The Geography of Detective Fiction

Oct 26, 2014 by


[This post was originally published in September 2013]


Detective fiction is an increasingly popular genre with global appeal that tends to evokes a certain geographical sensibility. In exploring the geography of this genre, it is helpful to start with the geography of murder, as detective novels typically revolves around homicide investigations. As revealed by the global map of murder rates in a GeoCurrents post, the United States as a whole is slotted into a medium-low category. However, as can be seen from the map I’ve made of the US murder rate (based on data for 2011 from, a great deal of variation can be found the among states. Higher homicide rates are generally found in the South, while states in the northern half of the country are generally less murderous (Michigan, however, is a striking exception). Washington D.C. is the murder capital of the US., with the rate of 17.5 per 100,000 population in 2011. Of the fifty states, Louisiana is the most murderous, with the rate of 11.2. The top five most murderous states also includes Mississippi (8.0), New Mexico (7.5), Maryland (6.8), and South Carolina (6.8). Hawaii has the lowest murder rate (1.2), with New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont trailing not far behind (1.3 in all three states).


As can be seen from comparing the first figure with the map of murder rates in 1990, the relative standing of certain states has changed, but the overall pattern persisted: more murders in the southern half of the country and fewer in the northern half. What these two maps do not represent (because they show the breakdown of states into quintiles) is the overall trend. In all but three states, the murder rate decreased during this period. The changes in some state’s ranking by quintile are due to how much decrease in the murder rate that state has experienced. For example, in California the murder rate dropped by more than half and New York it did so by more than threefold, hence both states moved into “less murderous” quintiles. Oregon and Arizona also showed a decrease in homicide rate, but their gains were much smaller and hence they moved into “more murderous” quintiles. The only three states where the murder rate has gone up are North Dakota (from 0.8 in 1990 to 3.5 in 2011), South Dakota (from 2.0 in 1990 to 2.5 in 2011), and Nebraska (from 2.7 in 1990 to 3.6 in 2011). North Dakota’s sharp increase is often attributed to the state’s energy boom, which has attracted many young men, the most violent demographic group.


While there are clear and persistent regional patterns in murder, a reader of mystery novels, unfamiliar with the actual statistics, would get a markedly different picture. To illustrate this discrepancy, I have mapped murder-mystery fiction using the fascinating database at StopYoureKillingMe website. The different categories on the map reflect the number of detective mystery series (though not individual novels) set in each state. While the database lists books, some of these series, such as Tess Gerritsen’s Jane Rizzoli stories, based in Boston, or Lee Goldberg’s Adrian Monk series, based in San Francisco, may be more familiar as television shows. Note also that I have ignored the number of individual mystery novels in each series: while some writers are obviously more productive than others or have written for a longer period, we could expect that the average number of cases those fictional detectives investigate per year would be roughly the same for the various authors.

As can be seen from this map, some states, particularly those in the South, exhibit a “shortage” of detective mysteries as compared to their real murder rates. Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and South Carolina have particularly high murder rates yet do not seem to interest mystery writers very much. In contrast, New England has been the site of many more murder series than would be warranted by either its homicide rate or its absolute number of murders. This tendency is particularly true of Maine and Massachusetts. The latter state illustrates another important trend: states with important large cities, such as New York (New York City), Massachusetts (Boston), California (Los Angeles, San Francisco), Illinois (Chicago), Texas (Austin, Houston, Dallas), and Florida (Miami), are the settings of more mystery series than is warranted by their actual murder rates. While all of these states have significantly brought down the murder rates in recent decades, they remain the country’s “detective mystery hotspots”. New York leads the way with 413 mystery series, and California comes in at a close second with 407. Massachusetts boasts 133 mystery series, despite its modest population size and relatively low murder rate. Illinois has 102 series, Texas 97, and Florida 94. A vast gap separates these states from the next group down the list: North Carolina (56 series), Washington (55 series), Colorado and Washington D.C. (53 series each). Besides the South, a number of states in the Great Plains and Intermountain West are notably unpopular with mystery writers: North Dakota has only one mystery series (Joel Rosenberg’s Ernest “Sparky” Hemingway series), while South Dakota has four, Nebraska two, Idaho four, and Utah six.


