We Know Where We’re Going, We Know Where We’re From*

Among other things, crime fiction allows us to experience other cultures, or to look at our own through different eyes. And one way authors do that is through creating expatriate (ex-pat) characters. When someone from one culture lives and works in another, there’s a fascinating ‘meeting of minds’ if you want to call it that, and that can add a very interesting perspective to a novel. Well-drawn ex-pat characters don’t necessarily give up their own culture or language, but they do learn the ways of the new culture and that adds to their perspective and to the reader’s.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is an ex-pat Belgian. One could argue that because he left Belgium as a refugee he is, strictly speaking, not an ex-pat as he didn’t leave his country voluntarily. But I include him here because he provides an interesting look at what it’s like to be from one country but live and work in another. In many ways he is quite distinct from the English people among whom he lives. Besides the language difference (he’s had to learn English and sometimes needs to learn a new idiom or two), there are also cultural differences. Just as an example, although Poriot is familiar with the custom of tea, he’s never really made it his own habit. There are other English customs too, such as shaking hands rather than embracing, that he’s had to get used to and he’s never really lost his own Belgian way of life. In a way, you could argue that Poirot allowed Christie to hold up a mirror to her own culture.

In Walter Mosley’s A Red Death, we meet ex-pat Chaim Wenzler, a former member of the Polish Resistance who’s since moved to the United States. Wenzler has become the object of FBI interest because he is believed to be a communist. At the time this novel takes place (the early 1950’s), being a communist in the United States is a very serious matter so if the allegations about Wenzler are true, then FBI Agent Darryl Craxton wants to bring him down. Craxton gets the opportunity to get close to Wenzler through then-amateur private investigator Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. Rawlins is in deep tax trouble, so Craxton offers him a deal: if he agrees to get close to Wenzler, Craxton will make his tax problems go away. Rawlins agrees and starts volunteering at the First African Baptist Church, where Wenzler too has been volunteering. The two men get to know each other and before long Rawlins finds himself liking Wenzler and increasingly reluctant to give him up to the FBI. Then there’s a series of murders for which Rawlins is framed and it looks as though someone has begun to target him. Now he has to clear his name by solving the murders and walk a very thin line between giving enough information about Wenzler to the FBI without giving too much away.

Alexander McCall Smith introduces us to American ex-pat Andrea Curtin in Tears of the Giraffe. Curtin and her husband lived in Botswana for a few years as a part of her husband’s job. Their son Michael fell in love with Botswana while the family was there and decided to remain when his parents returned to the United States. He joined an eco-commune and all seemed well enough until he disappeared. The official explanation for his disappearance is an attack by wild animals. But his mother Andrea has never quite believed that and wants closure. She’s moved back to Botswana where she’s decided to remain. She hires Mma. Precious Ramotswe to help her find out the truth about her son’s disappearance so she can move on with her life. Mma. Ramotswe takes the case and goes to the eco-commune where the young man lived. Bit by bit she finds out what
happened to him and is able to give his mother the answers she needs.

Dicey Deere created a four-novel series featuring American ex-pat Torrey Tunet, who now lives in Ballynagh Ireland when she’s not ‘on the road’ as part of her job. Tunet is a language specialist and interpreter who often travels, but she always returns to her ‘base’ in Ballynagh. Through her
eyes we get to see the interesting, sometimes quirky local characters and the unique customs and culture of the area. Tunet has respect for the local ways, too; it’s obvious that Deere doesn’t fall into the trap of the ‘fish-out-of-water who annoys everyone’ kind of character.

P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson is an ex-pat Australian who now lives and works in the U.S. as an FBI agent. She started her career with the Victoria police force but fell in love with the idea of being an FBI profiler after she took a course offered by the agency. She makes an excellent profiler too; not only does she have the training and skills, but she also has an added ‘plus.’ Anderson has psychic dreams – visions, if you want to call them that – that allow her to ‘get into the heads’ of the killers she pursues. Although she isn’t always comfortable with that ability, she does learn to channel it and make use of it as she investigates.

Vicki Delany’s Constable Moonlight ‘Molly” Smith is purely Canadian. But her parents aren’t. Lucy ‘Lucky’ and Andy Smith are former hippies and ex-pat Americans who moved to Canada when Andy was drafted for service in the Vietnam War. Andy had real doubts about leaving the U.S. at the time they moved but Lucky strongly believed that the war was wrong, so they made the move. Since then they’ve settled there comfortably and now run an adventure tour company and store. Although neither is ashamed of having come from the U.S., they’ve more or less embraced the local way of doing things.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney. She’s an ex-pat Australian PI who now lives and works in Bangkok. Although in many ways she’s purely Aussie (if there is one way to be purely Aussie), but she has also learned quite a lot about the different culture, language and way of life in her new home. She speaks fluent Thai, understands and follows the local customs and has begun to appreciate the complexity of life there. In Behind the Night Bazaar and The Half-Child, Keeney’s ability to move between her own culture and her adopted culture proves to be very useful as she solves cases.

And that’s the interesting thing about ex-pat characters. We get to see, through their eyes, what a different culture is like. There’s also a terrific opportunity for a complex, ‘fleshed out’ character if she or he is from one culture but has had to get accustomed to living and working in a different one. I’ve only had space here to mention a few examples; which ones do you like?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s Exodus.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Dicey Deere, P.D. Martin, Vicki Delany, Walter Mosley

19 responses to “We Know Where We’re Going, We Know Where We’re From*

  1. I think it would be harder to write an amateur sleuth mystery starring an ex-pat…I’m sure the police would be a bit upset at the interference. The ex-pat protagonist would almost have to be some type of cop or investigator…or a specialist like a profile analyst , forensics expert, sketch artist, etc.

