A Sense of Place
“Why did you set your mystery series in the U.K.?” Good question.
An American writing about the British Isles isn’t unheard of (think Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie, G. M. Malliet), but it isn’t the norm. Write what you know is a piece of advice endorsed by none other than Jane Austen. “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on,” she famously advised her teenage niece, Anna, in 1814. That’s the world Jane lived in, knew best, and wrote about. So why did I, a Midwesterner, choose to set my mystery series in the UK?
I could answer that question by appealing to tradition. Many of the writers who established the conventions and clichés of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction were British: Agatha Christie, Cyril Hare, Ngaio Marsh, Freeman Crofts, Josephine Tey, Edmund Crispin, and many others. Today’s crime writers often toss those conventions overboard, but at least we acknowledge the debt we owe those who laid the foundations on which we build.
And then I could mention the TV series that have entertained and enthralled generations of mystery lovers: Agatha Christie’s Marple and Poirot, Morse, Midsomer Murders, Father Brown, Sherlock Holmes, Rumpole of the Bailey, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Taggart, to name a few of the older ones. Americans have learned the jargon. We understand what SOCCO means. We know the differences among a PC, a DS, and a DCI. We’ve even learned to decipher the accents—or we know how to turn on the subtitles. Spending an hour or two solving crimes in the UK has become as common in America as drinking tea or negotiating roundabouts.
But the real answer to the question of why I’ve set my mystery series in the UK is simple: I’m a full-fledged, died-in-the-wool, card-carrying Anglophile. My love affair with all things British began one sunny afternoon in my eleventh or twelfth year when I happened upon P.G. Wodehouse in the fiction stacks of my local library in Rockford, Illinois. I’d never read anything so witty. Neither had my friends. In discovering the inane Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, the ultimate “gentleman’s gentleman,” I felt as if I’d made a discovery as monumental as detecting a second moon or stumbling upon a new species of elephant. P. G. Wodehouse and his cast of eccentrics were my own personal treasures.
Along with the humor, I also fell in love with the iconic fictional English village. Yes, Bertie Wooster had a flat in London’s Mayfair, but his most memorable adventures (at least the ones I remember) lured him out of the city and into the English countryside. While not actual murder mysteries, stories like “Strychnine in the Soup” and “Crime Wave at Blandings” introduced me to the crime, criminals, and cunning detectives of rural England (Wodehouse-style). “One does see so much evil in a village,” explained Miss Marple in The Body in the Library. There’s no place on earth as deadly as an idyllic English village. Or, like the humor of P. G. Wodehouse itself, as deliciously incongruous.
If you’re a writer, what settings have you chosen and why? How do those settings determine or impact the kind of stories you write?
If you’re a reader (and we’re all readers, right?), are there settings you prefer?
I was behind a woman at the bookstore yesterday who bought a stack of English mysteries to take on vacation….. from Georgette Heyer to the present. It did my heart good!
In my opinion, there’s nothing better. Great stories, beautiful writing, and a virtual vacation. Long live those classic mysteries!
Oh how I love a British mystery, pretty much any mystery set in the U.K. That’s what I read, but not what I write. Maybe you’ve given me something to think about, Connie.
There’s nothing quite like the British countryside to turn a person’s thoughts towards murder. Is it the bucolic countryside or the rain or the copious amounts of tea? I don’t know, but I was nearly twenty before I realized that murder mysteries could be set anywhere else. Love your thoughts on this, Connie!
Yes! The more the merrier. On the Malice panel (Murder With A Sense of Place), I met Marti Wingate who writes mysteries based in the UK. We discovered we’d both patterned our fictional villages after the same real village in Suffolk. There are two stately homes in that village. She’d taken one, and I’d taken the other. I cannot get enough of the UK!
Ever since I fell in love with Rosamund Pilcher ages ago, I’m a die hard lover of all UK stories. I can reread her books like no one else. Mostly because I imagine getting to live in Cornwall… That picture of the cottage is so lovely!
If you can’t move there, you can rent one for a week or two!
What a delightful piece. I can see I am going to have to expand my reading horizons…
Thank you, Honoria. I hope you take a literary journey to the UK this summer.