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.

Tropical Islands

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mysteries set on tropical islands are frequently labeled “exotic” in their book blurbs and reviews. The fascination of readers with these settings can be traced back to popular literary classics such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1881-1882) and to travel literature. Part of the appeal of islands as settings for mysteries is their generally small size—when compared to large landmasses such as continents—and their remoteness from heavily populated places. They appear to be beyond the reach of civilization and the law; perhaps that is what lures the criminally minded to their shores in so many mysteries. Tropical islands evoke images of warm winds, turquoise waters, pristine beaches, and unusual flora and fauna. One might expect that such environments would foster peace and good will among islanders. The appearance of corpses in such idyllic retreats is doubly disturbing and deeply intriguing to readers. Island mysteries are a chief form of escapist literature, a pleasurable vicarious vacation.

Children as well as adults find such settings mesmerizing. Carolyn Keene transported Nancy Drew to such a locale in Mystery of Crocodile Island (1978), in which the girl detective must explore suspicious circumstances on an island crocodile farm in Key West, Florida. Another young amateur sleuth, seventeen-year-old Connie Blair, also confronted mysterious events in the Caribbean in Peril in Pink, which is set on St. Lucia with a plot involving a stolen map, one replete with directions to sunken pirate treasure. Blair was the creation of Betty Cavanna (1909-2001), who wrote under the pseudonym of Betsy Allen.

To the delight of many readers, writers continue to locate murders and mayhem in tropical spheres. For example, Wendy Howell Mills’s {I}Island Intrigue{/I} (2006) places her heroine on remote Comico Island in the Caribbean, a former pirate enclave and a place where a lush garden becomes a site for a ghostly encounter. In a different body of water, the Pacific, Mark Brown has established his Ben McMillen series, including The Puna Kahuna (1993). In this Hawaiian novel, detective Ben McMillen battles crime and bureaucrats in an effort to stop a rain forest from becoming the site for a nuclear power facility. Tunnels of lava at the base of a volcano and detailed descriptions of tropical jungles give the novel its exotic flare.

Exotic Cities

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Far removed from the remote isolation of island mysteries are the metropolitan murders committed in densely populated, impersonal venues. From Tokyo, Japan, and St. Petersburg, Russia, to London, England, and Paris, France, mystery writers have chosen urban landscapes with their skyscrapers, mass transit systems, and unique landmarks as unnatural terrains for the commission of heinous crimes. The sheer expanse of these cities provides greater anonymity to culprits and makes detective work a labyrinthine challenge. Elements of city culture, including nightlife, restaurants, entertainment, architecture, fashion, and what can only be described as a city’s soul contribute to a sense of the exotic in urban environments.

Donna Leon’s Death and Judgment (1995), a work of suspense set in modern-day Venice, is a contribution to her Guido Brunetti series. In this police procedural, Commissario Brunetti must descend into the Venetian underworld to infiltrate a crime circuit. His search leads him through picturesque tourist centers along the canals and into sordid nightclubs inhabited by prostitutes and members of organized crime. Ironically, those he seeks are not to be found among this crowd, but among the upper echelons of Venetian society. Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966) features a theater district and gives readers a backstage view of the thespian lifestyle and its many eccentricities. Also of interest is a glove purportedly belonging...

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The Middle East

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The Middle East comprises western portions of Asia, part of North Africa, and the easternmost corner of Europe and includes such modern nations as Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. Some of the world’s most famous classic mysteries have been set in this region, whose cultures are dominated by Islam and Orthodox Christianity.

The Middle East is the setting for two of Agatha Christie’s most popular novels. Her choice of setting derives from her personal experiences. During the late 1920’s, she went to the Middle East, where she met her future husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. In his company she visited digs in Syria and Iraq. This region of the world would later feature in her novels Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and Death on the Nile (1937). In the first of these two novels, an excavation site in Iraq becomes the setting for the murder of an archaeologist’s wife. Death on the Nile is a whodunit in which Belgian detective Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a tourist while on an Egyptian holiday. Poirot’s suspects share close quarters on a cruise ship navigating the Nile, and Christie vividly re-creates balmy nights on the river and hot days on the sand in the shadows of ancient wonders. More recently, Egypt became the setting of Michael Pearce’s Mamur Zapt series. Pearce sets the stories during the British military occupation of Cairo in 1908 and makes the Welsh captain Garth Owen its chief investigator. One of the charms of the series is its depiction of the multicultural Egyptian capital during a time of transition. The inaugural work, The Mamur Zapt and the Return of the Carpet, appeared in 1988.

