Thursday, August 13, 2009

Landscapes of crime

George Demko, a geographer from Darmouth University in the US, argues that a literary sense of place is essential quality of good crime fiction and one of the key ingredients in the genre’s success. Crimes happen somewhere and detailing the landscape it occurs in and the complex social, political and economic milieu of that locale is often essential part of helping readers get a sense of what occured and why. This happens across scale from inside a room or a clearing in a wood to neighbourhoods and the city or region as a whole and many crime writers set their stories in a single arena so that over time their readers get to know the intricacies of a place. For example, Colin Dextor’s Inspector Morse novels give a vivid portrayal of Oxford; Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch patrols the mean streets of Los Angeles; Ian Rankin's Rebus stalks the underbelly of Edinburgh; Peter Temple's novels are set in and around Melbourne; and Brian McGilloway’s stories criss-cross the Donegal/Derry border. An Irish Times feature recently detailed many others.

The places which feature in crime novels are not however evenly spread. Demko has mapped the locations of crime novels, published in English, from 1750-1990. I'll only detail one of the maps here because I'll probably discuss some of the others at later dates. The map below is for Europe. London and Paris fair particularly well, both the setting for over 500 novels. Next are Berlin and Rome with between 76-150 stories. Then a small grouping of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Prague, Venice and Amsterdam with between 31-75 novels. Clearly French novels had relatively high translation rates into English, but also I suspect that Paris, Rome and Berlin were favoured locales of English authors who wanted to set their mystery abroad. The map also highlights the recent phenomenon of translated, Scandinavian crime fiction which seemed to be pretty much non-existent prior to 1990. In fact, it might be an interesting exercise to update the map, adding in the last 20 years of data or to time slice it to see what places were popular at different periods.

This post is an updated version of my first ever entry on NUIM Geography blog a few weeks ago.

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