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

22 responses to “Let Me in, Immigration Man*

  1. Immigrant communities not only present a rich source of plotlines for authors, but also a chance for readers to learn about other people’s customs and perhaps their reality in terms of prejudice. I love these stories because it helps me understand immigrant lives and the culture they bring with them.

    • Barbara – I couldn’t agree more. As a reader I enjoy learning about the different kinds of people who’ve started life in new places. It also allows me to learn more about the larger communities within which those communities evolve.

  2. Great post, Margot, and a very interesting analysis. Jakob Arjouni’s German ‘Kayankaya’ series springs to mind here, which takes a look at the Turkish community living in Frankfurt. The series also raises interesting questions about identity and processes of integration through its main detective figure, who is a second generation Turkish-German citizen. Some great insights…

    • Mrs. P – Thanks for the kind words. Thanks also for the suggestion of Arjouni’s work. I’m sure there are some fascinating portraits of life in that series. I’ll confess I’m new to it, so I must remedy that. Soon.

  3. Margot: You got me thinking about Saskatchewan mysteries. The Ukrainian presence in our province is further reflected in Bart Bartkowski and Dingonaslav Marion Radashonovich who are the lead characters respectively in the small town Saskatchewan series by Nelson Brunanski and The Joining of Dingo Radish by Rob Harasmychuk. The Ukrainian Museum of Canada is located in Saskatoon.

    • Bill- I’m so glad you reminded me of the Brunanski series as I’ve been wanting to try that for a while. I didn’t even know until I started doing a little reading on the topic that there was a strong Ukrainian presence in the province and I’m glad there are authors who acknowledge it. And the Ukrainian Museum sounds interesting. Immigrant community stories are fascinatiing I think, and really woven into the fabric of the ‘host country’s’ history.

  4. Two series come to mind that feature immigrants: Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy. I only read the first book, Total Chaos, about immigrants in Marseilles. Interesting but too dark for me. And the Gregor Demarkian series by Jane Haddam features an Armenian-American community in most of the books.

    • Tracy – I must get much better acquainted with Izzo’s work. I know it’s dark, but still… And I’ve also heard very good things about the Haddam series. And it’s interesting because a lot of people aren’t aware of how much a presence the Armenian-American community has

  5. kathy d.

    I think immigrant communities and their cultures provide quite an interesting element in crime fiction, and all fiction. In reading two books about Russell Quant in Saskatchewan, Ukrainian culture, particularly food arose and in quite a humorous way. I’m not sure I’m cut out for this cuisine but I sure enjoy reading about the meals Russell’s mother dishes up for him in Flight of Aquavit. Hilarious.
    In the Big Apple, every immigrant community must be present, which adds so much that’s interesting to this city, from cab drivers to cuisine. One can travel for an hour by subway and be in the midst of immigrant neighborhoods, and at the door of their restaurants.
    Can’t wait to read Anya Lipska’s book, which I hear will be available soon over here.

    • Kathy – I love that aspect of New York, too. There are dozens of different kinds of immigrant communities in New York and each one of them adds to the larger ‘package’ of the city. And as you say, one can get on the subway at one stop and off at another and be in a place with a completely different ‘feel’ to it.

  6. Margot there are so many immigrant communities in the USA especially in rural Pennsylvania, and I have always said I don’t need to go to Germany I have stayed in Southern Indiana.
    London now is probably even more cosmopolitan than New York with so many different communities. Where I used to work in New Malden, a suburb in the South West of the city is the largest expatriate group of South Koreans in Europe. What is amusing is that when I employed an Asian dentist from Malaya in the 1970s he was exotic, now there are tens of thousands of Koreans in the town.

    • Norman – It’s interesting you’d mention the German American community in Pennsylvania (and in other places too as you’ve said). I grew up not far from ‘Amish country’ and the Amish/Mennonite/Pennsylvania German commmunity has had a lot of influence in that part of the state.
      I’m not surprised at the growth of the South Korean community in London. I think the greater mobility we have has enabled many groups to settle in the larger cities and London is definitely one of the top choices. I think that’s one of the most interesting aspects of being in London.

