As in all genres, the mystery category enjoys trends or fads that capture readers’ attention and garner critical acclaim for a few months or a few years. Think of the ongoing influx of Scandinavian mysteries or the continuing fascination with serial killers or even spillover from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series resulting in an upsurge of vampire mysteries. Sometimes these trends unfairly obscure the strong body of work represented in less flashy if just as substantial subgenres—in particular, regional mysteries.
Regional mysteries are distinguished in part by the setting being as important as the human characters who inhabit it. As such, the regional mystery has a long and distinguished history, and it’s possible to speak meaningfully of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles or Sherlock Holmes’s London or even Spenser’s Boston.
But big cities change rapidly, sometimes seem interchangeable, and often have many claimants, whereas the six authors examined here have staked paramount claims to venues as small as Maggody, Ark., or as vast as Alaska. In these novels the whole environment is an important shaper of the characters and the action of the novels.
These mystery authors are able to focus on a particular area with the precision of a cartographer and the subtlety of a psychologist to create a world that readers from anywhere can recognize. They probe the divides in their community that are as pronounced or as deeply buried as the geographical faults beneath land and sea. And when they also manage to create characters who skillfully navigate that world, they have a series that not only resonates locally or regionally, but that has universal appeal.
These six authors, who exemplify the ability to create both a vivid setting and vivid characters, vary tremendously in their approaches. Some use humor, some deal with national boundaries, some with religious issues, but all of them deal with conflicts that arise in conjunction with their setting. Borders—sometimes real, sometimes artificial—separate people in the region and create conflicts.
Archer Mayor’s Vermonter Joe Gunther deals not only with state borders in the crowded Northeast but also with the Canadian border. Steven F. Havill’s Bill Gastner and Estelle Reyes-Guzman often find complications because of the nearby Mexico border. Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak has social as well as physical borders separating Alaska’s Native Americans and other settlers. P.L. Gaus deals with the psychic borders between the Amish communities of central Ohio and their non-Amish neighbors. In Joan Hess’s Arly Hanks mysteries, any stranger who comes to Arly’s small Ozark town of Maggody is an outsider, and these visitors find their way there for many obscure reasons. The divide in Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott series, set in North Carolina, is less easy to define, but often occurs along the borders of class—money and lineage on one side and their lack on the other.
These authors, despite few commonalities of style, share a deep understanding of the place and the people each of them writes about. That sense of history and geography is apparent from comments like this from Archer Mayor, whose 23rd Joe Gunther novel, Paradise City, is coming from Minotaur in October; he says that he began his writing life as a historian: “It was my intention from the start to make geography as much a character as the humans inhabiting it.”
Stabenow, whose 18th Shugak mystery is Restless in the Grave (Minotaur, Feb. 2012), covers a much vaster territory, yet echoes that philosophy: “I wrote a column for Alaska Magazine, where I spent five years traveling around Alaska and writing about it. I grab every opportunity that comes my way to go anywhere and everywhere in Alaska. I do my best to adhere to that old writer’s dictum: write what you know.”
Likewise P.L. Gaus, whose most recent novel, Harmless as Doves, was published by Ohio University in 2011, calls himself “an explorer and sojourner” in Holmes County for more than 30 years and notes, “Every day brings me in contact with Amish society in some way or another, and I have been particularly good over the years at keeping my eyes and ears open.”
All six of these authors are attuned to the divisions within their communities and the social and economic shifts that cause or exacerbate tensions, and they often probe these divides in their novels.
Maron, whose 18th Deborah Knott mystery, The Buzzard Table, will be published by Grand Central in November, observes, “Good manners compel us to say that we live in a classless, color-blind society... but the reality is that those divisions are merely papered over. The seams are still there under that fragile pretense. Rich-on-poor crimes are never as vigorously prosecuted as when the rich is victim and the poor a perpetrator.”
Gaus explains that in Holmes County, “we have a lot of impatience with Amish practices. Many of the English [non-Amish] folk tolerate them well, but others do not. You see the clash on the highways when an impatient motorist dislikes getting trapped behind a slow buggy. But it shows up elsewhere. There is always tension and conflict at the cultural interface, and disputes are common.”
Havill, whose 18th Posadas County mystery, One Perfect Shot, was published in January by Poisoned Pen, gives an example of the changes and damages wrought by the intrusion of a physical border. In The Fourth Time Is Murder (2008), Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman visits the little border town of Regal, N.Mex. Havill says that Regal “essentially struggles with not being ruined by the harsh lights and wire of the border crossing just feet away. It used to be a neighborhood of dirt lanes and apple trees and folks walking to work—on either side of the border. Now all of that pastoral nature has been wrecked, and it’s sad.”
