When we think of fictional sleuths, we often associate them with particular places. For example, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is associated with the village of St. Mary Mead, even though she does travel throughout the course of the stories that feature her. Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant travels frequently, but his home base is Saskatoon. There are sleuths, though, who aren’t tied to one place at all, really. Each novel in which they appear sees them in a different place. That approach to setting has the advantage of helping to maintain a series’ freshness. A change of setting allows for a lot of possibilities when it comes to plot and even character development. At the same time, there has to be a legitimate reason for not having what you’d call a ‘home base.’ Otherwise, a character or story can seem unrealistic. That said, though, there are some authors who’ve created sleuths like that.
For instance, Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver is a cultural anthropologist. Officially, he’s based in the US state of Washington, but his skills are very useful when, for instance, there’s a question of whether a set of remains could belong to a particular missing person. His expertise is sought after, and he’s been called to various places in the world to investigate. There are also novels in which he travels for research or to conferences. Each of the books takes the reader to a different sort of setting, and in each book, there’s a main plot with a particular unexplained death. Since Oliver has a very specific set of skills, it’s not hard to see how the different settings in the series would be believable.
Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is a former member of the US Army Military Police Corps. No longer actively serving in the armed forces, he travels the US, earning money by doing odd jobs and taking temporary work. So the novels featuring him take place in a number of different settings. This series is arguably more of a ‘thriller’ series than a traditional crime fiction series, so some of Reacher’s travels and investigations require letting go of disbelief. But for those who do enjoy thrillers, these allow the reader to experience different settings and different kinds of characters.
In Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat, we are introduced to U.S. National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon. Originally from New York City, she joined the National Park Service after the untimely death of her husband, Zachary, in a traffic accident. The first novel takes place in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, in Texas. After that, in A Superior Death, she is sent to Isle Royale National Park, in Michigan. The other novels in the series see her in other US national parks. The fact that Pigeon is a Ranger makes it believable that she might be transferred to one or another place. Those sorts of relocations happen quite a lot in real life. And in each mystery, she encounters a different cast of characters. The series is held together by a few ‘regulars’ such as Pigeon’s sister, Molly. But each story evolves in a different place.
That’s what happens in Simon Beckett’s Dr. David Hunter series, too. Hunter is a forensic expert. Because of those credentials and that expertise, he’s sometimes asked to get involved in cases where remains need to be studied. In The Chemistry of Death, the first of the series, he travels to the Norfolk village of Manham to serve as the local doctor. He’s coping with a personal tragedy; and in any case, he wants a break from forensics. Such is not to be, though. A series of baffling murders draws him into the investigation, and the case becomes even more urgent when he is identified as a suspect. He returns to London, but he is soon asked to analyze a set of remains found on a remote island in the Outer Hebrides (in Written in Bone). The other novels, too, take place in different locations. It’s believable that a forensic expert might investigate a variety of different cases in different locations, so that aspect of the series doesn’t strain disbelief (at least, not for me).
Another series that features several different settings is Colin Conway’s Cozy Up To… trilogy. These novels feature Beauregard ‘Beau’ Smith, a former member of Satan’s Dawgs, a motorcycle gang. As the gang’s ‘accountant,’ his job was to ‘take care of’ people the gang had targeted. Smith was caught, and he agreed to join the US Witness Protection Program in exchange for telling the FBI everything he knew about the gang. As a part of the program, of course, he’s given a new identity and a new residence. In Cozy Up to Death, he runs a mystery bookshop in Maine. In Cozy Up to Murder, he’s moved to a California seaside tourist town, where he runs a music shop. In Cozy Up to Blood, Smith gets marooned on an Oregon island when a storm makes it impossible to enter or leave the place. In each of those settings, there’s at least one murder. Smith isn’t by nature one to investigate crime, but he feels he has no choice since he’s usually the suspect, especially after his past comes to light.
There are believable ways in which a protagonist might move from setting to setting in the course of a series. It’s not easy to do, since most of tend not to be so nomadic. But when it’s done well, a regular change of setting can add interest to a series.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Be My Wife.
