The importance of location in mysteries can never be stressed enough.
Mysteries that give us a sense of place make that area—be it a city, region or country—a true character that effects the plot and the people who inhabit the story.
And that place can vary from author to author. Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles is different from Robert Crais and a different city than that of Denise Hamilton or Rachel Howzell Hall or Steph Cha. And these different visions make for more involving novels.
But sometimes it’s the location that is the constant as different characters inhabit the landscape.
Jeff Abbott has set his last three stand-alone novels in the affluent Lakehaven neighborhood of Austin, Texas.
The novels have focused on different families but Lakehaven has remained the constant. While Lakehaven doesn’t change, its influence affects Abbott’s characters differently.
Abbott’s latest novel Never Ask Me, which also is his 20th novel, shows the secrets that run rampant through Lakehaven.
Never Ask Me revolves around Iris and Kyle Pollitt and their much-loved teenage children, Julia and Grant, whose lives are changed when their neighbor Danielle Roberts is murdered; her body found in a neighborhood part. An adoption consultant, Danielle had facilitated many neighborhood couples seeking international adoptions, including the Pollitts.
In Zoom book event a couple of months ago, Abbott discussed his use of Lakehaven, which is fictional though based on a composite of several Austin neighborhoods. Abbott said the use of Lakehaven allows him to show “a spectrum of all kinds of people.”
But he keeps it simple so the location resonates with many readers, he said.
And the real residents of Austin have picked up on Lakehaven. “People in Austin argue which neighborhood is the fictional Lakehaven,” he said.
Abbott is not telling.
The Hollows, a quaint fictional town outside of New York City that seethes with family secrets and rife, has been a long-time background of Lisa Unger’s novels.
In an interview for Mystery Scene, (2012 Summer issue, No. 125) Unger explained The Hollows, which played prominently in Fragile (2010) and Darkness, My Old Friend (2011). Also, In the Blood, Crazy Love You, The Whispering Hollows, and Ink and Bone.
“At first The Hollows was just a place where the story was happening. It was not dissimilar from the place I grew up, but it was kind of a dreamlike combination of where I grew up and what might have been the place. The Hollows has an energy and in some ways an agenda. It’s not malicious but it also isn’t benevolent. The Hollows encourages paths to cross,” she said.
Although she has set some novels elsewhere, Unger often returns to The Hollows. “I definitely will return to The Hollows and I don’t say that lightly. I already know what will happen next there.”
In another interview, Unger said that “The Hollows keep calling me back.”
Unger also writes about The Hollows on her web site.
Unger’s latest novel Confessions on the 7:45 is set in New York City. The plot is jumpstarted when Selena Murphy Selena finds a seat on a train next to a woman who calls herself Martha. She feels an instant connection to “Martha” and the two start spilling secrets. Selena reveals that her husband is having an affair with their nanny while Martha is having an affair with her boss.
Trading secrets seems safe as Selena thinks she will never see Martha again.
“Sometimes a stranger was the safest place in your life,” muses Selena Murphy, whose encounter with a stranger on a train leads to a vortex of pain.”
Of course, nothing is safe in an Unger novel.
And despite the New York City setting, Unger works in a mention of The Hollows, which will thrill her readers.
Bull Mountain and McFalls County, located in northern Georgia’s Waymore Valley, has made a sturdy background for Brian Panowich’s three novels, Bull Mountain (2015), Like Lions (2019) and Hard Cash Valley (2020).
The area has fit well will with the criminal enterprises that have thrived in this region, especially with the violent Burroughs family who have controlled the area for generations.
Hard Cash Valley revolves around Dane Kirby, a life-long resident and ex-arson investigator for McFalls County.
Consulting on a brutal murder in a Jacksonville, Florida, he and FBI Special Agent Roselita Velasquez begin an investigation that leads back to the criminal circles of his own backyard.
Hideo Yokoyama sets his stories in the same tumultuous Japanese police precinct.
Prefecture D is a quartet of novellas set in 1998. Through these four tales, Yokoyama explores moral ambiguity, interdepartmental police politics, ethics, investigations and the various motives of the police detectives.
