Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Small World...or Worlds Apart?

Most of us would probably agree that it’s wrong to attack others, verbally or otherwise, because of their culture or language. In the abstract, most people would say they believe in peaceful co-existence with those from other cultures, and in mutual tolerance and understanding. The reality is often quite different, though. We can all think of cases where cultural differences have led to disputes, or worse. Culture is a very deeply integrated and important part of our identity. So it’s hard to “step outside” our own culturally-influenced perspectives and really see life the way others do. This, and the fact that cultures can differ so very much, often leads to what’s sometimes called culture clash. Languages, values, priorities, perspectives, even gestures, vary so much among cultures that it’s easy to see how misunderstandings can arise. Add to that the increasing mobility of many groups of people and the realities of immigration in times of economic uncertainty and you’ve got the makings of serious culture-based conflict. That’s certainly been the case in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too. Even when cultural differences aren’t the reason for a murder, culture clash adds a sometimes gripping layer of tension to a story.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels take up the topic of cultural differences. In Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, English nurse Amy Leatheran is hired to look after Louise Leidner, whose husband, noted archeologist Eric Leidner, is supervising a dig in Iraq. One afternoon, Louise Leidner is murdered. Hercule Poirot, who’s traveling in the area, agrees to break his journey and investigate. At first, everyone wants to believe that Louise was murdered by some local who somehow snuck into the expedition house. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that the killer is one of the expedition party. Throughout the novel, Amy Leatheran, from whose perspective the story is told, comments on some of the differences between her own culture and the local culture. At first, she finds the roads terrible and the town dirty and messy. In fact, Louise Leidner tells her that Arabs,

“…don’t understand anything said in an ordinary ‘English’ voice.”

Throughout the course of the investigation, though, Amy Leatheran gains a certain amount of respect for the locals and their ways. She even mentions at the end of the novel (after her return to England) that she sometimes misses the Middle East. Among other things, this novel is an interesting study of cultures in contrast.

Cultural differences are discussed in other Christie stories, too. For instance, there’s a scene in Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) in which Hercule Poirot comes face-to-face with local prejudice. He’s visiting the village of Warmsley Vale while he investigates the murder of a stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden. Arden’s death is most likely connected to a dispute between the local Cloade family and the widow of the wealthy family patriarch, Gordon Cloade. In the course of his investigation, Poirot meets an elderly female guest at the inn where he’s staying. Once she establishes that he’s also a guest at the inn, the woman says:

“You’re a foreigner.”
“Yes,” replied Hercule Poirot.
“In my opinion,” said the old lady, “you should all Go Back.”
“Go back where?” inquired Poirot.
“To where you came from,” said the old lady firmly.
She added as a kind of rider, sotto voce: “Foreigners!” and snorted.

Foreign is exactly the word that sets off a firestorm of protests and conflict in Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers. In that novel, Inspector Kurt Wallander is called to the scene of a brutal murder. Local farmer Johannes Lövgren and his wife, Maria, have been viciously attacked and Johannes has been killed. Maria is barely alive, but soon enough, she dies of her wounds. Before she dies, though, Maria says, “Foreign.” Once the local press gets wind of that comment, it’s assumed that the couple was murdered by immigrants, and this possibility threatens to inflame Swedish anti-immigration sentiments. Wallander knows the possible consequences if the murder turns out to have been committed by foreigners, so he works frantically to solve the case before there’s any further violence.

Several of Tony Hillerman’s novels allude to the culture clash between Western ways and Navajo ways. In fact, that’s a big part of the reason for the breakup between Jim Chee, one of Hillerman’s sleuths, and his first girlfriend, Mary Landon, who’s a white schoolteacher. We also see cultural conflicts in other ways. For instance, we see cultural differences in views about medicine in Skinwalkers, in which Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn work together for the first time. Someone makes an attempt on Chee’s life. He doesn’t know who the culprit is, but at the same time, Lieutenant Leaphorn is investigating three other killings on the Reservation. The chief links among the incidents are that the three murder victims are all shamans associated with the Yellow Horse Clinic, which practices both Western and traditional medicine. Chee is an aspiring yata'ali, or Navajo singer/healer, so Leaphorn begins to work with Chee to find out what might connect these murders. Some of the locals say the murders are the work of skinwalkers, or Navajo witches who would, naturally, work against traditional healers. Leaphorn, though, doesn’t set much store by beliefs in witchcraft and suspects a much more prosaic motive. Throughout the novel, we see the cultural differences between Navajo approaches to healing and Western approaches to healing.

