Category Archives: Henry Chang

Don’t Care If It’s Chinatown or on Riverside*

NewYorkCityIf you’ve ever been to New York City, then you know that it defies easy description. It’s a city with a long and rich history, and today, it’s a mix of so many cultures and different kinds of people that the word ‘diverse’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. What’s interesting about New York, too, is that you’ll find some of the wealthiest areas of the city just a few blocks from some of the poorest. It’s an intense, fascinating place, and there are plenty of people who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. There are famous museums, top musical artists, Broadway shows, world-class restaurants, and lots more there. Oh, and Billy Joel was born there, too.

Ahem – right – back to New York City. It shouldn’t be surprising that lots of crime fiction is set there. It’s just a natural context for a murder mystery, especially if you consider the number of real-life famous murders that have occurred there. There’s a long list of authors who’ve set their novels or series in New York. Here’s just a small smattering.

Any dedicated crime fiction fan will be able to tell you that Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series has a distinctive New York City setting. Although Wolfe does travel a few times, the vast majority of the books are set in Manhattan, where Wolfe has his famous brownstone home/office. His employee/business partner (sometimes it’s hard to tell, really) Archie Goodwin does the ‘legwork’ on Wolfe’s cases, and his travels take him all over New York. Through his eyes, we get to see many of New York’s different ‘faces,’ from ‘society’ homes and mansions to tenements, and just about everywhere in between. Want to explore Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin’s New York? Check out your options with the Wolfe Pack, the Official Nero Wolfe Society.

Fans of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series will know that although he called his setting Isola, it’s a thinly disguised New York City. Beginning with Cop Killer, these novels focus on murders in all sorts of different New York City settings. And what’s especially interesting about this series is that it looks at crime among all socioeconomic classes, too. Because the series is enduring (it lasted from 1956 to 2005), we also get to see how the city changes through the decades, and how factors such as immigration, technology and so on have affected it.

Lawrence Block’s PI series featuring Matthew Scudder is also set in New York. Beginning with The Sins of the Fathers, the series follows Scudder as he begins life as a PI after leaving the NYPD. Since most of Scudder’s contacts are informal, we also get a look at New York’s local restaurant and bar scene. I don’t mean necessarily trendy ‘popular’ places, although New York certainly has more than its share of them. I mean the smaller places that are popular with the local people. And New York City has plenty of those, too. Scudder has clients from several different socioeconomic strata too, so this series also gives readers a look at the different kinds of lives New Yorkers have.

Margaret Maron’s Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series is also set in New York City. Harald is a member of New York City’s Police Department, so she investigates all sorts of different kinds of cases. Beginning with One Coffee With, she takes on murders at university campuses, high-priced apartment buildings, attorneys’ offices and Greenwich Village ‘arty’ places, just to name a few.

Mary Higgins Clark has set some of her novels in New York City as well. For example, While My Pretty One Sleeps features murder in the world of fashion when a client of boutique owner Meeve Kearny is murdered. Loves Music, Loves to Dance follows jewelry designer Erin Scott and decorator Darcy Scott as they move to New York to pursue their careers. Then, they place personal ads in local newspapers to do some research for a TV producer friend who’s planning a feature on the topic. The research proves fatal when Erin disappears and is later found murdered. And in I’ll Be Seeing You, reporter Meghan Collins is following up on the story of the mugging of a US senator. When he’s rushed to Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital, she goes along with other members of the press to learn of his condition. That’s when an ambulance team rushes in with a woman who’s just died – a woman who looks exactly like Meghan…

And then there’s S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series. Chin and Smith are both private investigators who sometimes partner up in their cases. Chin is a member of New York’s Chinese/Chinese-American community, so she is especially in demand for cases that require some knowledge of that culture. In China Trade for instance, she is hired to track down some rare and valuable Chinese porcelain items that were donated to a local museum. The trail leads to the Chinatown underworld of gangs and in this case, shady art dealers. While not every novel in this series features the Chinatown setting, it’s the area of New York that Chin knows best.  Readers who are interested in Chinatown can also read Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series.

There are of course many more novels and series that take place in New York. Just a few examples are Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels, Ellery Queen’s New York-set novels (most are, some are not), Robin Cook’s Laurie Montgomery/Jack Stapleton novels and several of Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers/Oscar Piper novels. And those are only a few examples. I’ll bet you could think of many more.


