|A lane in Kovalam, India|
Susan Oleksiw writes the Anita Ray series featuring an Indian-American photographer living in her aunt's tourist hotel in South India. She also writes the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva. Her stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and various anthologies. Learn more about Susan and her writing at her website.
Setting Versus Place
A successful novel comprises a number of elements—character, plot, and setting are the most obvious. In some mysteries, the setting can be more generic than specific, such as a small town without any distinctive geographical or historical features. But setting can be much more than a location for the narrative.
Cara Black sets her series in Paris, and the reader looks forward to exploring one of the arrondissements in each book. Louise Penny sets her series in a small village in Quebec, Canada, and its environs. Sara Paretsky gives us Chicago’s South Side. In each of these series, and many more, the setting becomes a character, enriching the novel with detail and depth.
In any novel that includes setting as more than a generic place, we learn about history, economic climate, the people and their social world, even the way a place smells and looks and feels. This is the ideal for setting in fiction.
The Anita Ray mysteries are set in South India. Since most of my readers never expect to travel there, I try to include details about this world. Anita Ray lives in Hotel Delite, her aunt’s tourist hotel, located in the beach resort of Kovalam. In the evening she strolls along the beach Promenade, past the open-air restaurants with their tables of fresh fish awaiting customers and the smells of Indian curries cooking. She chases a suspect down a dirt lane lined with colorful saris and cloth purses. She takes a narrow path to the edge of the resort area, where the residents live and the old irrigation canals are thick with weeds.
The city of Trivandrum is nearby, and Anita rides the bus or takes an autorickshaw, a three-wheeled vehicle with more noise than power. The resort might grow with a new hotel and more shops, but the real change is happening in the city. When I lived there in 1976, in a flat that was considered to be in the middle of the city, I walked to a bus stop located across the road from a lumberyard. Huge teak tree trunks were piled in the yard. Just past the yard were narrow lanes with one-storied buildings, where advocates (or lawyers) had their offices. Across the street, next to the bus stop, was the courthouse. The lumberyard is gone, the street has sidewalks, and the courthouse was abandoned for almost thirty years. It’s now being refurbished and reopened.
To make sure Anita Ray’s activities make sense, I travel around the city, exploring neighborhoods, checking out restaurants, and searching for quiet lanes where my characters carry out their criminal deeds.
No novel can give a true or full picture of the culture of a foreign country. But I strive to bring the flavor of India (its colors, smells, tastes, and people) into the story, to keep the setting vivid.
When Krishna Calls
An Anita Ray Mystery
In the glorious beauty of a tropical night, a young woman abandons her daughter in the Hotel Delite compound and flees into the darkness. In the morning Anita Ray recognizes the child as the daughter of an employee, but before she can track her down, the police arrive at the hotel looking for her. She is the main suspect in the stabbing death of her husband. This seems impossible to Anita, but so does the discovery that Nisha and her husband were involved with unscrupulous moneylenders from their family's village.
Anita is ready to let the police do their work as she prepares for a one-woman photography show in a prestigious gallery, but fate conspires against her. An accident wrecks her schedule as well as her car. She sets up her camera for one last shot, but it fails to work. When she inspects the camera she finds a piece of paper wrapped around the batteries and someone else's memory card inside.
Whether she likes it or not, Anita is drawn into the frantic search for a young mother and the murky world of moneylenders and debts of honor, a hidden corner of life in South India.
When Krishna Calls asks how far will a woman go for love and family? Anita Ray thinks she knows how Nisha would answer, but before it is all over Anita must also answer that question. How far will she go to protect her family and her home?