Thursday, August 26, 2010

Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome!*

One of the pleasures of reading is that readers can get a sense of a place and group of people that they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten to know. For that reason, reading a well-written novel is, in a way, like going on a trip to another place. Some authors are natives of the places they write about; they share that sense of place and people in the way that one welcomes guests into one’s home. Other authors are not natives of the places they write about, although they might have lived in those places for quite some time. These authors convey a strong sense of place and people in the way that a friend might share a place: “I’ve found this wonderful place and fascinating people, and I want to share it with you.” Either approach can make for a well-written, compelling novel.

Agatha Christie conveys a sense of place in both ways. She was, of course, English, and in her novels that take place in England, there is a strong sense of that place and those people. For instance, in novels such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Sad Cypress, The Body in the Library and Dead Man’s Folly, Christie shares scenes of home life and draws characters that are intimate portrayals of life in the England that she knew. Everything from meals to idiomatic expressions are truly English, and we see her world from an “insider’s” perspective.

In novels such as Murder in Mesopotamia, Death on the Nile, and Appointment With Death , Christie takes a different perspective. Much of the action in those novels takes place outside of England, and in them, Christie shows us the places and people in a slightly different way. Christie spent time in the Middle East, and came to know that part of the world. That knowledge is evident in stories such as Murder in Mesopotamia, in which Hercule Poirot finds the killer of Louise Leidner, wife of a noted archeologist who’s on a dig in Iraq. Yet, there’s a different feel to these novels. In them, we see the world of the Middle East as a very welcome and enthusiastic tourist might. Christie provides vivid descriptions of places, customs and so on, and the reader is, if you will, taken along on an exciting journey. But the intimate sense of being an “insider” isn’t there, quite possibly because Christie wasn’t from the Middle East.

We see a similar distinction in Ngaio Marsh’s work. Novels such as Enter a Murderer take place in England. So Marsh conveys a sense of that place and those people. And, since Marsh’s first love was the theater, we also get a strong sense in this particular novel of English “theater people.” In the story, Arthur Surbonadier is infuriated when a role he’d coveted in the Unicorn Theatre’s production of The Rat and the Beaver is given to a rival, Felix Gardener. Just before the show is to begin, a drunken Surbonadier threatens Gardener. It’s Surbonadier, though, who’s murdered when a prop gun turns out to be all too real. Sir Roderick Alleyn, who’s attending the play, investigates the crime. While this novel gives us an intimate look at life in the theatre, it’s quite different from the intimate portrait Marsh gives us of her own New Zealand in novels such as Died in the Wool which take place there. In that novel, Flossie Rubrick, MP for a part of South Island, goes off on her husband’s sheep station to practice an important political speech and never returns. Weeks later, she’s found dead inside a bale of hay. A year later, her nephew asks Alleyn to investigate when it turns out that her death may be related to espionage. In this and her other novels set in New Zealand, Marsh gives readers an “insider’s” look at life in New Zealand.

To get a sense of the difference perspective can make, I invite you to compare the view of England that we get from Agatha Christie’s novels with the view that Marsh gives us in novels such as A Surfeit of Lampreys. We learn quite a bit from both authors, but from different points of view.

Tony Hillerman was a native of the American Southwest. Born and raised in Oklahoma, he lived there until his service in World War II. He later moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he lived and worked until his death. Hillerman’s mystery novels share an “insider’s” look at the Southwest with the reader. We get a strong sense of place in his Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels, and it’s obvious from the portraits Hillerman paints that he’s a native of the area. What’s interesting, too, is the subtle differences between the ways Hillerman writes of the country in the Southwest, and the ways in which he writes of the Native Americans who live there. Hillerman himself was not Native American, although he attended a Native American school as a boy. So in some ways, Hillerman shares the life of, especially, the Navajos in the Southwest in a slightly less intimate way. Although we learn quite a lot about Navajo customs and lifestyles, we don’t get an “insider’s look” at being Navajo. Hillerman wasn’t a Navajo and didn’t pretend to be one. The same is true of Margaret Coel’s portrayal of Apache life in her Wind River series. Coel is a native of Coloardo, and writes of that area with the kind of intimate knowledge that a native of any area would have. Her portrayal of Apache life and customs is informed, respectful and fascinating, but subtly different, since Coel is not Apache and doesn’t pretend she is.

