Better the Pride That Resides in a Citizen of the World*

Global CitizensSome fictional sleuths are very closely associated with a particular place. It’s not at all that they’re insular or ignorant; rather, their real appeal comes from the way that setting is reflected in the sleuth. I’m thinking for instance of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire or Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope. Other sleuths though are what you might call global citizens. Even if they more or less live in one place, they’ve done a lot of travelling and they’re as comfortable in one part of the world as in another. It’s not that they’re unhappy with their cultural identities; rather, they see themselves as citizens of the world as well as members of a particular national/cultural group. Here are just a few examples; I’m sure you can think of many more than I can.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is Belgian. Christie/Poirot fans will know that he’s quick to remind people of that when they make the mistake of thinking that he’s French. He’s maintained many of his cultural views, customs and the like. But at the same time, he’s been to many different places, and he’s assured and comfortable no matter where he happens to be. He doesn’t care for dirt, bad cooking or clutter, but that’s his passion for order and neatness, not insularity. Poirot’s multilingual too, and that helps him quite a lot. We see that for instance in Murder on the Orient Express and Black Coffee, where he uses witnesses’ and suspects’ own languages to help put them at their ease. Poirot is proud of being Belgian (well, he’s proud in general), but he’s very much aware that there’s a big world out there and he’s seen quite a bit of it and negotiates it quite effectively.

So does Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver. Oliver is a physical anthropologist whose ‘home base’ is Northern California. He is in many ways unmistakeably American. And yet he’s also very much a citizen of the world. He’s gone to lots of different places as his services have been needed. He’s also done a fair amount of travel for pleasure and for research purposes. That’s what takes him for instance to the Amazon rainforest in Little Tiny Teeth.  In that novel, Oliver is on what he thinks will be a getaway adventure trip where he can also learn some things to enhance his professional knowledge. Instead, he gets mixed up in a murder case when a fellow passenger ethnobiologist Arden Scofield is murdered. Oliver belongs to the global community of scholars in general and physical anthropologists in particular. So in that sense, he doesn’t belong to just one cultural group. What’s more, both his education and his travel experiences have given him a global perspective. So although he’s distinctly American, he’s a lot more too.

You could say a similar thing about Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. He is a Saskatoon-based PI who has strong Saskatchewan roots and connections. But Quant has a very global outlook on life. He’s been to many different places in the world, including France, Spain, the Middle East and Mexico. He enjoys travel and my guess is that he would feel restless if he stayed in Saskatoon for too long without taking a trip somewhere. Fortunately for him, his work gives him lots of opportunity to travel and he’s developed a global sort of outlook on life. At the same time though, Quant loves his home town too. He’s comfortable among his friends and in familiar places. And he’s learned that going home can be just as good an experience as packing up can be.

Bidulka’s other protagonist Adam Saint is also a global citizen. Saint is a member of the Canadian Disaster Recovery Agency (CDRA). As a CDRA disaster recovery specialist, Saint travels to any place where a disaster of any kind affects Canada, Canadians or Canadian interests. His home is Saskatchewan, although in When the Saints Go Marching In, we learn that he lives in Toronto. He’s Canadian and of course his job is to protect Canadian interests. And yet, he is as comfortable on a flight somewhere as he is in his Toronto apartment. He settles in wherever he happens to be and he has a very cosmopolitan, global outlook on life. I hope we’ll see more of him.

Ian Hamilton’s Toronto-based forensic accountant Ava Lee is another example of a sleuth who’s just as comfortable in one part of the world as in another. She’s got a life, friends, and so on in Toronto and she’s happy there. She considers herself Canadian in that sense. She is also Chinese, with roots in Hong Kong. In fact, the company she works for, and that’s run by a man Lee refers to as Uncle, is based there. Lee travels all over the world in the course of her work, which is finding stolen money. When people feel that they’ve been bilked out of a great deal of money, they hire her company and it’s Lee’s job to use her accountancy skills to track the stolen funds. She’s multilingual and very good at what she does, so she’s in great demand. Her travels, her multicultural background and her work have given her a very global perspective.

Angela Savage’s PI sleuth Jayne Keeney is Australian. That’s where she’s from and it’s how she identifies herself culturally. She’s happy with that and there are scenes in this series where the reader can see it. And yet, she’s got a very global perspective. She lives and works in Thailand and has learned to appreciate the Thai culture and language. She’s been to other places in the world too, and speaks a few different languages. What’s more important than her multilingualism though is that Keeney doesn’t just see herself as ‘an Australian who happens to live in Thailand.’ She loves living in Thailand, although she’s not blind to the problems and challenges the country faces. She identifies herself as an Australian, but she has no great burning desire to live there. She’s comfortable wherever she goes, and doesn’t feel particularly bound to one place.

