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COMMENTARY

Not just whodunit, but exactly where

June 08, 2007|Julia Keller | Chicago Tribune

Somewhere between the double-parked Citroen and the sentence that says, "Above her, on rue Andre Antonine, the overcast Montmartre sky mirrored the blue-gray roof tiles," it hits you: This is not Chicago.

The truth smacks you in the noggin like one of those roof tiles, loosened by the storm that blows through the opening chapters of "Murder in Montmartre." Cara Black's stylishly elegant detective series -- featuring the intrepid and fabulously coiffured Aimee Leduc -- is set in Paris, and that is not an incidental detail. It is not a matter of a few French words sprinkled in for atmosphere. It is not merely backdrop. Paris permeates the pages.

Leduc solves cases by the Seine, just as Easy Rawlins -- hero of Walter Mosley's mystery series -- finds his clues by the Pacific Ocean. Mystery fiction is like real estate: It all comes down to location, location, location.

Mosley and Michael Connelly divide Los Angeles between them. Washington, D.C., is a territory to which George Pelecanos long has held title. Chicago? Sara Paretsky owns it. And Appalachia belongs to Sharyn McCrumb, just as the Southwest is pretty much the exclusive property of Tony Hillerman.

The importance of place in mystery fiction is an international phenomenon as well. Ian Rankin and Val McDermid write hauntingly about Scotland; Henning Mankell, Sweden; Donna Leon, Venice; Giles Blunt, northern Canada.

The reason behind the mystery genre's reliance on geography looks simple, but -- like a lot of the cases these detectives are summoned to solve -- actually isn't. To figure it out, the fate of Mosley's most famous character, the funny, sexy, angry, loyal and complicated Rawlins, is a good place to start.

Mosley, winner of this year's Harold Washington Literary Award, is one of the best mystery writers of his generation. His writing is so graceful and seamless and colloquial that you almost miss the great artistry behind it. Rawlins heads west across the last decades of the last half of the 20th century, from Louisiana to Los Angeles, and by the time he gets to that golden city by the sea, all the gold's pretty much gone. So Ezekial Porterhouse Rawlins settles in to make sense of his world. That world is creased and shadowed by racism.

Racism, of course, is everywhere. So why does it matter that Easy does his work -- seeking a scruffy, makeshift kind of justice, trading favors with friends and lovers -- in Los Angeles? Couldn't he do the same thing in New York or Miami or New Orleans? It matters because mysteries are about death, and death is about the demise of bodies, and bodies are tethered to the real world. The world of concrete and steel and dirt. Other sorts of fiction can get by with abstractions -- indeed, many novels are praised for their universality, for the fact that they could happen anywhere -- and with ephemeral musings, but mysteries need the earthy, specific power of real places. Cities are sentient. Cities have moods and needs and neuroses. Cities possess destinies.

Thus it isn't just their unique atmospheres that cities bequeath to mysteries. They also bestow a bedrock. A gravity. That helps account for the success of Akashic Books' "Noir" series, which began in 2004 with "Brooklyn Noir" and now has expanded to 14 titles, including the release last month of "Los Angeles Noir," edited by Denise Hamilton.

"Each book explores a full city," said Johnny Temple, publisher and editor of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books, in a phone interview. ("Akashic" is a Sanskrit word for "library.") "It's about the hidden corners of cities. Mystery and crime fiction is often characterized by a strong sense of place."

It has to be, because when it comes to issues such as murder and justice, symbolism won't do. Life and death require bricks and intersections. Cities give mysteries lots of local color, but they give them something else, too: a place for the bodies to fall.

Julia Keller is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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