David Dean made his fiction debut in EQMM in 1990 and is a two-time winner of the EQMM Readers Award. His best-known series character is Police Chief Julian Hall. A new Dean character will debut in EQMM’s March/April 2023 issue: “alienist” Dr. Beckett Marchland. That series is set in England. The author is recently returned from the U.K.—a trip that inspired this post. His reflections on travel and fiction writing complement last week’s post by Josh Pachter, but that is entirely coincidental. Don’t miss the newly released second collection of David Dean stories from Genius Press: The Wisdom of Serpents and Other Stories of Tragic Misunderstandings. Most of the stories were first published in EQMM and all are outstanding! —Janet Hutchings
(David Dean at Stonehenge)
In 2020 Americans experienced a ban on international travel, as well as restrictions on the domestic version—the Covid pandemic had put the kibosh on moving freely about the cabin. It was short-lived, but unique to my experience, and I didn’t like it. I certainly understood the why and what-for of it—this was serious business with dire consequences for far too many people—but it chaffed. It made me want to travel. Such is my contrary nature. So, as a substitute, I wrote and read . . . a lot—armchair travel both active and passive.
As I was writing this blog, I went back to check on what I had written during this time and found that three out of the five stories I’d penned took place wholly, or partly, in another country. Almost everything I read was set elsewhere, as well. I didn’t actually start out to do that, it’s just what happened.
Some people love to travel; others most definitely do not. This simple declaration applies, I think, also to writers of crime fiction—some writers love to travel, while others would just as soon stay home even without a travel ban. Readers of crime stories—almost all stories for that matter—enjoy fiction that takes them places they’ve never been or, conversely, they may be familiar with, but get to see through a different lens than that of their own experience. Rather than Istanbul or Paris, it might be Buffalo or Savannah, or any other city you might call home. If you’ve never been there, you might find it a pretty interesting place to visit, if only between the pages of a book or magazine. It’s certainly going to cost a lot less money.
Some writers travel to write, plopping down anywhere that catches their fancy and drawing inspiration from their new surroundings—Hemingway and Michener come to mind. Graham Greene (one of my personal favorites) traveled, at least initially, as a foreign correspondent and later as an MI 6 agent during World War II. In his down time he churned out novels and short stories that spanned the globe. Even Agatha Christie would shake off the dust of her beloved Devonshire from time to time to visit Egypt, Iraq, and other countries wholly different from England.
My own love of travel was inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a book that contained all the necessary ingredients to fire my childhood imagination—a boy hero, a sea voyage, pirates, treasure, murder and even a fort to defend (boys of my era often built forts of no strategic significance for the sole purpose of defending them). So you can see how the spark was struck with me. The reality I found as an adult was more sobering.
Travel today—especially by aircraft—is not the carefree experience it once was. Airports no longer beckon as gateways to comfortable aircraft, personable attendants, on-time departures and good food. I’ve been alive long enough to recall those halcyon years, if only in a vague, hazy manner, that grows dimmer with each flight I take. Even so, I do love exploring the destinations once I’ve staggered off the plane, which is the point of the journey in most cases. Yet, I don’t travel to write. I just want to go someplace different and I most certainly don’t want to spend time sitting in front of a computer screen while I’m doing it.
That doesn’t mean that I never end up writing stories inspired by impressions of where I visited and the people I observed there. That’s happened quite a bit, though I never set out to derive a story that way. Something would percolate to the surface months, or years, after my return and, unbidden, suggest itself. Hence, I have stories set in Mexico, Belize, Ireland, England, Germany, Bosnia and Michigan (it was foreign to me). The lion’s share, however, take place in New Jersey where I have spent most of my adult years.
One of the challenges of short mystery fiction is locale. The writer isn’t given many pages in which to describe the surroundings. Novelists have huge canvases to splash the setting across, while we short story writers must labor to create a Faberge Egg.
