Category Archives: Paddy Richardson

There Ain’t No Easy Way Out*

HardChoicesHave you ever faced the sort of dilemma where neither choice was really a good one? Sometimes these are called ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations. If you have, then you know how stressful it can be to have to choose what to do. But those dilemmas happen quite a lot in real life. And they can add suspense and character depth to a crime novel. That’s why we see them in crime fiction as often as we do.

For example, in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood hires Los Angeles-based PI Philip Marlowe to help him stop an extortionist. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood a blackmail letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and as you can imagine, Sternwood wants Geiger stopped. Marlowe agrees to work the case and goes to visit Geiger. When he finds Geiger though, it’s too late; his quarry’s just been murdered. What’s more, Carmen Sternwood is a witness. She’s either been drugged or has had a mental breakdown, so she can’t really tell Marlowe what happened, but she saw it all. Now Marlowe faces a difficult choice. His obligation to Sternwood is complete; Geiger won’t be a problem any more. On the other hand, Carmen Sternwood faces the very real possibility that the police will arrest her on suspicion of murder. If Marlowe washes his hands of the case, he is free of the disagreeable Sternwood family, but leaves Carmen in grave danger. If he helps Carmen, she may be spared, but he’ll get even more entangled in the Sternwood family drama and more trouble. Marlowe decides to help Carmen…

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have hit a rough spot in their marriage. Still, as far as Eva is concerned, she has the sort of life she’s always wanted: husband, son Axel, house with the white picket fence, etc. Then she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Now she faces a difficult choice. If she stays with Henrik, of course, she has to live with his infidelity and learn to cope. But she still has her settled, suburban life and the home remains stable for Axel. If she leaves Henrik, her dreams of that life are shattered, and so is Axel’s world. But she no longer has to live with an unfaithful partner. Eva decides to take her own kind of revenge, and that decision leads to some terrible unexpected consequences.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit features brothers Mason and Gates Hunt, who grew up in Patrick County, Virginia. They’ve had a difficult start to life, being the sons of an alcoholic, abusive father. But they’ve made it to young adulthood. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity and is now in law school. Gates has squandered his considerable athletic ability and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money from his mother Sadie Grace. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. The fight’s temporarily put ‘on hold,’ but later that night, the Hunt brothers are on their way home from a night out when they encounter Thompson again. The fight starts anew and before anyone really knows what’s happening, Gates has shot his rival. Out of filial duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for both brothers. Then, years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and convicted. He asks his brother, now a commonwealth prosecutor, to help get him out of jail. Mason refuses. Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. This presents Mason with a true ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If he goes along with his brother, he’ll be responsible for freeing a criminal and violating the ethical requirements of his job. If he doesn’t, he’ll be under indictment for a murder he didn’t commit. Mason’s decision not to arrange for his brother’s release puts him up against an incredibly difficult legal challenge.

In Gail Bowen’s The Gifted, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack face a very challenging dilemma. Their fourteen-year-old daughter Taylor is a gifted artist who is passionate about her work. Two of her pieces are selected for inclusion in a high-profile art auction that will benefit a redevelopment project for the community of North Regina. If Taylor’s parents allow her to be a part of the auction, this will change everything for her. On the one hand, that will be a very good thing, as it will pave the way for Taylor to pursue her art. There will be scholarships and all sorts of other support for her. She’ll also get important recognition. On the other hand, Taylor is still a child. Her parents want to her to have as much of a normal childhood, whatever that actually is, as possible given her talent. Still, they don’t want to deny Taylor opportunities, so they somewhat reluctantly allow her to participate. That decision has dramatic unforeseen consequences when Taylor’s work is revealed at the auction.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack features Buenos Airies police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. Early one morning, he’s called to a crime scene, where he finds two bodies dumped by a riverbank. They bear the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit.’ This is late 1970s Argentina, when it’s extremely dangerous to say or do anything that might be interpreted as questioning the military-ruled government. So Lescano knows better than to raise comment about those bodies. But he finds a third body, too. This one is of moneylender and pawnbroker Elías Biterman. Someone’s gone to some trouble to make his death look like another Army ‘hit,’ but Lescano doesn’t think it is. He’s not a medical expert though, so he seeks help from his friend Dr. Fusili, who is a medical examiner. Fusili now faces a terrible choice. If he helps Lescano, he’s putting his own life in jeopardy. Certainly he’ll lose his job. On the other hand, if he doesn’t help Lescano, he’s betraying a friend. He’ll keep his position and perhaps even enhance his reputation, but he’ll be sacrificing his friendship and possibly sentencing Lescano to death. When Fusili decides to help Lescano, that choice puts him grave danger, but it gives Lescano badly needed support.

Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne faces a very difficult decision in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. She’s hit a sort of plateau in her career, and she knows that there are plenty of hungry journalists out there who are all too eager to grab headlines and ratings. So she needs the story that will secure her place at the top of the proverbial tree. Then she hears of just such a story. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home at the time of the killings. There are now hints that Bligh might be innocent and that’s what he himself claims. If he is, that’s exactly the story Thorne needs. However, there are plenty of people, Katy among them, who swear that Bligh is guilty and whose lives will be upended if Thorne goes after this story. Whichever choice Thorne makes, she’s taking risks. When she ultimately decides to pursue the story, she finds herself getting much closer to it than a professional normally should. Her choice has serious consequences for a lot of people.

It’s never easy to know what to do about a dilemma, especially when neither choice is really an outright positive one. But that tension makes for a real layer of interest in crime novels. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne’s I Won’t Back Down.

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Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Gail Bowen, Karin Alvtegen, Martin Clark, Paddy Richardson, Raymond Chandler

What a Tale My Thoughts Could Tell*

Stream of ConsciousnessOne of the devices that authors use to tell stories is stream of consciousness. It’s a fairly useful device, as it’s handy for building a story’s background and adding character depth, among other things. Stream of consciousness can also provide valuable point-of-view depth as well. Of course, like any other tool, it can be over-used or used clumsily. But when it’s handled effectively, it can add to a story.

Stream of consciousness certainly shows up in crime fiction, just as it does in any other genre. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I’m quite sure you can think of lots more.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell invite a group of guests to their home for the weekend. Among the guests are Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot by the swimming pool. Hercule Poirot, who has taken a cottage nearby, has been invited for lunch. When he arrives, he thinks at first that it’s all some sort of macabre tableau set up for his ‘benefit.’ He soon sees that it’s all too real though, and works with Inspector Bland to find out who killed Christow and why. Christie uses stream of consciousness in several places in this novel. For instance, as the Christows are preparing to leave for the weekend, we follow Christiow’s line of thinking as he sees his last patients before the trip. We also follow Gerda’s line of thinking as she and their two children wait for him to join them for lunch. Those stream-of-consciousness moments give readers a look at their past history and backstory as well as their personalities.

There’s also stream of consciousness in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. Eva Wirenström-Berg’s dream of the ‘white picket fence’ life is shattered when she discovers that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful. After her initial shock passes, she is determined to find out who the other woman is, and when she does, she makes her own plans for revenge. One night she happens to go to a pub when she meets Jonas Hansson, who is facing his own tragic issues. That meeting has terrible unforeseen consequences as life starts to spin out of control. In several places in the novel, we follow Eva’s line of thinking as she discovers Henrik’s affair, makes her plans and so on. We also follow Henrik’s line of thinking as we learn what led to his infidelity. And we follow Jonas Hansson’s thoughts as he meets Eva. In this case, the stream of consciousness gives insight into each character’s motivations and lets the reader see the events that happen from each one’s point of view.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind makes use of stream of consciousness too, mostly from the point of view of Stephanie Anderson. She is a newly-minted psychiatrist who lives and works in Dunedin. One day she has a breakthrough with a patient Elisabeth Clark. Years earlier, her younger sister Gracie was abducted and never found. Not even a body was recovered. She’s still dealing with the trauma of what happened, and it touches a nerve for Anderson. Seventeen years earlier, her own younger sister Gemma was also abducted, again with no trace of her ever found. Anderson decides to use the information she has about Gemma’s abduction and the information she gets from her patient to find out who caused such devastation in their families. She journeys from Dunedin to her home town at Wanaka to solve the mystery and lay her own ghosts to rest. As she does so, we follow her thoughts and internal monologue. And that stream of consciousness gives insight into her character, into the effect Gemma’s abduction has had on her, and into the way she slowly begins to heal.

