Thursday, December 2, 2010

I Can Show You the World*

Well-written crime fiction does much more than just tell a good story. It teaches us, too. And I suppose it’s the educator in me that appreciates anything a teacher does to help students learn. There are dozens of ways in which crime fiction teaches, but a comment exchange with Mack at Mack Captures Crime has focused me on one in particular – culture. There are crime fiction novels that take place quite literally all over the world. Each of those novels (well, the well-written ones) reflects the culture of the characters and place, and sometimes of the author, too. Of course, a novel’s not going to teach very much if the amount of cultural information presented in it overwhelms the plot. In a well-written crime fiction novel, the plot and characters drive the rest of the novel. But it’s surprising how much culture we can learn (and teachers can teach) just by using crime fiction.

For example, we can learn much about English culture from the novels of Agatha Christie. One of her sleuths, Hercule Poirot, is a Belgian, so he sees the English from an “outsider’s” perspective, That point of view actually offers us an interesting insight, especially when it comes to certain customs. For instance, in The Murder on the Links, Poirot and Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. The roots of this murder seem to lie in the past, so Poirot decides to travel to Paris to look into the details of a past crime that may have a bearing on Renauld’s death. As he takes his leave of Hastings, Poirot says:

“You permit that I embrace you? Ah, no, I forget that it is not the English custom. Une poignee de main, alors.”

There are several other Christie novels in which we learn about differences between Poirot’s culture and that of his adopted country.

Christie’s novels that feature Miss Marple have much to teach about some of the changes in English culture, especially since World War II. In The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side), for instance, we learn about the coming of council housing, and how that changed the culture of village life. In that novel, Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry investigate the poisoning death of Heather Badcock, one of the residents of a new development that’s recently come to St. Mary Mead. Heather’s poisoned after she drinks a cocktail given to her when she meets her film idol Marina Gregg. At first, it’s believed that Heather was poisoned accidentally, since she has neither fortune nor enemies. The cocktail was originally Marina Gregg’s, so the police believe Marina was the intended victim. Then, it becomes clear that someone intended that cocktail for Heather. So Miss Marple and Dolly Bantry look into the case to find out who would have wanted to kill Heather Badcock and why.

Every year, the Miles Franklin Literary Award is given to the best Australian

“published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases.”

In 2010, that award was given to Peter Temple’s Truth. In that novel, Stephen Villani, acting head of the Victoria Police Homicide Squad, faces several wrenching challenges during a hot summer of devastating bushfires in the Victoria area. He’s dealing with the botched killing of two Aboriginal teens in an operation he authorised. A dead girl has been found in a posh apartment. Her clothes and possessions have been taken, so identifying her won’t be easy, and no-one in this exclusive apartment building is willing to help. And then the bodies of three men with ties to local crime leaders are found; all three have been brutally murdered. As Villani and his team struggle with these cases, and Villani struggles with his personal life, Temple also shares much about Australian culture.

The same is true of Adrian Hyland. His Emily Tempest novels feature a young woman who’s half White and half Aborigine. As she works with police sergeant Tom McGilivray, we learn much about the Outback culture, the Aboriginal culture, and the language used among the people.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, we meet Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who runs a very well-regarded Botswana detective agency. Throughout the these novels, McCall Smith shares much about the culture of Botswana as well as the mysteries that Mma. Ramotswe and her assistant Mma. Grace Makutsi solve. For example, in Morality for Beautiful Girls, Mma. Ramotswe gets a visit from a Government Man who is convinced that his new sister-in-law is trying to poison his brother. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to find out the truth, and she travels to the Government Man’s home village. While she’s there, she meets his brother, his brother’s wife, and the other members of the family. She’s invited to share a meal with the family, after which everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened. Now the mystery gets even deeper, and Mma. Ramotswe has to look into the family’s past as well as get to know everyone in the household to find out who’s responsible for the poisoning, and why it happened. In this story, we learn quite a bit about family traditions, farming and cattle-raising and other aspects of Botswana culture. And this is only one story; there are lots more in this series.

