28 August 2020
How location gives your crime fiction a unique flavour, by the acclaimed author of the Hull-set Joe Geraghty series
There’s something special about crime writing that uses location as a character, something that adds an extra layer to a story. But how do you capture a city on the page? On one level, it’s maybe basic geography and knowing your way around the place. That comes from living it and breathing it in, immersing yourself so there are no hidden corners. Or maybe technology and skill is the writer’s friend, as we can now discover and explore them virtually, tasting them from a distance away. But is it enough? I would argue it isn’t. The places we write about have to tell the reader an essential truth and aim to explain why they’re unique.
I was never going to write about anywhere other than my home city of Hull. I initially wrote three novels featuring my Private Investigator, Joe Geraghty, figuring that would be enough, job done and move on. Cities are never really stagnant, though, but when major change happens, things get really interesting. At the start of the trilogy in Broken Dreams, Hull was the reigning ‘UK Crap Town’, the perfect backdrop for any writer to explore the truths and lies behind such a lazy media tag. By the time I thought I’d finished with The Crooked Beat, the city was in the process of being crowned ‘UK City of Culture’, bringing new money and new people in. It’s a gift for a writer wanting to explore ideas of place.
But go a lever deeper and things were happening under the surface in Hull. The trilogy nods to the city’s heritage with Joe himself a former-rugby league player, one of its defining characteristics. Life used to simple, as was supporting your team. In relation to the fishing industry, the river down the middle defined the work you did and which team you supported. But as the industry died, lack of steady work took its toll. It might only be sport to some, but as the tightly packed terrace housing around the docks were demolished and people dispersed, the character of communities and the city start to change. It is those changes and conflicts that then power writing about place. Of course, this is my truth and subjective, and not necessarily how other writers in the city imagine the place. There are always multiple views of place and they are always contested.
There’s also an interesting relationship to be mined between place and crime. For example, if you read the excellent Blood Red City by Rod Reynolds, a razor-sharp look at how foreign money can infiltrate and shape a city, it could only be a London novel. Equally, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh as experienced by his cop, DI Rebus, leaps from the page. It’s a city we maybe know on some level via tourism, but Rankin spares us nothing of the reality, giving us a detective who can open any door in the city. It’s a series that explores Edinburgh’s relationship to Scotland, and Scotland’s to the wider world, often via politics. The city I choose to write about ticks in a very different way, and so to must the crimes being committed and investigated.
Sound of the Sinners sees Joe Geraghty returning to Hull for the first time in over five years, investigating the murder of his former-business partner and mentor. Creating distance through the passage of time is a useful tool for a writer to have. Carrying out an investigation, Joe gets under the skin of the city as he meets its winners and losers, his questions taking him into the plush offices of those masterminding the region’s regeneration plans and spending money freely. It also takes him into the city’s dark corners and its lost people, those trying to cling on to a life as it threatens to swallow them up. More than that, they’re all products of the city. It’s a place where small town heroes can buy the keys to it cheaply and others have to live with the consequences, power concentrated in a few hands. As much as it’s a crime thriller, Sound of the Sinners is a conversation between myself, Joe Geraghty and a northern city that continues to search for a new identity.
Sound of the Sinners, book four in the Joe Geraghty series, is published by Fahrenheit Press.
For more information follow Nick on Twitter: @NickQuantrill
Nick Quantrill is the co-founder of the Hull Noir crime writing festival. Read advice from Hull Noir's Nick Triplow, author of the highly-rated biography of Ted Lewis, Getting Carter, on writing crime non-fiction.