David Geherin, Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction (McFarland, 2014) $ 29.95 www.mcfarlandpub.com Phone: 800- 253-2187. Reviewed by Anna Kirsch.
Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction by David Geherin covers an impressive list of emerging writers. Geherin has previously written six books on crime fiction including two finalists for the Mystery Writers of America Edger Allan Poe Award Scene of the Crime: The Importance of Place in Crime and Mystery Fiction and The American Private Eye: The Image in Fiction. In 175 pages and ten chapters Geherin covers: K.C Constantine, Daniel Woodrell, Dana Stabenow, Nevada Barr, William Kent Krueger, Steve Hamilton, P. L. Gaus, Karin Slaughter, Julia Spenser- Fleming, and Craig Johnson. Geherin devotes each chapter to an individual author and a summary of their crime series. This structure is excellent for referencing individual authors, but less useful for expressing a coherent argument on the importance of the shift in crime fiction to smaller regional communities.
Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction represents a considerable contribution to scholarship on emerging crime writers who are only beginning to gain critical attention, or in some cases, popular attention. Perhaps most notable is the author Daniel Woodrell who began to receive critical attention in 1999 after his Civil War novel Woe to Live On was adapted into a film by Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee and later in 2010 when Debra Granik adapted his novel Winter’s Bone into a film that earned four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. This cinematic attention sparked a reissue of his work in which gained popular attention after it made President Obama’s reading list in 2011. Woodrell’s rising popularity suggests that he is an author with the potential to become a touchstone author in crime fiction, although it is difficult to predict future trends.
Geherin traces the genealogy of small-town crime fiction beginning with his assertion that James Lee Burke and Tony Hillerman were among the first successful writers of small town crime fiction, but over the course of the book Geherin principally addresses the legacy of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo series mentioning his work frequently as an influence on a particular emerging author or as a touchstone for the kind of work they are engaging in writing that Hillerman exerts ‘ a major influence on writers like Nevada Barr, who like Hillerman celebrate America’s natural beauty, and William Kent Krueger, Steve Hamilton, both of whom write about remote places of natural beauty but also incorporate Indian characters and culture into their mystery novels ‘(114). Geherin goes on to cite P. L. Gaus as the most ‘personally influenced ’ author who took direct inspiration from Hillerman for his Amish detective series (114). Geherin additionally draws analogies between Dana Stabenow’s series set in a fictional park in Alaska to the reservation of Hillerman’s detectives Leaphorn and Chee.
Geherin writes in an engaging manner, but many of his conclusions are subjective, and he frequently relies on the persuasive style of his writing over substance. Geherin takes a certain passive- aggressive stance in his criticism to some of his chosen writers and there are points where the reader begins to question his claim to have selected ‘ten of the best of these writers’ of small-town crime fiction (1). Geherin does not reveal to his reader what criteria he employs to determine the quality of an author’s writing, even when it is clear that he has such criteria. An exception to this subjectivity is the chapter on Dana Stbenow where Geherin has a clear textual grievance in Stabenow’s inconsistent writing style. Geherin points to inconsistencies over the series such as when Stabenow lists the park’s population, where here series is set, as both 6000 and 8000 and when she changes character descriptions describing her detectives faithful pet as both a half-husky half-wolf to half- husky half- malamute and the detectives love interest six-foot-ten and six foot- four (52).
Geherin adds an eleventh chapter of additional readings covering six additional authors. This choice is surprising because Geherin does not claim to have written a comprehensive reference guide. Geherin uses the same structure as the preceding chapters, but when condensed into the space of a paragraph this organizational style is not as effective. While Geherin, perhaps sensibly, does not try an exhaustive list of authors using small-town locations, he again fails to explain his reasoning behind his choice of authors leaving the reader with only the claim that these additional authors ‘make excellent use of similar locations’ (176). The last chapter could have been used to investigate why crime fiction has shifted from urban to rural settings and why writers chose rural communities for inspiration after traditional big city settings became stale through over-familiarity. There is something here culturally that Geherin dances around in his writing, but does not fully articulate. This chapter is not particularly successful as a persuasive piece of criticism and is somewhat of a disappointment in an otherwise well-constructed book.
Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction would be useful to those beginning to familiarize themselves with any of the ten novelists covered because Geherin is a conscientious biographer of individual authors aware that ‘though small towns may share several features in common, they are not all alike’(6). However, it should be noted that those interested in a deeper investigation of the shift from an urban to rural settings in crime fiction would be disappointed. Whether Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction will stand the test of time is dependent upon a variety of factors, but it does serve as the opening entry of an investigation into the importance of place in crime fiction that will continue to produce rich critical social commentary.
Bio: Anna Kirsch completed her English Studies MA at Durham University and is currently applying for a PhD. She is also the Book Reviews Editor for the International Crime Fiction Association. Her thesis was on Environmental Ethics and Morality in Carl Hiaasen’s Crime Fiction. Her research interests include Crime Fiction, American Studies, Gender Studies, and Environmental History. Her Twitter is @kucerakirsch.