Friday, April 16, 2021

A Sense of Place Can’t Be Overvalued

By Fraser Massey
British author Sarah Pearse knew she’d found the perfect setting for her “creepy” debut thriller, The Sanatorium (released earlier this year by Pamela Dorman [U.S.] and Bantam Press [UK]), when she couldn’t even bring herself to set foot in such a place for research purposes. “My mind said I’d love to go,” she told the audience watching this week’s First Monday Crime discussion on Facebook, but in the end she was “a bit too scared to do it.”

The Sanatorium is a locked-room mystery yarn about a missing guest at a once-abandoned tuberculosis nursing home in the Swiss Alps, now renovated into a five-star minimalist hotel. Pearse’s success in conjuring up that isolated building’s chilling aura has certainly captured the interest of readers. Her novel has become the runaway crime-publishing success story of this year so far, shooting straight into the top-10 bestseller charts of both The New York Times and London’s Sunday Times.

Pearse had spent time in Switzerland during her 20s, and later happened across a magazine article about vintage sanatoria being converted to other uses. Those ingredients served to inspire her book. And though she talked herself out of on-the-spot research, Pearse did find videos on YouTube that helped her hone the harrowing atmospherics she needed for her story. There are modern explorers, she explained, who “take a kind of video camera into an old abandoned building and kind of film themselves. I have to say, I went down a rabbit hole of these videos and just sort of immersed myself in that environment … Some of the videos … I mean, they do it in a really creepy way so it obviously draws you in. But I really felt I was there.”

Fans of these regular First Monday Crime sessions—based in London and currently being conducted via Zoom, due to the coronavirus pandemic—had to wait an extra week for this latest presentation, as the actual first Monday in April fell on an Easter public holiday in the UK. But the online audience’s patience was rewarded by the strength of the line-up of writers assembled on their behalf. Not just Pearse, but also American best-seller David Baldacci, premiere novelist David Fennell, and suspense master Matt Wesolowski.

The latest entry in Wesolowski’s award-winning “Six Stories” series, featuring enigmatic investigative reporter and podcast host Scott King, is Deity (Orenda). “It’s a story about what we do as fans when our heroes fall from grace,” the author said of his compelling tale, which has a plot with an almost ripped-from-the-headlines feel to it as King searches for the truth about the mysterious death of a pop star rumored to have sexually abused his fans.

Moderator Jacky Collins said she was especially drawn to the folklore elements of Deity, suggesting how hearsay and lore from the past can influence the present. This set Wesolowski off on an extended tribute to the power of human legends. “I think … the best fear is set in folklore, and the best fear is set in reality,” he began. “Folklore has always been a way to teach through fear. As a species, we teach each other things through stories … We teach our children not to go places because there’s a story behind it. … I think I haven’t invented any new folklore, but I’ve drawn upon this idea of death omens. Up in Scotland, in the Highlands, there’s this idea of a death omen in the form of a black dog. This is used in many cultures, the fear of a death omen. But it also can be an extended metaphor in the story—without sounding horribly pretentious—about someone who’s looking back at past evil and almost being followed by a death omen. … [It’s like] someone’s past coming back to bite them, as it were.”

Although Baldacci’s latest novel, A Gambling Man—being released in mid-May on both sides of the Atlantic—focuses primarily on the murky world of political corruption, its storyline too has a showbiz element. A sequel to his 2019 novel One Good Deed, it again stars Baldacci’s straight-talking World War II veteran and wannabe private eye, Aloysius Archer, who this time out hooks up with a budding Hollywood actress named Liberty Callahan.

Like Pearse, Baldacci admitted to viewers that he’d done no location research when developing his plot. He didn’t need to, as his setting—the California resort of Bay Town—is primarily a figment of his imagination. “I almost always in my books, always make the town up,” he explained. “I never write about a real town. … I always go to a state and I’ll check the entire geographic registry to make sure this is not [the name of] an actual town. Because if I write about an actual town someone will write and say, ‘That mailbox is on the other corner [to where you said]. You screwed up. You’re no good. And I’m not going to finish your book.’ So I always come up with a fictional town. But if you want to think about Santa Barbara, a little bit north of L.A., you’re probably right around the right place.”

This First Monday’s final panelist, David Fennell, revealed that—perhaps because, as a fresh-out-of-the-box novelist, he’s yet to experience similarly pernickety readers desperate to catch him out on geographical errors—he actually put in plenty of foot hours while concocting his intriguing police procedural, The Art of Death (Zaffre), slogging his way around potential London murder sites, searching for authentic setting details.

“Every location [in the book] is real,” Fennell said proudly of his nail-biting art-world-set thriller. “My serial killer, he loves decrepit, forsaken buildings. I certainly walked those streets quite a lot to get ideas and to get a feel for the locations.”

This week’s full hour-long discussion can be watched here.

First Monday Crime, an immensely popular feature of the London literary scene ever since 2016, will no doubt return next month, showcasing still one more fresh set of crime-fictionists. Chances are that it will also take place a week late, as May 3—May Day, the first Monday in May—is another British bank holiday.

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