Now if you’ll excuse me, that’s my train. Time to head uptown…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind. Really? You were surprised? ;-)


Filed under Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Henry Chang, Jeffery Deaver, Lawrence Block, Margaret Maron, Mary Higgins Clark, Rex Stout, Robin Cook, S.J. Rozan, Stuart Palmer

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Execution-Style Murders

ExecutionMurdersThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is now one fifth of the way through our worrisome wanderings through the letters of the alphabet. I am, as always, grateful to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for the exciting journey thus far. Today’s stop is the E Resort and Spa and quite frankly, I’m ready for a nice rest. While everyone else is checking email and ‘phoning home, I’ll share my contribution for this stop: execution-style murders. Crime fiction is full of examples of what happens when one falls afoul of the wrong people. Actually it’s probably better to stay away from certain kinds of people to begin with but it’s even better to avoid getting them angry enough to kill. Because they do.

Just ask Tony Aliso, a mediocre filmmaker of mediocre movies whose death is the subject of Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music. When Aliso’s body is discovered in the trunk of his Rolls Royce, it’s assumed that this was a Mafia ‘hit.’ The murder has all the hallmarks of a Mob kill and Aliso was living far beyond his legal means. But somehow, the LAPD doesn’t seem to be too eager to find out who the killer is even though it could mean bringing down a criminal organisation. The police department’s reluctance doesn’t stop Harry Bosch though. Bosch investigates Aliso’s personal and professional lives and soon finds a ‘money trail’ that leads to a shady Las Vegas casino – and to a reunion with his old flame Eleanor Wish, who is now a professional gambler. In the end, Bosch finds out who killed Aliso and why, and how the criminal organisation he’s after fits in with the rest of the case.

In Henry Chang’s Year of the Dog, NYPD detective Jack Yu is temporarily assigned to Manhattan’s Ninth Precinct to fill in for some colleagues who are taking time off at the end of the year. He returns to his usual Fifth Precinct though, when a gang war threatens to erupt. Yu’s old friend Tat ‘Lucky’ Louie has become a local Mob leader; his gang is called Ghost Legion. Tat and his gang are upset because lately, there’ve been several surprise raids on the local gangs. Tat suspects that incoming gangs from Hong Kong are tipping off police so that they can take over the local gangs’ territories. Tat wants Yu’s help to find out whether the Hong Kong gangs are behind the raids. Yu refuses and the conflict between the local mobs and the Hong Kong incomers forms an important element in this novel.

Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas takes another kind of look at ‘execution-style’ murders. The Blake family, a supposedly normal American family, moves into a home in Cholong-sur-Avre, Normandy. They’ve moved to Normandy so that Frederick Blake can write a history of the Normandy invastion and it seems that the family soon settles in. Frederick’s wife Maggie devotes herself to charity work and their children devote themselves to television, the Internet, new friends and other adolescent obsessions. But the Blake family is not a normal family. They are really the Manzoni family and the father, Giovanni Manzoni, was a member of the New Jersey Mafia. He testified against the rest of the Mob so he and his family were placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program. They’ve been relocated to Normandy and given new identities. The only problem is that before long, word gets back to the head of the New Jersey Mob that Giovanni Manzoni is alive and well. Now the ‘Blakes’ have to deal with the very real possibility that the Mob will find them, and will not exactly greet them kindly.

Of course, execution-style killings aren’t just Mob-related. For instance, Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone begins with the execution-style shooting of an unknown Senegalese immigrant. He’s laying out his wares at an open-air market one morning when he is murdered. Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Villanello lead the investigation into the murder. Because the man was killed by professionals, no-one has seen anything really significant, so at first, there’s not much evidence. What’s more, the man wasn’t anyone of importance – just another illegal immigrant. So there’s not much public interest. But eventually Brunetti and Vianello trace the man to the room he rented, where they find a cache of diamonds. It turns out that this man’s execution had to do with ‘conflict diamonds’ and illegal arms trafficking.

Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage features several cases that Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney investigate. One of them is the execution-style murder of banker Emmet Sweetman, who’s been shot in the entryway of his own home. As the detectives examine the victim’s life, they discover that he had been caught up in the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom and had taken advantage of the sudden wealth that was available during those years. The seemingly inexhaustible supply of money fed Sweetman’s greed and his confidence so that he took increasingly risky decisions. When the financial situation in Ireland began to fall apart, so did many of the shady deals Sweetman had made. When he didn’t pay the money he owed, Sweetman made some very dangerous people very angry, and they sought their own sort of justice. It turns out that this case has a link to another case that Tidey and Cheney work on, a heist that goes terribly, tragically wrong.