Elizabeth George’s Deception on His Mind is centered strongly on cultural differences and the misunderstandings they bring. Haytham Querashi is a recently-arrived Pakistani immigrant to Balford-le-Nez, on the Essex coast. He’s come to the U.K. to marry Sahlah Malik, the daughter of a successful Pakistani businessman. When Querashi is murdered, simmering tensions between the Pakistani community and the English community threaten to explode. In fact, a Pakistani activist group begins to label the murder a hate crime. It’s not as simple as that, though, as Sergeant Barbara Havers finds when she gets involved in the investigation. The murder investigation itself focuses on cultural differences but those differences become even clearer in the relationship between Sahlah Malik and her best friend, Rachel Winfield. They’d dreamed of getting a place together and beginning their adult lives together. Then, when Sahlah got engaged, the friends’ cultural differences came between them. Rachel can’t understand why, with Querashi dead, Sahlah can’t simply leave home, move in with Rachel and start adult life. Sahlah can’t understand why Rachel doesn’t see the importance of family in the Pakistani community, and why she would rather stay with her family and be married to someone else. It’s a very telling portrait of a real cultural rift.

There’s also a fascinating example of culture clash in Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box. Inspector Reg Wexford is preoccupied with Eric Targo, a man Wexford suspects of being a serial killer. Wexford believes that Targo committed two murders years ago, but Wexford didn’t have the evidence he needed to bring Targo to justice. Now, Targo’s returned after a long absence, and seems to be targeting the Wexford home. In fact, when Andrew Norton, the Wexford’s new gardener, is found strangled, Wexford is convinced that Targo’s the killer. Then, Targo disappears. While Wexford’s caught up in the Targo case, DS Hannah Goldsmith is faced with a fascinating culture-based conflict. She’s investigating the Rhamam family, recent émigrés from Pakistan. There’s evidence that sixteen-year-old Tamima Rhamam may have been forced into an arranged marriage against her will. When Goldsmith meets with the Rhamam family, we can really see the different cultural perceptions, especially when Goldsmith has to confront her own beliefs about the family. It turns out that the Rhamam case and the Targo case are connected, and even in that connection, we see an interesting difference in cultures.

Adrian Hyland also addresses interesting issues of culture clash in his Emily Tempest series. Tempest is half Aboriginal/half white, so even in her own life, she’s had to come to terms with her own two cultures. She also has to deal with the wider cultural differences between whites and Aborigines in Australia’s Outback. In Moonlight Downs (AKA Diamond Dove), for instance, Emily returns to her childhood home after years of absence. She’s no sooner returned than Lincoln Flinders, the father of her childhood best friend and the leader of the camp, is murdered and mutilated. At first, it looks as though the murder was committed by an Aborigine sorcerer who’s since fled the area. But he’s not the only suspect, and, when the residents of the camp leave the area after the murder, Emily moves with most of the rest of them to a nearby town and begins to investigate with the help of police sergeant Tom McGilivray.

Culture affects so much about the way we view the world that it’s inevitable that members of different cultures would see the world differently. Sometimes those differences are resolved in a straightforward way. Sometimes they lead to misunderstandings – or worse. Which “culture clash” novels have you enjoyed?


  1. Some good choices listed. I would add Mankell's The Man From Beijing, Simon Lewis's Bad Traffic or, going back in time, Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.

  2. John - You really do make some good suggestions here! Thank you : ). I actually wavered between The Man from Beijing and Faceless Killers, and arbitrarily chose Faceless Killers, so I'm glad you suggested the other. And you're absolutely right about the other two as well.

  3. You listed my favorite when it comes to culture clashes - Tony Hillerman's novels. Each one shows a bit of how the Native American culture and white man's ways are different. These differences can lead to misunderstanding and that can lead to murder in books and unfortunately in real life too.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - As you've no doubt guessed, I'm a Hillerman fan, too and you're right; his novels do a wonderful job of showing the very different worlds in which whites and Navajos live. Margaret Coel's novels focus on these kinds of cultural issues, too. Those cultural differences can, indeed, lead to misunderstanding, violence and, yes, murder.

