So Forget What You’ve Heard, What You Think You Know*

An interesting post from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about the way we perceive certain places. FictionFan’s post mentioned Glasgow, and the reputation it’s gotten over the years for being gang- and thug-ridden. And plenty of crime fiction set in Glasgow has played on that reputation. The fact is, though, that modern Glasgow is a lot more than a gangland. Yes, of course, there are thugs there, as there are in any big city (and plenty of smaller ones, too!). But Glasgow has highly regarded universities, fine dining, parks, museums, and all of the other things you’ll find in a major city. The ‘gangland’ reputation just doesn’t fit the city. Authors such as Val McDermid, whose 1979 takes place in Glasgow, show Glasgow’s many sides. Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy and, of course, the work of William McIlvanney also show a broader picture of Glasgow.

A lot of people think of Hollywood as just the film industry, rich film stars, hugely expensive restaurants and mansions, and so on. But that part of Los Angeles is a lot more than the film industry. And even the film industry has changed since the ‘Golden Years’ of the early 20th Century. Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters series takes place in the 1940’s and captures that ‘Golden Age’ atmosphere, and that’s appropriate for that series. But that’s not really Hollywood (or Los Angeles, for the matter of that). Hollywood is also insurance brokers, car washes, small, family-owned stores, and a lot more. And Los Angeles is even more complex and diverse. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller (and now, Renée Ballard) series present a more complete and balanced picture of Hollywood and Los Angeles. So does the work of Robert Crais, whose Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series also takes place in that area.

If I say ‘Las Vegas,’ my guess is, the first thing you’ll think of is gambling and casinos. It’s also got a reputation for being Mob-run. And it is true that the city has some history with the Mob. But the reality is, Las Vegas isn’t really the ‘Mob town’ a lot of people imagine. Today, the big casino resorts are owned by large corporations like MGM Growth Properties and the Blackstone Group. The famous Las Vegas Strip has, of course, casino resorts, fancy restaurants, and so on. But most of Las Vegas is a city like a lot of other cities. There are small shops, run-down areas, nicer areas, bus stops, supermarkets and schools, like anywhere else. To be honest, almost all the Las Vegas-based crime fiction I’ve read (and read about) has a focus on gambling, casinos, the Mob, and heists. It’d be interesting to read a novel that gives a broader view of the city. I’m open to suggestions…

One of the things people don’t always remember about Toronto is just how diverse it really is. There are people from all over the world, and smaller communities within the city that represent dozens of different cultures. It’s not just made of First Nations people and descendants of French and English settlers. There’s world-class dining, sports, and entertainment – and also homelessness, poverty, and more. Robert Rotenberg’s and Ian Hamilton’s novels give readers a sense of the complexity and diversity of the people who live in Toronto. And Jill Edmondson and John McFetridge explore some of the sides of Toronto that don’t get into the tourist brochures.

Mumbai is, of course, the home of the very lucrative Bollywood industry. And a lot of people think of that when they think of Mumbai. But the reality is, there’s a lot more to Mumbai than just Bollywood. For example, although Bangalore/Bangalaru is the biggest hub of India’s high-tech industry, Mumbai is also an important high-tech hub. It’s also India’s commercial capital. And it’s a place where many people from other parts of the country go to pursue their dreams. It’s a large, complex city, and more diverse than you might think. So, novels that just focus on the poverty in the city miss some important aspects of it. So do novels that just show us the glittering life of a Bollywood star. Kalpana Swaminathan’s Lalli novels, and Vaseem Khan’s Ganesha novels show several different sides of Mumbai, and give the reader an authentic look at life there.

There are plenty of other places, too, that are much more than (or very different to) their reputation. That’s why a well-written story gives readers a real look at the setting for the story. Which cities do you think are a lot more than people may believe?

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration! Now, please treat yourself to a visit to FictionFan’s great blog. Well-written reviews and great commentary await you.

ps. The ‘photo is of Las Vegas’ famous Strip. There’s a lot more to the city than that…

 

*NOTE: The title of this song is a line from Danny Gokey’s More Than You Think I Am.

