The Significance of Setting in Mystery Novels


Photo is of Shadows-on-the-Teche by Joseph

Shadows-on-the-Teche is located in New Iberia, Louisiana, and mentioned frequently in James Lee Burke’s mystery novels featuring his detective Dave Robicheaux.

The setting of a mystery novel has often been used to mirror the novel’s plot or to express the inner conflicts of the protagonist as he or she struggles to find the murderer and solve the mystery. In his article, “Mystery Writing: Pick a Good Setting and Bring It to Life,” William G. Tapply wrote, “Often in obvious and dramatic ways, but sometimes more subtly and indirectly, setting influences characters’ challenges and choices” (Tapply 13). A mystery set in rural Louisiana will have a distinct atmosphere when compared to a mystery set in Los Angeles. The protagonist will encounter a different type of culture than he would in the urban environment of a large city. The setting of a novel should be so well-written, so vivid, that the book could not have been set in any other location and still had the same characters and plot.

Setting is so significant in creating mood and woven into the plot that the first words in the novel will frequently start with a description of the location. In 1938, readers were captivated by a novel that began with the words, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” (du Maurier 7). Although Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca is usually classified under the sub-category of romantic suspense, the novel is a mystery. An unnamed narrator, known only as the second Mrs. de Winter, is brought as Maxim de Winter’s new bride to Manderley, a magnificent house in the English countryside. As the second Mrs. de Winter describes the grounds of Manderley that she sees in her dream, the elements in the setting are symbols that hint at the story that is about to unfold.

The rhododendrons stood fifty feet high, twisted and entwined with bracken, and they had entered into alien marriage with a host of nameless shrubs, poor, bastard things that clung about their roots as though conscious of their spurious origin. A lilac had mated with a copper beech, and to bind them yet more closely to one another the malevolent ivy, always an enemy to grace, had thrown her tendrils about the pair and made them prisoners. Ivy held prior place in this lost garden, the long strands crept across the lawns, and soon would encroach upon the house itself (du Maurier 8).

The rhododendrons represent Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, whose sexual promiscuity is symbolized by the bracken that is “twisted and entwined” with “a host of nameless shrubs,” who are the men she had affairs with. The lilac who had mated with a copper beech is the youthful second Mrs. de Winter and her older husband Maxim, who came from vastly different social backgrounds. The ivy is Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who came to Manderely with Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers was devoted to Rebecca and makes it clear that she considers the second Mrs. de Winter to be an interloper in Manderley. The long strands of ivy that encroach upon the house, a symbol of the de Winters’ marriage, foreshadows Mrs. Danvers’ attempt to convince the second Mrs. de Winter to commit suicide.

“Why don’t you go?” she said. “We none of us want you. He doesn’t want you, he never did. He can’t forget her. He wants to be alone in the house again, with her. It’s you that ought to be lying there in the church crypt, not her. It’s you that ought to be dead, not Mrs. de Winter” (de Maurier 232).

Rebecca de Winter is planted the rhododendrons and azaleas that grow the grounds of Manderley. The second Mrs. de Winter prefers the rose garden and when she is tricked into wearing a dress that is the replica of the one that Rebecca wore in her portrait, infuriating Maxim de Winter, the second Mrs. de Winter retreats to her bedroom and gazes down at the rose garden where the gardeners are turning on the lights (de Maurier 207. Roses represent love, and she comments that she smells the roses, symbolizing both her love for Maxim and the love she believes he still has for Rebecca. The lights represent the foreshadowing of when the second Mrs. de Winter will realize that Maxim does love her and that he hated Rebecca (de Maurier 255).

In his article “Setting and a Sense of Place in Mysteries,” William Kent Krueger emphasizes the importance that the setting should have on the plot of a mystery novel. Krueger states:

Any sociologist will tell you that to understand a human being you have to look first at the environment in which that person was raised. In a piece of fiction, environment translates into setting. Simply said, this means that stories rise out of and are inexorably shaped by the unique elements of the place in which they occur (Ellis 223).

Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody series features a married English couple who are Egyptologists. Her plots weave in historical events and attitudes of that period. Peters sets most of her mysteries for the series in Egypt and her plots relay heavily on the unique aspects of that country. In her mystery novel Lion in the Valley, Peters describes the setting as the Emersons prepare to arrive in Egypt in such a way that lets the reader know the century where the story takes place and the character of Amelia Peabody Emerson, the narrator.

We stood on the deck of the vessel that had borne us swiftly across the broad Mediterranean: the breeze of its passage across the blue waters ruffles our hair and tugged at our garments. Ahead we could see the Egyptian coast, where we would land before the day was over. We were about to enter upon another season of archaeological investigation, the most recent of many we had shared. Soon we would be exploring the stifling, bat–infested corridors of one pyramid and the muddy, flooded burial chamber of another–scenes that would under ordinary circumstances have inspired in me a shiver or rapturous anticipation. How many other women-particularly in that final decade of the nineteenth century–had so many reasons to rejoice? (Peters 4).

Most women would not be thrilled at the thought of being anywhere near a dark, filthy, guano-filled pyramid, but Peters has used those details to reveal that the time period is the late nineteenth century and to reveal aspects of Amelia’s character. Since the setting will be the Emersons’ archeological dig, at least one of the dangers will be the collapsing of part of the pyramid (Peters 155), as well as the discovery of a body nearby.

Writing a mystery that is set in a historical period requires careful details to convey a sense of realism. Donis Casey’s mystery novels that features Alafair Tucker are set in Oklahoma during the 1910’s. In her novel The Drop Edge of Yonder, Casey describes a scene in August, before air conditioning was invented.

Mary’s mother, Alafair Tucker, stepped out onto the back porch from her kitchen, fanning herself with a dishtowel. The August evening was sweltering, and Alafair had suddenly found herself so uncomfortable in the hot kitchen that she had had to come outside to try and catch a breeze. The sun was just westering and the family would be clamoring for supper before long (Casey 5).

Casey is writing about a period of time when there were some automobiles, but people still used horse-drawn wagons and buggies for transportation, especially in Boynton, a rural area outside of Muskogee where the Alafair Tucker series is set. Alafair arrives at a farm house after a member of the family has been killed and “found dozens of buggies, wagons, and the odd automobile parked in front of the house in a haphazard array” (Casey 23). Casey’s settings embody the advice to writers that Tapply gave in his article, “Mystery Writing: Pick a Good Setting and Bring It to Life,” when he states: “To create memorable settings, be spare and specific. Look for the definitive details and integrate them into your novel’s scenes. Show, don’t tell. A clanky air conditioner or a scummy swimming pool will show readers all they need to know about a seedy motel” (Tapply 13). Casey based her character of Alafair Tucker on an ancestor of hers and her books contain old-fashioned recipes, household practices, and historical notes on topics that she writes about.

Place is of vast interest to mystery readers. They like to revisit familiar cities, towns, and regions in a book, and they enjoy learning about new places too. Get it wrong, even the smallest detail, and they’ll be disappointed, even angry. Worse, you might lose them entirely. We ask our readers to willingly suspend their disbelief when they read our novels, to accept as real what they know is fiction. It’s a fragile relationship between reader and writer, and one false note can shatter it. If you write about real places, do your homework. Don’t move that Dunkin’ Donuts shop or make Park a two-way street if it isn’t. If you fictionalize a village, city or region, don’t be generic. Make it unique with plausible, specific details (Tapply 13).

When a mystery is set in a foreign country, setting is even more significant than it is when the location is a city in the United States. Many readers select books based on a desire to immerse themselves in a place where they have never been before. In his article “The Cultural Setting and the Cultural Detective,” Christopher G. Moore states:

A novelist should be able to bring into the story incidents that reveal cultural aspects of character that a reader would never find in a guidebook. The guidebook, like the Discovery Channel program on a Thai village, isn’t going to give much more than a superficial picture of cultural life. If you want a reading audience to trust you enough to follow you into a foreign land, then you must take them into the heart of the matter, peel back the mystery, and reveal the way local people process their reality and make that part of the story (Ellis 23).

