Plot, Charater, Setting . . . Can Settings Be a Character?

One of my mystery writing teachers, M.K. Wren (Conan Flagg series), emphasized that mysteries were set on a three-legged stool. The legs were plot, character and setting. I heard P.D. James on a taped seminar say that settings triggered stories for her and often became a vivid character.

I'm curious, is there a mystery/crime fiction book in which you think the setting indeed was a major character? Would love to learn the book's title, the setting, and why you think the latter served as a character.

Yup, I'll share mine later.

Pat Harrington

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Off the top of my head: Mystic River, Devil in a Blue Dress, Heart of Darkness, anything by Stephen King set in Maine, Dusty's redneck noir series (Devil's Right Hand, et al) and, unafraid to pimp my own book, Beneath A Panamanian Moon.

Why does setting work as a character in these books? Because the story would not be the same set anywhere else.

I'm a big believer in setting. I just ghosted a novel set in Harvard Med school and the first thing I did was work in Boston.
Great suggestions. And the setting does more than provide atmosphere. I think that anthropologists would say that setting or place does shape people, mores and "stuff" like that.

Thanks for providing the info. And I'll check out your book, too. I'll collect some of these responses for an article.


Pat Harrington
I'm a Florida-based writer, though I write about Hawaii, and there are many, many great mysteries set in Florida in which our unique combination of sun, humidity, crime, cultural combination and just end-of-the-road mystique figures heavily in the overall effect of the book. Barbara Parker, Vicki Hendricks, Les Standiford, James W. Hall, James O. Born, Edna Buchanan, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Carl Hiiasen... you can pretty much pick up any mystery set down here and find the setting plays an important part in the book.
Thanks, Neil, and you're right. I also think back to the old Travis Magee mysteries (John McDonald), and the author's beloved Florida Keys The inevitable changes to the Keys as a result of encroaching development and commercialism certainly drove Travis and colored his outlook. Would he have acted, reacted similarily in a different setting? He would have used the same skills and experience, but the heart and emotion within him would have been differently, I think. We are shaped by our landscape. At least that's my take.

Thanks for your all your suggestions. They are helpful.

Pat Harrington
As good as I think Eisler's RAIN series is, it'd be nowhere near as good if it wasn't set in Tokyo. That's not true because Eisler's pretty darned great, but Tokyo establishes a mood and pacing that instantly puts you in the story.
I suspect that sense of place is part of the reason that I'm so drawn to Scandinavian fiction in particular - there is always a sense that the location / weather / surroundings have a strong impact on the overall mood.
Hill House, Shirley Jackson's creation. The human characters were almost incidental to the pull and repulsion exerted by that house. It is the most unforgettable setting I can think of.
Robert Crais' Voodoo River -- set in Plaquemine Parish and Crais really nailed it in ways most people can't. Lots of people write the deep south and/or New Orleans as if they're the same thing as (a) each other and worse (b) the rest of the south. They're not. And Plaquemine is so distinct in his story and it's the place and the people it generates which makes the story zing; it couldn't have been that story anywhere else.
Daniel Woodrell's WINTER'S BONE, Arnaldur Indridason's JAR CITY, Paul Johnston's Quintillian Dalrypmple series set in an Edinburgh slightly in the future, Carl Hiaasen...quite a few others but those are the ones that immediately spring to mind.
I've read books where the setting was significant, but only one where the setting was a major character. At least it's the only book I can think of where the setting has goals (and obstacles to those goals) and motivations, which are surely essential components of major characters. It's GRIDIRON by Philip Kerr, which is set in a sentient building.
And the JG Ballard stuff in the high rise. That building was creepy.
I agree about setting being a character in itself. The better the writer, the better this is to understand. I am a HUGE fan of James Lee Burke and this is one of the reasons. For example. I am excited to know that they are turning "In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead" into a movie. This was the first Burke book I read and I was blown away. The scenes where he is sitting and talking to the soldiers are so vivid, I swear I could smell the musty stink of their decaying uniforms. I can hear the alligators taking off on the banks of the's all very visual for me and that makes the books that much more enjoyable.

When an author can make me see and feel what the characters see and feel, it is like a great high for me...the cold on my cheeks, the rain on my head, the bugs crawling on my skin as I hover in a dark and damp's like a drug.

My how I do go on...


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