The work of Donna Leon and of Andrea Camilleri also gives a very interesting look at the difference between the perspective that a native of a place offers and the perspective of someone who isn’t from that place. In this case, the place is Italy. Leon is an American who’s lived in Venice for many years, and knows the city well. It’s obvious from her Guido Brunetti novels that she loves Venice and very much enjoys sharing her adopted home with readers. Her Commissario Brunetti and his wife Paola are proud to be Veneziano and as we follow them, we see why Leon loves the city as much as she clearly does. Each novel gives the reader the opportunity to explore different sections of the city and the surrounding area.

Andrea Camilleri is a native of Sicily and has lived in Italy all of his life. His Sicilian Commissario Salvo Montalbano lives and works in fictional Vigàta, which Camilleri is said to have modeled after his native Porto Empedocle. The Montalbano novels give us the “insider’s” view of Sicily. Camilleri shares a very personal look at the daily lives and lifestyles of his characters, especially of Montalbano. We see the different towns of Sicily from the perspective of the native, and it gives a slightly different cast to these novels from Leon’s perspective on Venice.

And then there are the differing views of Iceland that we get from the work of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and the work of Michael Ridpath. Ridpath is British, and writes of Iceland in Where the Shadows Lie. In that novel, Boston police officer Magnus Johnson is sent to Iceland to work with the local police force in combating a new kind of dangerous crime that’s appeared in Iceland. Johnson’s trip to Iceland comes at a good time, since his life is in danger from Boston-area drug lords whose operations he knows about. Johnson is half-Icelandic, and lived in Iceland as a child, so he’s a natural choice, anyway, for this assignment. He’s not there long before a murder occurs, and he gets involved in the investigation. As he does, Ridpath shares Iceland with the reader just as a friend who was excited about a new place might. You might say the reader discovers Iceland as Johnson re-discovers it.

By contrast, Iceland is Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s own country. So the portrait of Iceland that she shares in her Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series is an intimate, personal picture of life in that country. We see Iceland from the perspective of someone who’s always lived there and has an “insider’s” view. Icelandic daily life, customs and even the sense of humour are shared from the point of view of a native. In these novels, you might say that Yrsa Sigurðardóttir shares her home with the reader.Both the “insider’s” perspective and, if you will, the “tour guide” perspective can make for exciting and engaging crime fiction. So long as the story and characters are believable and well-drawn, you could say that a good crime fiction novel is a good crime fiction novel. But there are subtle differences between these two perspectives. Have you noticed this? Do you have a preference when you read? If you’re a crime fiction author, do you think that whether you’re a native of your setting makes a difference in your writing?Thanks very much to Maxine at Petrona for the inspiration for this post!

*NOTE: The title of this post is the first line of John Kander and Fred Ebb's Wilkommen.


  1. If you’re a crime fiction author, do you think that whether you’re a native of your setting makes a difference in your writing?

    Well, I think it does make a difference. For my Danish manuscripts I have never dared write about places I didn´t know fairly well. I am cheating right now with my cosy manuscript which takes place in Yorkshire because I have never been there. To me it makes a difference that it is a cosy, though. I plan to spend some time researching Yorkshire later, but basically The Cosy Knave is so far out that I hope I can get away with quite a bit of poetic licence.

  2. Dorte - I was really hoping you would respond to this post, since you write about your own country and the U.K. : ) You make an interesting point that writing a book that's "out there" may give one a certain amount of license when it comes to sharing a place that's not one's home. I think readers may not expect as "real life" and authentic an "insider's" view if a novel is "out there."

    It's interesting, too, that you have a different take on your Danish manuscripts. I'll bet they really show Denmark from an "insider's" perspective since you know the places you write about as a native.

  3. I write my novels more from the tour guide perspective, because although Sam Shephard lives in Dunedin, she's a recent arrival to the city. Most of all though, she loves the city, so her view of it is through rose-tinted glasses. Where you might think grunge, she thinks character, where you might think out-of-date, she thinks vintage.

