A sense of place matters in any novel, but location can assume the importance of a character in the best crime writing. Landscape in some thrillers captures my imagination as vividly as the crimes themselves, but Nordic Noir excels in using setting to shape and colour a story. Henning Mankell’s snowbound Swedish archipelago engraved itself on my memory long before I lost my heart to his central character, DI Wallander, whose propensity for bleakness echoes the terrain.
I spent a few months last year agonising over the right location fora new crime series. Although Stef Penney famously wrote The Tenderness of Wolves without ever visiting the wilds of Canada, I lack the guts to stray into completely unknown territory. Having written five novels set in my hometown of London, journeying into a fantasyland where I could only rely on travel blogs and Google Maps for authenticity seemed terrifying. So I returned to authors renowned for their intimacy with the fictional landscapes they create. I followed Rebus around the back streets of Edinburgh, and trudged behind Paddy Meehan through Garnethill’s deprived estates. Ian Rankin and Denise Mina’s excellent books left me wondering why their urban settings seemed so palpably real that I could smell the rain on the air, and catch the tang of diesel, rising from the docks. Both authors take a sideways look at the cities they love. Everyday details come to the fore, instead of showy landmarks. Rankin describes the interior of Rebus’s favourite pub with such loving accuracy, it’s easy to see the solitary man nursing his pint in a small, old-fashioned watering-hole, with a dartboard on the wall, and tables stained with bitter. Anne Cleeves shares the same ability to provide enough detail to sketch the territory’s outline, while leaving our imaginations room to manoeuvre. She only has to describe Jimmy Perez’s stone-built house clinging to the edge of a field as a gale rises, to show the effect of the eviscerating wind on the Shetland landscape.
Oddly enough, after rereading some of my favourite northern writers, I opted to set my new books as far south as the UK can offer. The Scilly Isles lie a three hour boat ride from the southernmost tip of Cornwall, a cluster of granite outcrops rising from the Atlantic, the next landmass beyond them, America’s eastern seaboard. I knew and loved the territory from childhood holidays, often returning to Cornwall as an adult. The island of Bryher which is just two miles long, with a hundred permanent inhabitants, has different personalities in summer and winter. In the warmer months it’s a peaceful bird lovers’ paradise, but when the temperature drops storms roll in, and travel to the mainland becomes difficult. Long periods of isolation could become daunting, particularly if members of your tiny community suddenly turned against you. The landscape ticked plenty of crime writing boxes for me, not least because I can visualise it easily, whenever I shut my eyes. It’s also pockmarked with layers of history. The island of Samson has at its heart a three hundred year old village so well preserved that the houses could almost be habitable, but it also holds much more ancient relics, with dozens of Neolithic rock graves carved into the hills.
Luckily three of my new Scilly Island thrillers have been commissioned for publication, starting with HELL BAY in 2018. The fact that I must write at least two more novels set in the same location gives me the perfect excuse to make the long journey to Bryher again, to smell the Atlantic air, and hope to find some dangerous activities taking place.
– Kate Rhodes