Exotic Settings in Mystery Fiction Analysis

Exotic Settings

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Many authors intentionally unfold their mysteries in places their readers might like to visit but probably never will: exotic destinations and centers of intrigue. Popular mysteries are often set in milieus that people are curious about exploring, unusual locations they may not have the financial means or the opportunity or the courage to visit otherwise. An element of voyeurism pervades mysteries placed in exotic terrains, whether they be tropical paradises or desert wastelands. Mysteries set in unusual environments provide readers opportunities to observe from their anonymous perches the criminal or merely curious behaviors of others. Such mysteries provide two levels of satisfaction. First, they offer the familiar experience of following along as a mystery unfolds and second, and perhaps more important for devotees of the genre, they provide a vicarious armchair experience of distant lands, unfamiliar cultures, or places in the distant past or future.

What constitutes an exotic setting depends, in part, on the reader’s perspective and expectations. A murder mystery set in 1920’s Hollywood might appear exotic to a resident of Wichita, Kansas, who is reading the story at the dawn of the twenty-first century, while a mystery set on the Caribbean island of Jamaica might appear ultrarealistic and devoid of all exoticism to a Jamaican. In English-language mysteries, the exotic generally excludes plots set on American or British soil unless they explore an unusual subculture or a distinctive region. Thus, mysteries set in the wilderness of Alaska, in the Liverpool underworld, in a midwestern Amish community, or in the London theater district might be considered exotic to many readers, while stories about criminal investigations in New York City’s financial center might not. To most American and British readers, exotic mysteries are those set in Africa, Antarctica, Asia, the Middle East, and remote tropical islands.

When the geographic region and cultural climate in which a mystery takes place are unfamiliar to readers, the setting enhances the atmosphere and heightens anticipation of the unknown. The more foreign the setting is to readers, the greater their sense of bafflement as they try to interpret clues and unravel the mystery. Authors who choose unfamiliar locales as backdrops for the staging of bewildering crimes or inexplicable events frequently do so to enhance the aura of the mysterious for their audience: The double appeal of the exotic is a mystery in a mysterious setting.