The New American Regionalism

Detective (hans van den berg, CC BY 2.0)

An untested opinion I’ve held for a many years:

Modern mystery fiction has supplanted 19th-century American regional literature, sometimes known as “writing of local color,” as its dominant form.

Regionalism is most strongly associated with Southern writers like Kate Chopin and Joel Chandler Harris, but local color writing sprung up from all over the country. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper”) cataloged New England’s parochialism while Bret Harte wrote roaring tales of California’s Gold Rush. Scholars make distinctions between the terms “regional literature” and “writing of local color,” but I’ll use them interchangeably here.

Regionalism in America faded after the turn of the century to be replaced by a more consensus-based literature. Perhaps the twin rise of mass literacy and mass media contributed to regionalism’s fade, although it did not go extinct. Faulkner and Jean Toomer wrote well after the turn of the last century, and wrote using techniques that would have been foreign to the earlier regional writers, but their fiction is unmistakably grounded in regionalism.

But did regionalism truly fade away? Or was it replaced by something else?

It seems to me that mystery fiction quietly—almost subversively—filled in regionalism’s absence. Every major city in America is host to at least one major crime or detective writer, from Seattle (Aaron Elkins, G. M. Ford) to Boston (Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane) to Chicago (Sara Paretsky) to New Orleans (James Lee Burke), all representing their respective locales in their work. Name almost any place in America today and you’ll find crime writers prowling its dark corners. In the process, they’re introducing the region’s colors and textures to a national audience.

More than any other form of fiction today, mystery is concerned with setting. Science fiction has almost no restrictions when it comes to setting. Fantasy explicitly takes place elsewhere than the here and now, otherwise it’s not fantasy. Romance fiction has setting too, but it’s concerns are before the fireplace and in the bedroom.

Even contemporary American literature—”fiction of literary intent,” so-called hard realism—is not as connected to setting as mystery fiction. Too often stories from the small literary magazines feel as though they could take place in any city or suburb or small farm, whichever backdrop suits the characters and the emotional arcs they traverse.

Perhaps the only other form of American fiction so tied to setting is the Western, a genre that not coincidentally shares a great deal in common with the American mystery, especially the private eye genre.

I’m not saying other forms of fiction don’t possess a setting, or that they don’t concern themselves with setting. I’m saying that, for the form as a whole, mystery adopts a priority for regions—regionalism—other forms do not.

In mystery, scenes unfold on streets with names and in bars with a history. A great mystery reads like a travelogue of a town, a neighborhood, or a county. The American mystery has a tradition of hewing to real-world settings, such as the streets of Nob Hill in Hammett’s stories and novels. Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” police procedurals make take place in a fictional New York City borough, but it’s the Big Apple all the same. Sue Grafton’s stand-in for Santa Barbara (“Santa Teresa”) is so Southern California, you can imagine The Eagles cutting a single about it.

This, I say, is the New American Regionalism. Mystery writers delight in bringing alive their surroundings, and by doing so they share their surroundings with their readership. Local color means local characters and local charm. Look at what stylist Elmore Leonard did so expertly did in his Florida novels, capturing the many dialects and cultures within Miami. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry of local color concentrates on “the features and peculiarities of a particular locality and its inhabitants.” This fits Florida crime writing to a T, with an emphasis on the peculiarities and particulars of the genre’s always-colorful cast of characters (Leonard, Carl Hiassen, Edna Buchanan).

My first inkling of the connection between regional writing and mysteries came to me twenty-five years ago living in San Luis Obispo, California. An ever-reliable bookstore there stocked a case of local writers, including several mystery series. Perusing the back cover blurbs, it was apparent the writers had mined the peculiarities and particulars of San Luis Obispo County for all it had to offer. My cynical younger self found it ludicrous, these over-boiled private eyes and steely Lt. Detectives walking the mean streets of San Luis Obispo, a place ranked “one of the happiest cities on Earth.”

Over the years I’ve lightened up. I came to realize the mystery writers of SLO Town were merely doing what all regional writers have done in America: Explore, critique, and celebrate they places they live.