The Psychogeography of Crime Fiction

Discussing the psychogeography of crime fiction is complicated. First, because there are a plethora of geographies in which crime narratives take place, so the writing has to take into account the multiplicity and diversity of said geographies. Second, because the correlation between geographies and sociopolitical/racial elements—as well as identity politics—is so deeply rooted that leaving them out of the equation is impossible, but dwelling on them too much makes for a long, boring conversation that can move away from its main argument. Lastly, because anything having to do with identity politics and authenticity is at once necessary and problematic, mainly because there seem to be only two camps when it comes to these issues, and they are diametrically opposed (and there are people who scream and insult too quickly in both camps). That being said, I love tackling difficult topics, so here we are.

Let’s kick things off with an operational definition of psychogeography. For those of you not familiar with the term, psychogeography is the study of the influence geographical environment and related elements have on the mind and/or behavior of individuals. In other words, the study of how a place affects those living in it. In terms of crime fiction, place is as crucial as anything else because it can be the defining element behind actions, ideas, atmosphere, and even personality traits.

In order to better understand psychogeography and why it’s crucial for strong, authentic crime fiction, let's take a look at two of the places most associated with the genre. Los Angeles and New York have been as much a part of crime novels as cocaine and guns. These two huge cities have helped shape some of the most wonderfully fucked up stories and memorable characters in fiction. Just take a minute to think about the work of masters such as James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler. Think about the impact of the Black Dahlia murder and the Manson Family on all things crime. Think about Harlem and Chester Himes. Think about Lawrence Block and New York. Think about Jonathan Lethem and Motherless Brooklyn. The list for both cities goes on and on. The point is this: we “know” these places even if we’ve never visited them because so many authors have told us of their streets and people, about NYC’s subway system and mafia history, the fast-paced living and things that happen in the poor neighborhoods.

If you don’t do your research, the odds of you writing something crappy increase exponentially, especially if people who DO know the place you’re writing about read your work.

Unfortunately, writing about those cities has become inevitable, and has led to a decline of authenticity in narratives set within them. The authors that made them popular lived there and knew those places, but what came after was mostly a copy of what had already been done. In that regard, Los Angeles and New York have almost become hyperreal cities in a Baudrillardian sense. Mediocre fiction set in them is a like a bland, faded copy of a copy of a copy. Does this mean we have to stop writing about these places? Hell no; it only means we have to write better about them, more authentically and more specifically. We have to bring a deep understanding of their psychogeograpy in order to create narratives that matter and stand out.

This is where things gets a tad problematic. In horror, what you say is as important as what you don’t, and what you show is as crucial as what you don’t. Nonfiction sometimes works that way, but there are times where explanations are a must. This is one of them. I am not saying you can’t write about NYC or Texas or Alaska or Haiti if you haven’t lived there. What I’m saying is that you need to understand the psychogeography of those places in order to write about them correctly. If you don’t do your research, the odds of you writing something crappy increase exponentially, especially if people who DO know the place you’re writing about read your work. This doesn’t mean you should only write what you know; it means you should get to know what you want to write about.

Let me give you a concrete example. I was halfway through this essay when I became involved in a conversation on Twitter with author David Joy. He is one of the most talented voices in Appalachian fiction/rural noir/crime. There are trailers and folks living in trailers in his books. Many reviewers point that out in their reviews. Why? Because it’s odd to them. How can people live in a trailer? I mean, they should cut out the avocado toast bullshit and buy a house, right? Wrong. Definitions of home are as varied as definitions of love or delicious. If I go into Appalachia and write about how these weird people live in trailers, I have failed to do my job. If I spend time familiarizing myself with the lives of those people, then I will be closer to writing about what makes them tick, what motivates them and hurts them and moves them and angers them. I can do that without spending a single night in a trailer, but it takes work. Furthermore, there is a level of respect involved. Eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman used to say “Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody wanna lift no heavy-ass weight!” Well, everybody wanna be a writer, but don’t nobody wanna do no heavy-ass research. If you want to be a writer, you have to be a researcher, a journalist, an ethnographer, an observer, and an anthropologist. If you don’t…well, I’m sure you’ve read plenty of novels that show what happens when you don’t.

I write barrio noir because I know the people there. I know the dilapidated houses and the dad with two jobs and why kids turn to selling drugs. I write about it because kids that used to play with me have ended up face down in the gutter with more holes in their body than they were born with. I know poverty and heat and hurricanes and corrupt, inept government. That allows me to understand barrios and Otherness across the globe. That’s why I read, for example, Appalachian literature. Those folks have nothing to do with el barrio folks…except they kinda do. Decades of insults and jokes and uncontested stereotypes perpetuated in the media have made them the white Other. That’s also why I read and focus on reviewing outsider fiction: because my own Otherness allows me to get closer and understand their psychogeograpy quicker.

Again, I’m not saying you need to be from France to write about that country. You don’t need to be a black man from Brooklyn to write about that experience. You don’t have to be poor to write about people pushed to crime out of desperation. You don’t have to be a single mother in rural Cuba to tell that story. However, you need to understand the psychogeography of those individuals to write about them convincingly and respectfully. And that’s not the only benefit of that understanding. Here are a few more. When you spend time paying attention to psychogeography, you will:

  • write multilayered characters
  • understand that the “bad criminal” is a bullshit stereotype that way too many fucking crime writers rely on
  • be able to write about the intersecting place where poverty, Otherness, weather, urban layout, and history meet
  • move away from the kind of writing that is made fun of online
  • develop deeper, more nuanced, infinitely more interesting narratives
  • stop judging people you don’t know because researching and understanding will become second nature

I could go on and on. I could also give each one of these bullet points its own chapter and offer a plethora of examples to back it up. However, that would turn this into a dissertation instead of an essay. I already wrote a dissertation, and I’m not doing that shit again. Ever. What I will do is remind you that psychogeopgraphy matters, and paying attention to it will ensure that your crime fiction matters. Seriously. Just give it a try.

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Gabino Iglesias

Column by Gabino Iglesias

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues. 

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Dick_Sloth's picture
Dick_Sloth from Somewhere. July 2, 2018 - 9:31am

Yes, but HOW do we learn about it?