Y.A. Erskine uses stream of consciousness in part to give backstory in The Brotherhood. When Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is murdered one morning, an entire group of people is deeply affected by the incident. As his fellow officers pursue the case, we see the events from the perspectives of several of the people in his life, including the other officer who was there; White’s former lover; his wife; and his protégé. Their thoughts give the reader helpful information about White and about their history with him.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner also includes stream of consciousness. Paul Lohman, his successful politician brother Serge, and their wives Claire and Babette meet for dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. Within the context of the dinner, we learn about the family dynamics and about the awful secrets that some members of that family are hiding. The story moves through the courses of the dinner and as each course is served, we learn a little more about what those secrets are and what the family is really like. The story is told from the point of view of Paul Lohman, and Koch uses stream of consciousness to give the reader insights in to his character and into the family’s backstory.

Fans of H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote will know that those novels often include stream of consciousness. For example, in Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg, Ghote is sent to a small village to uncover the truth about the death of an eminent politician’s first wife. Ghote faces several challenges here. One is that the death happened fifteen years ago, so finding evidence will be difficult. Another is that any such investigation is delicate because of the power of the people involved. What’s more, a local holy man seems dead set against any investigation into the events. In fact, he’s fasting, and very publicly, until the investigation is stopped. But Ghote has been given his orders, so he goes to the village in the guise of an egg-seller, and works to uncover the truth. Throughout this novel, stream of consciousness shows the reader Ghote’s deductions, his character and personality, and his way of arriving at the truth.

And that’s the thing about stream of consciousness. On the one hand, if it’s mis-handled, it can be tedious and can take away from the pace of a crime novel. On the other, when used effectively, it can lend a story character depth and can provide important background information.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you enjoy stream of consciousness in crime fiction, or do you find it off-putting? If you’re a writer, do you use that device?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, H.R.F. Keating, Herman Koch, Karin Alvtegen, Paddy Richardson, Y.A. Erskine

I Was Listening In*

Listening InPrivacy matters to a lot of people. And that includes their conversations. It’s unsettling to imagine that anyone might be able to hear what you think is a private conversation. And yet, sometimes we don’t have as much privacy as we’d like to think we have. As uncomfortable as it may make us feel in real life, the plot point of someone listening in on a conversation can add real tension and suspense to a crime novel. There are lots of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot is asked to investigate the death of family patriarch Richard Abernethie. When the members of his family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone dismisses what she’s said. Even she tells everyone not to pay attention to her. But when Cora herself is murdered the next day, everyone begins to believe that she was probably right. In the course of the story, one of the characters remembers a vital clue. When that person follows the family attorney’s instructions and telephones him about it, someone listens in on that conversation, and it has real consequences.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series takes place mostly in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. At that time and in that place, having someone listen in on a private conversation was not trivial. Anything might be reported to the Nazi authorities, and the consequences of that were often hideous. In the series, Vogel is a journalist who often has to be careful of every word she says. On one level, she investigates stories that the Nazi authorities do not want reported. For instance, in A Game of Lies, she’s reporting on the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. The authorities want to present a peaceful, pleasant face to the world. But the reality is quite different, and as Vogel gets closer to the truth, she has to be extremely careful of what she says, when and to whom. She has to be careful at another level too. The people she loves and cares about most are at as much risk as she is, and to protect them and herself, she has to avoid being listened in on by the wrong people. That plot point adds a thread of real suspense to this series.

