Saturday, December 19, 2009

Murder on the Bias

It’s perfectly normal and human to make assumptions about others. Some people argue that we do this because we need some sort of organizer to help us make sense of all of the stimulus we’re bombarded with all the time. Research suggests, too, that we organize information in our minds by categorizing it. So it makes sense that we base our first opinions of others on assumptions and prejudgments that we make. The problem is, of course, that prejudgment leads to stereotyping. We see it a lot in real life, and there’s a great deal of stereotyping in crime fiction, too. In fact, sometimes, those stereotypes have tragic consequences, and some excellent crime fiction holds a mirror up to this side of our nature, so to speak, and lets us see the sad consequences of stereotyping.

Classic crime fiction is full of examples of stereotypes and prejudgment. One could argue that this was because few people questioned the prejudices of the times. For example, several of Agatha Christie’s novels discuss some common assumptions about others. I’ll only mention three of those novels. In Sad Cypress, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Mary Gerrard, the young protégée of wealthy Laura Welman. Mrs. Welman’s niece, Elinor Carlisle, is charged with her murder, and Poirot is brought in to clear her name if he can. Mrs. Welman was herself in poor health and cared for by two nurses. One of them, Eileen O’Brien, is Irish, and several comments are made in the novel about her background. In fact, at Elinor Carlisle’s trial, Nurse O’Brien’s testimony (which figures into the case) is practically dismissed because she’s Irish and “the Irish have vivid imaginations.” In Appointment With Death, there are also several assumptions and prejudices mentioned. In that story, Poirot investigates the murder of a wealthy, tyrannical matriarch while she’s on a trip to Petra with her family. One of the suspects is a friend of the family, Mr. Jefferson Cope, who’s an American. At the beginning of the novel, he’s described as, “like most of his race, disposed to friendliness.”

There are even more of these stereotypes referred to in Murder on the Orient Express, in which Poirot investigates the stabbing murder of a wealthy American businessman while he’s traveling to London on the famous Orient Express train. The only suspects in that murder are the other people traveling in the same coach, all of whom are from different countries. Poirot works with a Wagons Lits official as well as a doctor who happens to be traveling on the same train to find the killer. Several of the other travelers (especially an American typewriter ribbon salesman and an Italian-American car salesman) dress and act in stereotypical ways, and there are several comments throughout the novel (far too many for me to list here) that show the characters’ prejudgments. M. Bouc, the Wagons Lits official, for example, assumes that the Italian traveler must have committed the crime because “an Italian’s weapon is the knife…”

In Dorothy Sayers’ Unnatural Death, we also see clear examples of the stereotypes of the day. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend, Scotland Yard detective Charles Parker, are approached by Dr. Edward Carr, who’s overheard them talking about different kinds of deaths. He’s not entirely satisfied about the death of one of his patients, Harriet Dawson, although it seems that her death from cancer was neither unexpected nor unnatural. The doctor believes that in some way, Miss Dawon’s grand-niece, who inherits her great-aunt’s fortune, has committed murder. Lord Peter is intrigued and sends his friend, Miss Amanda Climpson, to find out what she can about the victim and her relatives and friends. One of those relatives is the Reverend Hallelujah Dawson, a mixed-race preacher who paid Miss Dawson a visit before she died. Some of the locals are shocked that Miss Dawson would permit someone who’s non-white to visit her, and they describe the cleric in scathing and (by today’s standards) extremely racist terms.

In an interesting aside, though, it’s been argued that both Christie and Sayers might have been ahead of their times regarding these stereotypes. In the novels I’ve mentioned here (especially Murder on the Orient Express and Unnatural Death), those prejudices are subtly criticized and used to lead the unwary reader astray.

Other classic crime fiction also integrates the prejudices of the time. For instance, in Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery, the Queens investigate the poisoning murder of Monte Field, an attorney with a very shady reputation. One of the characters featured in the novel is Djuna, the Queens’ houseman/domestic. Djuna, who is nonwhite, is compared to a monkey in several places in this novel, and he’s definitely relegated to an inferior place in the household, although he’s not abused in the typical sense of the word. What’s more (although this is more subtle), far from being resentful of his second-class status, Djuna (who doesn’t even have a surname) is grateful to Inspector Queen for giving him a home, and is devoted to him and his son.

In many ways, crime fiction has changed, in that there’s certain prejudicial language that’s no longer considered acceptable and certain stereotypes are no longer taken for granted. Still, modern crime fiction still reflects racial prejudices. We can argue, in fact, that today’s crime fiction is more open about them.

