US confidential

John Sutherland on cities and the crime novels that they inspire

When my son enrolled in junior school, among his first assignments was to learn by heart the capitals of all 50 states of the Union. Harder than it would seem, given states' preferences for selecting weak cities to stop strong cities getting stronger.

But the best US geography lesson could be taught using crime novels, the cities in which they're set, and the urban characters they bring with them.

The currently hot TV series Dexter ("serial killing is fun - if you do it ethically"), based on Jeff Lindsay's novels, has the zany Miami feel one associates with co-Floridans Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey and Dave Barry (and what, without peeking, is the Florida state capital? Not Miami).

Chicago? Gritty V I Warshawski (Sara Paretsky) and even grittier Jack Daniels (J A Konrath). Detroit? Elmore Leonard's early stuff: unbeatable. New York? More than you could shake a stick at: but let's settle on Lawrence Block's series: tough, world-weary, the city of eight million people, all with different ways to be murdered. Boston? Dennis Lehane and Terri Gerritsen are the laureates of that city's guilt-ridden Catholic conscience.

"Hyperlocalisation" is a distinct trend in US and British crime writing of the past 50 years. That is, crime writers' practice of rooting their narrative not just in some metropolitan setting, but in one which is loaded with a "solidity of specification" (as Henry James called it) far in excess of what that narrative strictly requires.

It originates, I suspect, in mass tourism. One sits in the airport departure lounge, a crime novel in hand and a city-guide in the carry-on bag. Or vice versa. And they infect each other.

Hyperlocalisation has progressed further in Californian crime fiction than anywhere. You could use Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Connelly and T Jefferson Parker as substitutes for the Los Angeles Thomas Guide (the city's A-Z). I like them all - but if pushed to take one SoCal novel to my desert island, it would have to be Parker's Laguna Heat.

A writer who's gone beyond hyper in Cal-fic is Scott Frost. A former script writer (he helped on Twin Peaks), Frost's hero is Alex Delillo, a Pasadena homicide detective, and single mom.

Pasadena is the American town I have lived in longest, and there's a peculiar pleasure in being able to picture Delillo's police headquarters, on Garfield, and her house on Mariposa - where I almost bought a place myself, before deciding it was too near the east of Lake high-crime area.

There's an even more peculiar pleasure in occasionally catching out Frost (who now lives in Montana) in topographical error. In Never Fear, Ralph's supermarket he mentions is alongside the 210, not the 110 freeway. Nor can you, as Delillo does in one important scene, drive across the campus of Caltech. It's sealed to all but electric buggies.

Hyperlocalisation makes nitpickers of us all. Ian Rankin must gets 20 letters a day, correcting his Edinburgh topography. Call it hypernitpicking.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq