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stars and stripes and the badlands beyond

Footprints of blood mark the journey, the map is tainted by sleaze, the air is contaminated by corruption, and the threat of violent death hangs over the vast land like some sort of oppressive, suffocating weather system.

Welcome to the Badlands. The fashionable, almost quaint fad in crime writing is for Scandinavian noir, but no one has ever done it bigger and badder than the writers of the US of A.

The map of the continent is splattered with the buckshot that marks the territory where the great writers have set their works. There may be a universality of general purpose, a rough approximation of accepted form, even a unity of plot, but the writers are careful to choose their ground, stake their territory, and use time and place to stunning effect, more than just a backdrop to tales of good versus evil, of detection versus mystery, of life versus circumstance.

The American crime writer is the master of place as well as plot and pace. These scribblers have had a bad rap. They have been described as pulp writers, the plumbers of pot-boiling, purveyors of the slick but ultimately superficial.

But can there be any serious argument against the theory that such as Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Daniel Woodrell or George V Higgins represent the best of a nation's literature? There can be none that suggests their is work is not marked by a sense of place. They have style, wit, a preference for theme over detail and an inherent need to situate their work in their homeland.

These writers do not just play on universal issues such as the precise definition of right against wrong, or the prevalence of evil against a faltering but still occasionally victorious good. They set their tales in the bayou, or the canyons of Manhattan avenues, or the wintry chill of the Ozark, or the summery gaudiness of Miami, or the crumbling wreckage of Detroit, or in a Boston bar booth, or the street corners of drug-addled Baltimore, or air-conditioned morgues in a blistering LA, or the vast emptiness of a Texas desert, where the silence and nothingness is broken by a sharp scream -

If the purpose of the novel is tell a truth, the American crime writer has also charted a nation with an eye for precise geography, an ear for specific dialogue and a taste for the vagaries of diet, from the po' boy sandwich in N'awlins to the crab cake in South Boston.

So why is the location so important? The simple answer, of course, is that every story has to be set somewhere. Another obvious answer is that all of the US has been part of a nation christened in bloodshed, from the bloody opening up of the West and the massacre of the Native American tribes to the Civil War. And every author is also seeking to write something personal, so the tar-paper shack, the city or the swamp, gives the hero not only a vista but a homeland.

Dave Robicheaux, the marvellous dark and contrary creation of James L Burke, is almost defined by his stretch onto the porch of his home in New Iberia, Lousiana and his stare across a landscape that consumed his father violently and is populated by many who wish him less than well, who see the water and dirt-track roads as a turf to fight over or a means of escape from an overwhelmed law force.

Daniel Woodrell, desperate for a sense of place, turned to invention. St Bruno, the setting for his Bayou Trilogy, is a small, tawdry city that lies on the Mississippi River somewhere south of St Louis and north of New Orleans. "I want to start my writing in realism but not to end up as mere realism," he said. He briskly then moved to the Ozark mountains in Arkansas to dally with country noir.

Winter's Bone, the masterpiece hewn from this landscape, has as a major theme the resilience, defiance and invention of a young woman in the face of the most formidable opposition.

It could be set in Canterbury or Christchurch or Basildon or Bordeaux. But it is the precise location of the ramshackle hut by a stream in the Ozarks that tells us so much about what formed Ree Dolly, a daughter with a mission.

It also makes clear what she must endure and, with grace and luck, escape. Woodrell, with his plot of methamphetamine and the white dispossessed, is giving the reader a postcard of America but one daubed with the reality of violence and a weary hopelessness rather than festooned with the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon.

Evil may be everywhere, murder certainly is, but the American writers are determined to write about it on their terms and that includes dictating both time and setting. The Badlands are exhaustively chronicled, yet the stories keep coming.

The tales from George V Higgins are almost spoken out of the side of the mouth. They are set in a Boston of almost half a century ago yet they have what filmmakers call contemporary resonance. Cogan's Trade, his 1974 novel, was filmed last year as Killing Them Softly with Brad Pitt, and partially served as an indictment on modern American politics.

Higgins, who wrote the revolutionary and astounding The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, had such a dense, powerful subject matter that it could be used as a stock for a variety of soups. The setting is vital for it is part of the very style. Higgins wrote of the fecklessness of criminals and the impotence of lawmakers, but made much of this mundane by setting scenes in bars where the feckless plotted in reams of dialogue, or in Boston chambers where the brahmins dealt with the messy consequences.

The work of William Kennedy may seem to have stepped from what is nomally called crime writing. His specialist subject is how America is run. He thus sets his work almost exclusively in Albany, the capital of New York State. It may not have the grandeur of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan but Albany is where the decisions are made, where the favours are dispensed, where the jobs are passed out. It is where Legs, Kennedy's novel of Legs Diamond, is set and where the Albany cycle began in 1975. It wheels on until today with Chango's Beads And Two-Tone Shoes (published in 2011) switching from Cuba to Albany.

This disinclination for the writer to abandon the setting is not the result of laziness. Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, for example, lives on a hill in Los Angeles, where one could argue his skills are transferable to a condo in Miami or a suburb in Seattle. But Bosch is the son of a prostitute, and what is more evocative of the sheer lie of the American dream than to live in the shadow of Hollwood and be the product of a whore and the plaything of a world of vice and violence?

This is why the authors condemn their heroes continually to walk the same, mean streets. If Elmore Leonard is the very master of placing his character in a setting and letting the action develop almost organically, he knows he is working in the most productive of petri dishes.

A Leonard character strides through a Miami airport, a Woodrell detective drinks from the bottle in a St Bruno bar, a Higgins thief sits in a car with a faulty muffler not knowing that the next bang he hears will signal his death, and the detectives of Ed McBain march down the steps of the 87th Precinct in a city of no name that one accepts as New York.

It was once all foreign to this reader, who had to travel to American to taste the po'boy, to walk the Manhattan streets, to strain to understand the quick chatter of a couple of chancers in the next booth in a North Boston deli. But from California, though the Ozarks and over to a Bronx street gaudily decorated by police incident tape, one always knew it was all true. This is a testament to the strength and brilliance of the writing. It is also a nod to the authenticity of the settings.

The genius of such as Woodrell, Leonard, Kennedy and others will be investigated as long there is such a thing as a doctoral thesis. But it contains at least one baffling element. How do they conjure up their setting into your mind? How can St Bruno or the Ozarks or a Detroit sidestreet suddenly become not just a scene but a place? How does that once unknown immediately become recognisable, even personally significant?

This is the unanswered riddle of the Badlands.

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