The Scribbler is pleased to welcome Anna back. This is her second visit and if you missed her interview, please go HERE.
Ashley’s Sense of Place
Readers and critics rarely fail to comment on the evocative settings in my three Canadian-based crime fiction books. The award-winning writer Melodie Campbell, for example, says of April on Paris Street (Guernica Editions, December 2021), “the real star of this novel is the city of Paris. Anna Dowdall is masterful at using all the senses to put you right on the streets of the City of Lights.“ Just as blushingly, Iona Whishaw says of the book, “the scrumptious mise en scène creates so lush a feel of Montreal and Paris that it is positively edible.” Lay readers are predictably a little less breathless, but one Amazon reader’s comment is typical: “a spectacular setting.”
I hope I haven’t lost you already. Few people read a mystery primarily for its setting. I’m like any other reader who wants engaging characters who draw us in, and plots that carry us forward. And yet, and yet…have you thought about just how subtly significant setting can be, how it invades everything, shapes the destiny of characters, informs their actions, and provides a pervasive point of view on the events taking place that nothing else can?
When, in April on Paris Street, Montreal private eye Ashley Smeeton falls in love with a dodgy character she’s met in The Au Pair (Wild Rose Books, 2018), this is how I describe it: “Two summers ago, apparently, she’d paid a visit to a strange bank in an unfamiliar part of the city, and there made an unremembered and sizeable deposit.”
As part of the crime plot, April on Paris Street takes Ashley deep into the unfamiliar reaches of eastern Montreal as well as through the underbelly of Paris, before all preconceptions including hers collapse. The defamiliarized city, in this way, is educative, both for the reader and for Ashley. You can’t fully get my tale of two cities plot, or the progress of its characters, without understanding this. Montreal and Paris, in their least known, labyrinthine aspects, are the space through which all must move to get to where they are going. And in the case of Ashley in love, for the lightbulb to come on.
For me, setting is an important fiction writer’s tool, to create atmosphere, to shape, constrain and comment on events, and to add dimension to character. In crime fiction in particular, it can be deliciously effective to hint at things, even while the writer must withhold critical elements. Not that my writing is driven by such abstractions. When asked why I invest so heavily in setting, I usually say something like, you can take the girl out of L.M. Montgomery but you can’t take L.M. Montgomery out of the girl. In other words, that’s just the kind of writer I am. I like to create a detailed and atmospheric world, and lose myself in it.
But enough about me and my obsession. Even more readers than comment on the sense of place in my books comment on twenty-something Ashley herself. She’s a mixture of potentially irreconcilable elements, an underdog and a working class heroine. She’s an everywoman to bond with, but whose profoundest feelings are sometimes a little mysterious. Despite or perhaps because of this, readers characterize her as highly likeable, even “utterly winning.” Beginning with my first book, After the Winter (Wild Rose Books, 2017), in which Ashley, a child living in time-warp rural Quebec, appears as an important secondary character, the reader learns about Ashley through her context.
Aged nine, she’s an odd little duck, a loner who already sees the world as a Nancy Drew story. She is half-Abenaki through a dead father; her mother struggles. She is friends with a twelve-year-old, justice-dispensing ghost who haunts a swamp near her home. In The Au Pair, having in the meantime highjacked my authorial purpose and taken over as protagonist, she reappears as an adult private eye living in Montreal. We can see that she’s made something of herself: she’s now the pal of cops, with an intuitive crime radar, awkwardly elegant but still Ashley—one foot in and one foot out of the everyday social world represented by the big city.
In April on Paris Street, finding myself with a part Indigenous character and no longer knowing quite how I should approach this, I took the plunge and had her reconnect with her Abenaki relatives, from whom the Smeetons have been estranged. The subplot links to the novel’s exploration of a world that I characterize as divided, split, fractured—dual in various ways. For Ashley, though, this duality of hers is central. The reader can decide at the end what her reconciliation might mean for her. It’s certainly not something I can pronounce on.
The point I want to make though is that this critical character dimension arises directly out of the historically-inflected space around Ashley, not just the space she’s in but the space from which she came. Now I’m going to mention the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, so please forgive me. He coined a term: chronotope. He was looking for a category to described literary space that is fundamentally defined by the instability of time. If you really want to grasp the complicating impact of setting as something more than inert backdrop, think of it as holding just under its surface the restless flow of history. A world—just like the world of crime fiction, in fact!—where narrative sequence is non-linear and where rival truths have a tendency to erupt from the time before and interfere with the present.
Where Ashley is concerned, there are multiple temporal layers to her unique setting. There are the mean streets of two modern cities that conceal and reveal, the precipitating crime being the moment when that clock begins to tick. There’s Ashley’s personal past, her family life, the relatives she knows and those she comes to know. And there’s the compressed historical setting, which is still intensely personal to Ashley’s identity.
Taking this approach to setting, we can therefore think of Ashley and her setting differently. She was born in an imaginary town in the Eastern Townships, and by book three is a well-established resident of Montreal’s Pointe St-Charles. But her personal place, the place that takes form in the books as she moves through them, is about 10,000 years deep.
So there you have it: come for the setting but stay for Ashley. Probably like you, I can only accompany her part way on her journey through her own unique space. But, even where I can’t follow her, I find it’s instructive.
Thank you, Anna, for your guest post. Wishing you continued success.
Please visit Anna’s website - www.annadowdall.com