Sherry Lalonde’s first published fiction, “Garden-Variety Criminal,” appears in EQMM’s current issue, May/June 2018. It’s notable partly for its choice of setting, Canada’s Royal Botanical Gardens. In this post the author, an Ottawa librarian with a degree in horitculture, explores the use of setting in the works of some of our genre’s best-loved authors. —Janet Hutchings
For many writers, the germ of an idea begins with the characters. They see a face in a crowd and wonder what past history and complex set of traits makes a person act as they do. For others, the spark comes from a situation—a moral dilemma, a confrontation, or even a tragedy. For myself, it’s about setting. The setting is what’s clear to me even before the characters or the action. It might be a peaceful scene at first, but soon, very soon, something will happen to shatter the peace. Because setting itself can often provide conflict, the best settings are those that reflect aspects of character and motivation.
Setting is also used to create atmosphere, to help shape the mood, and mirror what characters are thinking and feeling. In Agatha Christie’s Nemesis, the decaying greenhouse and vine-covered garden evoke an eerie atmosphere and act as a metaphor for the smothering love of a woman who would sooner see her protégé dead than let her leave. Early mysteries such as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles were masterful at manipulating the reader’s emotions and inspired modern-day authors such as Elizabeth Kostova and Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
Setting also helps define the scope of the story and grounds it in a place. It is the playground for the characters and what draws the reader into the manufactured world, giving it context. There are many familiar settings used in mysteries, chief among them are the “locked room,” the English country house (or village), the suburbs, and the city.
The timeless locked-room mystery is one of the earliest settings used. A crime, usually a murder, has happened in such a way as to make it seemingly impossible to solve. Although the actual physical location varies the concept is always the same. Whether on a desert island, a jail cell, a castle tower, or a submarine, it is logic, reason and method that will lead to the solution. The reader accepts the challenge and embarks on a journey with the author—who will get to the answer first? Some of the best known locked-room mysteries include John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and Ellery Queen’s The King Is Dead.
In the same genre of traditional mystery is the English country house or village setting. If you’ve seen the movie Gosford Park or read any Golden Age of detective fiction you’ll be familiar with this setting where the upper crust can be found clinking glasses in the dining room while the servants toil below stairs in a sweaty basement kitchen, each in their own sphere until tragedy strikes and they crash into each others’ worlds.
In such a cozy space crime is all the more shocking when it happens. This setting may be criticized as artificial but it allows readers to engage with murder and mayhem in a context that’s safe and reassuring. The contract with the reader is that eventually order will be restored and the guilty will be punished. Adding to the sense of foreshadowing is the building of the tension created by a group of unlikely suspects forced together until the murderer is revealed. The detective or amateur sleuth must deduce the guilty party before he or she strikes again.
This style of mystery was first crafted in the early twentieth century but is still well loved and reproduced today even if the relationship between the setting and the characters has changed. What was once an isolated country home owned by aristocrats is more likely now a boutique hotel and spa. It is the familiar setting that attracts readers; even though it has all been done before, the perspective is always unique. Famous authors of the cozy mystery include Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh. There are many modern authors writing in this style, notably G.M. Malliet and Rhys Bowen among personal favourites.
To some extent the modernization of the “cozy” is the suburban mystery. The suburbs, once thought to be the pinnacle of the American dream, are now a place of disenchantment. The suburbs are becoming chilling milieus where the placid surface of tidy lawns, two-car garages, and family BBQs hide all the modern sins—drugs, illicit sex, obsession, jealousy, and more. When there is such obvious conflict between the setting and its characters we can easily fuel expectations for events to come. This type of mystery was best epitomized by the work of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell and today by bestselling authors Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins.
In many ways the city is the superlative setting for mystery and suspense. The implied threat and menace of the city arouse the fear of the unknown. In complete juxtaposition to the cozy setting the detective must have his or her finger on the pulse of the city and be willing to descend into the underground culture where truth lies buried. Readers living in these environments are drawn again and again to the urban mystery as they crave the reassurance that the city can be made safe. Urban settings in mystery and suspense fiction are particularly important because they continue to evolve and innovate as our cities do. This setting is exploited to its fullest extent by such authors as Ed McBain, Walter Mosley, and Sara Paretsky to name a few.
As we see, setting is not just the scene of the crime but also integral to the story and can mean the difference between an engaged and indifferent reader. A successful setting takes the story off the page and into real life to create a mystery that appeals to all the senses.