A J Waines – The Importance of Settings
In the third of her Featured Author posts A.J. Waines looks at the importance of settings.
One of the major appeals for UK readers of Nordic Noir and Scandi Crime novels has to be the settings. In Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland – the climate is perfect for a grisly murder to take place. Conditions are harsh with heavy winters and prolonged periods of deep snow. Furthermore, crime’s ‘best friend’ – darkness – can last for a full twenty-four hours during parts of the winter, couching areas in permanent ‘night time’. There’s a brooding quality about the stark light and atmosphere, so the resulting settings are perfect for sinister goings-on.
The conditions of Northern Europe are sufficiently familiar for us in the UK to imagine, but are just off our radar in terms of actual experience, which gives them their appeal. As a nation preoccupied with complaining about the weather, it’s a vicarious pleasure for us to visit a more challenging landscape in our minds, but to keep it at a distance in reality.
But, how important is setting? Enigmatically, I’d say ‘very’ and ‘not at all’.
In the UK, there are certain writers we always associate with place: Ian Rankin and Edinburgh, Ann Cleeves with The Shetlands, Colin Dexter and Oxford. There are also plenty of crime novels that are not particularly place-dependent and barely mention a specific location at all. I’m not sure Until Your Mine by Samantha Hayes needs to be tied to a specific locality and Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes isn’t location-dependent (although the authors might disagree with me!)
Any crime needs to be rooted in its historical, geographical and physical context, but sometimes this can be Anytime, Anytown, Anyclimate, because the real focus is on the relationships and interactions between people. There is also the question of whether a chosen location is real or imaginary. A fictional city, for example, needs work to convey an unknown map of landmarks to the reader and an existing city also needs care in order to print the writer’s own atmospheric stamp on it.
Some stories cannot be separated from their location. The original idea for my novel The Evil Beneath came ready-made in its own setting – The Thames. I pictured the corpse of a woman in the river under a bridge – Hammersmith Bridge to be exact – and the rest of the story is based on more bodies appearing under different London bridges. It had to be the Thames – the story needed bridges galore in a very public place and the river needed to be tidal, an aspect that becomes clear further into the book. The bridges also needed to be distinctive and with undergrowth or details, such as ramps or steps. I couldn’t imagine the story working in Paris or Rome. Besides, it gave me the chance to carry out ‘research’ in London, my former home and favourite city!
It’s hard to imagine Morse solving crimes based on a small town ‘Polytechnic’ – he needed the gravitas of Oxford, and to be up against the snobbery, elitism and sense of entitlement inherent in many of the crimes in Dexter’s fictional world.
And try shifting Andrea Camilleri’s Montelbano from Sicily to Southend-on-Sea… Part of the charm is the lush scenery, crumbling old stone buildings, classical architecture, the vibrant harbour, the blue sea just outside Montelbano’s window. The storylines are steeped in Italian culture too; melodramatic, full of men in leading roles (no tough Jane Tennison types, here) and crimes solved the old-fashioned way using instinct and informants with barely any forensics in sight.
What is wonderful is that writers and readers can choose. Writers can set their story in a confined space (Room by Emma Donoghue) or on the Alps, (such as When Nights were Cold by Susanna Jones). Readers can decide whether they want to escape to a village-green mystery in St Mary Mead or be chilled and thrilled in a dark cellar.
In which case, what we’re really talking about is the universal importance of ‘atmosphere’. Tiny pockmarks on the surface of the water… Icicles forming like dried glue on the inside of the window… Settings can be ‘in here’ or ‘out there’ – but atmosphere in a crime novel is essential, wherever it takes place.
AJ Waines is a Crime Fiction Writer, specialising in Psychological Thrillers. Her first two novels The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train reached No 1 in ‘Murder’ in the UK Kindle Charts. She has an Agent and publishing deals in France and Germany (Random House) and draws on over fifteen years of experience as a Psychotherapist, including work with clients from high security prisons. She lives in Southampton, UK, with her husband.