Fictional detectives find bodies in weird places: in trains, on cliffs, at bus stops, on altars, in kitchens, libraries, washed up on beaches, even in the guts of predators. The murder’s wider setting often surprises readers too. When detectives hunt criminals in exotic locations, the landscape can even become the star of the story.
Just think of the TV series Shetland. Why didn’t the producers call the series Jimmy Perez, the name of the lead detective? Maybe it was because they recognised the Shetland Islands as the true hero of Ann Cleeves’ novels. But if a ready-made plot and characters are simply dropped into an exotic setting, the story will be as fake as an antique studio photo with a painted backdrop of Egyptian pyramids.
Whenever I travel, I must have a crime novel to turn to when I’m footsore at the end of the day. It’s always set in the region I’m in and can be more valuable than a guidebook. My habit kicked off when I sailed from Cairns to Sydney, reading Charco Harbour, Geoffrey Blunden’s wonderful novel based on Cook’s 1770 voyage. Unchanged stretches of coastline, reefs and islands pushed me back two centuries.
Since my conversion to crime fiction, reading Donna Leon in Venice, Barbara Nadel in Istanbul and Ian Rankin in Edinburgh have been highlights of my travel, my reading and my life.
If I had to choose between reading and travelling, I would give up travel in an instant, despite my longing to visit Botswana in the company of Mma Ramotswe of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. But would I be content with a diet of whodunits set in my home town of Sydney? Definitely not, much as I enjoy the books of Peter Corris. This year, we crime fans are all relying on books to escape from home.
Fabulous as it is to read an Inspector Ikmen story when in Istanbul, it’s easier to fall head over heels with a place in my imagination. Descriptions are essential, but what can count more to the armchair traveller are the characters: how they speak, what they think of each other, why they act as they do. These are the qualities that allow readers to believe and lose themselves in other places and times.
I was living in Suva in Fiji when I read Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe. Botswana sprang to life through the endearing characters who rang true for me. This was when I first wondered if I could write a murder mystery set in Fiji, so readers could discover these glorious islands whose people I had come to love. The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency tales are short and deceptively simple. I’ve never told anyone this before, but I fooled myself that they couldn’t be too difficult to write.
But my job in Fiji took up most of my time and I did nothing about it until I moved back to Sydney four years later. I started tossing around ideas in my head for a Fijian police procedural. I thought about possibilities for years before I realised that thinking doesn’t get a wanna-be novelist anywhere.
In the end I self-published Death on Paradise Island through my own imprint, Coconut Press. I’m now working on Fiji Islands Mysteries 4.
B.M. Allsopp writes the Fiji Islands Mysteries, a fresh police procedural series. She lived in the South Pacific islands for 14 years, including four in Fiji, where she worked at the University of the South Pacific. She now lives in Sydney with her husband and tabby cat.