Moore, who has lived in Thailand since 1998, describes this process as being “a cultural detective” (Ellis 23). He feels that writers need to “track down the forces in a society that shape the psychology, beliefs, and underpin the actions of people who are shaped by it” (Ellis 23). His approach to writing about characters in a foreign setting demands that the writer understands the daily lives of people in the region.

Moore acknowledges that this change can be difficult to convey without using too much “explanatory details, foreign words, or local slang phrases.” He says, “The best writing absorbs the details into the story and characters so that they appear naturally as the narrative moves forward” (Ellis 24). Readers who craved books set in foreign settings have a different motivation than the prospective traveler who has booked a tour of that country. Moore states: “The reader doesn’t expect you to make them an expert. They are reading a story. They come to the party for different reasons than people who read a guidebook, a memoir, a biography, a cultural history, or a language guide” (Ellis 24).

In his article “Setting and Atmosphere: Writing from the Element and Writing in the Elements,” Henry Chang discusses how he brought the setting of Chinatown in New York City to life in his mystery series featuring his Chinese-American NYPD detective Jack Yu. Chang grew up in Chinatown so he was familiar with “the mean streets of Chinatown, a world of poolrooms, karaoke clubs and after-hours bars” (Ellis 11). Chang points out that it is dangerous for a writer to attempt to record the interaction in a criminal atmosphere with traditional tools such as recorders or cameras.

Obviously, you can’t pull out a pad and start taking notes when you’re in a gambling house or drug factory, with ton managers and gang members all around. You need to observe, soak up the environment, and participate in it, unless it’s a danger to yourself or others…I’ve been able to condense an hour’s observation into a few sentences and key headers hastily written on my forearm during trips to the restroom…I’ve jotted down numbers and symbols on my palm when I couldn’t find a scrap of paper…I’ve taken disposable items from the location, like a matchbook or a playing card, if I feel it’ll spark a memory, an image, an idea later on (Ellis 12).

Chang discusses the weather as a significant part of the setting. He says, “Whatever the elements are in your setting, the weather can be used to your story’s advantage. You will need to know the particulars about the environment you’re creating, and the details you choose to include will enhance the authenticity of your story” (Ellis 13).

Natural phenomenon has frequently been employed to set the tone of a novel. Although many Los Angeles writers have written about the Santa Ana winds, few have matched the description of the Santa Ana winds’ effect on human behavior that Raymond Chandler achieved when he wrote, “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge” (Chandler 7). The famous quote about the Santa Ana winds came from the beginning of Chandler’s short story “Red Wind,” from his collection Trouble is My Business. In his article “Notes on Raymond Chandler’s Red Wind,” Marc Seals states:

As the title indicates, Chandler utilizes weather as a motif. In this case, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that plague southern California autumns are used to foreshadow violence and death. Calling these winds “red” might evoke thoughts of blood, passion, violence, and perhaps even communist influence (Seals 167).

Chandler used the strong, dry down-slope Santa Ana winds to create anticipation for the crimes of blackmail and murder that unfold in his short story “Red Wind.” If the Santa Ana winds can cause a meek wife so much stress that she considers murdering her spouse, then surely the sort of people that Chandler’s hard-boiled detective tends to encounter would have committed some equally drastic act. Chandler’s detective was named John Dalmas when “Red Wind” was first published, however the name was changed to Philip Marlowe in later publications because that was the name of Chandler’s detective in his mystery novels The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, Farewell, My Lovely, and others.

Chandler was not the only mystery writer to use a local phenomenon to color the setting of his novels. The setting for James Lee Burke’s novel, The Tin Roof Blowdown, is New Orleans during late August 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, described by Burke as “a storm with greater impact than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern Louisiana” (Burke, Tin 2). Burke uses the hurricane to skillfully show how New Orleans became a city where laws had disappeared and the normal patterns of human behavior dissolved into anarchy. In her article “Flood-Damaged Souls Finding Opportunity,” Janet Maslin states:

In Mr. Burke’s universe, some of the saddest storm victims are those who committed terrible sins in a time of crisis and wish they could undo the transgressions… Mr. Burke sometimes shows an overheated, lyrical bent, and the extremes of Hurricane Katrina make it especially pronounced. “Perhaps it was my imagination,” Dave thinks, “but I could almost feel a great weight oppressing the land, a darkness stealing across its surface, a theft of light that seemed to have no origin.” In Mr. Burke’s universe of knights and grifters the post-Hurricane Katrina days are full of opportunity. The chaos tears off the veneers of civilized character to show what these people are really made of (Maslin).

