Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring was once described as “a dance of place,” and this phrase is actually quite appropriate when talking about good crime fiction. Who can imagine Philip Marlowe anywhere but Los Angeles, roving between dive bars and opulent mansions that still feel cheap? I can’t recall the details of the case, but I can’t forget my revolted pity for the Hollywood nightclub owner’s alcoholic widow in Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, or the sense of hopelessness about the junkies in the crumbling Edinburgh housing projects of Ian Rankin’s Hide and Seek. A great crime novel is as much about the scene of the crime as the crime itself. Here are three crime novels that are both compelling depictions of lonely places and damn good whodunits. They aren’t new, but they are mostly better known in Europe than in the States.
Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard—Georges Simenon (1953). Prolific and hugely popular in France, Simenon wrote 75 novels starring Commissaire Maigret. Maigret is a relief from his fellow shamuses, who tend towards drunken loutishness interrupted by intuitive brilliance (a potent male fantasy). He goes home for lunch with his wife, and he only has one beer when he stops at a café. But his beat—postwar Paris—is far from the refined, seductive city we know from prewar fiction. Maigret’s Paris is dark and dusty, ringed by cheap suburbs that engender desperation as only suburbs can. When he discovers that a murdered suburban man was leading a double life in Paris’ unseemly quarters, Maigret must investigate the two lives that were ended when the unassuming man died. Though it is grittily urban, Simenon’s novel is marked by a lyricism that sets it apart from most genre fiction.
Faceless Killers—Henning Mankell (1991). Kurt Wallander, a police officer in a small city in southernmost Sweden, has lately gained a higher profile through a well-received BBC miniseries starring a jowly Kenneth Branagh. Beginning with the grisly murder of an elderly couple on their farm, this first Wallander mystery evokes In Cold Blood in its unflinching contemplation of brutality and rural isolation. The story takes a turn when it is revealed that the murderers may have been foreigners, setting off a xenophobic frenzy across Sweden. Wallander is also endearingly obsessed with opera, as was Sherlock Holmes with his violin and, well, cocaine.
Christine Falls—Benjamin Black (2006). Best known for his award-winning The Sea, a dense thicket of brilliantly stylized melancholy, John Banville has lately taken a different name to write engrossing crime fiction. Set in starchy, parochial 1950s Dublin, Christine Falls is named for the young woman who ends up in the morgue of the aptly named Quirke, a pathologist alienated from his family and the Catholic Church that arbitrates life in Ireland. Quirke’s haphazard, whiskey-fueled investigation into the young woman’s death in childbirth reveals corruption at multiple levels of secular and religious authority, including members of his own prominent family. Christine Falls depicts a Dublin trying to conceal that it’s a backwater, a city stunted by entrenched cultural authority capable of unspeakable crimes. Banville’s arch wit pervades Black’s intricate plotting, and his morbid lyricism reveals his debt to Simenon.