The State of The Mystery

Mid-Atlantic Mysteries: Murder and Mahem in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania by George J. Demko

One of the world’s most literate crime fiction writers, P.D. James, is quoted as saying,”What gives any mystery writer the claim to be regarded as a serious novelist is the power to create a sense of place and to make it as real to the reader as his own living room.” Amen! In this article, we’ll take a look at the Middle Atlantic states–New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

New York has more mysteries set there than any other state in the Union, and most of them are set in New York City. Unfortunately, many are indifferent to their place. One of the titans of the genre, Rex Stout, covered Manhattan with skill via his fascinating hero Nero Wolf and, more recently, Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter) does the Big Apple very well, even if he does call it “Isola.” George Baxt created a very unusual ‘tec in Pharoah Love, a black, gay, cop who treads the seamier sides of Gotham. If you want humor with your geography, you must read the talented Donald Westlake, who sets his stories all over the boroughs of the city. One of my favorite NYC writers is S.J. Rozan, whose Chinese American P.I. (Lydia Chin) starts in Chinatown and races all over Manhattan delivering color and texture with great skill. Sandra Scoppetone’s lesbian P.I. operates out of colorful Greenwich Village and Marissa Piesman has her delightful female, Jewish lawyer kvetching all over the metro area. Margaret Maron, a writer with great sensitivity to place and culture, wrote her early series with NYC as the venue ( her more recent series is centered in North Carolina) and they are excellent. Incidentally, the legendary Dashiell Hammett set only one novel in New York, The Thin Man! Upstate New York is well described and covered by Stephen Dobyns with his Saratoga Race Track stories and Stephen Wilcox captures the natural beauty of Albany and rural points north.

In New Jersey, Janet Evanovich plunges the reader into the blue collar, ethnic confines of Trenton with great panache and humor while Valerie Wilson Wesley gives a grand tour of the mean streets of Newark with her black,female ‘tec, Tamara Hayle. Given that so much of “Joisey” is a suburb of New York or Philadelphia, one should try Jon Katz and encounter the soccer moms and yuppies of the ‘burbs.

K. C. Constantine is my very favorite Pennsylvania writer (in fact, one of my very favorite writers!). His remarkable stories are set in a mythical Rocksburg, an ethnically stressed, dying coal town where the lumpen proletariat and a compelling, anti-hero police chief deal with increasing depression and crime. A bit more west, Thomas Lipinsky covers an “urban reborn” Pittsburgh. And, to the east, Tamar Myers does a wonderful job in the Pennsylvania “Dutch” country, depicting the regional culture with a light touch. Gillian Roberts and Lisa Scottoline know Philadelphia very well, indeed. Scottoline’s lawyer ‘tec is a particularly well-oriented sleuth. Jane Haddam is focused on the Philadelphia Main Line (she also has a series set in New York using her real name, Orania Papazoglou). Robin Hathaway set her first mystery, The Doctor Digs a Grave, in the Philadelphia/New Jersey area and it is superb in terms of the geography.


George J. Demko is a professor of geography at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. and a specialist in international mysteries and the locus operandi of crime fiction. He is the author/editor of 15 books including and many articles on social science problems in foreign countries.

Selected Mid-atlantic Mysteries

  • New York City
  • Rex Stout (Manhattan) Fer-de-Lance ISBN: 0553278193 The Silent Speaker ISBN: 0553234978
  • George Baxt (Manhattan) A Queer Kind of Death ISBN: 1555834485
  • Donald Westlake Don’t Ask ISBN: 0446400955 What’s the Worst that Could Happen? ISBN: 0446604712
  • S.J. Rozan (Chinatown, Manhattan) A Bitter Feast ISBN: 0312970110 Stone Quarry ISBN: 0312209126
  • Sandra Scoppetone (Greenwich Village, Manhattan) Everything You Have is Mine ISBN: 034537682X Gonna Take a Homicidal Journal ISBN: 0345431189
  • Marissa Piesman (Upper West Side, Manhattan) Survival Instincts ISBN: 0440224535;
  • Margaret Maron (Soho, Manhattan) Fugitive Colors ISBN: 0446403938;
  • Upstate New York
  • Stephen Dobyns (Saratoga Raceway) Saratoga Trifecta: Saratoga Longshot/Saratoga Swimmer/Saratoga Headhunter ISBN: 0140251960
  • New Jersey Janet Evanovich (Trenton) One for the Money ISBN: 0061009059; High Five ISBN: 0312203039
  • Valerie Wilson Wesley (Newark) Easier to Kill ISBN: 0380729105
  • Jon Katz (Suburbs) The Father’s Club ISBN: 0553575368
  • Pennsylvania K.C. Constantine (fictional small town) Good Sons ISBN: 0446403547 Blood Mud ISBN: 0892966475
  • Thomas Lipinsky (Pittsburgh) A Picture of Her Tombstone ISBN: 0380730243; Steel City Confessions ISBN: 0380794314
  • Tamar Myers (Pennsylvania Dutch Country) Eat Drink and be Wary ISBN: 0451192311;
  • Gillian Roberts (Philadelphia) Caught Dead in Philadelphia ISBN: 0345353404
  • Lisa Scottoline (Philadelphia) Final Appeal ISBN: 0061042943
  • Jane Haddam (Philadelphia) Bleeding Hearts ISBN: 0553569368
  • Robin Hathaway (Philadelphia) The Doctor Digs a Grave ISBN: 0312967039


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