For example, in Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti confronts his own and others’ prejudices about Roms and immigrants when he investigates the death of Ariana Rocich, a young gypsy girl who apparently fell from a room into a nearby canal while she was robbing a home. Nobody seems interested in her death, and in part that’s because she’s from a different ethnic group of people against whom the locals have a great deal of prejudice. There’s even an interesting exchange in this novel between Brunetti and Dr. Ettore Rizzardi, the pathologist who examines the girl’s body. Brunetti asks the doctor if she’s a gypsy and the doctor answers, “We call them Rom now, Guido.” Later, Brunetti has a conversation with Ispettore Vianello about the girl, and Vianello claims there’s no way to know whether the girl is or isn’t a gypsy. Brunetti says, “Rizzardi says we were supposed to call them Rom.” “How very correct of the doctor,” Vianello answers.

Elizabeth George addresses the issue of stereotypes in With No One As Witness, in which Inspector Lynley and his team investigate the murders of several young boys. What’s particularly telling about this story is that the police aren’t particularly interested in the first three murders, and it’s strongly suggested that that’s because those victims weren’t white. When a white boy becomes the fourth victim, the police scramble to get the cases solved, in part so that it doesn’t look as though those earlier victims were being ignored.

In Murder at Monticello, Rita Mae Brown also brings up racial prejudices and stereotypes. Archeologist Kimball Haynes is the leader of a team that’s excavating an old slave cottage on the property of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. When a skeleton is discovered during the excavation, it appears that a long-ago local may have been involved with one of Jefferson’s slaves. When Haynes is shot, it becomes clear that someone in tiny Crozet, Virginia is desperate to keep a long-hidden secret.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels also address rather frankly the issue of racial prejudice and stereotypes, and what’s interesting about these novels is that the perspective is that of members of the minority group, rather than the majority group. In several of Hillerman’s novels, there are interesting discussions of the way whites and Native Americans – especially the Navajo – view one another. Those stereotypes and judgments come into play in Chee’s personal life, too. At one point, for instance, he decides between living as a more-or-less traditional Navajo, or joining his white girlfriend off the reservation.

Just as in classic crime fiction, we can argue that today’s crime fiction authors critique those racial prejudices and stereotypes at the same time as they hold up that “social mirror.” In all of the novels I’ve mentioned (and in many, many others that space doesn’t allow me to mention), we see the often-tragic consequences of racial prejudices and stereotypes. What’s particularly effective about the way well-written crime fiction handles prejudice is that it (and the critique of it) are woven into the plot. Rather than being diatribes against racial prejudice (which might be much less effective), high-quality crime fiction shows us the tragedy of stereotyping and lets us draw our own conclusions. Do you agree? How do your favorite crime novels address prejudice (if they do)?


  1. As sad as it is to say, I guess prejudice has to be a part of some novels because it still exists today. And for that book to ring true of the situation, then prejudice has to be included. Granted some authors do a better job weaving it into the story than others. If the author does it correctly, then the reader can draw their own conclusion. I think the way we see and talk about prejudice has changed over the years and is reflected in books.

    Very interesting and thought provoking post.

  2. Oh, it's tricky. You've listed some wonderful examples of how it's dealt with effectively without being preachy. Interesting post!


  3. Mason - You have a well-taken point. It isn't fun to admit, but there is prejudice in most societies. Since it's a part of real life, it's also relevant for crime fiction. As you say, a lot depends on the way the author addresses the topic, too; the best crime fiction is focused on the plot, the characters and the mystery at hand. If prejudice is a part of those elements, then it can be addressed in a powerful way. If not, then it takes away from the central plot and instead of making the reader think, it's just too preachy.

    Elizabeth - You're right that it's tricky! That's why I admire authors such as Christie, Sayers, George and Adrian Hyland, who I didn't get the chance to mention in my post. They all have found extremely effective ways to hold that particular mirror up for the reader without, as you say, getting preachy.

  4. What I find amusing about older crime novels is all the prejudices against foreigners, not only coloured people. I think a popular assumption was that as foreigners did not speak English perfectly, they must be a bit daft ;)

  5. Dorte - You are so right!! As I read your post, I was thinking about Agatha Christie's Taken at the Flood. In that novel, Poirot stays at a small, local inn/hotel as a part of his investigation. One of the other guests at the hotel notices right away that he's a foreigner; when he responds that he is, she says that all foreigners should "go back where they belong." A funny example of exactly the kind of thing you mean, and it is amusing.