    In the first novel, set in Mataura where she's been for longer and is closer to her own country town her view is more insider, she knows everyone, and all the local knowledge pet names for places, people and things.

    I enjoy seeing the character's perception of their environment when reading. Ian Rankin's Edinburgh is dark and foreboding, and as such is a reflection of Rebus's jaded view of the world.

    Ngaio Marsh was interesting because although New Zealand born and raised, she set the vast majority of her novels in Britain and seemed comfortable in doing so, but then, for a Kiwi she was quite British in her manner and bearing. Perhaps a reason she fitted in so well there. But yes, as you mentioned her NZ novels seem very much an insider view because of the little details that only a local would know and see. Perhaps it was a relief for her to write about the home land.

  4. Vanda - Thanks so much for your insights on Ngaio Marsh. I don't know nearly as much about her as you do, and I'm enjoying learning from you. I wonder if it was a relief to her when she wrote about her own homeland. I wouldn't be surprised. I know that when I write about my home area of Pennsylvania, it is comfortable, since I know it well.

    Interesting point you make, too, about Rebus. The way that Rankin paints Edinburgh really is a solid reflection of Rebus' world view. If you contrast that with Alexander McCall Smith's Edinburgh that you see in his Isabel Dalhousie series, it's quite different. Hmm... I think I'm going to have to do a post on the way characters see life and what that does to view of a place. Interesting to think about!

    Thanks, too, for sharing Sam Shepherd with us; I know what you mean about the rosy-eyed view she has of a new-to-her-city. I think a lot of people put the best face on things when they first get to a place. It's only later that they're aware that very few places are what you'd call perfect.

  5. Wow, Margot, what great comments you've got. I'm not sure I know which perspective I like better. I will read both as long as they're accurate.

    For instance, most mystery novels I read take place in the UK. I read novels by Martin Edwards, Leigh Russell, Val McDermid, and Coroline Graham who are from the country.

    However, I also read books by Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie who are what you call "tourists" although they don't act like it.

    One thing that bothers me about some fiction, especially portrayed on television is when Americans are on AC movies and they all see like they're from Texas with bad accents. LOL.

    Thought-provoking post.


  6. I do think we write about setting better if we've at least visited our location a few times. For one thing, you can't get the smells from online research. Or watch the people who frequent the places you write about. I love a strong setting in a mystery because it helps place me in the middle of the story.


  7. Clarissa - Thank you : ). I'm loving these comments, too - including yours : ). And I see your point clearly. There are some terrific writers (Edwards, McDermid and Graham are such terrific examples)who share their own country with us, and we do get that "insider's" perspective. Then, as you say, there are people like Deborah Crombie who give us another perspective and it shows us a slightly different view. I think that's one reason I like both perspectives: just alternative views. As you say, so long as the story and characters are strong, that's what's important.

    And I had to laugh at your comment about some television films that use really atrocious accents. Highly annoying, isn't it?

  8. Patricia,
    You're absolutely right. There really isn't a way to convey a setting if you haven't spent a lot of time in a place. The way everything feels and smells and sounds isn't going to come across in a book one's read or a few web pages. And absolutely, a strong setting can be a real asset to a book; I always find it important to get a sense of place.

  9. One of the issues when you read historical fiction is always how much you can trust the veracity of what appear to be "facts". I guess with any novel it also becomes a question of how much the sense of place reflects the "real" place the novel is set in, or whether it actually reflects the place the novelist lives in. I have this idea that travellers live in bubbles. Most tourists stay in a very superficial bubble that lets them see what a tourist sees. Very few tourists penetrate the "resident's" bubble.

  10. Kerrie - You make such an interesting comparison between history and tourism. As you say, when you read historical fiction, it is hard to know exactly what really happened and what didn't really happen. Likewise, if you read a novel set in a particular place, how much is that setting a reflection of what is really there, and how much is a reflection of, as you say, the "tourist bubble." I know there are stark differences between what tourists see in South Africa, for instance, and the South Africa that Jassy Mackenzie shows us.