William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series also depicts a society in which listening in on conversations is a regular occurrence. These novels take place mostly in pre-World War II Stalinist Moscow. Any conversation one has may be overheard and used as ‘ammunition’ in a denunciation. And being branded as disloyal to the Party means at the very least prison and/or banishment, with serious consequences for one’s family too. What’s more, when a person is suspected of disloyalty, the authorities have no qualms about installing listening devices to make it even easier to overhear everything. So conversations have to be conducted carefully and private conversations even more so. In this atmosphere, Captain Alexei Korolev works for the Moscow CID, where his job is to catch criminals and support the Party’s vision of a crime-free ‘worker’s paradise.’ But he is keenly aware of the power of the NKVD and other Party authorities. So when the trail leads to highly placed people, as it does in The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), he has to move with extreme caution. Privacy isn’t easy to obtain, and the possibility that someone may be listening in adds suspense to this series.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet secondary school teacher Ilsa Klein and her mother Gerda. They emigrated from what was then East Germany during the height of the Soviet Era. Gerda in particular remembers clearly how careful people had to be of everything they said and did. The Stasi – the secret police – had spies everywhere who reported any conversation that might be considered traitorous. And once suspected of disloyal activity, people were subjected to even more listening in. For example, telephones were bugged and tiny holes drilled in walls and ceilings so that ‘neighbours’ could overhear everything. For Gerda, New Zealand has been a welcome haven. Ilsa sees things differently because she was just a child when the family left Leipzig, but she too has settled into life on the South Island. Both women’s lives are changed when Ilsa begins to be concerned about one of her students Serena Freeman. Formerly a top achiever with academic ambitions, Serena has lost interest in school. When Ilsa decides to intervene, she finds herself drawn into something much more than she imagined. 

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh has made a life for herself in Delhi and has little motivation to return to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. But she agrees to do just that when she gets a call from a former friend who is now Inspector General for Punjab. He wants Singh’s assistance with a difficult case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is believed to be responsible for the deaths of thirteen members of her family, and for a fire that burned the family home. At the same time, there is some evidence that she may have been a victim herself, who just happened to survive the incident. Durga isn’t talking though, so the police can’t move on the case. It’s hoped that if Singh can get Durga to talk about what happened that night, the authorities can get to the truth. There are several influential people though who do not want certain facts about the Atwal family to come out. So Singh finds that her telephone calls are monitored and her things searched. She does find out what really happened, but she also learns that a lot of people cannot be trusted, and that her private conversations have to be planned.

Sometimes the people listening in are the supposed ‘good guys,’ who aren’t so good. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Fire, Perth cop Frank Swann returns to his ‘home patch’ after being away for a few years. He’s learned that a friend of his Ruby Devine has been murdered and he wants to find out what happened. He soon discovers that he’s up against ‘the purple circle,’ a group of corrupt cops who are already against him because he’s reported them for corruption. ‘The purple circle’ may have been responsible for Ruby’s death though, so Swann perseveres. In the course of his investigation, he finds that ‘the walls have ears,’ as the saying goes, and he has to be very careful what he says and to whom. And several people he talks to are reluctant to say anything for exactly the same reason. That plot point adds a solid layer of suspense to this story.

Listening in on conversations is also of course, a major plot thread in espionage fiction. There are lots of spy thrillers (you could probably list more than I could) in which the plot is moved along through bugged telephones and other listening devices. That’s why there are a lot of ‘walks in parks’ where spies discuss things they don’t want overheard.

That possibility – that a private conversation is being overheard – is a creepy one. It’s little wonder we see it so often in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Undertones’ Listening In.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, Kishwar Desai, Paddy Richardson, Rebecca Cantrell, William Ryan

This is My Generation, Baby*

GenerationsEach generation sees the world in a slightly different way. That’s in part because each generation grows up in a different time, with different kinds of advantages and pressures. Sometimes it seems as though the younger (or older) generation inhabits a different planet. And in a lot ways that’s not far from reality. If you think about your own family, you probably could give lots of examples of times where it seems you don’t even speak the same language, let alone have the same outlook on life. We certainly see a lot of that in crime fiction too. I’ll just give a few examples; I’ll bet you’ll be able to share lots more than I could think of anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates some odd thefts and other occurrences at a student hostel. When one of the residents Celia Austin confesses that she’s responsible for some of the thefts, it seems the matter is over. Two nights later, though, Celia suddenly dies in what seems like a case of suicide. Once that death is proven to be a murder, Poirot and Inspector Sharpe know that this is much more than a few petty thefts. As Poirot looks into the case, he learns that Celia had an unusual reason for taking the things that she took. It’s a modern approach to meeting a very old challenge, if I may put it that way. And it serves to highlight the different ways that different generations look at the world. Christie takes on that difference in outlook in several other stories too (e.g. After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) and Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts)).

