Five Reasons Setting is Important in a Mystery Novel

All about setting

In honor of the publication of Michele’s latest standalone mystery novel, Oh Danny Girl, which is set Boston and one of the most Irish towns on the South Shore of Massachusetts, I thought this would be a good time to look at some of the reasons that setting is important to mystery readers. The right setting draws the reader in to the mystery, while the wrong setting can leave the whole story flat.

Setting grounds the characters

Some mysteries would fall flat without the strong setting surrounding the character. Think of how Robert B. Parker’s Spenser roamed around Boston, casually dropping in to places that local people knew and that out-of-towners had at least heard of. Hank Phillippi Ryan follows in his footsteps, since, like Hank, all the characters in her mystery and thriller books live in Boston or surrounding areas.

Going back as far as the mysteries of Agatha Christie, we can see immediately that setting matters to a mystery. From genteel drawing rooms at the vicarage to the Orient Express and the Nile River, we had an immediate feeling for Christie’s character’s surroundings.

Oh Danny Girl feels authentic as well, based on Michele’s life in the Boston area. The town of Hatherly is a town very much like Scituate, a very Irish-American town that Michele knows well.

Setting defines the mood

The setting of a mystery novel defines the mood of the story. Connie’s Scottish time travel stories have a misty, almost romantic feeling, while Susan’s Maggie Dove books extoll the joys and trials and claustrophobia of life in a small town.

Try to consider reading Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mystery novels if they were set anywhere but the bucolic Three Pines, and the contrasting faster, harsher, more political co‑setting of Montreal. It can’t be done. The books would be totally different without the two perfectly drawn settings, co-existing in harmony to help us understand Gamache.

Tony Hillerman’s books, set in the Southwest, have the feeling of a harsh, hot sun, beating down on the reader. Susan Elia MacNeil’s Maggie Hope historical thrillers couldn’t happen anywhere but war-torn London, where danger comes from all directions. In these mystery books, as in so many others, the setting is so strong as to almost become a character in its own right.

Setting attracts new readers

Readers who are interested in a particular area may select a mystery novel set in that region either to enjoy the feeling of familiarity or to learn more about the lives and habits of the region’s residents. 

My own Fin Fleming mysteries are set in the Cayman Islands, which I’ve visited numerous times, and readers enjoy the authenticity of the setting. They tell me they love to read about restaurants they’ve eaten at, places they’ve visited, or the dive sites they’ve been on.

Other readers, who may be planning or dreaming of visiting the Cayman Islands—or learning to scuba dive—sometimes choose to read the Fin Fleming mystery novels to become immersed in the setting.

Setting helps immerse the reader

In Deep has been called “instantly immersive,” and the setting plays a huge part in that. The opening pages put the reader in the ocean, freediving (that means without gear) to more than two hundred feet of depth. They feel the cold, the dark, the fear, right along with the characters, because the book is written in the first person.

When Spenser looks out of his office window and sees the Dunkin’ across the street or runs along the Longfellow Bridge while gazing at the Charles River, we know where he is, even if we’ve never been there ourselves. We’re with him, right from the start, ready to follow him wherever his latest mystery takes him.

Setting adds variety to a series

No matter how delightful a setting may be, eventually the reader yearns for the mystery novel to happen someplace new. It’s a great idea to send characters on a road trip. Lucy Burdette’s Key West Food Critic mysteries recently took a jaunt to Scotland, and Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire crossed the border into Mexico in one of his recent mystery novels.

The point is, as long as the author “draws” the setting with enough detail to surround the mystery while staying true to the characters we love, a quick change in setting can revitalize a mystery series.

What do you think about the role of setting in a Mystery Novel?

So Readers. Have you ever chosen to read a mystery novel based solely on its setting? Does the setting matter to you as you read? Can you tell whether an author’s understanding of a setting is based on real world experience or armchair travel courtesy of Google? Let us know how you feel about setting in the mysteries you choose to read.

And by the way, congratulations to Michele on the publication of Oh Danny Girl. I’ve read it, and I can say without a doubt you are in for a treat with her latest mystery.

Sharon Ward Author of Mystery Novels In Deep and Sunken Death–and the soon to be released Dark Tide. get started reading the Fin Fleming Sea Adventure Thriller series.

Mystery Author Sharon Ward
Sharon Ward
The Fin Fleming Mystery Series
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3 thoughts on “Five Reasons Setting is Important in a Mystery Novel

  1. Thanks, Sharon. I agree setting is as important as any character in a novel, especially a mystery because that’s how atmosphere is created. Hatherly is actually based on what will always be my home town, no matter where I live. I wonder how many readers will recognize is as Scituate, Massachusetts?

  2. Setting is often almost its own character in a novel. Fantasy novels in particular have to set up a different world. But I love the cozy mystery set in a small town. I like to imagine visiting the cute restaurants and walking down the charming Main St. It’s also fun to go on an adventure without getting jet lag or your feet wet-as in the Fin Fleming mysteries.

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