 

 


8 thoughts on “So Forget What You’ve Heard, What You Think You Know*

  1. Really interesting, Margot, and I think we do often have preconceived ideas about places which are actually far from the truth. Glasgow is a good case in point, of course, even giving its name to a physical assault! But it’s actually a very cultural city, I believe, and proof that you should always dig a little deeper to find out what a place is really like!

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    1. Exactly, KBR! It’s a mistake to be confined to preconceived notions, as they are often simply not true. I am not intimately familiar with Glasgow, but I know enough about it to know that that ‘gangs and thugs’ reputation doesn’t do the city justice, especially not in these days! As you say, digging a little deeper is the best way to really find out the truth about a place.

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  2. Thanks for the link and the kind words, Margot, and I’m glad the post gave you inspiration! Yes, I guess I spend so much time tooth-gnashing over Glasgow’s unfair reputation that I don’t notice so much when it happens to other cities. You’re right about Las Vegas – I can’t think of any book, film or TV series that isn’t all about the casinos and the Mob. And it’s really through chatting to Canadian book bloggers and reading their reviews of home-grown books that I’ve become aware of how diverse Canadian cities have become – we certainly have a tendency to think of Canadians as all being descendants of Scots! Chicago is probably another city like Glasgow – when I think Chicago I’m afraid I think of gangs, but I’m sure that there’s probably much more to the city that we don’t see so much of.

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    1. It’s always a pleasure to share your excellent blog and posts, FictionFan! And you are right about the way Glasgow’s been portrayed. I’m sure it does drive you to distraction; I know it would me. As for Las Vegas, I really would love to read a good crime novel (or even not a crime novel, but a good novel) that shows what the city is like off the Strip. It’s not what most people think of, and I’d love see it portrayed accurately. The closest I ever came was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The two murderers in the book stay for a time in Las Vegas, and not on the Strip. But that’s just a very short bit, with no real insight into the city. You make an interesting point about Chicago, too. In my opinion, Sara Paretsky does a pretty fair job of portraying the city in a broader and more accurate way. There are other Chicago-based novels I’ve read, too, that do that. But it’s honestly few and far between! And you know, reading Canadian crime fiction, and getting to know some great Canadian bloggers/friends, really helped me to understand better just how diverse the country is, especially in the cities. See? Crime fiction is educational!

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  3. As I read your excellent post I thought of how cities have different identities, especially physically and in residents, over centuries. The smoky dark London of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper have been replaced by the image of a contemporary London of clear skies and bright lights. The Mumbai of today was not the Bombay of a century ago. Early in the 20th Century it was ruled by the British with the strong influence of such minorities as the Parsi, as reflected in the Perveen Mistry series by Sujata Massey. The current city you describe in the post is so different from the days in which Mistry was the first female lawyer in the city.

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    1. You’re absolutely right, Bill, that cities do change their identities over time. Mumbai and London are both really fine examples of the way that’s happened. And in fact, that’s what’s happened to Glasgow. A century or so ago, Glasgow earned its reputation for being a gangland. That changed, though, beginning in the 1920s. Today, it’s a very different place. I think a lot of factors (population changes, globalism, economic factors, and other things) contribute to those changes. A city may keep certain aspects of its unique identity, but cities do change over time.

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  4. It’s funny in that when I read books set in certain locales I DO have an expectation that a certain theme or backdrop is going to be a feature of the book. Glagow – gangs, Sydney – vice, Perth – police corruption, Vegas – gambling, Boston – Irish mob, NYC – Italian mob. Maybe I come across them more because they are the types of books I like and are drawn to. Other books set there obviously exist, but I don’t necessarily want to read them. And I’m sure that I have read some books in these places that don’t have the themes highlighted.

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    1. I don’t think you’re alone, Col. A lot of people associate certain cities with certain themes, like the ones you’ve mentioned. And we have a certain expectation of what a book is going to be about if it’s set in one of those places. That’s what we remember and think of, and that’s what we are primed to notice in books and films. It takes a skilled author to show readers other sides of a city, or the way a city has changed or developed.

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