There are many cultures in India, and Tarquin Hall shares some of them in his Vish Puri series. Puri heads Delhi’s Most Private Investigators, Ltd., and works with an assortment of friends and family members to solve cases. In The Case of the Missing Servant, for instance, Puri is hired by wealthy attorney Ajay Kasliwal, who’s been accused of murdering his servant Mary. While he’s working on that case, Puri is also involved in two other cases. One is the case of Vini Singla, who wants Puri to investigate her fiancé Ramesh Goel. Goel seems to be a perfect match for Vini – too perfect. In another “matchmaking” case, Puri unmasks Neelah Amand as a fraud. Amand had represented himself as the owner of the Empress of India restaurant, so that he could marry a woman of a higher caste. When Puri looks into the case, though, he finds out that Amand is really only a cook.

H.R.F. Keating shares some of the culture of Mumbai in his Inspector Ganesh V. Ghote series. Ghote is a determined inspector who often has to fight the established bureaucracy of the justice system, as well as the power and influence of the very wealthy people he sometimes investigates. Ghote also travels at times to other parts of India, and we learn about the cultures in places like Calcutta and Delhi as well as that of Mumbai.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s series featuring Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is full of Icelandic culture. In Last Rituals, for instance, Thóra works with German banker Matthew Reich to solve the murder of Harald Guntlieb, a German student who was studying in Iceland. Part of the mystery surrounding his death has to do with Icelandic history and mythology, and we learn about that aspect of culture in this novel. These novels also share quite a lot about daily life in Iceland, as well as other parts of the Icelandic culture.

I’ve only had space here to mention a few examples of crime fiction novels that can teach us about different cultures. And the fact is, we all have a culture. So it would be nearly impossible for me to outline all of the novels that can be used this way. What do you think? Which crime fiction novels do you think do justice to your culture? Which novels would you recommend for someone who wanted to learn more about where you live?

On Another Note…

Want to learn more about other cultures? Why not participate in the 2011 Global Reading Challenge community meme, ably led by Dorte at DJs Krimiblog? It’ll give you the opportunity to read books that take place all over the world.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tim Rice and Alan Menken’s Whole New World.


  1. Oh, thank you for the PR, Margot!

    I also like it when my reading takes me to new cultures and customs, but when I came here, I had just read one of Kerrie´s reviews. She mentioned a British novel with a Danish character. I think it is quite funny to read foreign novels with characters from your own country. Have they got it right, or is the character some kind of cliché? Even the great Ruth Rendell has a few au pairs from Europe and Scandinavia who seem less than credible to me.

  2. Dorte - Oh, my pleasure :-). I think the Global Reading Challenge is such a wonderful idea. It is interesting, isn't it, to read about characters from your own country written by people who are not. That's happened to me a few times, too, and It does make one wonder... I often wonder what folks from other countries think when Americans write about their cultures. That, in itself, is an interesting question...

  3. I have actually been struggling to think of a mystery that does not have a lot of local culture in it. By its very nature, I think, crime fiction is rooted in the place where it is set, and whether you want to or not, culture creeps in. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is an authentic portrayal of the England of its times, and what is described in the stories is in line with what literary fiction has to say about the same period.

    But at the same time, crime fiction also represents the mindset of the author, so you often have 'foreign' characters who are almost caricatures.

  4. Rayna - You know, you have a point! In a well-written mystery, the crime, the motive, the weapon, the detection, etc, all fit in with the setting. That means that they need to be culturally authentic to work well. That's one reason why the Sherlock Holmes stories work as well as they do. They fit the setting.

    You raise a very interesting point, too, about writing characters from a different culture. I think it's certainly easiest to write about one's own culture or a culture one's deeply familiar with (Tony Hillerman, Margaret Coel and others have done this). When one's writing a foreign character, it's much more difficult to make that person a well-rounded, authentic character.

  5. You've mentioned lots of wonderful examples as always Margot. One series I rather like is Kerry Greenwood's Corinna Chapman series about a baker living in the inner city who is an amateur sleuth who tends to get involved in the scrapes her friends and neighbours get into - although it's a different city to mine it's probably the closest to the culture I experience daily in that it's not set in the outback (where lots of Australian books are set but few of us actually live) and there are a range of ethnic backgrounds and lifestyles on display.