  7. I enjoyed the Lipska book very much. When I lived in London the first time around i saw the sudden influx of the Polish community and it was fascinating to see this reflected in a novel. The last Peter Robinson book ‘Watching the Dark’ dealt with eastern European immigrants to the north of England which was also very interesting.

    • Sarah – You know, it’s really interesting to see the way different communities spring up, almost all of a sudden. And it can be surprising too. For instance, I didn’t know until moving to where I live now that Southern California has a large Russian immigrant population. It’s always fascinating to discover those things. And thanks for reminding me of the Robinson book. I like his Alan Banks series quite a lot and I haven’t quite gotten to that one yet.

  8. I recently read a spy thriller JOURNEY TOWARD DEATH by Israeli writer Amos Aricha in which Mossad agent Nimrod Eden must hunt down David Biton, an Israeli immigrant with links to the US west coast and Arab mafia. The story takes the reader to several jewish pockets in and around Los Angeles like downtown Hollywood, in the Valley, Pico Boulevard, and businesses on Fairfax. And then there’s the Indian diaspora spread out in all parts of America and doing well in many areas including literature. Amitav Ghosh and Jhumpa Lahiri come to mind.

    • Prashant – Journey Toward Earth sounds like a terrific read. And there are indeed quite a lot of Israeli immigrant communities as well as communities of Jews descended from those who escaped the Nazis. I’m glad too that you mentioned the Indian diaspora. That’s another fascinating group that’s done well among other cultures. Gandhi-ji was a part of the Indian immigrant community in South Africa as you know.

  9. Margot and Prashant, two examples of the children of the Indian diaspora who have made the American dream real are Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. You might not agree with their politics but they are examples of what can be achieved by the children of immigrants.

    • Norman – Those arer great examples of the success of the Indian diaspora in the U.S. Doesn’t matter what those two people’s political points of view are, they show how successful immmingrant communities can be.

  10. kathy d.

    There’s Jhumpa Lahiri, author who won the Pulitzer for Interpreter of Maladies, an excellent book.
    Many immigrants, including my grandparents and great-grandparents were able to live successful lives, but conditions for immigrants today can be very tough. There are so many restrictions and a lot of prejudice and, in some cases violence against them, as well as economic and legal discrimination.. Laws in Arizona and Alabama and other states directed at immigrants are horrendous. Arrests and physical abuse by law enforcement or those outside the legal system are common.
    Families are torn apart, detentions are common, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants have been deported. And, in one of the worst cases, a bigot shot and killed 7 Sikhs in a temple in Wisconsin last year.
    My grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t have to face that, but one side of my family did face anti-Semitism and the other anti-Irish discrimination. None faced deportation or physical violence, fortunately.
    But it’s a tough country now for immigrants.

    • Kathy – You’re right that immigrants today face quite a lot of prejudice. As if that weren’t enough they also face cultural and linguistic adjustments that can make it extremely difficult to get along. That’s arguably part of the reason that many immigrants join together in small communities within larger ones. As your examples show, it’s not always really safe ‘out there’ for an immigrant group. So they depend on each other.

  11. kathy d.

    True. Immigrant communities often stick together. I think it’s not only safety, but culture, history, traditions, language similarities that make them feel at-home and comfortable. It’s as if they’re living with an enormous extended family.
    My Eastern European Jewish grandparents tended to stay within their own community, but there was much comfort in that — the language issue was key, as well as culture, history, similarities in so much, including humor. But my grandmother! She was a one of a kind, even intimidated the bosses in the early 1900s garment sweatshops. But I admired her strength, her determination, her strong backbone — and her will of iron, which led her to live to 98.

    • Kathy – You’ve got a very well-taken point. Immigrant communities often find comfort, help, familiar language and so on when they stick together. Your grandmother sounds as though she was a fantastic person. Thanks for sharing a bit about her.

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