And then there’s Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money. In that novel, Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan is hired by Madeleine Avery to find her brother Charles. His last-known whereabouts was Bangkok, so Quinlan travels there. When he gets to Avery’s apartment though, he discovers the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. He also finds clues that suggest that Avery has gone to Cambodia. Quinlan continues his search in Phnom Penh, where he meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin. With Sarin’s help, Quinlan starts asking questions about Avery. Although most people aren’t willing to talk, the two sleuths do learn a few things. One is that Avery had been involved in some shady deals with the wrong people. That in itself put him in danger. What’s more, he claimed to know where there was a hidden cache of gold. That too made him the target of some people who are not afraid to kill for that much wealth. Quinlan and Sarin trace Avery to northern Cambodia, where the gold is supposedly hidden, if it even exists. The closer they get to the truth of that rumour, as well as the truth about Avery, the more in danger Quinlan and Sarin are. There are some very powerful people who are not at all concerned about having these two killed to keep the truth about the gold and about Avery secret. This novel also weaves in another ‘execution’ theme – the execution-style murders of millions of people that the Khmer Rouge saw as ‘enemies’ or ‘threats.’

So, you see? It’s important to be careful about the company you keep. The old saying is, ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’ Especially if they have weapons. So…Shall we talk some business? I know a guy who knows a guy…  ;-)



Filed under Andrew Nette, Donna Leon, Gene Kerrigan, Henry Chang, Michael Connelly, Tonino Benacquista

This is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius*

Astrology…or at least, the Year of the Snake. The Chinese New Year has arrived and that’s got me thinking about astrology and horoscopes. The other day I was asked whether I think there’s any truth to astrology and horoscopes. My answer was that I think humans are far too complicated for just one factor to account for everything we are and do. But a lot of people believe very strongly in astrology. So it shouldn’t be surprising at all that we see astrology mentioned in crime fiction.

In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain for instance, we meet Kevin Costyn, a secondary school student who’s got lower than average academic intelligence but is shrewd, tough and a magnet for many of his female schoolmates. He’s been in trouble with the police, served two juvenile sentences and in general is not the kind of person nice parents want their nice daughters to bring home, so to speak. But he’s not entirely without redemptive traits. He’s fallen in love with his teacher Mrs. Julia Stevens because in his mind, she’s the only one who’s ever been good to him. It’s his attachment to her that gets him inextricably mixed up in her life (No, I promise – not in the way you might be thinking). That relationship turns out to be important when Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the disappearance and later murder of Ted Brooks, husband of Julia Stevens’ house cleaner Brenda Brooks. That murder turns out to be related to the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure, for whom Brooks was scout. It turns out that Kevin Costyn has an important piece of the puzzle and it’s interesting to see that he gets involved in the first place because of his horoscope (Gemini) which promises that


‘Maximum mental energy helps you through to a hard-to-reach person who is always close to your heart.’


We may not think much of Kevin Costyn’s character but his interest in what his horoscope says is fairly common.

In Henry Chang’s Year of the Dog, NYPD detective Jack Yu is assigned to Manhattan’s Ninth Precinct to help fill in during the end-of-the-year holidays. He’s called to the scene when a Chinese-American family of four is found dead in their home, apparently a case of murder/suicide.  In the meantime, Yu’s old friend Tat ‘Lucky’ Louie is now a local mob leader. He is in charge of a gang called Ghost Legion. Lately, though, there’ve been a lot of raids on local gangs and Lucky suspects it’s because some of the incoming gangs from Hong Kong are feeding information to the police so they can take over when the current gang leaders are arrested. When a gang war threatens, Yu returns to the Fifth Precinct, his usual assignment. Lucky wants help from Yu, who decides not to co-operate. To Yu, Lucky has wasted his life and besides, Yu likes his work as a cop and doesn’t want to ‘go dirty.’ Two other Chinatown cases also crop up and all of them present a fascinating look at the Chinatown culture and the need to ‘save face’ – to make and protect a reputation. The book is called The Year of the Dog because it begins on the Chinese New Year that in this case brings in the Year of the Dog:


‘The Dog is the eleventh sign, next to the last in the lunar cycle, the most likeable of all the animals. The Dog is fearless, charismatic and believes in justice, loyalty and fidelity. The year is characterized in the masculine Yang by struggle, perseverance and faith.’


The novel ends a year later with the coming of the Year of the Pig:


‘The Pig was the twelfth sign, the last sign in the lunar cycle, the purest in heart and most generous of all the animals. The Pig was loyal, chivalrous, and believed in miracles. The year was characterized by honesty, fortitude and courage.’


While Yu himself isn’t a traditionalist with respect to Chinese astrology he respects it and we can see that culture woven through the novel.

