A while ago, Clive James stirred up a minor controversy with a New Yorker article which argued, or at least asserted, that many contemporary crime novels are simply ‘guide books’ and that ‘finally there is nothing left… in the memory except the place they are set in’. James concluded sardonically that ‘ideally, an author should turn out a sequence of detective novels that will generate a bus tour in the city where they are set’. While James’s judgement is perhaps a little harsh, he does have a point. Much of the best crime fiction, whatever its other merits, tends to be grounded in a strong sense of place – whether it’s an indigenous writer exploring his or her own terrain or an outsider delving into the less familiar. The delights of literary tourism may be an ancillary aspect of good crime fiction, but they can be potent nonetheless.
The great Maxim Jakubowski, never one to duck a challenge, has now taken Clive James at his word and produced a literal guide-book to accompany a choice selection of the best crime writers. Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction is a beautifully produced book that takes us from Rebus’s Edinburgh to Sam Spade’s San Francisco, covering extensive ground in between. The book comprises a series of essays describing the authors in question, their books and characters, and the key locations in which the stories are set, including maps of the relevant cities or areas. In general, each essay focuses on a single writer and his or her chosen setting, but where appropriate also picks up other relevant authors along the way – so, for example, Barry Forshaw introduces us to Henning Mankell’s Sweden but takes time, in passing, also to alert us to the wealth of other Scandinavian crime writing out there.
If this were just a well-produced coffee-table book, it would be worth a browse, but typically Jakubowski has made it much more than that. The real value of the book lies in the array of writers that have been assembled to provide commentary on their selected authors – not just experts, but experts who can be relied on to write interestingly and entertainingly, including a number who have pioneered outstanding coverage of crime fiction through their blogs and websites, So we have names like J Kingston Pierce, Peter Rozovsky, Sarah Weinman and Declan Burke, alongside leading writers and critics such as John Harvey, Martin Edwards, David Stuart Davies and Barry Forshaw. All of the essays are interesting, even for those familiar with the books or locations concerned (I tested this with John Harvey’s piece on Nottingham, which I know both from Harvey’s own splendid books and because I grew up there – he was still able to provide me with some surprising insights). More importantly, though, the book provides an excellent inducement for readers to explore new literary and geographical territories.
I should conclude by declaring a small interest. Alongside the major names featured in the body of the book, Jakubowski also includes a graphical overview of more far-flung international crime fiction, and has been kind enough to include a reference to Mongolia and the Nergui books. Given the quality and range of the rest of the book, I can only feel privileged to be in such august company.
The book is published by New Holland Publishers at www.newhollandpublishers.com/followingthedetectives. I’m told that you can save 20% on the normal price of £17.99 and get free P&P by quoting Walters at the checkout (this offer ends 31st January 2011.). I can think of no other context in which you’re likely to obtain a discount by quoting my name (quite the opposite, I should imagine) so I’d suggest you make the most of it.