Monday, August 31, 2009

The Culture and Language of Mystery


Mystery novels are like any other kind of communication in one important way; they are affected by culture. Whenever we use language, whether it's to tell a mystery story, as I do, or to complete a work project, pick up the dry cleaning or Email a friend, our language is affected by our culture.

I've been re-reading Alexander McCall Smith's delightful The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. If you think about the way those novels are written, and the way Smith writes the dialogue, you can see that the writing is certainly affected by the culture of Botswana, where the novels take place. I must admit, I've never been to Botswana, but I've read other things by African authors, and I see similarities in the style and the dialogue.

Another series that shows the really interesting effect of culture and language on mystery writing is Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee and Loe Leaphorn mysteries. The Navajo culture and the Reservation location of most of the novels permeate the action. In several novels, the Navajo language is used, and Navajo ways are integral to many of the plots. What's fascinating is that Hillerman had the rare gift of being able to share the Navajo way with his readers, although he was not a not a Navajo himself. He lived among the Navajo for years and, in fact, was considered a special friend of the Navajo people, who recognized his respect for their culture and language.

Margaret Maron's Judge Deborah Knott series is richly flavored by its North Carolina setting, and if you read the dialogue, you see the effect of this culture on the language of the novels, too. You can also see this effect in Rita Mae Brown's Mrs. Murphy mysteries. The culture, manners, and language of Virginia are almost as important to those stories as the characters are.

This brings up an interesting question. Does an author have to be a member of a culture in order to write about that culture? Can a mystery novelist place the story in a setting he or she doesn't know? I think it would be difficult. My own Joel Williams series takes place in my home state of Pennsylvania in part because I know it well. Williams himself is in higher education, a world I know well. I think those facts make it easier for me to write about Wiliams and Tilton University and the things that happen there.

I don't think I'm the only one. Alexander McCall Smith was born in Africa and spent many years in Botswana. Robin Cook became an ophthalmologist before he began to write. The culture of medical school, hospitals and doctors is clear in his novels through their settings and the language used. If you read Cook's novels, you see dialogue that's quite medically sophisticated (although Cook doesn't overburden the reader). There are many other examples.

It may be impossible for a mystery author to tell a really compelling story without having a deep understanding of the culture and language patterns of the people involved in the story. What do you think? Is this understanding really necessary for an engaging mystery?

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