I’ve Lived All Over the World*

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.