The four novellas in Prefecture D are written as if they are stand-alones but the connective tissue links each to the next.
Yokoyama first found an audience with Six Four, about a cold kidnapping case that shed light on police corruption in Japan. Six Four unfolded over 14 years and clocked in at 576 pages.
It sold more than one million copies in Japan before being published in the U.S.
Prefecture D is just 274 pages.
The fictional Dublin Murder Squad was the setting for Tana French’s first six novels, beginning with the award-winning In the Woods. That 2007 novel won the best debut crime novel category for the Edgar, Anthony, Barry and Macavity awards.
Each of those first six novels focused on different detectives and how their personal lives affected the investigations.
The importance of location in mysteries can never be stressed enough.
Like many others, I have been trying to carve out some time to clean, declutter and organize during this pandemic.
And like many, I have had intermediate success. A little bit here, some there, time to stop. First few weeks my husband and I put out more than 12 bags of recyclable paper. And that went on for at least 6 weeks. Now, down to a bag or two, usually filled with recent newspapers.
Last week, I had another surge that resulted in 6 recycling bags.
So naturally, during this organizing, my mind turned to mysteries.
First, I have little regard for Marie Kondo’s decluttering theory about discarding things that don’t spark joy. I like stuff. My stuff gives me joy, whether I have used that stuff recently or 10 years ago.
Yes, I attach sentimental feelings to a lot of stuff.
If you do too, great.
If you don’t, that’s fine, too.
Just don’t tell me that I must feel so good to get rid of stuff.
No. I feel good about myself all the time.
If that purging makes you feel better about yourself—OK, fine. Though why didn’t you feel good about yourself all along? And if you feel you have too much stuff, stop shopping.
OK, back to mysteries.
Hallie Ephron’s 2019 novel Careful What You Wish For (Wm. Morrow) may have been one of the first to use Kondo’s philosophy as a plot device. I say “may have been” because once I get too decisive an astute reader will come up with more ideas.
In her sixth novel, Ephron delivers an in-depth look at how an emotional attachment to things affects people. Emily Harlow was happiest when she was paring down her belongings.
So much joy in that action that she and her partner Becca Jain started the business, Freeze-Frame Clutter Kickers to help others be organized.
What doesn’t bring Emily joy is her husband Frank’s obsession with his stuff.
Their basement is overstuffed with stuff, mainly because of Frank’s “compulsive yard-sale-ing.” But Emily has a hard-fast rule—do not touch another’s property unless they give you permission. And that goes for her own home, too.
Hired to clean out a storage unit, Emily and her partners find body hidden among all the stuff that may have been stolen years before.
Ephron keeps the suspense high and the fear factor dangling with each visit to the storage unit. Anyone who has rented one of those storage units and visited it at night, knows that sense of dread grows with each ding of the elevator, each car that arrives.
Ephron’s Careful What You Wish For is a stand-alone but there are at least two series wrapped around decluttering.
Ritter Ames’ Organized for Murder series features organization expert Kate McKenzie whose new business Stacked in Your Favor is part of the plan for her family to make a fresh start in her husband’s small hometown in Vermont.
Organized for Picnic Panic is the sixth and latest in this cozy series. In Organized for Picnic Panic, The Vermont town of Hazelton is planning its popular annual Labor Day Picnic.
Kate has put her organizing skills to work helping her family and neighbors enjoy the community event. The McKenzies are still new to the town and are anxious to be a part of this tradition. Of course, the picnic won’t go as smoothly as hoped.
British writer Simon Brett’s latest series has the tagline of “The Decluttering Mysteries” and revolve around, you guessed it, a declutter.
Clutter Corpse, which came out June 2020, introduces Ellen Curtis, whose business is helping people who are running out of space.
According to the novel’s description, “As a declutterer, she is used to encountering all sorts of weird and wonderful objects in the course of her work. What she has never before encountered is a dead body.”
When Ellen finds a young woman’s body in an over-cluttered apartment, suspicion lands on the deceased homeowner's son, recently released from prison.
Actually, I think reading about decluttering is more fun than decluttering.
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