Even Burke’s description of the hurricane hints at the chaos that occurs when the mostly African-American residents of the Lower Ninth Ward pour into the Superdome and the ravaging of the city by the looters who take to the streets.

To the south, a long black hump begins to gather itself on the earth’s rim, swelling out of the water like an enormous whale, extending itself all across the horizon. You cannot believe what you are watching. The black hump is now rushing toward the coastline, gaining momentum and size, increasing in velocity so rapidly that its own crest is absorbed by the wave before it can crash to the surface in front of it. It’s called a tidal surge. Its force can turn a levee system into serpentine lines of black sand or level a city, particularly when the city has no natural barriers (Burke, Tin 28).

Burke is foreshadowing the complete breakdown in civilization that occurs once the hurricane had hit. The “long black hump” that levels the city is not just the hurricane itself, as it destroys levees and floods New Orleans, but the looters from the projects in a city that already has a high crime rate.

Burke’s mystery weaves in details of what happened when people who were too poor to afford to leave before the hurricane hit are packed in together in the Superdome. Burke uses not only narrative to describe setting, but used details described in dialogue to show what was happening to the citizens of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit. Burke’s detective, Dave Robicheaux, is dispatched to New Orleans by Iberia Sheriff’s Department to help with relief efforts. When he arrives outside of the Superdome, he sees his best friend, Clete Purcel, trying to put a cardboard box over the head of a dead white woman who is outside the convention center. Dave helps him put the cardboard box over her head and shoulders, repulsed by the stench coming from her body.

“You think that’s bad. Go inside the Center. All the plumbing is broken. There’s dead people piled in corners. Street rats are shooting guns in there and raping anyone they want,” Clete said. “You got a spare piece?”

“No, where’s your hideaway?”

“Lost it on Royal, I think. A whole balcony came down on the street. I got hit with a flying flowerpot.” He wiped the sweat out of his eyes with the flat of his hand and stared out at the wreckage of the city and the looters sloshing through the streets, their arms loaded with whatever they could carry. “Who needs terrorists? Look at this shit, will you?” (Burke, Tin 36).

Burke’s skillful use of dialogue paints a grim portrait of what has happened after the hurricane as the police stand helpless to protect either people or property from the carnivores that are tearing apart the already crippled city. In her article, Stasio comments on Burke’s use of imagery to depict the aftermath of the hurricane.

The images Burke chooses — of abandoned hospitals, “Visigoth”-style vandalism and pandemonium at the Convention Center — are memorable in their own hellish ways. But the sights that really burn your eyes are grimly surreal: a dead baby hanging from the branches of a tree and “thousands of shrieking birds” circling overhead, “as though they had no place to land.” And the question that stays with you is posed by an old man poking through the rubble, looking for his drowned wife: “How come nobody come for us?” (Stasio).

Many inexperienced writers think of setting as merely descriptions of landscape or buildings, but Burke is able to weave the descriptions of New Orleans and its residents throughout the book in such a way as he is able hammer in his theme as to who he holds responsible for the events of Hurricane Katrina from petrochemical companies that dredged channels through the wetlands (Burke, Tin 28) to the federal government. Stasio writes, “The novel’s expansive plot allows Robicheaux to grapple with the good, the bad and the morally confused, while its biblical theme gives even the worst criminals a chance to repent and make amends. And while Burke blames neither God nor nature for the ruination of New Orleans, he can’t forgive the federal government for contributing to the city’s vulnerability, then turning its back on the ensuing destruction” (Stasio).