In Kate Shugak, Stabenow has created a character who is ideally constructed to deal with the divisions rife in Alaskan communities. Stabenow describes thusly: “She was born Alaska Native, raised partly in a white family, and then sent away to school in one of Alaska’s larger cities, Fairbanks. Because of this, she is able to cross cultural, geographical, and ethnic divides in a way few of her generation can.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Stabenow’s series is that while Kate is respectful of her Native heritage and elders, she’s reluctant to be drawn more closely into their affairs, but her grandmother, Ekaterina, is shrewd enough and persistent enough to gradually overcome her reluctance as is Auntie Joy, another of the elders. This allows Kate not only to explore her heritage but, as the PW review of Blood Will Tell (1996) put it, to be “an eloquent voice for Native Alaskan concerns in changing times.”
All these authors incorporate social issues into their novels, some of which are unique or peculiar in the way they manifest themselves in their region, but which are also universally recognizable in principle. For instance, in A Night Too Dark (2010), Stabenow explores the impact of modern gold mining in the Iqaluk Wildlife Refuge. Her fictional Suultutaq Mine is based on the recently discovered Pebble Mine located upstream of the best commercial salmon-fishing area in the world, Bristol Bay. Stabenow says, “The Pebble Mine is the single most divisive issue in Alaska today, pitting miners against fishermen and developers against environmentalists.”
Asked if she has difficulty avoiding being too one-sided or “preachy” when dealing with such issues, Stabenow says: “Very, and I can only hope and pray that I rein in that impulse most of the time.”
Maron also focuses on social issues in her novels. “My plots always flow from the issues I focus on,” she says. Among those she has dealt with are integration, migrant workers, and land development. “I do know that I am writing to entertain and I try not to let my soapbox show,” Maron says. “Although I do get flak from conservative readers, who dislike Deborah’s [Judge Deborah Knott] progressive mindset and prefer their mysteries without politics, I don’t feel that I can write honestly of the region if I don’t show negatives alongside the positives and that includes politics.”
Gaus uses three chief protagonists in his novels that help illumine the relationships between the Amish and the English: Professor Michael Branden, well-known and well respected by the Amish; Pastor Caleb Troyer of the independent Church of Christ, the most sympathetic to Amish ways; and Sheriff Bruce Robertson, who is considerably less sympathetic. “These three men give me the opportunity to show the range of reaction to Amish people,” Gaus says. “The disagreements among my main characters provide most of the spark that lets me illumine Amish culture and society.”
While the encroaching modern world particularly affects the Amish, they also share some of the same problems all communities are facing. Certain of his novels are more specifically concerned with what Gaus calls “the allure of the modern world.” In spite of that allure, Gaus notes, “Amish families and churches retain better than 80% of their young people. They also have much larger families. So the Amish population in Holmes County is growing faster than the English or Yankee population.”
Mayor’s Joe Gunther began as a cop in the Brattleboro, Vt., police department, and is, since The Marble Mask (2000), head of the (fictional) Vermont Bureau of Investigation. Mayor explains that he “was intent on not creating a Murder She Wrote geography, where people were mangled and killed again and again within the confines of a small community, so instead I had him traveling, virtually from the get-go.”
Mayor has dealt with numerous familiar issues in his novels including, for example, the conflict between developers and preservationists. He says that while the state’s population is small, “the quality, the variety, of our problems aren’t that different from elsewhere. We shouldn’t forget that behind all those quaint farmhouses and plump cows and ski slopes is a state where most people I know—including me—have multiple jobs just to make ends meet.”
While all of these authors use humor at least occasionally and demonstrate their considerable wit in various ways, Joan Hess, whose 16th Arly Hanks mystery, The Merry Wives of Maggody, was published in 2010 by Minotaur, is the only one of them who uses humor as a principal ingredient in all of her Hanks mysteries. In the little town of Maggody, Ark., population still hovering around 800 souls, any outsider automatically comes under suspicion. Even Arly, who had the temerity to leave Maggody for a while, had to regain trust when she returned and became the little town’s police chief in the first novel in the series, Malice in Maggody (1987). “Strangers in town stick out like warts on a bullock’s behind, which eliminates the possibility of the random violence one might find in a city. Arly knows all of them, although she often underestimates their capacity for the absurd. I see it as a microcosm, okay, possibly mutant, that in its peculiar way reflects the reality of any neighborhood.”
Because Maggody is so small, Hess says, “With the exception of two books, I have had to bring in fresh blood. No group arrives and subsequently leaves with all of the original members.” And bring them in she does as Maggody is a strong magnet for kooks of all sorts, and often ones that don’t get along well with Maggody’s resident kooks. For example, in Miracles in Maggody (1995), televangelist Malachi Hope arrives with dreams of opening a Christian theme park and holding laser-lit revival meetings.
While the residents of Maggody are frequently the butt of Hess’s humor, it’s never malicious and seems to grow out of affection rather than superiority. Hess says, “I tend to laugh at ’em, to be honest, although with affection. They’re sincere, even when they’re mired in hypocrisy and/or self-delusion. Yes, some of them are stereotypes, but I’ve met them all in my wanderings in the boonies. Arly’s still working on seeing the humorous side of some of them, particularly the ones she has to scrape off the barroom floor every Saturday night.”
