A Good Place To Die
The real estate agent’s axiom about the importance of “location, location, location” holds true for me, too, as a mystery writer––usually the setting is the first thing I establish in a novel. The place where a story occurs provides a backdrop for the action and creates ambiance. It also grounds the tale in a time/space framework with a history, culture, and physical features that dictate what can or cannot happen there. A crime that transpires in a seventeenth-century French chateau, for instance, will be different from one that takes place on the mean streets of Al Capone’s Chicago or in a California mining town during the Gold Rush.
Sometimes the setting assumes a life of its own and becomes a character in the story, such as the marsh in Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing and the Four Corners in Tony Hillerman’s novels. In some cases, the setting serves as an antagonist, like the Dust Bowl in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the Parisian flood in Sarah Smith’s Knowledge of Water. The environment challenges the protagonist and either helps or hinders her efforts to solve the crime––or to stay alive.
Much as I enjoy reading about Louise Penny’s fictitious town of Three Pines, Quebec, and Susan Oleksiw’s Hotel Delite in Kovalam, South India, I didn’t want to limit my series to only one setting. Consequently, I created a cast of New York Jazz Age musicians whom wealthy people hire to perform at special events. Each stint takes the entertainers to a different location where they’re presented with a unique set of obstacles and opportunities.
The most recent novel in my Lizzie Crane mystery series, What the Walls Know, is set in a spooky castle in October of 1925. When the musicians accept an invitation to perform at a Halloween party there, they have no idea they’ll be trapped on an isolated peninsula with real-life wizards, witches, ghosts, fortune-tellers––and a murderer. The actual neo-Gothic Hammond Castle in Gloucester, Massachusetts inspired me, and I incorporated its magnificent pipe organ and some other notable features into the story. The oceanside estate of the plumbing magnate Richard Crane prompted the first book in my series, Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife. Two future novels in the series, The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors and Running in the Shadows, take place in Salem, Massachusetts. This city’s colorful history offered up intriguing plot elements, including the clipper ship trade and the notorious smuggling tunnels that once ran beneath the old town.
For the sake of authenticity, I physically visit each place mentioned in my novels––every house, store, hotel, restaurant, church, library, museum, park, railway station, and cemetery. If it ever existed and still does, I’ve been there. In Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife, my characters eat lunch at a resort that unfortunately burned down in the 1950s, dashing my hopes for a site visit. Luckily, though, I located an elderly gentleman whose family owned the resort when he was young and he kindly spent an evening recounting the “good old days” with me.
What are some of your favorite story locations? How do you feel they contribute to the tale? Does reading about a particular setting make you want to go there?
What The Walls Know
Halloween 1925, Gloucester, Massachusetts: Jazz singer Lizzie Crane thinks ghosts in a creepy castle are her only worry, until a woman dies of a suspicious heroin overdose and Lizzie becomes a murder suspect––or maybe the next victim.
Skye Alexander is the author of nearly 50 fiction and nonfiction books. Her stories have appeared in anthologies internationally, and her work has been published in more than a dozen languages. In 2003, she cofounded Level Best Books with fellow authors Kate Flora and Susan Oleksiw. The first novel in her Lizzie Crane mystery series, Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife, set in 1925, was published in 2021; the second, What the Walls Know, was released in November 2022. Skye lives in Texas with her black Manx cat Zoe.