It’s almost axiomatic these days that detective series must feature a strong sense of place, a locale that serves as a character. Spenser = Boston; Elvis Cole = Los Angeles; Burke = New York City.
And it stands to reason that this sense of place must be established right from the start. If the series takes hold, there’ll be plenty of time down the road for the protagonist to explore far-flung locales. (Indeed, you can tell a series is losing steam when the protagonist starts solving crimes wherever the author vacationed last year. Murder in Santa Fe! Murder in Sarasota! Murder at a Trinket Shop in Nassau!)
And yet in one of the most beloved series ever, the author took the opposite tack.
I’ve blathered before that I’m rereading John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. McGee, a Florida boat bum, is so closely associated with his locale that his address (Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale) was once a question (or answer, more accurately) on “Jeopardy!”
Believe it or not, MacDonald went out of his way to set vast swaths of the first five McGee novels anywhere but Florida. (They take place in New York, Arizona, L.A., Chicago, Mexico. Not until book six, Bright Orange for the Shroud, does the bulk of the action shift to the Busted Flush, McGee’s sybaritic houseboat.) Long ago, the now-deceased MacDonald wrote a piece for the Writer magazine (reprinted in July 2008, but I can’t find a link) explaining that as McGee was initially conceived, he was too tightly tied to his houseboat and lifestyle, and MacDonald feared this would hamstring the series – hence the decision to shove the protagonist all over the country in early books.
This intrigues me for two reasons:
1. It’s an example of a writer breaking an “inviolable” rule – but doing so with intelligence and intent, and thus pulling it off.
2. As I spool up to start the third novel in the Conway Sax series, I find myself feeling a bit constrained by the setting (Framingham, Massachusetts, and surrounding towns, known collectively as Metrowest). In fact, I’ve already decided a good chunk of the third book will take place not in Framingham, but in the wilds of southern New Hampshire. Hey, baby steps.