Tuesday, September 14, 2010

One Foot in Each World...

We’ve seen major social changes in the last hundred years or so, and even more so in the last fifty years. One of those changes is that people from very different cultures and backgrounds interact a lot more closely than they ever did. Whether it’s the fact that, as the saying goes, the world is getting smaller, or there are fewer social “taboos,” we’re seeing many more multi-ethnic and multi-racial communities and families than ever. On one hand, this can be seen as a very good thing, since this kind of closeness can lead to better understanding and less conflict. On the other, when cultures are very different, people who are members of more than one culture – who inhabit two worlds, you might say – can feel quite torn. We certainly see that in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too. That makes sense, if you think about it. Sleuths and major characters can benefit from their bi-cultural backgrounds. Those backgrounds can give one insights and credibility in more than one culture, which can be very helpful. And being a citizen of two worlds means working out a rather complicated identity, which can add an interesting layer to a novel.

As a rule, one doesn’t see much biculturalism in 19
th-Century crime fiction, although there’s an interesting case of it in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face. In that story, Grant Munro is concerned about his wife Effie’s strange behaviour. Ever since some mysterious new residents moved into a house near the Munros’, Effie’s been acting oddly, and won’t confide in her husband. Munro thinks Effie knows more about the new family than she’s saying, and he asks Sherlock Holmes to help him discover the truth. Holmes agrees and begins to investigate. It turns out that the mystery behind Effie Munro’s secretiveness has to do with bi-culturalism. You might say that Conan Doyle was ahead of his time in addressing the issue of bi-culturalism.

We see a few examples of bi-cultural characters in Agatha Christie’s work. For instance in
Ordeal by Innocence, we meet the members of the Argyle family. When matriarch Rachel Argyle is killed with a fireplace poker, her adopted son Jacko is convicted of the crime and dies in prison. Two years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary visits the family home, Sunny Point, with startling news: he knows that Jacko Argyle was innocent. Calgary can provide a solid alibi for Jacko, but wasn’t able to at his trial, because he was suffering from amnesia, from which he has just recovered. The news that Jacko Argyle was innocent shocks the whole family, and raises the question of who really killed Rachel Argyle. One suspect is Tina Argyle, Rachel’s adopted daughter. Tina’s biological mother was English and her biological father was an East Indian sailor, so in many ways, she’s been very happy to have a home and a place in society. She’s found a place for herself as a librarian in the local County Library, and despite what Christie refers to as her “half-caste” background, Tina identifies with English culture. Her background and rather mysterious personality create an interesting thread that runs through this story as Calgary and Philip Durrant, Rachel Argyle’s son-in-law, slowly find out what really happened to Rachel Argyle.

In Christie’s
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday for Murder and Murder for Christmas), we meet Pilar Estravados. She’s the half-Spanish, half-English daughter of Juan Estravados and Jennifer Lee. Years earlier, Jennifer had left her family’s home and moved with her husband to Spain, where Pilar was raised. Now, Pilar’s grandfather, Simeon Lee, has invited her and the other members of the family to spend Christmas at the family home. Simeon Lee is an unpleasant, tyrannical man, so no-one really wants to accept the invitation except Pilar, who has never met him. However, because of Lee’s wealth and his hold over his family, no-one dares to refuse the invitation, either. On the night of Christmas Eve, Lee is brutally killed. Hercule Poirot, who’s staying at a friend’s home nearby, is called in to investigate. As he gets to know the various members of the Lee family, we learn more about Pilar, who identifies more strongly with her Spanish identity than with her English identity. In fact, we get an interesting “outsider’s” look at the English through her eyes.

There’s also an interesting example of biculturalism, you could say, in Dorothy Sayers’
Unnatural Death. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend, Inspector Parker, investigate the death of Miss Angela Dawson. Miss Dawson’s doctor isn’t satisfied that her death was natural, but he has no real proof to back up his suspicions. As Wimsey and Parker look into the death (which does turn out to have been murder), they meet Miss Dawson’s relations. One of them is a cousin, the Reverand Hallelujah Dawson, a West Indian preacher. He’s got both English and West Indian backgrounds, and moves among both groups. The sleuths learn about the Dawson family history as they explore Hallelujah Dawson’s claim to Angela Dawson’s fortune, and as they do so, we get an interesting picture of attitudes towards biculturalism during the time that Sayers wrote.

In Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels, there’s frequent discussion of cultural identity. One of the interesting “regulars” in that series is Janet Pete, a half-Navajo/half-White lawyer who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In several of Hillerman’s novels, she is also Jim Chee’s love interest. In some ways, Janet Pete identifies strongly with her Navajo “self.” She has a deep attachment to Navajo lore and history, and has contempt for Whites who are disdainful, condescending or worse in their attitudes towards Navajos. In that sense, she feels a strong kinship with the people who live on the Reservation. On the other hand, Pete also identifies with her White “self.” She lives in Washington, is accustomed to moving among Whites, and is not ready to give up her very “White” life to move to the Reservation. Pete’s inner conflict about her identity, and her conflict with Chee about the life they ought to have, add an interesting sub-plot to the novels in which she appears. As the couple sort out their future, we get an “inside look” at the choices that Native Americans make about living among Whites, living among their own people, and the lifestyles they adopt.