    The new television series, Elementary, has a modernized version of Sherlock living in New York City and consulting with the NYPD after his release from rehab. I haven’t figured out the backstory on that one though..

    • Pat – You make an interesting point about an amateur ex-pat. Certainly the author would have to work harder at making the sleuth’s investigation credible. I’ll admit I’ve not watched Elementary closely, so I don’t know the backstory thoroughly. But it’s an interesting example of an ex-pat sleuth, for which thanks.

  2. Fascinating theories! Having been an ex-pat (lived & worked in USA for a few years) and with grandparents who were immigrants, I actively seek out books films and history about immigration, emigration, ex-pats. But, on reading this, realized that I haven’t carried that through into my detective story reading – only Poirot is really familiar to me. I’ll have to look out these and see if they resonate….

    • Moira – I didn’t know you’d been an ex-pat. Then there’s a lot about being in another country while still maintaining your own identity that you understand deeply. I’ll be interested to know what you think once you’ve had a chance to see whether those fictional ex-pats are authentic.

  3. You have mentioned several series I want to try. I am definitely reading some of the Walter Mosley series (Easy Rawlins) in 2013. Also want to try the Vicky Delaney series, especially because it is set in Canada. That her parents were from the US would make it more interesting. And I haven’t heard of the Sophie Anderson series, but that sounds good.

    • Tracy – Oh, I hope you’ll like the Easy Rawlins series; in my opinion it combines a solid historical perspective, some good issues and mysteries and so on, and a strong protagonist. Actually the same is true of the Molly Smith series except it’s not historical. I really do hope you’ll like them.

  4. You nailed it, Margot — ex-pat stories work because they’re told through the eyes of a person who wasn’t (or still isn’t) an insider in another culture. It’s why I usually like them! And it’s why I like books written by ex-pat authors (James Thompson in Finland, for example).

    • Karen – Thank you 🙂 – And you bring up a really interesting point about stories that are or aren’t written by an an ex-pat. There’s a certain perspective on gets from being ‘on the outside’ that’s not possible if one’s a member of a given culture and vice versa.

  5. Margot: The most famous sleuth to come from Montenegro immediately came to mind though Nero Wolfe has so fully adapted to America I do not think of him as an ex-pat.

    Reflecting on who is an ex-pat brought to mind the situation of such characters as Chris Lowndes in Peter Robinson’s book, Before the Poison, who after 35 years in American returns to Yorkshire. When you have lived your adult life away from your home country and return are you an ex-ex-pat?

    Reflecting further on your definition of an ex-pat as someone living and working in another culture made me think of the indigenous sleuths of Tony HIllerman and most recently for me Matthew “Matteesie” Kitogitak, the sleuth of Scott Young. While living in the same country they are all working in the white culture much of their time.

    • Bill – You know, it’s so interesting about Nero Wolfe. You’re exactly right that he’s not a native-born citizen. But he has become thoroughly an American in a number of ways (unless he gets angry in which case he uses his own language in – er – colourful ways.
      And you raise an absolutely fascinating question, too. Can you be an ex-pat in your own country. I’d never thought about that deeply – well, not as far as crime fiction goes – so it’s hard to answer in any kind of intelligent way. I’ll have to think about that one because it really is a good question.
      And as for sleuths such as Tony Hillerman’s, Stan Jones’ and Scott Young’s, you’ve got a point that they do live in the White culture although they are members of another culture. It really is a case of living and working in a different culture.

  6. Ah, you’ve touched upon a subject very dear to my heart (being a serial expat myself). I can think of one recent example of an amateur expat sleuth – Katherine, the trailing spouse in Chris Pavone’s thriller ‘The Expats’. Well, debatable just how much of an amateur she is, since she is ex-CIA… Oh, and I also recently reviewed one with a British journalist embroiled in murder in Goa (the author was Kathleen McCaul). But there aren’t many – although there seem to be many expat authors!
    I really look forward to reading Angela Savage – sounds like a winning combination.

    • Marina Sofia – Oh, I read your terrific review of Chris Pavone’s novel. I’ll confess I haven’t read it, but it does sound good. You’ve got an interesting point though that there really aren’t that many ex-pats who feature srongly in the genre. But when they are there, they do add a unique perspective.

  7. Oh, just had another thought: Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn goes to New Zealand in a few of his books, doesn’t he? Not strictly speaking an expat, as he is only there on a short trip, but it still gives that ‘outsider looking in’ perspective.

  8. Interesting topic because my husband is reading about the German emigres to California in the thirties. I had no idea so many creative people came there but it makes sense.

    • Patti – Oh, that’s such an fascinating topic! California really did become a boom state in terms of people moving there during that time, and I would be really interested to read about that experiece.

  9. A subject after my own heart as I was an expat until recently. I’m afraid I didn’t like Chris Pavone’s book as much as Marina Sofia although I liked the depiction of the expat lifestyle. I’ve just been reading Len Deighton’s Spy Hook/Line/Sinker trilogy and there’s a great scene involving a bored expat spouse in Germany.

    • Sarah – That’s right! You know all about what life as an ex-pat is like. Thanks very much for that suggestion of the Deighton novels. I haven’t read much of Deighton, and I ought to see what I think of that one.

  10. Pingback: Review: Louise Welsh – The Girl on the Stairs « crimepieces

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