Using the city as a character in crime writing

Nick Quantrill is a crime writer from Hull. His debut novel, “Broken Dreams”, is published by Caffeine Nights.

Joe Geraghty, Private Investigator, is used to struggling from one case to the next, barely making the rent on his small office in the Old Town of Hull. Invited by a local businessman to investigate a member of his staff’s absenteeism, it’s the kind of surveillance work that Geraghty and his small team have performed countless times. When Jennifer Murdoch is found bleeding to death in her bed, Geraghty quickly finds himself trapped in the middle of a police investigation which stretches back to the days when the city had a thriving fishing industry.As the woman’s tangled private life begins to unravel, the trail leads Geraghty to local gangster-turned-respectable businessman, Frank Salford, a man with a significant stake in the city’s regeneration plans. Still haunted by the death of his wife in a house fire, it seems the people with the answers Geraghty wants are the police and Salford, both of whom want his co-operation for their own ends. With everything at stake, some would go to any length to get what they want, Geraghty included.

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The City as a Character by Nick Quantrill

Using the city as a character in crime writing is a concept which is very much at the front of my mind when writing stories set around my home in Hull. Although it’s very much an ongoing learning experience, I found different ways of doing this when writing my debut crime novel, “Broken Dreams”.

At the most basic level, describing the geography of the city starts to bring a sense of place to the writing. As my protagonist, Private Investigator Joe Geraghty, starts to move about the city, the use of street names and areas helps fix a map in the reader’s mind, and if that reader is local, the familiarity can often delight.

Going a little deeper, contrasting the city’s past and potential future in “Broken Dreams” enabled me to create another layer of depth to the city’s character. Once a thriving fishing port, that industry is all but gone, and so is the infrastructure which supported it. “Broken Dreams” starts to look at the consequences of this, and examines what, if anything, replaces it. To go a step further, when characters start to respond to their environment, that’s when I felt I was getting closer to the essence of the city as a character.

One strand of “Broken Dreams” sees Geraghty searching for a missing woman, last seen ten years ago. As Geraghty speaks to her family, it becomes apparent there are tensions simmering under the surface. Her father worked the trawlers for little pay until his job was taken without recompense, never working again until his premature death. Maybe his experience of living in Hull made it difficult for him to understand his daughter’s dream of being a singer? Maybe her teenage brother’s death from a drug overdose, after few opportunities offered in life, not even the fall-back position of working at sea, affected her deeply?

It seems to me that decisions and consequences are intimately tied to location and circumstance, and when they exert themselves, the city comes to the fore. As a writer, all you can do is look for your own truth and take a snapshot. By its ever changing nature, it can’t be anything more.


Paul D. Brazill said…
Top piece. In BROKEN DREAMS Joe Geraghty's life reflects the life of the city really well.
jrlindermuth said…
Contrasting the lives of your characters with that of the city in which they live gives a greater depth to both.