Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Culture of Murder

We are all affected by our cultures. Culture is an important part of a person's identity, and it's an important factor in the way people interact. Since crime fiction is, if you think about it, all about human interaction, culture should be a part of a good crime fiction novel. A mystery that's infused with culture seems more real - more believable - because we can put the story in context.

Very often, culture affects how and why murders take place - another reason for which a good mystery gives the reader a sense of the culture where the mystery is taking place. For instance, Tony Hillerman's novels are richly flavored with the Navajo culture. We learn a great deal about that culture as his sleuths, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, solve their cases. The Arapaho culture is woven through Margaret Coel's Wind River mysteries.

We get a fascinating look at English upper- and middle-class culture in Agatha Christie's work. In some cases, we get a glimpse of the working-class culture, too. In fact, Sad Cypress is a very interesting study in cultural conflict between the English classes, as a young woman from the working class is educated "above her station" by her wealthy patroness. The effect of this education is that she doesn't seem to "fit" anymore into any of England's social classes. English culture - this time English village culture - permeates the Miss Marple novels as well. Readers get a sense of village life as Miss Marple goes about her life in St. Mary Mead.

Of course, Christie isn't the only author to share English culture with readers. Three of my other favorite "English murder" authors are Ruth Rendell (the Inspector Wexford series), Caroline Graham (the Inspector Barnaby series) and Colin Dexter (the Inspector Morse series).

Alexander McCall Smith gives readers a rich taste of the culture of Botswana, both in the city and in the countryside. The stories, the characters, even the writing style are pure Africa, and this infusion of culture adds much to the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. The series is far more engaging for sharing that culture.

The same is true of Diane Wei Liang's Mei Wang mysteries. The Eye of Jade, for instance, brings up topics such as Chinese traditional medicine, the Cultural Revolution and of course, the jade trade. Those aspects of Chinese culture (Beijing culture, to be specific) make the novel as interesting and engaging as it is fast-paced and intriguing.

Another fascinating example of culture being woven throughout a novel is Zoe Ferraris' debut novel, Finding Nouf. In this novel, the disappearance of a sixteen-year-old girl leads desert guide Nayir ash-Sharqi - and the reader - through a fascinating exploration of Saudi Arabian culture and marriage customs, Islamic tradition and the clash between traditional and modern life in Saudi Arabia.

What's interesting about all of these novels (and many others that I didn't mention, but are equally infused with culture), is that the sleuth is also a member of the culture explored in the novel. So we get to see that culture not only from the perspective of a reader, but also through the eyes of a person who is a part of the culture. That makes the sleuth more interesting, and gives the sleuth a unique perspective on the crime, too.

My own Joel Williams series is set in the Eastern United States university culture. Williams is a member of that culture, although he hasn't always been. So we see that culture, too, through his eyes. The reader can get a sense of what life is like on a university campus, set in a small "college" town.

Of course, the fact that culture is a critical part of a good mystery doesn't mean it should overshadow the main point of the novel - the mystery. That important point was made in the well-written Mysteries in Paradise review of Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder. Giving too much cultural information can overburden and distract the reader. Like everything else, the balance between sharing culture with the reader and "overloading" a novel is a delicate one. We mystery authors want the reader to get a sense of culture, time and place, but we mostly want the reader to enjoy the mystery at the center of the novel.

What do you think? Do you like to read about culture when you read a mystery? Does it take away from the main point of the novel?


  1. Do you like to read about culture when you read a mystery?
    Certainly! And I am absolutely besotted with British culture. I like your examples, and back in March I wrote some posts about Sherlock Holmes and women (upper class, middle class, working class). It was fun to look at the stories from that angle as you can probably imagine.

  2. I love British culture, too, and have thoroughly enjoyed my visits to the U.K. Thanks so much for sharing that information about your March posts - I'll have to read them.

    I didn't mention this in my blog, but if you also enjoy Irish culture, I recommend Dicey Deere's Torrey Tunet series. They really are rich in Irish village culture.

  3. Of course I love Irish culture! I have added the series to my list, thank you.