  5. In mysteries, I also thought of Margaret Coel's series, but the fimyrst overall culture class novel choice is The Ugly American.

  6. Ha, didn't proofread, did I? That's " but my first overall..."

  7. Patricia - I hadn't remembered The Ugly American until you mentioned it. Thank you! :). I agree that it's a classic example of a novel that deals with cultural conflicts. Admittedly, it's not a crime novel, but it is a terrific example of culture clash.

  8. Margot my wife is also a Tony Hillerman fan simply because of all the information about Navajo culture.
    She hates flying and can't stand hot climates but the thought of seeing Window Rock and Hillerman Country got her on a plane for an 11 hour flight to Phoenix.
    In Colin Cotterill's Dr Siri series the culture clash is between ancient Laotian "shamanism" and Communism.
    It is a bit early in the morning here for me or I could think of a few more, but certainly there is a clash between the old and new states in the European Union.

  9. Bad Traffic, as mentioned by the first commenter, is a really great example of this, I did so much love the perceptions of England and the English through the eyes of different Chinese characters. Part of the many charms of this excellent book.

    I got caught out this way myself. There was one aspect of the plot of The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin that I wondered (included in my review) whether even the author was aware of, as it indicated to me a guilt that was never made explicit in the book. I later had the honour to meet the author at an event, and mentioned this - whereupon he told me that the "trigger" I had thought indicated guilt is something that is quite standard practice in Sweden, i.e. any of his readers would have "got" that - but it missed me as it is not a common practice in the UK. Sorry I cannot go into more detail because of plot spoilers.

    Another example is Harry Bosch in Nine Dragons (Michael Connelly), but I don't think it is as good as the ones in your post or some of the other ones given here. (Esp Adrian Hyland, and these themes are continued in the excellent second volume in the story of Emily Tempest, Gunshot Road.)

  10. Norman - I've learned so much about the Navajo culture, too, from Tony Hillerman's books. I can truly understand why your wife wanted so badly to see that area of the U.S. When my family and I moved to California, we drove through "Hillerman country" and it is magnificent, isn't it? And thanks for mentioning Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri books. There, too, there's such an interesting clash between traditional Laos and Communism.

    Maxine - You're right; Bad Traffic is exactly the sort of book I had in mind when I was writing this, so I'm glad you thought of it, too. And Adrian Hyland weaves the meeting of two cultures - and the clashes between them - just elegantly (I think, anyway) into his writing.

    It's so interesting that you would mention your impression of the The Darkest Room and your own background's influence on your interpretation of it. That's one thing that I'd have liked to say more about in this post, but I didn't want to go on and on for too long. We are all deeply influenced as readers, too, by our cultures. So we may find characters sympathetic or unappealing, or actions laudable or contemptible because of our cultures. And I do wonder sometimes how many subtleties we miss in a book from another culture if we don't understand that culture...
    Folks, Maxine's excellent review of The Darkest Room is here.

  11. SIMISOLA by Rendell was one of the most eye-opening novels I had read at the time. Just shocked me to death.

  12. Patti - Oh, yes! That is a great example of the kind of novel I mean. Isn't it just a haunting example of race and class issues? Thanks for reminding me of it.

  13. As a Brit living and writing in Thailand, the culture issue is part of daily life. I love this country and it's people, and my new novel, Pursuit To Paradise, hopefully reflects this.

  14. Because I know sign language, I'm drawn to novels that depict deaf people either being murdered or being suspects. I've worked with many deaf who are brilliant people but are often considered stupid by the hearing. I read an Elizabeth George novel (Finding Joseph?) where the deaf culture is analyzed. I love when prejudice can come from within people of our own race.


  15. Mark - Please forgive me for not responding to your comment more quickly; it just popped up in Blogger. I'm sure that you've had some fascinating experiences living with those from a very different culture and tradition. Thanks for mentioning your novel, too.

    Clarissa - Lots of people don't realize that the Deaf culture is a culture. It is a distinctive group of people which its own traditions, assumptions and the like. I've a good friend who's a hearing signer and has for years been involved with the Deaf culture, and I've learned a lot from her about that culture. It is an interesting culture. Your comment made me think of Colin Dexter's The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, in which a Deaf member of an Oxford group of dons is murdered. Fascinating...And thanks for the reminder of Elizabeth George's For the Sake of Elena. That look into another culture is really interesting.