On the one hand, there’s something to the sleuth who truly enjoys ‘the comforts of home’ and strongly identifies with a particular place or culture. Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano is like that for instance and it works very well in that series. On the other hand, today’s world is smaller than ever, figuratively and culturally speaking. So it makes sense that there are also plenty of sleuths who think of themselves as citizens of the world and are able to be comfortable no matter where in it they happen to be.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Territories.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Ann Cleeves, Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, Ian Hamilton

26 responses to “Better the Pride That Resides in a Citizen of the World*

  1. I think I prefer series that stay close to home, and that is mostly what I read. In Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Bill Slider series, he lives in Shepherd’s Bush in London, and doesn’t stray far from that area. However, the Tibbett’s in Patricia Moyes’s series are often traveling to exotic locations, and they seem to be at home anywhere. And I love those.

    I will be reading one of Angela Savage’s books this month. Hooray.

    • Tracy – There’s a lot to be said for a series in which the protagonist is a product of and reflects the local culture. It’s a very effective way to share a culture and a sense of place. So I don’t blame you for liking that sort of series. As you say, it can work the other way too and the Tibetts are terrific examples. They do indeed go to lots of different places and fit in wherever they go. They’re English, but they are as comfortable in other places as they are at home.
      And I’m delighted that you’re going to be reading some of Angela Savage’s work. You’re in for a treat.

  2. Another Italian sleuth, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, manages to move around Italy a fair bit: I’m not sure if that makes him a citizen of the world. But Dibdin gives good reasons why he is in Naples, Venice, Rome….

    • Moira – It’s certainly true that Zen settles in well no matter where he goes. And if you think about it, Italy is not at all a homogeneous culture. So although I’m not sure I’d call Zen a global citizen either, I’m sure that he could be one and probably would be if his adventures took him to different countries.

  3. I’m currently reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography—one of the most fascinating autobiographies I’ve read—and was interested to learn about how she made up the character of Poirot. As she says in the book, she wanted a character who was a refugee. She was inspired by a refugee community of Belgians near where she lived at the time.

    • Caron – Oh, that’s such a great autobiography. Admittedly I’m a Christie fan, but still… I think it’s interesting that she wanted to choose a refugee/immigrant. There are a lot of good reasons to do that in terms of character development, and I liked it that she discussed her thinking.

      • It’s a brilliant autobiography. I had never thought about Belgian refugees before. According to an article by T. Kucher (‘Local heroes: Belgian refugees in Britain during the First World War’, 1999), in the Journal of Immigrant Minority Health, there were 250,000 Belgian refugees in Britain after WWI, the biggest refugee movement in British history. I have never read the first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, but I think I will have to now to see how he is introduced.

        • Thanks, Caron. I knew that there were a lot of Belgian refugees, but that information adds a lot. Really interesting! And I do recommend The Mysterious Affair at Styles. There’s more in that novel about Poirot’s experience as a refugee than in some others, and we can see his motive in wanting to find the murderer because of course, the victim was his benefactor. It’s an interesting thread running through the novel.

  4. The late Lyn Hamilton wrote a series of mysteries featuring antique shop owner Lara McClintoch who traveled the world looking for antiques and usually finding murders along the way. Each of the mysteries is set in a different country. I’ve only read one – “The Maltese Goddess” – and enjoyed it; you remind me that I’m due to try another one which is, of course, in the TBR pile.

    • Les – Oh, that sounds like such an interesting context for a series. and in this case, McClintoch is a citizen of the antiques world if I can put it that way more than of a particular place. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

  5. I can’t think of any ‘tecs I read who travel the world other than Poirot, so I suspect that must show my preference is for them to stay rooted to a place. Certainly the detectives I enjoy most are very much identified with the place they live – Rankin’s Edinburgh, Dalziel’s Yorkshire, and now Laidlaw’s Glasgow to add to that list. And I notice the ones that sprang to mind are all UK too…hmm, I think I must be pretty insular when it comes to crime.

    • FictionFan- And the sleuths you’ve mentioned work so well because they’re closely identified with their settings. That’s part of their appeal and part of the appeal of those series. And if that kind of series appeals to you, you’re hardly alone. And as for insular, well, there are only 24 hours in a day, and one has to sleep, eat and wash sometimes. That means one can’t read everything out there…

  6. Margot: It hardly seemed fair. As I am reading the post I am thinking about the globe trotting sleuths I know best and they are – Russell Quant, Adam Saint and Ava Lee.

    After some more thinking I thought of Robert Langdon, the professor of symbology, who travels a lot in the thrillers by Dan Brown.

    Milo Weaver, in the trilogy by Olen Steinhauer, sees a lot of the world as a Tourist in the American intelligence service.

    • Bill – You can take heart in the fact that I wouldn’t have met those sleuths if it weren’t for you. And I’m glad I did. You make an interesting point about Brown’s Robert Langdon too. He definitely has a global perspective in that he can make himself comfortable in many different places, and it’s really his profession more than his nationality that features and is important in the books. And thanks for mentioning Milo Weaver too. I’ve got those books on the TBR list; they seem like good reads.

