I always like it when I learn of teachers who use crime fiction in their curricula (and I don’t just mean literature or Language Arts curriculua either). Crime fiction can be used to teach a number of things. Just to take one example, crime fiction can be used to teach culture in ways that a more traditional world cultures or social studies text couldn’t do as easily. Why? Because in a well-written crime fiction novel, the everyday lives and cultures of the people in the novel are woven into the story. We learn about culture as a part of the story rather than in some decontextualised (and therefore harder to remember) way. There are so many examples of how this is expertly done in crime fiction that one post couldn’t begin to mention them all. Here are just a few.
Sometimes, culture is brought into a novel through food and eating customs. For example, the custom of afternoon tea has been a part of British culture for a very long time. From what I understand (not being British I don’t know this from a lot of experience), it’s less common to have a formal tea than it used to be. But the custom of tea time has been woven into a lot of crime fiction novels. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s ever-efficient secretary Miss Lemon asks him to help her sister Mrs. Hubbard find out the truth behind a series of mysterious thefts and other odd events at the hostel she manages. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and before long, what starts as a case of a few odd thefts turns into murder. One of the residents of the hostel Celia Austin admits to some of the thefts, but when she is killed two nights later, Poirot and Inspector Sharpe have to look into the lives of the hostel residents to see who would have wanted to kill Celia Austin and why. At one point, Inspector Sharpe pays Poirot a visit:
“Though personally deprecating ‘le five o’clock’ as inhibiting the proper appreciation of the supreme meal of the day, dinner, Poirot was now getting quite accustomed to serving it.
The resourceful George had on this occasion produced large cups, a pot of really strong Indian tea and, in addition to the hot and buttery square crumpets, bread and jam and a large square of rich plum cake.
All this for the delectation of Inspector Sharpe who was leaning back contentedly sipping his third cup of tea.”
Together, the two men discuss the case and it’s not long before they conclude that Celia Austin knew too much about someone at the hostel. In the end, that knowledge was the reason she was murdered.
Food and eating customs are important parts of both Donna Leon’s and Andrea Camilleri’s novels, too. The two authors have created very different characters in (respectively) Guido Brunetti and Salvo Montalbano. But one of the things they have in common is that both characters have the custom (when they can) of lingering over their food and enjoying it for its own sake. Of course they do their jobs and do them well. But they don’t go through a “drive-through” window to get their food, eating it in the car as they go to visit a witness. That’s simply not part of their culture.
The kind of food characters eat can say a lot about a culture, too, without “bashing the reader on the head” with culture. For instance, Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series features Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, which is owned by the Taylor family. The restaurant serves traditionally U.S. Southern cooking such as spicy corn muffins, pecan pie, pulled pork barbecue and more. And the atmosphere gives the reader a sense of the American Southern culture in a very natural way. For instance, in Delicious and Suspicious, Food Channel critic Rebecca Adrian selects Aunt Pat’s as a finalist for the award of Best Barbecue in Memphis. The Taylor family is excited about the prospect and so are the restaurant’s “regulars.” When Adrian dies of poisoning just a few hours after eating at Aunt Pat’s, the restaurant falls under suspicion and word begins to spread that the food is dangerous. Lulu Taylor, the family matriarch, decides to investigate to clear her family’s name and her restaurant’s reputation. Throughout this novel (and the others in the series) we see not just the kinds of food and eating customs that are traditional in the American South, but also other aspects of the culture. For instance, the South has a long tradition of respect for elderly relations. In the series, Ben Taylor, Lulu Taylor’s son, does a great deal of the cooking and the managing, too, of the restaurant. He has a wife and twin daughters, and is in many ways an independent adult. And yet he still respects his mother. He doesn’t defer to her in a weak-willed way, nor does she order him around. But it’s easy to see the respect he shows her as his mother.
Sometimes it’s dialogue that shows us a culture without the author having to tell the reader. For instance, Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series takes place mostly in Melbourne. Temple weaves the culture of that part of Australia through the novels in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. For example, in Bad Debts, Irish investigates the murder of a former client Danny McKillop. At one point, he stops into the Prince of Prussia where several of his father’s football friends often gather. Here’s what happens when one of them asks where he’s been lately:
“‘I had to go to Sydney,’ I said. ‘Work.’…
‘What kind of work does a man have in Sydney on Satdee arvo?’ said Norm O’Neill in a tone of amazement. These men would no more consider being away from Melbourne on a Saturday in the football season than they would consider enrolling in personal development courses.”
Not only does this bit of dialogue give readers a sense of the dialect (which is an integral part of any culture) but it does more, too. It also gives readers a sense of the love of football that’s a very big part of life for many Australians. Those kinds of details can teach a lot about culture without taking away from the main point of the novel – the crime plot.
Sometimes, murders themselves can be what you’d call culturally-contextual. That is, they make sense (or at least are intellectually understandable) given the culture. That’s the case in Elizabeth George’s Deception on His Mind. In that novel, Sergeant Barbara Havers gets a chance to work with her idol Inspector Emily Barlow on the case of the murder of Haytham Querashi, a recent Pakistani immigrant who’d moved to the town of Balford-le-Nez. His murder stirs up the already-simmering conflict between the locals and the new Pakastani community. The truth of the murder, though, is that it isn’t a political statement as it was originally thought to be. It is however what you could call a cultural murder.
And sometimes it’s just small touches that teach us the culture of a place. For instance, Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a private investigator who lives and works mostly in Saskatoon. When he’s getting dressed, the two most important items for him are coats and shoes. That makes a lot of sense in a culture where coats are necessary for most of the year. In fact, that’s what people often see first when they meet someone.
Culture is such an integral part of everything we do and say that it’s only natural that it permeates crime fiction, too. And that’s part of what makes it such an interesting tool for teaching culture.
ps. The ‘photo is of Jim’s Steaks, purveyor of one of the more integral parts of Philadelphia culture – the cheesesteak. Not good for the diet but decadently delicious and quintessentially Philadelphia. Thanks, Jim’s Steaks, for the ‘photo.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Martha Reeves and The Vandella’s Dancing in the Streets.