    As far as general Australian culture I think the books with an undercurrent of humour and lack of respect for authority figures are the ones that are closest to the truth. I'm reading one now, called Redback by Lindy Cameron, which I think has 'nailed' that aspect of Aussie culture.

    On the issue of writing a character who is not from the culture you know well I have always wondered if Belgian people think Christie got it right with Hercule Poirot. I only spend a day and a half in Belgium so couldn't really say but I am curious.

  6. Bernadette - Thanks :-). I've actually heard several good things about the Corinna Chapman series. Now that I know it reflects the life you're accustomed to, and rings true, I'll definitely have to give it a go.

    It's funny that you would mention the humour and the attitude towards authority that are typical of Aussie culture. I got a real sense when I read Kel Robertson's Smoke and Mirrors. That aspect of that novel really struck me and made the novel really enjoyable.

    I find your question about Hercule Poirot really, really interesting. I've met a few folks from Belgium, but never in a context where this question came up, but it's such a good question! I'd be interested to know the answer, too. I know for myself, I'd be hesitant to write a character from another country; I think it would difficult to "nail" the character.

  7. Colin Cotteril's mysteries set in Laos in the 70's (Dr. Siri, a coronor) are FANTASTIC. I especially liked 33 Teeth and Denise Mina in Glasgow I'm also crazy about. I think one of the reasons I read mysteries is to travel in my armchair. And I hope to infuse my mysteries with lots of local colour!

  8. Jan - I'm quite sure your mysteries will have a lot of local colour mixed all through them :-). I agree with you completely about Colin Cotterill's novels. They're terrific on many levels, but that's certainly one of them. When one reads one of his novels, one is really in 1970's Laos. And yes, Denise Mina shows us Glasgow, too.

  9. Global settings are fun, especially if you have not been there. I loved romping around Rome in Dan Brown's Angels and Demons. My next two books take on a global setting and its fun researching cultures as characters need to be developed that the reader will form an affinity with and want to care about them.

  10. Stephen - You've got a well-taken point. When another culture is shown in an honest, authentic way, it can add a lot to the enjoyment of a novel. I'm also glad you mentioned the research involved. Making any character interesting and believable takes work. When it's a character from another culture, that's even more challenging. It does, indeed, take plenty of research and time.

  11. Setting has such a huge role to play in any story - and when it's well done it just adds icing to the cake. I love the Guido Brunetti mysteries taking place in Venice; could there BE a more perfect setting for a mystery? I'm always amazed Dame Agatha never set a story there. And of course, her mysteries are always high on my list; not only for their excellent plots, but for the fascinating snapshots of the England of the past. Trust me, I read them for many, many reasons.

  12. Elspeth - I agree that Donna Leon's Venice is a wonderful setting! You know, you're right that it's interesting that Christie didn't set any of her stories there. It's a great city for adventure :-). And I agree with you that Christie shows us the England of her times as few other people have done.

  13. I tried posting to this post on the road but it didn't take. I think the internet kept going in and out. I love inside jokes as long as I'm an insider and I love it when authors give the reader an inside joke so that they feel involved in the story or the joke on the characters.

  14. Opps, commented above on the wrong post. Well, as for this post, I love learning about new cultures through mysteries. We know that AC has traveled to exotic places with her husband so it's really interesting when we read of her adventure on the Nile or in Egypt or the like.

  15. Clarissa - I know exactly what you mean! It's interesting, isn't it, to see a new place through the eyes of a visitor. You're right that Christie did that with Murder in Mesopotamia, Appointment With Death and some other novels. What I always wonder is this: if a new culture is seen through the eyes of a visitor, is that visitor's vision accurate? It can be, but I wonder if it always is...

  16. Clarissa - Thanks, also for your comment about my post on inside jokes. I agree with you that they're best if the reader really feels included. Otherwise, they can tend to pull a reader out of a story.