partner in The Maltese Falcon (1930). Anthony Boucher, for whom Bouchercon was named, lived in Berkeley, on San Francisco’s East Bay. Best known for his mystery criticism, he also wrote fiction, and his first novel, The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937), depicts the University of California campus there.

WASHINGTON—Mysteries about Portland, Oregon, and Seattle depict their abundant rainfall. In her Until Proven Guilty (1985), J.A. Jance says, “Seattle is used to the kind of gentle drizzle that lets people walk in the rain for blocks without an umbrella and without getting wet.” However, in Payment in Kind (1991), she places her series character J. P. Beaumont in a drenching downpour.

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One Response to “The American Regional Mystery” (by Marvin Lachman)

  1. Jon L. Breen says:

    I share Marv’s concern that regional background, along with large continuing casts and other extending elements, has served to squeeze out plot in too many recent mysteries. But this is a good list of regional writers who do it right, and his book provides many more examples. Leave it to an expert with as broad a knowledge as Marv (one of the most learned and critically astute mystery scholars I know) to come up with a short story that illustrates a prime peculiarity of Southern California life from Charlotte Armstrong, possibly the most unfairly neglected mid-twentieth-century American crime writer.

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