This becomes an advantage, however, when writing about some place that you’ve never been. A little, in this case, is better than too much. I’ve snuck one or two of these through without anyone becoming too annoyed, I think. It’s risky though and takes a lot of research. My story, “A Season of Night,” in the May/June 2021 issue of EQMM took place upon the frozen Arctic Sea of the 1830s. It wasn’t possible for me to travel back in time and I wasn’t going to the Arctic in any event. I love both travel and my craft, but I was stationed in Germany for three and a half years during my army days and that was enough of the cold white stuff for me, thank you very much. Fortunately, there’re tons of books and research on the subject of early polar exploration and even photos of some of the efforts.
Crime fiction is often very dependent on its sense of place and mood to be successful. There are many writers of the short story form that excel at this with their ability to create scenes imbued with ambience and authenticity. So good that we, as readers, never question whether what they’ve depicted is accurate or true. What they’ve done is good enough, probably even better than the location that inspired it. In just a few sentences the setting, the mood, and the time are deftly crafted and the reader snared and on edge.
(Bill McCormick in Iceland)
A domestic example of this is the late Paul D. Marks’ “Bunker Hill” short story series. A gifted writer and frequent contributor to EQMM, he was as adept as Raymond Chandler at establishing an LA Noir ambiance with a few strokes of the keys, often blending the Los Angeles of the forties and the present in his tales. On the international front, VS Kemanis and William Burton McCormick have made the Baltic region of Europe a more familiar place and a fascinating one for short crime fiction readers. Marilyn Todd creates evocative settings for her readers spanning two continents, with stories ranging from Greece and France, to Alaska and Arizona and doing a little time travel while she’s about it.
(V.S. Kemanis in Paris)
(Marilyn Todd in Tennesee)
My friend and fellow writer, Josh Pachter, best known perhaps for his Ellery Queen pastiches, wrote an intriguing series of stories set in Bahrain and featuring Pakistani detective Mahboob Chaudri. Josh has traveled the world teaching communications skills, among other subjects, to Americans stationed abroad and lived for nearly a year in Bahrain in the 1980s. His lodgings in this case were next door to a police barracks. With his own communication skills, and a very outgoing personality, he got to know many of the officers there and from that experience grew the Mahboob Chaudri tales. These stories are delightful, and the setting is as memorable as it is authentic.
(Josh Pachter in Spain)
R.T. Lawton, whose stories of a family involved in the opium trade in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, makes for both fascinating reading and armchair travel. R.T.’s knowledge of the area and its illicit drug trade are informed by his career as a Federal Law Enforcement agent—hard-earned knowledge translated into intriguing stories. He doesn’t stop there, however, but has series set in Paris, Chechnya, and other such exotic places where foreign speech prevails to this day.
(R.T. Lawton in Mexico)
Writers such as I have mentioned here all excel at not only transporting us into the uncertain and unsettling world of short crime fiction, but also to places that we’ve seldom, if ever, visited. They also all happen to write in the English language.
But there are others who do not that can also offer tantalizing glimpses into their own unique world of crime fiction. Through EQMM’s Passport To Crime department we are presented stories from writers who call India, Japan, Belgium, Bulgaria and many other nations home. Josh Pachter—a practitioner of the black art of translation—once again springs to mind. Through his efforts, and those of other literary wizards, I have been introduced to such fine writers as Anne Van Doorn of the Netherlands, the Romanian author Bogdan Hrib, and Rubem Fonseca of Brazil, to name but three who have contributed to EQMM. These writers may be setting their stories in their own familiar homelands, but it’s a brief, thrilling visit to a foreign country for the rest of us, and an introduction to a culture we may never have the chance to experience otherwise.
Travel bans and restrictions may reappear someday, as they have done for various reasons throughout history, but we, as readers and writers, need not be dismayed. So long as writers keep writing, and readers keep reading, there will never be a restriction on where we go, or when we arrive; every flight will be comfortable and on time, our destinations fascinating and peopled with interesting characters. As for the in-flight meal, you can have anything you like.
This was a great read, David — and thanks for the double shoutout!
Thanks, Josh, and you’re welcome!
Interesting blog article, David. Reading stories is a great way to visit parts of the world, and sometimes they give you the urge to actually go there and see it for yourself. Thanks for the mention.
David, a wonderful reminder that fiction transports us, whether we are able to travel physically or not. Your stories always take me to new places!
You’re very kind, Vija. Thank you!
A highly enjoyable article, David. And you’re so right: armchair travel is fascinating.