We also see how astrology plays an important role in people’s lives in Tarquin Hall’s series featuring Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. The ‘bread and butter’ of his business comes in part from families who hire Puri to ‘vet’ prospective spouses for their children and grandchildren. Time and technology have changed many parts of India, especially in the city. People don’t know each other in cities as they do in smaller villages. However, the arranged marriage is still a critical part of the culture. It’s believed that young people are not in a position to choose their own spouses and that the ones who most have their interests at heart – their children – should do so. And that’s where astrology comes in. Many parents now make use of personal ads online or in newspapers; those ads include their children’s appearance, age, educational background and astrological information. It’s strongly believed among many that astrological harmony between the two potential spouses is important not just for the marriage but for the wedding date itself. And in The Case of the Missing Servant, the Singla family has done just that to find a husband for their daughter Vimi. They hire Puri to find out as much as he can about Ramesh Goel, who seems to be the top candidate for Vimi. His horoscope is compatible with Vimi’s, he’s made a good impression, and the wedding date has been planned. Puri agrees to investigate and looks into Goel’s background. What he and his team find is so unacceptable that the Singla family has to call off the wedding – after having paid for everything. This isn’t the main case in the novel but it does reflect how very important horoscopes can be to people’s way of thinking.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello is concerned about his aunt Zia Anita. While normally what he regards as a sensible person, she’s been reading horoscope magazines lately and watching horoscope shows on television. At first, Vianello hopes that it’s just a private interest of hers. Then he finds out that she’s been taking money from the family business account. It’s money to which she’s entitled so there’s nothing illegal about it. But Vianello is worried that someone may be taking advantage of his aunt’s interest in astrology. So he asks Brunetti to look into the matter and Brunetti agrees. One of the things Brunetti does is (unusually for him) an Internet search where he discovers just how many people are convinced of astrology and how many astrologists and horoscope readers there are to advise those people, or fleece them if that’s how you see these things. As it turns out Zia Anita is indeed giving her money to a man who turns out to be a charlatan and when Vianello finds out the truth, he decides to risk his aunt’s anger rather than let her continue to be ‘taken.’

There’s also Sunny Frazier’s series which features Office Assistant Christy Bristol who works for the Sheriff’s Department in Central County, California. Bristol is also an astrologist whose skills prove critical in Fools Rush In. In that novel, informant Jimmy Blue is brutally murdered. Jack Wolfe, the undercover narcotics cop who was Blue’s contact, wants to catch his killer. Wolfe believes that Lloyd Parr, a local meth manufacturer, is behind Blue’s killing. He’s subpoenaed Parr’s telephone records and found that his quarry is an avid believer in horoscopes; he calls a dial-a-horoscope number every day. So Wolfe asks Bristol to help him lay a trap to catch Parr by casting his horoscope. It doesn’t help matters that Bristol is Wolfe’s ex-girlfriend and that he’s always made fun of her skill with horoscopes. But he convinces a very reluctant Bristol to agree. And it turns out the two have chosen an innovative way to catch Blue’s killer.

Even some sleuths read their horoscopes. Jill Edmondson’s Sasha Jackson does. She’s not what you’d call a slave to it but reading her horoscope is a part of her daily routine.

Whether or not you believe in horoscopes a little, a lot or not at all, it’s hard to deny that a lot of people do. So it’s not really surprising that astrology is woven into crime fiction. Which examples have I forgotten?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s Aquarius.


Filed under Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Henry Chang, Jill Edmondson, Sunny Frazier, Tarquin Hall

Let Me in, Immigration Man*

Immigrant CommunitiesOne of the major social and technological developments of the past 150 years or so is increased mobility. That’s meant that it’s been much more feasible for people to migrate to different places. And they have. But leaving one’s home country doesn’t mean one necessarily wants to give up one’s culture and language. That’s one reason so many places have developed immigrant communities. On the one hand members of those communities need to function within the dominant community. On the other, they have their own unique languages, cultures and ways of looking at life. In a lot of cases immigrant communities are a little like a smaller world within a larger, different world. Immigrant communities are an important part of larger communities, so it’s both interesting and authentic when a novel takes a look at the way those smaller communities function and what they’re like.

For instance, there’s a strong Russian community in New York City, especially in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn and surrounding areas. Members of the community have their own customs, language, and so on, and understanding that part of New York City means understanding at least a little about that community. And there are several novels that show us how that community works. For instance, Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House is the story of the murder of U.S. Representative Paul Latham. His death looks like a suicide at first, but Georgetown Law School professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith knows Latham well enough to know he wouldn’t have killed himself. Then a former student who’s now in the CIA contacts Smith to tell him that there was much more going on in Latham’s life that it seems on the surface. One thing that Smith learns for instance is that Latham was connected to powerful U.S. businessman Warren Brazier, who wants to establish a solid foothold in post-Communism Russia. When one of Brazier’s Russian contacts comes to the U.S., he stays for a short time in the Brighton Beach area where he’s fed, housed and so on. Through his visit we get a look at the way that immigrant community functions.