There’s a very distinct (and very sad) generation gap that’s referred to in Tony Hillerman’s stories featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Older generations of Native Americans (Leaphorn is a member of the Navajo Nation) were well-versed in the ways of their people. They kept the traditional ways and maintained their culture. But for younger generations it’s been much more difficult. For a long time, young Native American children were (sometimes forcibly) sent to mission schools and other boarding schools, where the emphasis was on assimilation. Children were required to wear Western clothes and hair styles, speak only English and follow Christianity. Those schools have closed, but Leaphorn was affected by that emphasis on Western ways. He attended,

 

‘A Bureau of Indian Affairs high school that had a sign in the hall. It said, ‘Tradition is the Enemy of Progress.’ The word was, give up the old ways or die.’

 

The pressure of dominant-culture media, economic forces and global communication has meant that in many ways the younger generations have lost touch with their people’s way of life, although in some areas that’s been changing. Hillerman addresses that issue in several of his novels.

There are distinct generation gaps in Qui Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police takes charge of the investigation of the murder of national model worker Guan Hongying. The case is delicate because the victim is a celebrity of sorts, and had several highly-placed friends in the Party. As the story evolves, there’s an interesting sub-text of the gap in world view and values among the generations. There’s the older generation, who have traditional values, beliefs and world views. There’s the Maoist generation, who have been profoundly impacted by Maoist theory and politics, and who experienced the Cultural Revolution. And there’s the younger generation, who are impacted by the growing capitalism in China and by global media. Each generation sees the world, and China, differently.

In Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, we meet Cape Town journalist Robert Dell. He, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive when they are ambushed and the car goes over an embankment. Rosie and the children are killed, but Dell survives. The next thing he knows, though, he is being accused of murdering his family. Soon, he’s charged and jailed, and it looks as though whatever trial there may be has a predetermined outcome. Dell is rescued, though, by his father Bobby Goodbread, from whom he’s been estranged. The reason for the estrangement shows the difference in thinking between two generations. Goodbread is of the ‘Old Guard.’ He was pro-Apartheid and a supporter of ‘the way things have always been.’ To him, the new society is far too chaotic and dangerous. Dell on the other hand repudiates his father’s positions. He sees Aparheid as a moral wrong that has left deep scars, and he sees the changes in South Africa as necessary. His wife was non-white and their children were multiracial. But despite their differences, Goodbread and Dell have one goal in common: they want to travel to Zululand to find Inja Mazibuko, the man who murdered Dell’s family. Mazibuko is about to get married, and his intended bride Sonto, who is usually called Sunday, also reflects a generation gap. She works at an ‘authentic Zulu village’ – a tourist attraction mostly visited by Whites. Sunday wears traditional dress at work, but secretly listens to an MP3 player. She has her own personal reasons for not wanting to marry Mazibuko, one of which is that this marriage was arranged. One thing that guides her thinking is the modern belief that people should decide for themselves whom they’ll marry.

