Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction

Crime stories and fictional detectives are often identified by their locations: Morse and Oxford; Holmes and London; Rebus and Edinburgh; Marlowe and Los Angeles; Warshawski and Chicago. So the idea of a book exploring the cities and wider locations used in crime fiction is an interesting one. The editor of Following the Detectives, a book which does just that, is Maxim Jakubowski, a well known anthologist, editor, crime fiction aficionado, and former owner of the late lamented Murder One book shop on Charing Cross Road in London. The book’s 11 contributors, besides Jakubowski himself, include many well known names in contemporary crime fiction and crime fiction criticism, such as John Harvey, who writes about his own Nottingham-based detective, Charlie Resnick, J. Kingston Pierce, of The Rap Sheet, and Sarah Weinman, critic at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

Following the Detectives is a smart, modern take on the reference book, informed by the breezy informality of the Web, but playing to all the tactile advantages of a physical book in an age of ePub, and iBooks. Production values are high: heavy paper, with an embossed card cover, lots of photos and illustrations, useful double-page maps, further reading, trivia boxes, and notes on other crime writers connected with a given place. The book feels and looks great.

The content is well done too. Twenty-one locations–15 cities and six regions–are featured in the main chapters, from Los Angeles, and San Francisco, to Iceland, Paris, Sweden, Nottingham, and Shropshire. All are represented by at least one fictional detective. The colours are bright, the style is consistently light and easy, and I can see this going down well as a Christmas or birthday gift.

In his introduction, Jakubowski explains that the idea was to create a book that was neither a travel guide, nor a detailed reference book, but one that had something of both. Size and weight rule out taking this with you on a walking tour of San Francisco, Edinburgh, Oxford, or Ystad–there are walking tours in all those places anyway–but Following the Detectives is a good place to start thinking about it. Better than that, though, it introduces writers, and characters, locating them in their respective cities in ways that help them make more sense to outsiders. For example, Michael Carlson’s chapter on George V. Higgins, Robert. B. Parker, and Boston, brings local knowledge that non-Bostonians may never grasp on their own, such as the significance of long-term sporting failure on the collective psyche of a city’s inhabitants; an explanation, he speculates, for a Bostonian sense of proportion in comparison with New Yorkers.

I’d recommend this book as a gift for a crime fiction fan, but I have some reservations that go beyond the book itself and speak to the environment in which it is published. As I have said, this is a beautiful book: heavy, as well made as a ‘paperback’ can be, smartly designed, and written. But I can’t help feeling, with a heavy heart, that what it really needs to be is not a book, but a website, or perhaps an iPad app. Ten years ago, when I was making a modest living writing and editing large-scale reference books, I would come across something on the Web that warranted a link in the references of an entry. Now I think it is the other way around: the Web is the first place I’d go for information at this level. While reading Following the Detectives I wanted links to click and internal threads to follow, I wanted more detail on writers who were name checked. More than that, I wanted it to have the potential to grow over time, to become something truly inclusive, encyclopaedic, something to follow. Although each chapter includes lists of useful websites, typing out web addresses exactly as they are written is a real drag. For example, imagine typing out these, rather than clicking them:

I suspect that anyone who does take the time to type those wouldn’t go back to the book for quite a while.

If physical books are going to survive at all in the long run, they need to offer something that isn’t available online, or on rich media devices like the iPad. This book offers a physical, tactile experience that the Web can’t match, and the focus on real locations is well conceived, and beautifully presented. What strikes me though, is that we interrogate, rather than read, books like these, and that we do so for the content, and for the connections between ideas, rather than how they feel. Books have a resistance that works in their favour in some cases: the big, simple maps in this book are particularly good as a tool for envisaging the geography, of, say, Edinburgh in Rankin’s Rebus novels. But for making and following links, for referencing connected but external sources, and for speed, the Web does it better.

Buy Following the Detectives from the publisher New Holland. Use the discount code Routledge to get 20% off.