Today, of course, there are several sleuths who are bi-cultural, and that adds not only to their interest as characters, but also to their ability as sleuths. For instance, Adrian Hyland’s sleuth Emily Tempest is half White and half Aborigine. She’s been raised in many ways with what you might call a White world view and a White education. On the other hand, she is also connected with her mother’s Aborigine people and identifies with that culture as well. Emily’s dual identity helps her to move among both groups of people, but it also causes her inner conflict. In
Moonlight Downs (AKA Diamond Dove), for instance, Tempest returns to her childhood home in the Australian Outback after being away for years. Soon after her return, Lincoln Flinders, the father of Tempest’s childhood best friend, is murdered. Suspicion falls on an Aborigine sorcerer who’s since fled the area. There are other suspects, though, and when the camp breaks up and its remaining residents move to a nearby town, Emily Tempest moves there, too, and begins to investigate. As she and police officer Tom McGilivray look into the murder, her membership in two cultures gives her an insight into who really killed Lincoln Flinders.

There’s also Kel Robertson’s Bradman “Brad” Chen, a fifth-generation Chinese-Australian member of the Australian Federal Police who “stars” in
Dead Set and Smoke and Mirrors. Chen’s ethnic background is Chinese, but his cultural background is Australian. Most people who first meet him expect him to speak and behave quite differently from the way he does because of his appearance. But Chen speaks in Strine, is a former football star and in just about every other way is indistinguishable (at least culturally) from his friends who don’t have Asian backgrounds. It’s an interesting reflection on people’s perceptions, actually.

There are, of course, other examples of sleuths who live, you might say, in two worlds. For instance, there’s Henry Chang’s Jack Yu. Ethnically and culturally, he’s Chinese, so in that sense, he’s not bi-cultural. However, he works for the New York Police Department, and has to straddle the Chinese-American world as well as the White world in his work. There are other detectives with this same challenge. As we get to know these detectives and their backgrounds, we see how they face the issues that are a part of moving between two worlds. Which of these sleuths have you read about and enjoyed?


  1. Oh, I love the AC books you quoted. I love it when they bring in race. But, you're right, they don't make such an issue of that anymore. Maybe publishers will make such an issue of it, it's not worth it.

    I can think of social economic difference but I can't think of many examples of cultural differences in mysteries.

    Great post.


  2. Clarissa - Interesting point about the effect of what publishers think on what's written. It could be that publishers don't want race being mentioned, or it could be that bi-culturalism is more common now than it was, and so people don't find it as striking as it was.

    It's also interesting that you mention socioeconomic differences. You could argue (and a lot of people do) that socioeconomic status is a cultural difference. Many people in different social and economic classes do have different world views. So maybe you know about more fictional bi-cultural people than you thought...

  3. I love Sonchai Jitpleecheep, from John Burdett's Bangkok 8. He's the son of a Thai prostitute and an unknown US Military man. He's spent time in the West, and is also firmly in Thailand and a Buddhist. It makes for a fascinating view of his world.

  4. Vanda - Oh, thanks for mentioning Sonchai! I confess, I haven't read Bangkok 8, yet, although it's moving up on my TBR list, but I do know the premise, and it sounds as though he's a very interesting guy. It's exactly the sort of in-both-worlds character I meant, too, so thanks.

  5. I do think cultural and racial differences are becoming less relevant than economical differences these days. A Pilar would still not fit into Stephen Lee's family, but not because she is 'exotic', but because she grew up in different economic conditions.
    The example that comes to mind immediately is the difference between the two daughters in law in Pocketfull of Rye.

    And Margot, how do you manage to come up with such fantastic posts every single day?

  6. Great post, as ever, Margot. I think my favourite bi-cultural character is Miss Smilla in Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. But I agree that these characters who reflect the tensions or other pulls between different cultures or societal rules/attitudes in some way articulate or represent the "aloneness" that everyone feels, whether or not they are part of more than one ethnic or cultural group. For me, this is one of the big appeals of crime fiction, its willingness to depict the "different", often an outsider, but more extremely presented in cases such as those you highlight.

  7. Rayna - You're awfully kind :-). And you put that quite well: socioeconomic differences really do seem to matter, if you will, more than race does. And I'm so glad you mentioned A Pocket Full of Rye. You do see a great example there of the way economic conditions and social class put people, if you will, in different worlds.

    Maxine - Thank you :-). And thanks for mentioning Smilla Jaspersen. She really is an interesting protagonist, and I should definitely have included her here. Folks, do check out Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow if you haven't read it as a clear example of how bi-culturalism shapes a sleuth (and in this case, the sleuth's investigation, too). I agree, too, that it is fascinating to think about that "aloneness" (I like your choice of word, by the way) that we all do feel, no matter which culture(s) we belong to. I think that helps us identify with that sense of "otherness" when it's explored in crime fiction.

  8. I second the recommendation for John Burdett's Bangkok series. Another good choice would be Tim Hallinan's Poke Rafferty series. Poke is part Filipino and is trying to build a family with a former Thai bar girl and a street child.

  9. Very interesting post. As always, very thought provoking and intriguing.


    Thoughts in Progress

  10. John - Oh, yes, Poke Rafferty! What a terrific example of a sleuth who's got, as it were, one foot in each world. He's got entrance into a few cultures with his background, and his multicultural home life adds to that series, too.

    Mason - Thank you :-). That's awfully kind of you.