One 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.