Friday, November 19, 2010

Writing and Reading International Mysteries

In both Jo Epstein mysteries, Jo travels outside the US to work a case. In ASK THE DEAD, she tracks a suspect to a fictitious Caribbean Island—St. Dominic—and in THE LAST MATRYOSHKA Jo tangles with the Russian vory in Russia.

So what is the best way to introduce a foreign setting that our protagonist is visiting for the first time? How can we best take advantage of a new and strange environment for our story in order to foreshadow dramatic events and set the scene for conflict?

For the sake of discussion, here are two short excerpts in illustration of this:


The yellow rental jeep, with its light metal frame and canvas top, seems more appropriate for Disneyland than this rugged countryside. Heading south from the airport on the coastal road, the cliffs are on my left – the same side I'd better not forget to drive on – and the proximity of empty space is both terrifying and exhilarating. When the road curves, I'm so close to the edge that I can see the roots of the palm trees growing out of the rocky cliffs. Down below, the waves of the Atlantic crash onto black sand beaches, while up here the salt spray gently stings my face. I'm entranced by the sounds of cadence-lypso on the jeep's radio, a heady mixture of calypso, rhythms from Haiti and down home funk from the U.S. If only this were a vacation.

Maybe it was the grime on the cab window, but the outskirts of Moscow seemed to project the persona of a crumbled empire, tired of keeping up appearances, with only the occasional Georgian mansion or gilded church dome breaking the monotony of socialist cement. Then, as we crossed the river and drove down Tverskaya Ulitsa into the city center, the wide sidewalks began to fill with people. Even at a distance I could see that many in the crowd out-dressed the most elegant Fifth Avenue shopper. As if on cue, the haze lifted, and I found myself in a sunlit, prosperous European-style city, bustling with energy.

Our creep slowed down to a crawl, and although the streets were so wide they made the Avenue of the Americas look like a hiking trail, I felt we were in danger of being spotted by the occupants of the BMW.
If you are a reader or writer of international suspense, please share your thoughts here!


  1. If an author can convey what a place smells like, they have done their job.

  2. I love international settings, or any setting unfamiliar to me. I want to know what it looks like, how it sounds and smells and, sometimes, even tastes. One issue I see with a sentence such as that above--"Our creep slowed..." is that if one isn't familiar with NYC and 6th Avenue (Avenue of the Americas), the comparison is lost.

  3. @ Man of la Books - thanks - I think you're on the right "scent."

  4. @ LJ Roberts - thanks for stopping by and you brought up a good question. Fortunately,
    readers of THE LAST MATRYOSHKA will be familiar with 6th Avenue before the book segues to Moscow, since Jo Epstein's office is located in Chelsea and she frequently dashes across the Ave of the Americas to catch a cab.

  5. The information about the location has to be part of the action. You can't press "pause" while the travelogue reel shows. In the examples you've used a journey that forms part of the narrative gives the protagonist a chance to view the location.

  6. @ Tony Nobbs - yes, folding the description into the action was my intention and I try to do this consistently. Feel free to share examples here of your own work relating to this.

  7. Really enjoyed the comments about foreign and/or exotic settings. I think it's important to have a sense of setting, even if not clear exactly where located, for the reader in opening paragraphs. Did try to do that with "Antiguan Redemption", which obviously takes place on that Caribbean island. The other challenge was in getting the time period, the 1930's, to become clear without stating the year. Did that with a phrase that was something like, "It had been 100 years since Emancipation came to the island."

    And I really enjoy as a reader, learning about different places. I'm a true believer that "setting" influences "character" and thus, the two evoke the "plot" . . . the three become the three legs of the stool on which mysteries are typically set.


    Pat H. Coming in January
    Winter's Soul, a Gothic Mystery
    Museitup Publishing

  8. @ Pat - Thanks for the insightful comments and I'll be looking for your new books in January!

  9. Thanks for a good post and for raising interesting questions. Some of my favorite books take place in "exotic" settings -- everyone from Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham to Robert Wilson and Yrsa Sigurdardottir. For me, one stamp of authenticity is that I believe the "local" characters as much as I believe the (usually Western) protagonists. I especially like it when we can see that however exotic something might seem to our eyes, to them it's just Tuesday, just another day in their lives.

  10. Anonymous8:17 AM

    Timothy makes an excellent point. I like to read books written by authors living in other countries to get the details of daily life. Thanks, Joyce for a great post.

  11. @ Tim and Rebbie - I agree that creating believable local characters and customs is key. I asked several Russian friends to review THE LAST MATRYOSHKA for “cultural faux pas." Sure enough, in one scene Jo Epstein brings a bottle of vodka as a present to a woman she is meeting for the first time. I was told emphatically that this would be inappropriate and if she wanted to befriend someone she would bring instant coffee and flowers. I rewrote the scene and sent my friend a gift of instant coffee!

  12. I enjoyed both paragraphs, and felt they promised a certain kind of story by their flavor, especially the precariousness of the drive in the first one. I'm a great fan of stories set in other countries, including some writers not as often mentioned today (M.M. Kaye, John Masters, H.R.F. Keating). In one of my series I follow a character, Anita Ray, as she investigates suspicious deaths in South India, and the location plays a significant role in both her thinking and the kinds of situations that develop.

    Susan Oleksiw

  13. Thanks Susan - I will check out the authors you mention as well as UNDEER THE EYE OF KALI, which sounds fascinating.

  14. I enjoy reading about international settings because I'm an armchair traveler.

    Interesting post, Joyce!


  15. Nothing like a levitating chair for economy travel...

  16. I'm currently working on a piece where the protagonist, following escape from a kidnap, finds herself in a foreign country. She has no idea where she is. On the run, she has to rely on her senses to gradually assimilate her surroundings and identify her location. She may, of course, get it completely wrong.

  17. @ Tony - Great idea and what stimulous for writing! Is this a book or a story? Look forward to reading it in either case.

  18. Joyce, a book - early stages at the moment - what I described is intended to be one of series of increasingly dire consequences as the protagonist tries to escape her past.

  19. It's fun to read the posts and I think Joyce has a special adeptness at working the exotic or unusual locale into her books. I can feel the Caribbean flavor. As one who has traveled extensively to Antigua and to Barbaos, I can feel the setting and it fits. Will mention that I had the privilege of interviewing a former Deputy Police Commissioner of Antigua (of the Leeward Islands). He told me that he started on the Leeward Island Police Force as a constable, and was the first "coloured" constable to be promoted. He eventually retired as Deputy Police Commissioner of Antigua and Barbuda. It was a privilege to meet, interview and just visit with this quiet and good man.

    Pat Harrington
    Working on: "A Rum Mystery"
    And coming: "Redemption in Antigua" from Museitup Publishing

  20. Hi Pat - thanks for sharing your story with us! Look forward to Redemption in Antigua!