Anya Lipska’s Death Can’t Take a Joke highlights another interesting generational difference in thinking. Janusz Kiszka is a Polish immigrant to London. He’s got a reputation as a ‘fixer,’ as someone who can find things, solve people’s problems and so on. When his friend Jim Fulford is stabbed, he is determined to find out who is responsible. In the meantime, DC Natalie Kershaw is investigating the death of a man who seems to have jumped from the top of the Canary Wharf Tower. The two cases do have a connection, and Kershaw and Kiszka form an uneasy alliance to find out the truth. At one point, the two travel to Poland, and Kiszka makes an interesting observation. He is from the generation that was determined to throw off Soviet-dominated control of the country. That generation, from his perspective, had a strong sense of national pride and solid Polish values and traditions. He notices that the young people, who’ve grown up after the end of the Soviet era, have much less of a sense of national pride. On the one hand, they are more global in outlook. On the other, they have less of a sense of what it is to be Polish. It’s a fascinating look at the effect of global media on a generation of people.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Ilsa Klein and her parents left Leipzig during the Cold War years when leaving what was then East Germany meant risking one’s life. They ended up in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island, and made lives for themselves. Ilsa loved her former home, friends and extended family and found it difficult to adjust to a new country and a different language. But over the years she has settled in and become a secondary school teacher. She begins to be concerned when one of her most promising students Serena Freeman starts slipping away. Serena skips school and even when she is there, shows little interest. It’s a disturbing change and Ilsa wants to help if she can. She and her mother Gerda find that getting involved in Serena’s life has consequences that they couldn’t have imagined. Throughout the novel, we see a marked generational difference between Gerda’s and Ilsa’s feelings about Germany. Ilsa is nostalgic for Leipzig and her life there. She acknowledges that New Zealand has been a good place, with basically good people, but it’s never really been her home. Gerda on the other hand sees things differently. She is older and knows exactly what the Stasi, the East German secret police, were like. She remembers the betrayals and denunciations, and for her, Germany has no appeal. It’s a very interesting difference in perspective, and generation plays a big role in it.

Even for people who haven’t been through experiences such as war and repression, just belonging to a different generation means a different outlook from the previous and younger generations. It’s part of what defines a person. Where have you seen this difference in outlook in the crime fiction you’ve read?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s My Generation.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Paddy Richardson, Qiu Xiaolong, Roger Smith, Tony Hillerman

‘Cause It’s My Culture, So Naturally I Use It*

Cultural PerspectivesMuch of what we think, do and value is impacted (sometimes dictated) by our culture. We don’t stop to think about each of our decisions or thoughts, but if you do stop and reflect, it’s not hard to see how deeply culture is woven into our lives and thinking patterns. You may notice it in particular if you spend time in another culture or if you read about characters from another culture. The ways in which those characters think, act and choose may seem strange or even wrong. But they may make more sense if you think about it from the point of view of that other culture. Let me show you what I mean with just a few examples from crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot travels to Nasse House, which is owned by Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, to help his friend Ariadne Oliver. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as an attraction for an upcoming fête, but has come to suspect that more is going on at Nasse House than a planned event. Poirot isn’t there long before he too begins to think that something is wrong. Sure enough, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was to play the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who the killer is. As a part of that process, he interviews the people involved with the fête, including Amy Folliat, whose family owned Nasse house for generations, and who actually introduced Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. As Mrs. Folliat explains to Poirot, Lady Hattie is of subnormal intelligence and after her family died, was under her (Mrs. Folliat’s) care. When Sir George proposed marriage, Amy Folliat urged her ward to accept, with the idea that she would be well provided for and not have to make her way alone. It wasn’t really a love match, and Mrs. Folliat’s concerned about Poirot’s reaction to that. But from Poirot’s perpective, which is impacted by his culture, it’s a wise choice:

 

‘It seems to me…that you made a most prudent arrangement for her. I am not, like the English, romantic. To arrange a good marriage, one must take more than romance into consideration.’

 

If you’re from a culture where marriage choices are based mostly on love and romance, Mrs. Folliat may seem almost coldly pragmatic. But it’s perfectly reasonable from a different cultural perspective.

We also see how culture impacts the way characters think and behave in Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath.  LAPD Detectives Peter Decker and Marge Dunn investigate when a rape occurs at Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, a secluded Orthodox Jewish community. At first, the detectives think it may be the work of a serial rapist they’re already tracking. But there are enough differences that it could also be someone else. Then there’s a murder at the yeshiva. Now it looks as though whatever is going on has to do with the people there. In the course of the investigation, Decker also works with Rina Lazarus, a teacher at the yeshiva school. She and Decker are attracted to each other and each admits it. But even though she likes Decker, she doesn’t go out with him. If you’re from a culture where people who like each other go on dates, you might wonder why on earth Rina doesn’t say ‘yes,’ to a date. After all, it’s just dinner. But in the Orthodox Jewish culture, it’s not appropriate to spend time alone with a man to whom one isn’t married. Rina’s neither prudish nor afraid of Decker. But she is deeply affected by her culture, so dating as many of us conceive it is not a part of her thinking.

