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.