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Russ Thomas on the Importance of Place in Fiction

Posted on 30th October 2020 by Mark Skinner

Russ Thomas's debut novel, Firewatching, our Thriller of the Month for November, harnesses an exciting cold-case thriller to the evocative landscape of Sheffield and its environs. In this exclusive essay, Russ selects some other great novels that make brilliantly effective use of place and locale. 

When Firewatching was in its early draft-form, I had to make a decision about where to set it. Crime thrillers, perhaps even more so than other novels, demand a strong sense of place. It’s a strand of storytelling as familiar to the genre as the twisting plot, or the damaged detective who investigates it. The masters of the craft make this obvious: from the mean streets of Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, to the deadly heat of Jane Harper’s Australian outback, there’s a long tradition in crime fiction of beautifully realised backdrops. A tough act to follow.

I have to confess, I found it difficult to write about Sheffield at first. This isn’t Sheffield’s fault – it’s a brilliant place to live. The problem was exactly that – I lived there, and there’s nothing like familiarity to breed contempt. When was the last time you actually ‘looked’ at the pictures hanging on your living-room wall? I’m sure you can remember what they are but can you describe them down to the last detail? But I persevered because I’d picked Sheffield for a reason. Apart from the fact it was a place I knew well, and therefore was easy and cheap to research, I felt it was interesting for another reason. It’s the fourth (or fifth, depending on your point of view) largest city in the country and yet it’s also a place known more for what it used to be than for what it is now. Strangers to the city think of the blast furnaces, steel mills and cutlery works of its industrial heritage, rather than the vibrant, culturally-diverse place of creativity I discovered when I first came here as a student twenty-five years ago. My hope is that Firewatching will go some small way to redress that balance. Hopefully, you’ll learn to love it as much as I do. And in the meantime, here’s a handful of wonderful thrillers with a great sense of place.

War always makes a good backdrop for dramatic events and no more so than in Mark Mills’ excellent WWII-set detective story, The Information Officer. Set on Malta during the summer of 1942, the information officer of the title is Max Chadwick, the man tasked with making sure the local population only receive upbeat, morale-boosting news in the face of daily bombing raids by the Nazis. When he discovers a British officer may be responsible for murdering local women, he finds himself torn between his duty as an officer and his own sense of morality, just as the evocatively drawn, war-ravaged island of Malta is caught between two unstoppable forces.

Similarly, Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith is another thriller about a man determined to do the right thing even at the cost of his own career, and potentially his life as well. When war hero and secret police officer, Leo Demidov discovers there might be a serial killer on the loose, he’s determined to bring them to justice. The only problem is Stalin’s Soviet Union, a place where crime does not officially exist but is seen as a symptom of the decadent Capitalist West. Forced to investigate in secret, Leo finds himself risking, not only his own life, but that of his family as well, as he’s caught between a ruthless pathological killer and a state determined to stop him from uncovering the truth.

Fantasy fiction is another genre known for its world-building, creating places that are radically different to our own world but reflective of it as well. And that’s exactly what Lauren Beukes has done in her noir-inspired Zoo City. Set in what may or may not be a near-future/alternate reality Johannesburg, the novel features private detective Zinzi, a woman who gives Phillip Marlowe a run for his money in the morally ambiguous PI stakes. The novel’s cast of dubious characters live in a city that is effectively a slum for the criminal underclass, each of them with their past transgressions exposed by the animal companion that accompanies them – Zinzi quite literally carries the weight of her crimes on her back in the form of a sloth. This is fantasy fiction blended seamlessly with hard-boiled detective noir but it’s the seedy, bleak life of a hyper-realised Jo’Burg that both compels and unsettles the reader in equal measure.

Conversely, the setting for Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a quiet rural town in Mississippi but is no less unsettling. Silas Jones is the town’s lone law enforcement officer whose boyhood best friend, Larry Ott, was once accused of murder. Though no one could prove Larry was guilty, he has been ostracised by the town ever since. Now Larry has been attacked and another girl is missing. As Silas investigates, he’s forced to confront the unspoken secret hanging over the two men – one black, one white – whose lives have been deeply scarred by the menacing Southern landscape they inhabit.

We’re on much more familiar ground in Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, set in the traditional whodunit territory of every Golden Age crime novel there’s ever been. Here is the grand house hidden deep in the English countryside. Here are a dozen or more suspects, each with a motive for killing the unfortunate Evelyn. But here also is Aiden, a man trapped in the bodies of several of the main protagonists, desperately trying to work out which of them is the guilty party even as he is doomed to repeat the events of the day over and over again. His only way out of this Chinese puzzle box prison, the solving of the case. A brilliant reinvention of the classic crime novel setting.

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Tense, intelligent and masterfully plotted, Mills’s Second World War-set crime thriller relies on an intricately rendered depiction of a beleaguered Malta and the personal honour and anguish of its intriguing central character. Swathed in its own unique atmosphere and utterly absorbing storyline, The Information Officer is a superior wartime murder mystery.
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A brilliantly realised thriller where the agencies of law enforcement are even more dangerous than a killer on the run, Child 44 explores a murky police investigation in Stalin’s Soviet Union. When the scales fall from a loyal officer’s eyes he must choose between exposing the truth or protecting his loved ones in Smith’s morally questioning and thoroughly compelling narrative.
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A spectacular noir fantasy that reads like the best Philip K. Dick, Beukes’ Arthur C. Clarke award-winning novel is a high octane, hard-boiled gem. Ineffably hip and drenched in atmosphere, this tale of missing persons and urban animalia twinkles with wit and street-smarts.
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A sizzling slice of Southern Gothic that mixes simmering racial tension with a historic unsolved murder and a whole heap of dark secrets, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is drenched in small-town atmospherics. A deserved winner of the CWA Golden Dagger, Franklin’s Mississippi-set psychological thriller grips from first page to last.
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Described as Gosford Park meets Inception by way of Murder on the Orient Express, this is a novel unlike any other. A glamorous house party, a murdered woman; a night that will repeat itself again and again until the killer is unmasked. One of the most anticipated debuts of 2018, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is brilliantly original high concept murder mystery from a fantastic new talent.
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