Crime Fiction Takes on a Touch of Travel Writing

November 8, 2016
Eric Anderson, MD

Writers of crime fiction usually offer fast, intense reads to their fans. The field has expanded. The many forms of crime writing today include political thrillers, police procedurals, psychological suspense novels, detective fiction, and legal mysteries – for starters.

Writers of crime fiction usually offer fast, intense reads to their fans. The authors bid for your attention with styles that become their own and characters that grow into favorites. The field has expanded. The many forms of crime writing today include political thrillers, police procedurals, psychological suspense novels, detective fiction, and legal mysteries — for starters. The writing is more complicated; we’ve moved on from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett “whodunnits” with their sparse syntax. Now some crime writers, like James Lee Burke, generate pastoral scenes that are pure literature. Some, like Greg Iles, provide the polish and suspense of Southern writers. Some, like Lee Child, create such powerful characters that Hollywood and Tom Cruise come running. But now, crime writing seems to have added a touch of travel writing.

I find sometimes the best descriptions of scenes and places lie with my favorite crime writers. With a touch of envy, I ask, why is this? Is it because the best writing advice is write about what you know. That’s often the case, and when you investigate those authors you often find they live in the same cities they are writing about. Indeed, the advice from a website, Creative Writing Now, includes, “Create a three-dimensional world. A mystery novel may be a kind of puzzle, but it's more… Your characters should have lives that extend beyond the particular situation. They have families or lovers or a lack of family and lovers. They live in a particular setting — maybe New York or Los Angeles or a charming small town or a snooty suburb – which you should make real for the reader.”

Perhaps the emphasis on location, location, location began with the movies’ interest in the James Bond novels. We started seeing faraway places, yes, with strange sounding names and today’s lenses were up to the challenge — and today’s writers and those movies that began with a bang influenced novelists as well. Gone was the Charles Dickens-like convention of slowly developing a theme or place. Instead you were plunged into a Dante-like hell. And the upfront question was, were you going to survive?

Some authors are so skilled at this beginning this prologue that their readers might not accept any other.

American novelist Ridley Pearson began his Walt Fleming series in 2007 with Killer Weekend. His prologue was electric. Pearson has written about Seattle and another series about Idaho. Robert Crais takes his readers to Louisiana and, as here, in this The Watchman prologue to Los Angeles. However, good crime writing today needs more than quality prose, it has to have an exciting well-described location, it needs to show readers the place.

Images by author: I recall how a Ridley Pearson novel The Art of Deception introduced me to the reality that a subterranean Seattle existed. I knew nothing of this. In some ways, Seattle was like Egypt’s Alexandria, a city surrounded by sea with such little room to expand. The new construction had to build on top of the old and the old was put aside to lie forgotten. Within a month of reading Pearson’s novel I was in Seattle’s most unusual tourist attraction, its underground, although the book’s characters were having a more intense experience than I was.

Pearson’s popular character, Lou Boldt, is a Seattle police detective and by the time you have read a few of this series you may be ready to visit Seattle as a tourist.

Texas publisher, David L. Lindsey, became an author himself in 1980 to create a Houston homicide detective, Stuart Haydon, who has appeared successfully in many of Lindsey’s stories. I really like this author’s style, although I do smile at some of his descriptions which may not exactly make you a Houston tourist; he has shown how his fastidious detective takes a shower on a typically humid Houston day, puts on a clean shirt and goes back to work — the shirt immediately drenched in perspiration!

Images by author: Top: My Texas memories. Wells Fargo stagecoach made for sale by prisoners in Huntsville Prison; scenes from the Texas Hill Country.

If an author creates a successful series, as many writers aspire to, then the sequences take on a life of their own, though loyal readers sometimes feel it takes a lot to beat the earlier episodes. And so Michael Connelly gave us, and finally Netflix, the intense world of Los Angeles and Harry Bosch. James Lee Burke created the gritty spaces of Louisiana and Dave Robicheaux — and if we were troubled when our good guys lost family members to bad guys, we had Jonathan Kellerman’s forensic psychologist, Alex Delaware, to ease our burden.

A fictitious ex-Seal hero like Mitch Rapp could survive only as long as his creator lived. It was a sad disappointment when author Vince Flynn died in 2013, aged 47, of a long battle with prostate cancer. Readers who love their country but don’t like their politicians took to Rapp’s stories about a wild cannon CIA operative who didn’t hesitate to execute an American congressman who betrayed his country. The publisher of the 13 episodes Flynn wrote has now found a competent and exciting writer to continue the series. “The show does go on.”

Our capital and Flynn’s political thriller which saw DC invaded.

We need heroes. We have to believe right ultimately triumphs over wrong, even if the anti-hero has a place in today’s stories. In real life we seem to be surrounded by such business corruption and government mediocrity that we are desperate for a brief fling in fiction, so it all really does come out right. However, the complicated planning to arrange a plot, a storyline that makes sense, that succeeds in tying up all the loose ends, has never been more difficult for crime writers because the good ones have stretched their stories’ boundaries such that you almost need your passport or at least Google Maps to follow the chapters.

Images by Gillian Abramson: Daniel Silva’s stories might take you to Russia, to France, to Israel, even to the island of Corsica, to follow the duty of a professional painting restorer who is also (gasp!) a spy. Not only does this series make you want to travel, but also to spend more exciting time exploring art museums.

Silva’s character’s visit to the island of Corsica sees parallels in the TV camera’s exploration of virgin areas: the rural or island crime scene. Perhaps the Wallender books and the Scandinavian trilogy that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo started the trend — then studios saw the chance to produce streaming video jumped in. Novels by Ann Cleeves have been transferred very successfully by BBC America to a crime series Shetland. A trilogy now starting with a first novel, The Blackhouse, is based on a nearby Scottish archipelago, the Outer Hebrides. Written by Scottish author and film maker, Peter May, it suggests equal promise for a long run on streaming TV.

Images by Gillian Abramson: The Lewis Trilogy takes you, of course, to the Island of Lewis and Harris and briefly to Scotland’s capital Edinburgh, but this remote island has seen a decline since the 18th century Highland Clearances that evicted settlers for sheep. The middle image shows a black house stands neglected in the Island of Skye in the Gillian Abramson and the bottom image features a window’s look out to sea in the concrete-like bunker boathouse that is the scene of the murder that opens the novel, The Blackhouse.

Yet I would have this caution for author Peter May, whose reader acceptance of his recent series of more than a dozen crime novels has been sensational: The main character in Shetland is a gentle, kind, and compassionate detective inspector, Jimmy Perez, who really cares for those he serves and for the staff he commands. He is most likeable. He is backed up by a competent and congenial female assistant. I would say as an exiled Scott to Peter May, if he hopes to make his police detective, Fin Macleod, an equally strong character on TV, Fin has to be more assured and more likeable.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.