10 thoughts on “I’ve Lived All Over the World*”
Great post, Margot. It’s not something I’ve really thought about TBH. With Pronzini’s Nameless series I enjoy the near-permanency of the setting of San Francisco. I’ve read maybe a dozen or so of them and the setting is almost a character in the books. Admittedly he does travel a little bit on occasions. Thanks for the reminder of Conway’s Cozy. I really must read the third in the series soon. Again, with this one I enjoy the variety of the locations. I guess I’m happy to go wherever the author wants to take me,
Thanks for the kind words, Col – glad you enjoyed the post. I agree with you that San Francisco is a really integral part of the Nameless series; I don’t think it’d be the same in another setting. There are other series like that, too. And yet, there are series that change setting, and that actually suits them. Perhaps it’s a matter of the sort of series it is, and, as you say, where the author wants to go with it.
I like when setting is so strong it doubles as a character. I wonder if the series that change setting have to compensate with even stronger characters? I’ve just begun Elizabeth Peters Amelia Peabody series where she dashes off to various locations as an Egyptologist, but so far as I’ve gotten the locations are not so different (see one Victorian era dig you’ve seen them all?).
Keeping to one setting can also be a challenge if the series goes on too long (Cabot Cove) or if the author feels a bit tied down and wants to avoid the Jessica Fletcher dilemma like Louise Penny who began venturing away from Three Pines. I’m sure there are readers who prefer the Three Pines books over the others and vice versa.
I think you’re probably right, Anthony, about Louise Penny’s fans. Many (I confess to being one of them) like the Three Pines books better. In those books, the setting really is, as you say, so strong it’s a character in itself. And I’m with you on that, by the way. When a setting is that well-depicted, so that you feel you’re there, it adds so much to a story. For those series where the setting changes, there has to be a logical reason, or (at least to me) the setting change can seem jarring. And you’ve given me some ‘food for thought’ about the characters in books like that. Perhaps they are even stronger….Hmm… I think as far as avoiding the ‘Cabot Cove Syndrome,’ it can be useful to have the protagonist do some traveling (like your Russell Quant does). That way, you have a familiar ‘home base,’ but at the same time, you have more flexibility to create plot points and so on. Perhaps that’s a way to make sure a series stays fresh, but still have a solid foundation.
Margot: Thanks for an interesting post.
With regard to traveling sleuths I thought of the Ava Lee series by Ian Hamilton. Making Ava Lee a forensic accountant and then businesswoman have her credibly traveling the world. Her home base of Toronto has become less and less important through the series.
With regard to Anthony’s comment on sleuths going away from a strongly established setting I am in the camp preferring them to solve murders at home. Go on vacation in the periods between novels.
One of the most uncomfortable books taking sleuths away from home was Robert B. Parker’s. book Potshot in which Spenser and Hawk go to Arizona. The lifelong Bostonians are an ill fit in the Arizona dessert.
Thanks, Bill, for mentioning the Ava Lee series. I agree that it’s a good example of a series where the sleuth’s travel is credible. And interesting to see how she’s spent more and more time ‘on the road’ as the series has gone on. I wonder if that was Hamilton’s choice, or reader/publisher feedback.
I know what you mean about a strongly established setting, too. There are, for instance, a few of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels where Wolfe goes elsewhere, and they never work as well for me as do the books where he’s in his brownstone. And, yes, Spenser and Hawk belong in Boston.
I like sleuths moving around, people do that in real life. It prevents boredom and over-familiarity with a locked-in setting opening the door for an observant reader to notice possible discrepancies about the location. But I like the security of a fixed location too. A little adventure away from home cannot be bad I am sure. Thanks, so interesting.
Thanks, Jane – I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! You outline the balance really effectively, too. On the one hand you want the stability of a regular setting, and long-term characters who add to it. On the other, it can be a bit claustrophobic, especially if the setting is a small town. So it can be nice to have a bit of different scenery, too!
LikeLiked by 1 person
A dilemma for us all when trying to keep our writing fresh.
That’s quite true, Jane!