These days, big cities go out of their way to proclaim their cleanliness and safety. New York, LA, London, Paris…the city fathers of each note regularly how, compared with a few decades ago, their metropolises are much better to visit and live in. Crime rates have fallen. The cops are friendly. The streets are litter-free. What vice there is is socially acceptable or decidely unseedy. And who’d have it any other way?
Well, readers of crime fiction, perhaps. Crime novels and cities go together like guns and ammo. And traditionally, dirty, unsafe streets with heavy fog and crumbling neighborhoods not only create atmosphere but plot opportunities as well.
But fiction moves with the times. And these days noir is as much a state of mind as a physical phenomenon. The twenty-first century urban landscape is slick and anonymous, at least in the developed world, and writers now look to these characteristics – while not forgetting the traditional bleaknesses – as they set to work their criminals and those who would chase them.
Consider this random sampling of recent, well-received novels and their settings:
City of Blood, by M.D. Villiers – Johannesburg
Natural Causes, by James Oswald – Edinburgh
Norwegian by Night, Derek B. Miller – Oslo
The Honey Guide, by Richard Crompton – Nairobi
Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh – Manhattan
The Fatal Touch, by Conor Fitzgerald – Rome
You may not know the authors, but you know the locations. They can be seedy or exotic, shrouded in mist or bathed in sunshine, violent or sleepy, but they are (except for Manhattan) new and different. And there are nicknames to go with the genres they suggest – Tartan noir, Mediterranean noir, Nordic noir. And the appearance of African cities – so often crowded and violent and exotic – is a throwback to the traditional mode.
Because cities are where the action is. Cities have energy. They have diversity. And they have conflict.
These are the traits I found in 1930’s Kansas City when I came to write Reach the Shining River. Crime, of course, but also high commerce, complex politics, art and music, and different social groups not entirely happy with each other.
Oh, and bars. Always good to have a few bars.