Although Burke wrote The Tin Roof Blowdown to express his feelings about the effect of Hurricane Katrina on his home state of Louisiana, the book is a mystery, one that could not have taken place if it had not been for the breakdown in law. Two years before Hurricane Katrina, Otis Baylor’s teenage daughter, Thelma, was raped and burned with cigarettes by three black men on the night of her senior prom when her date got lost and ended up in the Desire Welfare Project. The rapists were never caught. Melanie Baylor, Thelma’s step-mother, is a Northerner, but it is obvious to Otis that she doesn’t want her friends to know that her step-daughter was raped by black men (Burke, Tin 12). On the night of Hurricane Katrina, the Baylors, who live in an affluent neighborhood “go to bed in a warm, dry house with a generator while their fellow citizens are drowning (Maslin). In her article “Flood-Damaged Souls Finding Opportunity,” Maslin states:

The illusion of safety is at the heart of this book… Otis is a decent insurance man; he will help claimants get around the semantics that could allow insurers to dodge payment for flood damage. That Otis grew up in Alabama watching his father and uncle attend Ku Klux Klan cross lightings has not intruded upon the Baylors’ cocoon. But something changed horribly after Otis’s teenage daughter (and Melanie’s stepdaughter) was abducted and raped by a group of black men two years ago. So when, during the storm, he looks outside his well-lighted home to see black looters boating through his neighborhood, Otis snaps. He makes a racist remark that startles even his most boorish rich neighbors (Maslin).

While the looters are breaking into a neighbor’s house, Thelma picks up her father’s binoculars and identifies two of the men as her rapists (Burke, Tin 51,52). Someone shoots the looters, killing one and wounding another (Burke, Tin 71). Burke hits hard to make the point that the Baylors have no safety. Their daughter is violated in one of the worst sections of New Orleans because of a simple navigational error. The predators are waiting like spiders in their webs for easy prey. After the hurricane, her rapists come into her neighborhood, stealing anything they can. Burke’s point with his vivid description of setting in The Tin Roof Blowdown is that although a hurricane that achieves that level of damage could only happen in a city that ranges between one to ten feet below sea level, protected only by weak levees and eroded wetlands, we are all only a natural disaster from having a breakdown in the systems we rely on for our illusion of civilization and safety.

Works Cited

Beinhart, Larry. How to Write a Mystery. New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.

Burke, James Lee. Burning Angel. New York: Hyperion, 1995. Print.

Burke, James Lee. Jolie Blon’s Bounce. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Print.

Burke, James Lee. Last Car to Elysian Fields. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print.

Burke, James Lee. The Tin Roof Blowdow. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Print.

Casey, Donis. The Drop End of Yonder. Scottsdale, Arizon: Poisoned Pen Press, 2007. Print.

Chandler, Raymond. “Red Wind” Red Wind. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Company, 1946. Print.

Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1938. Print.

Ellis, Sherry, and Laurie Lamson. Now Write! Mysteries: Suspense, Crime, Thriller, and Other Mystery Fiction Exercises from Today’s Best Authors and Teachers. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2011. Print.

Ephron, Hallie. Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ’em Dead with Style. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest, 2005. Print.

Hess, Joan. Martians in Maggody. New York: Onyx, 1994. Print.

Maslin, Janet. “Flood-Damaged Souls Finding Opportunity.” The New York Times 23 July 2007. Print.

Norville, Barbara. Writing the Modern Mystery. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest, 1986. Print.

Peters, Elizabeth. He Shall Thunder in the Sky: an Amelia Peabody Mystery. New York: W. Morrow, 2000. Print.

Ray, Robert J., and Jack Remick. The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery. New York, NY: Dell Trade Paperback, 1998. Print.

Seals, Marc. “Notes on Raymond Chandler’s ‘Red Wind.'” Eureka Studies In Teaching Short Fiction 9.1 (2008): 166-172.

Stasio, Marilyn. “Dark Water.” Associated Press 21 August 2007. Print.

Tapply, William G. “Mystery Writing: Pick a Good Setting and Bring It to Life.” Writer 120.1 (2007): 13. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Apr. 2012.

Photo is of Shadows-on-the Teche by Joseph