Could it be that there are more fictional detectives in larger, more populous states because the absolute number of murders is relatively high in such places? After all, detectives—fictional or real—investigate individual murder cases, not homicide rates weighted against population size. In order to examine that, I have calculated a measure that might be called “fictional detective saturation rate”, which equals to the average annual number of actual murders from period 2002 to 2011 divided by the number of detective series set in each given state. The resulting figures thus represents the number of murders committed in each state per one fictional detective; the higher the number, the more “work” each imaginary detective has and therefore the less attention the state gets from mystery writers. This map confirms some of the conclusions drawn on the basis of the number of mystery series alone. States with large cities are generally well-covered by mystery writers, although Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, and especially Texas, form exceptions.

While most murders occur in large cities, mystery series set in relatively peaceful places, test the limits of plausibility. The picturesque New England countryside, for example, is a particularly favored locale. The fictional Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote series (played by Angela Lansbury in the TV series) was long confronted with bodies piling up in the streets of her town, Cabot Cove, Maine (the exterior scenes in the television show, however, were filmed in Mendocino, California). Yet each of the 28 fictional detectives based in Maine has less than one actual murder case a year to solve (0.78 to be precise)! Similarly, each one of the horde of literary detectives working in New York (most of them in the City, of course) has just over two cases a year to keep them busy, while their fictional colleagues in Massachusetts, Montana, Vermont, and Wyoming have even less than that. The Pacific Northwest, with its sizable cities (Portland and Seattle), picturesque coastline, and verdant rural areas, is also popular among mystery writers. Oregon is home to 33 fictional detectives, working mostly out of Portland or rural locations, real or fictional; each has a light load of less than 2.5 murder cases a year. Washington supports 55 fictional detectives, with just over three cases to solve annually. States with exotic, touristy locales typically have numerous murder series. For example, California’s fictional detectives would confront just over five cases each annually. Similarly, Hawaii has fewer than three real-life murders per fictional detective. Florida, however, can offer almost 11 murder cases per detective per year. Although the Sunshine State is the location of 94 murder series, including Max Allan Collins’ CSI: Miami series (known better for its TV adaptation), they have their work cut out for them, so to speak, due to their state’s particularly large number of murders: with more than 10,000 homicides in 10 years, Florida has the third highest number of murders, following California (22,157 murders) and Texas (13,374 murders).

Perhaps surprisingly, New Mexico boasts a rather large number of detective series: each one of its 39 detectives would have just over 3.5 cases a year to solve. Most of these detectives work out Albuquerque, yet Tony Hillerman chose a different approach, basing his two series on Navajo tribal police officers. According to John G. Cawelti, “many American readers have probably gotten more insight into traditional Navajo culture from his detective stories than from any other recent books” (“Canonization, Modern Literature, and the Detective Story”, In: Theory and practice of classic detective fiction, ed. by Jerome Delamater et al., Hofstra University, 1997, p. 8). Regional and ethnic communities are also explored in novels by Harry Kemelman, whose Rabbi Small series were set a Conservative Jewish community in Massachusetts; Walter Mosley, whose Easy Rawlins books are set in the African American community of Los Angeles in the 1950s; and Sara Paretsky, whose V. I. Warshawski books have explored the various subcultures of Chicago.

Less glamorous states, especially those in the South and the rural Midwest, contrastingly remain under the radar of detective mystery writers despite their high murder rates. A fictional detective in Kansas or Louisiana has an average of one murder a month to investigate; in Tennessee or Nebraska the average would be two murders a month. Fictional detectives in Alabama and Maryland have faced more cases than that, while the sole fictional detective in Delaware—Barbara Johnson’s Colleen Fitzgerald, an insurance investigator in Rehobeth Beach—has a whopping 38.1 murders a year to contend with!

The choice of either a large metropolis or a quaint and picturesque rural location was established in the very first works of English-language detective fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was a London-based “consulting detective”, residing at 221B Baker Street, though he took occasional trips to catch ruthless killers in Surrey (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”), Sussex (“The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”), Devonshire (The Hound of the Baskervilles), and even as far as Switzerland (“The Final Problem”). Scores of other fictional detectives lived and worked in London, including Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, and more recently Elizabeth George’s Inspector Thomas Lynley. Fictional sleuths in other countries also typically find themselves in rough, sleazy, anonymous big cities. Scottish fictional detectives cluster in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the hometown of Dr. Joseph Bell, upon whom Conan Doyle modeled his Sherlock Holmes. Irish detectives are based mostly in Dublin and Belfast, and nearly half of the Welsh detectives come from Cardiff. Paris is home to such famous fictional detectives as Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq and Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.