Of course, New York City is home to many other immigrant communities; space doesn’t allow me to mention all of them. So let me just give one more example. Henry Chang’s New York-based noir series features police detective Jack Yu. Yu grew up in New York City’s Chinatown and in the series debut Chinatown Beat, he’s just been stationed there as his police assignment. The Chinatown community has been a part of New York City for a very long time, so in this series we see an interesting phenomenon. We don’t just see what this community is like and how it functions; we also see how it’s integrated into the larger community and how each influences the other.

Elizabeth George gives us a look at the Pakastani community in England in Deception on His Mind. Haytham Querashi has moved from Pakistan to the seaside town of Balford-le-Nez. His plan is to set up a business and marry Salah Malik, who is the daughter of an already-established successful businessman. When Querashi is found murdered, Sergeant Barbara Havers wants to be a part of the investigating team for a few reasons. One is that it’s headed by one of Havers’ personal heroes DI Emily Barlow. The other is that Havers’ own neighbour Taymullah Azhar may have a connection to the case. So Havers gets herself assigned to the team and travels to Balford-le-Nez to help in the investigation. As we get to know the various people in the victim’s life, we also get to know more about the Pakistani community and it’s an interesting perspective.

There’s a strong and vibrant Ukrainian community in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan and we see it in several series set there. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances we meet political science specialist and academic Joanne Kilbourn. She’s a member of the campaign staff for up-and-coming political leader Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. When he is poisoned during an important campaign speech Kilbourn is devastated. She decides to cope with her grief by writing a biography of Boychuk and begins to look into his background. That’s how she gets to know more about the Ukrainian community from which he came. The more she learns about Boychuk’s history the more Kilbourn discovers that there were things in Boychuk’s life that nobody knew. And it turns out that Boychuk’s past is the key to solving his murder. As Kilbourn interviews people, attends Boychuk’s funeral and so on, we get a look at the Saskatchewan Ukrainian community.

We see it also in Anthony Bidulka’s series featuring Saskatoon PI  Russell Quant. Quant is half Ukranian so his family background gives us a sense of the way that community has established itself. Then too there’s Colourful Mary’s, a popular local restaurant that features the cooking of one of its owners Marushka Yabadochka. As Bidulka describes it, Marushka’s cooking is like


…everyone’s mother, most notably her own.’


It’s mostly a Ukrainian menu and we can see how that culture has made its way (through the food) into the larger local culture.

Donna Leon’s series featuring Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti introduces us to several of Venice’s immigrant communities. I’ll just mention one. In Blood From a Stone, a Senegalese immigrant is shot execution-style while he’s working at an outdoor marketplace. No-one admits to seeing anything, and very few people even admit to knowing the victim, so it’s hard at first for Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello to find out anything about the killing. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that there’s a lot of local prejudice against the immigrants (especially against illegal immigrants). For their part the local immigrant community is not exactly trusting of the police. So it takes quite some time to find out anything about the murder. But in the process of investigating it, Brunetti and Vianello begin, just a bit, to penetrate the Senegalese immigrant community, and through them we learn a little about it.

There are many other novels in which the author gives us a sense of these smaller immigrant communities within larger ones. For instance, there’s Anya Lipska’s Where the Devil Can’t Go, in which London PI Janusz Kiszka investigates the disappearance of a waitress, and DC Natalie Kershaw gets her chance to make good when a dead body is discovered in the Thames. The two stories of course intertwine and in the investigation we get a fascinating look at London’s Polish community. And if you’ll let me stretch a point just a bit, Agatha Christie touches on the topic in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in which we first meet Hercule Poirot. He’s a member of the Belgian community in the village of Styles St. Mary. When his benefactor Emily Inglethorp is poisoned, Poirot gets involved in the investigation.

Immigrant communities are sometimes very tight-knit. And even when they’re not, members tend to help each other and very often those communities keep alive their original language, cultural and spiritual traditions and social mores. They can add quite a lot of interest to a larger novel, and they’re a fairly authentic reflection of what’s been happening in the world for a long time.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Graham Nash’s Immigration Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Anya Lipska, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen, Henry Chang, Margaret Truman

>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 19th-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?


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Henry Chang, Kel Robertson, Tony Hillerman