  7. Oh yes Margot, I really agree – Sherlock’s London, Montalbano’s Vigata, Marlowe’s Los Angeles and Morse’s Oxford are utterly crucial to one appreciation of the stories.

    • Sergio – I think you’re absolutely right about those series. In those cases, the sleuths are integral parts of the settings and vice versa. None of those sleuths is insular or ignorant. But it would be hard to see them settling elsewhere and really being global citizens. The stories work best in context.

  8. Another terrific post, Margot. I am especially delighted to read Jayne Keeney described as having ‘a global perspective…comfortable wherever she goes, and doesn’t feel particularly bound to one place.’ I reckon you’ve nailed her!

    One of my favourite crime fiction heroes is Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko. Renko started life as a Soviet and later became Russian. Cruz Smith has taken him to several different countries, including Cuba, in my favourite book of the series, Havana Bay. You can’t imagine Renko coming from anywhere other than the Soviet Union and yet he adapts, wherever he ends up.

    Another interesting crime fiction character with a global perspective, is John Burdett’s cop Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the son of a Thai woman and a US military officer, who returns to Thailand after a childhood spent in Europe and the USA. Sonchai combines the Buddhist perspective of a Thai with the cultural insights of an outsider — a fascinating combination.

    • Angela – I like Sonchai very much too. He really is a great example of a sleuth who likes where he is, but could (and has) fit in in lots of different places. He’s got a very interesting perspective hasn’t he? And so does Renko, so I”m glad you mentioned him. And interestingly enough, in Gorky Park and Polar Star for instance, you don’t really see Renko has having a truly global perspective. Yet Cruz Smith develops that aspect of his character and as you say, he adapts wherever he is.
      So does your Jayne Keeney, so it was a pleasure to mention her. She has a knack of fitting in and adapting wherever she is, and I think that’s a very interesting quality. I like it too that at the same time she is Australian, identifies herself as Australian and is happy with that. It’s an interesting balance in her character if I can put it that way.

  9. For some reason I prefer the stationary sleuth to the globetrotting detective, police or private. One city, one precinct, one division, and a couple of loyal partners or friends. I find crime fiction set in one place more interesting for I can easily relate to the sleuth, his or her life and career, and the place or the city. It grows on you over time.

    • Prashant – You’re not alone in the least. There is something about the sleuth who is closely identified with one place. As you say, you get to know the sleuth’s setting, family, colleagues and so on, and that can add to a series. And in well done series like that, the place is as important as anything else.

  10. Col

    I think I enjoy them more operating on home turf, Nameless in San Francisco, Elvis Cole in LA, Scudder in New York – with the occasional spot of travel – Voodoo Rover for example

    • Col – One of the nice things about the sleuth more or less operating on ‘home turf’ is that you get a real sense of the place and the way the sleuth fits in there. And those are good examples of that fit.

  11. kathy d.

    I think I enjooy the “home turf” series more than the globe-trotting ones. But, if a stay-at-home detective occasionally forays out into the world, I can deal with it. And even though the protagonist may stay in one city or area, other characters can be situated in other countries, and then the denouement occurs in the main city i.e., The Boy in the Suitcase.
    I must say I like that Italian police detectives Brunetti and Montalbano stay mostly in their environs, but if one of them ventured out, I’d like it. But the sense of place, sights and food of Vigata and Venice are enthralling and we love them. Who doesn’t want to get on a plane and fly to those cities — or at least run to a trattoria for cafe and biscotti, if not pasta and pesce?
    So we do it virtually.
    But, when Commissaire Adamsberg ventures to the French countryside or even out of the country, we who love Fred Vargas’ writing are fine with that.
    One of my favorite detectives, V.I. Warshawski, is situated in Chicago, where I grew up. I love reading about that city. When she sets part of Critical Mass, her last book, which is terrific, in Vienna and in Nevada, it fits with the plot. But I was so glad to get back to the Windy City.

    • Kathy – I think that’s part of the charm of series where the sleuth stays more or less close to her or his ‘home patch.’ For people who know that place well, it’s a welcome reminder. For people who don’t know the place, it allows for virtual travel. I want to go to Sicily just because of the Andrea Camilleri series, and I know I’m not alone. It’s interesting too isn’t it when Commissaire Adamsberg travels outside of Paris. It’s still France of course, but the culture is different in the country to what it is in Paris.
      As you say, it can work quite well when the detective travels a bit. I’m thinking for instance of Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss. She lives and works in Göteborg, and over the years I’ve learned something about its culture from those novels. But she travels here and there too, and that works too.

  12. Although Poirot is Belgian, I often get the feeling with Christie that he’s like Ariadne Oliver’s Finn. She curses the day she ever made him Belgian. Although the references are there, they’re overwhelming.

    • Sarah – I’ve often had that feeling as well. From what I’ve read, Christie did get fed up with Poirot, but her fans didn’t And she was pragmatic enough to keep giving fans what they wanted.

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