But not all fictional detectives like the urban environment; a number of British authors have preferred to place their detective—and their dead bodies!—“in the library”, or in some other room of an English country house, whose roots as a prototypical location for an mystery plot are found in such classics as Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, written in 1868. In fact, a quaint English village—sometimes real, sometimes fictional (as with Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby series set in the fictional English county of Midsomer)—has been the archetypal setting for English murder mysteries since the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, when “high-class amateur detectives [were] sniffing out murderers lurking in rose gardens, down country lanes, and in picturesque villages” (Kismaric, Carole and Marvin Heiferman, The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998, p. 56).

One detective character who thrives in such village environment is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, a spinster living in St. Mary’s Mead, a quiet little village that “put on a pageant of human depravity rivaled only by that of Sodom and Gomorrah”, as the Wikipedia article puts it. In this village and other seemingly peaceful locales, Miss Marple manages to get entangled in an estimated two murders a year. Agatha Christie’s novels also transport the readers to exotic locales including the glamorous Orient Express train (Murder on the Orient Express), Egypt (Death on the Nile), and Jordan (Appointment with Death). In more recent years, the Cotswolds, seaside towns dotting the English coastline, and the picturesque Lake District in the north have featured prominently in the geography of English mystery novels. Characters based in such locales include C.C. Benison’s Father Tom Christmas from “Thornford Regis, a picturesque village in England”, Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce from “the small village of Bishop’s Lacey, England”, Bruce Graeme’s Theodore Terhune from “a quiet little town in England”, Dean James’ Simon Kirby-Jones, “now living in Snupperton Mumsley, a small village in England”, G.M. Malliet’s Max Tudor “now vicar at St. Edwold’s in the idyllic village of Nether Monkslip, England”, and Ann Purser’s Lois Meade from “the quaint village of Long Farnden, England” (descriptions from, italics mine). Although a stranger is quite conspicuous in such locales, there is always enough tensions, passion, romance, and greed to provide fodder for a murder and a mystery. According to Charles J. Rzepka, there may be a deeper reason why so many British murder mysteries take place in seemingly innocent locations: “the “classical” English detective story typically re-enacts rites of scapegoating and expulsion that affirm the innocence of a community of good people supposedly ignorant of evil” (Charles J. Rzepka, Detective Fiction, 2005, p. 12).

Another environment that is also seemingly innocent yet conceals many a secret is the university. After all, universities are full of clever people who sometimes think themselves capable of pulling off “a perfect murder”, one that would be beyond the skills of even the most seasoned detective. The resulting tension makes university towns like Cambridge and Oxford especially popular with mystery writers. Oxford, for example, was home to Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, the protagonist of 13 novels and several TV series: the original 33-episode adaptation, the Inspector Lewis sequel, and most recently, the Endeavour prequel. Inspector Morse has become such a fixture in Oxford urban geography that the bar at the Randolph Hotel is now officially called The Morse Bar (the fictional Morse used to drink there). Visitors to Oxford can even take an official Inspector Morse guided walking tour. But Colin Dexter was not the only mystery writer to have lived in Oxford; others include Michael Innes, P. D. James, and one the “four Queens” of detective fiction Dorothy L. Sayers. Cambridge too has its fair share of literary murders and mystery novels, including Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, a series of historical detective novels by Susanna Gregory set in 14th-century Cambridge.

Conspicuously absent, however, are mystery novels set in American universities. Stanford, for example, has never, to my knowledge, been a mystery setting. Several mystery writers, however, have set their novels in Silicon Valley, many of them exploring the high-tech angle. James Calder’s Bill Damen mystery series probe the high-stakes world of biotechnology, cancer research, gene therapy, embryo engineering, and secret rogue experiments. Sally Chapman’s fictional detective Juliet Blake is a computer fraud investigator in Silicon Valley who deals with computer espionage, pharmaceutical research, and the technology of virtual reality. Keith Raffel’s mysteries center around Ian Michaels, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who lives in Palo Alto, California. Three mystery novels written by L.V. Sims in the late 1980s follow the exploits of Dixie T. Struthers, a female (and feminist) detective sergeant in the early days of Silicon Valley. Lora Roberts has written a number of novels set in Palo Alto, California, whose main characters include Liz Sullivan, freelance writer and organic gardener; Police Detectives Paul Drake and Bruno Morales; and Bridget Montrose, a mother of small children. The title of Roberts’ 1994 novel summarizes nicely the geographical sensibility of numerous works in the mystery genre—Murder in a Nice Neighborhood.



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