As a genre, crime fiction isn’t hurting for evocative settings. From stormy islands to isolated mountain cabins and desolate wintry landscapes, we’ve been plunged into every conceivable environment and invited to explore it through the lens of exciting and thought-provoking stories.
Because of this, many authors find themselves searching for places to set their books that haven’t yet been plumbed. Setting can have a tremendous impact on plot, from weather patterns to socio-economic factors and cultural trends, so selecting a setting that’s less common—or even completely unfamiliar—can sometimes lead to an unexpected story.
When I sat down to write The Kind to Kill, the fourth Shana Merchant novel, I knew it needed once again to be set in the Thousand Islands of Upstate New York. With three books preceding it, though, I wanted to put a fresh spin on the setting readers already knew so well. During one of my research trips, a solution presented itself: pirate days, a real-life annual street festival in celebration of 19th century “river pirate” Bill Johnston, who famously attacked British supply ships and hid among the islands during the War of 1812. Every summer, the town of Alexandria Bay, NY is transformed into a pirate-lover’s paradise that attracts thousands of visitors. What better time and place for a thriller about a copycat killer, a missing tourist, and a dark obsession with fame?
The following four novels take a similar approach by embracing unusual settings that are loaded with both atmosphere and crime fiction potential.
Wonderland by Jennifer Hillier
Spooky settings make great foundations for thrillers, but there’s something especially unsettling about a terrifying story that plays out somewhere typically associated with good clean fun. In Wonderland, Jennifer Hiller capitalizes on such positive associations by transforming an amusement park into a killing ground.
Hillier does a beautiful job of juxtaposing the park’s carnival atmosphere with its rumored sordid past, lulling readers into a false sense of comfort only to shock them with dead bodies, wax clowns, and subterranean tombs. After reading this tense and surprising thriller, you’ll never look at theme park season the same way again.
Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny
Louise Penny fans would probably be satisfied if she never took her series beyond the Three Pines village green, but with Bury Your Dead, the author relocates Chief Inspector Gamache to Quebec City just in time for Winter Carnival. The famed Sûreté du Québec detective is meant to be on medical leave. Instead, a snowy walk with his dog leads to his involvement with a murder and a centuries-old Canadian mystery.
While the homicide isn’t directly linked to Carnaval de Québec, references to the festival’s traditional drinks, street entertainers, and frigid weather create a captivating backdrop. In my opinion as a long-time Penny reader, this book represents the author’s first outing into thriller territory (though titles like All the Devils Are Here later follow suit). The pacing in this one is lightning-quick, the present-day mystery interspersed with gripping flashbacks to Gamache’s traumatic police stakeout gone wrong. This book should be required reading for anyone visiting Quebec City (and does a stellar job of conveying the importance of good winter gear).
Bad Apples by Will Dean
In the fourth book of the excellent Tuva Moodyson series, Will Dean presents his creepiest setting yet: Pan Night in the Swedish hilltop community of Visberg, where a resident has been decapitated and the locals are engaging in cultish apple harvest traditions. The isolated and insular community poses a challenge for Tuva, now deputy editor of the regional newspaper, particularly when she needs the locals’ help to identify the killer.
Confronted by a village piled high with rotting apples, nightmare-inducing troll dolls, and residents with a taste for the occult, Tuva’s forced to one-up her own investigative skills. As a result, readers get a mystery unlike any other in a horror-worthy setting that will haunt their dreams.
Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone
I’ve long suspected I’m not the only writer who retreated to an imaginary world as a kid, and Carole Johnstone’s depiction of just such a fantasyland confirms my belief. That said, the “Mirrorland” of her twin protagonists’ life is a whole lot darker than most.
This literary psychological thriller follows LA writer Catriona as she returns to her native Scotland to search for estranged sister Ellice, who went missing while sailing. Cat is convinced El is still alive, and returns to their childhood home to help El’s husband search. That gothic manor in Edinburgh might have been atmospheric enough, but instead, Johnstone conjures old memories of the girls’ imagined world, populated by oceans and islands, witches and pirates and ports. “Mirrorland was our Narnia,” explains Cat – but readers soon discover it wasn’t without its perils, and learn that in the end, home isn’t always the safest place to be.