While these authors have earned the designation of regional mystery authors—casting a strong light and intelligent focus on one particular area of the country—they deal with universal issues of humanity even when they cloak them in Amish garb or Ozark humor or some other guise. Which is to say that their appeal is far wider than mere regionalism and deserves an audience as large and varied as their combined scope.
Bob Hahn is a former book editor for the Cincinati Post, book critic for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine since 2003, and PW freelance reviewer sicne 1996.
Florida Mysteries: Perils, Paradise, Paradox, by Suzanne Fox
Many readers date the beginning of Florida crime writing to 1964, with the appearance of the first of John D. MacDonald’s color-themed thrillers, The Deep Blue Good-By. In truth, mysteries set in the state were a pulp staple long before the introduction of Travis McGee and his Ft. Lauderdale houseboat, though few gained more than passing readership. By the time the final McGee mystery, The Lonely Silver Rain, appeared the year before its author’s death in 1985, MacDonald had become a literary icon and the Florida mystery gold rush of modern times had begun. Though much has changed in Florida since MacDonald’s day, the tensions so inspiring to mystery writers luckily have not.
Arguably the state’s most iconic thriller writer, Carl Hiaasen has become famous for his outlandish imagination. Yet the longtime columnist for the Miami Herald says, “Nothing that happens in my books, no matter how twisted, transcends the reality of South Florida.” The author’s latest, Chomp (Knopf, Mar. 2012)—his fourth thriller for young readers—opens when a frozen iguana falls out of a palm tree, an image the author gleaned from the evening news. Hiaasen’s affectionately offbeat vision of his native state is seen in microcosm in his most popular recurring character, Clinton “Skink” Tyree. A former Florida governor so maddened by corruption that he flees into the wild, Skink eats roadkill, has an oversized glass eye, and makes vigilante assaults on greedy real estate developers. Like Skink, Hiaasen’s Florida is a strange amalgam: part natural and part artificial, at once self-destructive and self-protective, drawn from the real but wholly improbable.
Tim Dorsey’s Serge A. Storms is also a vigilante, who protects Florida by killing those that blight its tourism industry, always in whimsically inventive ways. In just one of the many crimes in the author’s 15th entry, Pineapple Grenade (Morrow, Jan. 2012), the civic-minded serial killer turns an airport carjacker into “the so-called Hollow Man,” an “empty torso with no external wounds, like all his organs had been magically scooped out.” Like Hiaasen a former journalist—he served as both a reporter and editor for the Tampa Tribune—Dorsey has an appreciation for Florida’s muted beauties as well as its potential for mayhem. Among Pineapple Grenade’s surprisingly poignant locations is Stiltsville, a group of 1930s houses in Biscayne Bay that preservationists are currently battling to save.
The clash between the state’s beauty and human destruction also figures into the work of James W. Hall, a longtime professor at Florida International University and author of Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers (Random, Apr. 2012). In Dead Last (Minotaur, Nov. 2011), Hall’s 12th novel featuring Thorn, the Key Largo recluse confronts mortality in the form of his wife’s death and a series of murders oddly linked to obituaries. In addition to its tropes of birth and death, solitude and connection, Dead Last plays on Florida’s contrasts of nature and culture. “Thorn watched the summer sky filling with honeyed dust,” Hall writes. “Nothing the city fathers could ever build, nothing any developer could devise... could ever rival the simple interplay of tropical light and salt-laden air that was freely provided every day. They might as well stop trying.”
On the other side of the state, Randy Wayne White makes good use of the knowledge gained in his years as a Gulf Coast fishing guide (as well as a writer for Outside magazine) in his mysteries featuring marine biologist and black-ops agent Marion “Doc” Ford. The latest installment, Chasing Midnight (Putnam, Mar. 2012), brings Ford to one of Florida’s luxurious private islands, where he infiltrates a gathering of black-market beluga kings that is crashed by a group of apparent eco-extremists. White’s novels make overt use of his knowledge of Florida waters and wildlife; less obviously but no less powerfully, they build on his complex vision of the many ways the life of contemporary Florida is shaped by interests from beyond the state.
Though rich ground for thrillers, Florida does produce cozies as well. Deborah Sharp’s Mace Bauer series evokes a state fueled by sweet tea rather than swamp water or steroids. Florida native Sharp was a reporter for USA Today before launching her comic mysteries set in fictional Himmarshee, which the author based loosely on real Okeechobee. In the series’ fourth book, Mama Sees Stars, (Midnight Ink, Sept. 2011), a Hollywood crew comes to Himmarshee to make a cowboy film. Mace’s mother, the self-absorbed Mama of the title, writes herself a starring role—at least until the odious executive producer is shot. Sharp’s Florida is gentler than Hiaasen’s or Dorsey’s, and less edgy than Hall’s or White’s. But like the state all of them depict, it is still a place of paradox: at once natural and artificial, frontier and theme park, stubbornly enduring and deeply vulnerable to change.
Florida freelance writer and editor Suzanne Fox regularly reviews for PW.