Israel provides the backdrop for a number of popular Middle East mysteries, including a series by Israeli mystery writer and literary critic Batya Gur (1947-2005). Gur’s Michael Ohayon mysteries include The Saturday Morning Murder (1993), Murder on a Kibbutz (1995), Murder in Jerusalem (2006), and Bethlehem Road Murder (2006). Gur juxtaposes the beautiful landscapes of Israel with the political and cultural strife that has long rocked the region. Robert Rosenberg sets his mysteries, including An Accidental Murder (1999) and Crimes of the City (1997), in the rolling terrain of Israel. In the first of these two books, Rosenberg pits his detective against the Russian mafia. In the second, police officer Avram Cohen investigates the murder of two Roman Catholic nuns while navigating treacherous religious and political labyrinths.

The Far East

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The Far East, sometimes termed the Pacific Rim, encompasses East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Countries in this category include China, Japan, North and South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, and Nepal. A number of writers have chosen to place their mysteries in this region, with the majority of their stories set in China and Japan.

China is a frequent locale for exotic mysteries set in both historical and modern eras. Dutch writer and diplomat Robert H. van Gulik’s Judge Dee series is set in the seventh century, during the era of China’s early Tang Dynasty. The Lacquer Screen (1963), a representative novel in the series, follows Judge Dee’s investigation of a mystery that takes him into a world of courtesans and magistrates, robbers and bankers. The exotic locale offers a depiction of life as Van Gulik, a careful researcher, imagined it to be in the Tang Dynasty. Lisa See’s Flower Net (1997) is set alternately in modern Beijing and San Francisco. The novel provides images of these cities that tourists and even residents would likely miss on their own. In this tale of international murder, a Chinese cop and an American attorney close ranks to expose a connection between organized crime and big business in a mystery that affects both cultures.

Numerous murder mysteries have been set in Japan. Dubbed Japan’s Agatha Christie by critics, Natsuki Shizuko has written many mystery novels. His most popular book is Murder at Mt. Fuji (1987), in which a dramatic New Year’s mystery unfolds with Japan’s impressive national symbol, Mt. Fuji, as backdrop. Laura Joh Rowland’s enduring mystery series features a seventeenth century courtier in Tokyo. In Shinj (1994), a samurai, Sano Ichiro, seeks to expose the secrecy surrounding a bound couple found drowned in a river; his search leads him to the royal family. James Melville set his Tetsuo Otani in modern Kobe, Japan. The second installment in the series, Chrysanthemum Chain (1980), pits police superintendent Otani and his men against government officials who may or may not want the murder of a British teacher of English to be uncovered.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Africa was once known to the Western world as the mysterious continent. A vast and culturally varied place, Africa is the second-largest continent. With geographic features ranging from treeless savannas and deserts to rain forests and mountains, incredibly diverse ecosystems and species, deep lakes and coursing waterways, Africa is one of the most diverse land masses on the planet. A land of extremes, Africa strikes many writers as a prime location for the staging of mysteries. Numerous authors have succumbed to the lure of Africa. Among the earliest was Agatha Christie. Her The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) chronicles the adventures of Anne Beddingfeld in a mystery involving a diamond heist in remote Southern Africa. As is the case with most of her works set outside England, Christie traveled in Africa and infuses a feeling of authenticity in her descriptions of place.

Interest in mysteries set in Africa has increased exponentially since the publication of Alexander McCall Smith’s popular Precious Ramotswe series set in Botswana. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998) launched the series and introduced readers to Mma Ramotswe, a capable and moral woman who establishes her own private detective agency. While she investigates a number of mysterious events in and around Gaborone, she also dispenses acquired cultural wisdom and a universal understanding of the human heart. Other titles in the series include Tears of the Giraffe (2000) and The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002). With its images of the Kalahari Desert, the series unfolds to readers a portrait of modern-day Africa that is both exotic and credible.

Karin McQuillan’s Jazz Jasper series is set in Kenya and features a proprietor of a safari company who advocates animal rights. In Deadly Safari (1989), Jazz Jasper flees a broken marriage and relocates to Kenya. Barely is her safari operation up and running than two deaths, including the spearing murder of her friend, arouse the attention of local authorities. Jasper commences her own investigation to save her enterprise and remain in Kenya. The series continues with Elephant’s Safari (1993) and Cheetah Chase (1994). In all three novels, McQuillan’s depiction of the African countryside and its wildlife is vivid.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Bargainnier, Earl F. Ten Women of Mystery. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981. Includes a chapter on Ngaio Marsh, who frequently set her crime stories in the extravagant theatrical world of London.

Barnard, Richard. A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980. Discusses settings in her novels, including the more exotic locales beyond England.

Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Classic reference work that provides commentaries upon setting as a component of mysteries.

Lehman, David. “From Paradise to Poisonville.” In The Perfect Murder. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Looks at how cities function as exotic urban settings for murder.

Lehman, David. “Funerals in Eden.” In The Perfect Murder. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Examines the tendency of authors of mysteries to situate murders in idyllic settings, a scenario which the author likens to death in paradise.

Rasmussen, R. Kent, ed. Cyclopedia of Literary Places. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2003. Wide-ranging reference work with articles on more than 1,300 literary works, including many mysteries, that exemplify the use of place as a literary device.