Some 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.