There’s a fascinating look at culture’s impact on people’s thinking and choices in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series. These novels take place in 1970’s Laos, where Dr. Siri is the country’s chief (well, really only) medical examiner. He has very few resources at his disposal, but he is a skilled doctor. He prefers logical, scientific explanations for life, and tries to provide them in the context of his work. But the traditional Laos culture in which he lives sees the world differently. To members of that traditional culture, certain things simply do not have Western-style scientific explanations, and have to be attributed to something else. The Laotian government authorities try to discourage those traditions, but Dr. Siri learns to see the merit of them. As the series goes on, he gets better able to see the world that way and he finds that it’s a very useful ‘cultural lens.’

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck. Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre when she jumped (or fell, or was pushed) from the roof of the building where she lived. Her father Jim has hired Keeney to find out the truth about her death, so Keeney goes undercover at New Life to find out whether someone there may have had a motive for murder.  One of the things that come out in this novel is the Thai custom of disparaging one’s own baby:

 

‘My Kob has ears like an elephant,’ Mayuree added…
‘Kob has such beautiful eyes,’ Wen said, ‘whereas my poor Moo has small eyes and they aren’t even a nice color.’

 

If you’re not from the Thai culture, you may wonder how any loving mother could speak that way about her own child. But in the Thai culture it makes sense. It’s a way of protecting a baby from malevolent spirits who might be jealous of a smart, physically appealing child. From the Thai perspective, these two women behave like the loving mothers they are.

Mark David-Home’s The Sea Detective introduces readers to Preeti and Basanti, two young girls from India’s Bedia group. Their families are financially desperate, so an arrangement is made for the girls to join the dhanda – a name used for India’s sex trade. The idea is that they’ll work in that business for a few years and send their earnings back to their families. At the end of that time, they’ll return to their villages and settle down. The two girls are both nervous, but they agree. Then they’re shipped to Scotland where they fall into the hands of some very nasty people. Basanti manages to escape, but in the meantime, she has lost contact with Preeti. Her search for Preeti leads to oceanographer and Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, who helps Basanti find out the truth about her friend. You may very well wonder how anyone could allow a daughter to be a part of the sex trade, or how any teen could agree to it. But in that culture, family and family duty are of the utmost importance. These girls see it as their responsibility to help their families. Preeti even sees it as a source of pride. From the families’ perspective, it’s far better than allowing other children in the family to starve. This cultural and financial perspective doesn’t make underage prostitution a good thing. But it does help explain how it happens.

There’s a really interesting case of cultural impact in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Ilsa Klein is a secondary school teacher in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. She’s become concerned about one of her students Serena Freeman, who’s stopped coming to class regularly, and stopped being a part of the group when she’s there. Ilsa’s choices about helping Serena have much more far-reaching consequences than she could have imagined, and through it all, there’s an interesting debate. There are many social services available in New Zealand for students who are struggling. Admittedly sometimes they work well and sometimes they don’t. But most social service professionals try to do their best. Ilsa and her mother Gerda, though, come from Leipzig, in what was once East Germany. To them, trusting any government agency is out of the question, especially from Gerda’s perspective. Government workers were responsible for a great deal of denouncement, spying, and so on that led to the disappearances and deaths of many East Germans during the Soviet era. That cultural ‘rule’ – that you don’t trust any agency – may seem strange if you come from a culture where those agencies do a lot of good. But to these women, from that culture, it makes perfect sense.

And that’s the thing about culture. It impacts the way we see the world, ourselves, others, and their actions and values. It even affects the way we see fictional characters and the way they see each other. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
 
 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Living Colour’s Pride.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Colin Cotterill, Faye Kellerman, Mark Douglas-Home, Paddy Richardson