A Canadian currently residing in the Pacific Northwest, Elvie Simons has had stories in a variety of publications, including The Dark City Mystery Magazine, The Prairie Journal, and Island Writer Magazine. She debuts with EQMM in our current issue (July/August 2021) with the story “Not So Fast, Dr. Quick,” a classical mystery solved by the local doctor. Setting is key to the story, and in this post the author reflects about location as the source for story ideas. —Janet Hutchings
The welcome cool after a day spent baking in the heat. The quiet lull as guests trickle past to change for dinner. Before the sun has even tucked beneath the horizon, I think about murder.
There’s something about a spectacular location that sends me to a dark place. As the sun sets at a posh resort, I look around and wonder: who here has a motive to commit that most heinous crime? Over the rolling waves and the musician’s sound check, I can almost hear the shriek of a grim beachside discovery. I see waiters in starched white uniforms rushing up from the beach, grave lines on their faces. My sunset bevvy is still half full when the characters start to form: an investor hellbent on expanding the resort, a local farmer, the plight of the monarch butterflies. It’s all here, waiting to be written, and all because of the location.
As a writer of mysteries, this is how many story ideas come to me. Writing instructors say it should happen the other way around, that characters come first. It’s true, the hard work begins when the characters develop. They need full, complicated lives or the story will be flat. But mystery is a unique genre. Often, the location itself is the main character, the thing we remember years after we’ve put the book down.
My favorite mystery location is no doubt shared with many readers of this blog. That titular train made even more famous by Agatha Christie. Mid-pandemic, I found myself clicking adverts for excursions on the Orient Express, considering unlikely dates and pricing. For a few delightful minutes, I imagined myself as a passenger in that beloved mystery, hurtling down the tracks, trapped within a conspiracy. I didn’t imagine Poirot checked into a nearby cabin. It was the train. It was always the train.
The Orient Express wasn’t my first murder-mystery train. That was the Canadian. For decades, this less famous silver locomotive has made the 4,500 km trip across Canada from Toronto to Vancouver. Eric Wilson, the writer of middle-grade mysteries, introduced countless young readers to the genre and gave me that train. Published 42 years after Christie’s novel, Murder on the Canadian was no doubt an homage to the more famous work. Were I not afraid to make my own tribute, I’d plot a tale inspired by my travels on that train: a young woman in economy class, a prairie snowstorm, a broken-down train. The perfect closed circle.
Another dreamy location is the seafaring vessel. Having worked for years myself on famous Tallships, including replicas of the Bluenose and H.M. Bark Endeavour, I’m still stumped about how to turn one of them into fiction. I read instead of the cruise ship in Christie’s Death on the Nile, the luxury ship in Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10. Small and exclusive, both provide beautiful intimate settings for mystery.
Lately, I’ve started seeing ads again in the local newspaper for European river cruises. I imagine a suave mystery set aboard one of these boutique boats putting along the Seine or the Danube. Is this mystery out there, already written? I can only hope. For the boats and trains of crime novels are places I feel I’ve been, and I remember these stories today because of the setting.
The July/August 2021 issue of EQMM provides a delicious feast of mystery settings, both traditional and innovative. The issue is joyfully bookended by mysteries in libraries. As readers, we’re already inclined to love a mystery in a library, but the uniqueness of these libraries provides playful twists to the crimes. With Joyce Carol Oates’ Bone Marrow Donor, we enter an operating room along with the patient and get a haunting, new take on the mystery location. A comic convention from Barbara Allan, the fireworks store from Michael Grimala—these venues make my daydreams of a beach resort murder, of a river cruise mystery, feel flat and overdone. They satisfy my need as a reader for something new, a mystery in a place I’ve never seen before, never even considered as the setting for a crime.
The creativity of place goes one step further in the issue’s short piece The Concert by Ragnar Jónasson and Víkingur Ólafsson. In real time, the story takes place in a grand auditorium, but I read the location differently. Occurring entirely during the performance of a rarely heard vocal piece, the ‘location’ here was really a piece of music. What a refreshing idea!
Of course, sometimes we want a familiar location. We love the classics. My mother, her nose in a mystery book for much of my childhood, has a strong influence on my tastes. She insists her favorite stories are set in Cornwall. Not just the UK, not England, but specifically Cornwall. Something about the cliffs, she says, and the sea, heightens the tension for her. I see with delight that fellow issue contributor G.M. Malliet has a novel coming out entitled Death in Cornwall. I know what we’ll be reading in my house come October!
Christie herself wrote stacks of books set in villages. Small towns, be they British, American, or Canadian like my own story’s Boucher Island, are delightful playgrounds for crime fiction. The limited number of suspects, the way everyone meddles in each other’s business? They’re ideal setups for the mystery writer. The police procedural may love a bustling city full of organized crime, but my favorite mystery novels choose a setting that’s close and intimate. A train, a boat, maybe even a library.
So, while I devour and daydream of distant murder locations, most of my mystery writing is true to the small-town crimes I was raised on. My own Dr. Quick, a semi-retired doctor/detective, was herself inspired by a commuter cottage island in the St. Lawrence River. With no cars and less than 200 residents, who could picture that island and not immediately think about possibilities for murder?
I named it Boucher Island. It means butcher and it sounds better with a French accent. I’m busy plotting the next crime that will trouble the island residents. I also dream of travel for Dr. Quick: a safari, the aforementioned river cruise. Dr. Quick lives in a world free of travel restrictions and has the odd luck of finding mysteries wherever she goes.
But the unexpected locations in this issue of EQMM have me thinking. Maybe she doesn’t need to take a safari to stumble upon an exotic murder. I’m surrounded by locations full of potential for a new spin on an old crime.
Still, it’s fun to dream, especially as I’ve yet to break the pandemic travel bubble. Maybe I’ll voyage with words back to that posh Mexican resort, to a murder discovered just before dinner. Maybe Dr. Quick took a granddaughter along for the ride.
The mystery writer’s brain sees opportunity in every venue. Like a puzzle that must be solved, we’re never free to simply enjoy the scenery. It’s all the setting for another crime. Some locations just scream for a murder.
Great post. Settings can make the story – a snowed-in chalet, a tropical island in a hurricane – but I hope only mystery writers look at a moonlit beach or an English garden and think, “There should be a body here.”
Love this depiction of settings. I, too, glance around at a beautiful vista and wonder “How could I kill someone here?” Fictionally, of course. What a fun, wonderful bog post. Sigh… Oh to be on the Orient Express. Or the QE2. Murder most transatlantic . . . 😊