Change is inevitable in any culture. Sometimes those changes are for the better, and sometimes they bring trouble. But always they affect the way we think. The tension between new developments and cultural change on the one hand, and the comfort of tradition on the other, can make for a really interesting subtext in a novel. And since cultural change is a fact of life, that sort of tension is also realistic.
Agatha Christie held up a mirror to a lot of the cultural changes that came to her society, especially after World War II. To take just one example, in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), the family of wealthy Richard Abernethie gathers for his funeral and the reading of the will. During that gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora says that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up and Cora herself urges the rest not to pay any attention to what she’s said. But privately, the family members do begin to wonder. When Cora is murdered the next day, it seems even more likely that she was right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and arranges for the family members to gather at the family home Enderby to choose mementos from among Abernethie’s things. Among other things that come up for discussion is the set of cultural changes that have led to the breakup of the old Victorian estates, and the new generation that has quite different cultural values. Oh, and that weekend yields an important clue to the murderer.
There have been many fundamental changes to Chinese culture over the last hundred years. And within the last twenty-five years there’ve been even more, as China has integrated some elements of capitalism into her economy. The tensions among traditional Chinese culture, Mao-style communism and modern Chinese-style capitalism form an interesting undercurrent in Qiu Xiaolong’s series featuring Shanghai police inspector Chen Cao. Besides his police work, Chen is a poet who reads and enjoys classic Chinese poetry. He also does translations of some English-language work into Chinese, so he has a sense of modern Western thought. The Shanghai in which he works still has elements of the Mao years, and many of the characters we meet in the novels remember the years of the Cultural Revolution and all of its effects. And yet, Shanghai is also in some ways a very modern city in which elements of capitalism are now becoming woven into the social fabric. In the characters’ actions, viewpoints and so on, we see how the many changes China has gone through have resulted in some fascinating larger questions. For instance, can China embrace elements of capitalism without also embracing all of Western culture? Where do traditional Chinese family structure, values and philosophy fit in, if they do? The Inspector Chen series is certainly a crime fiction series, but it also addresses these larger questions.
We also see some of tension that change has brought to the Chinese culture in Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing. Susan Tan is First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy in China. She has requested that Inspector Singh of the Singapore Police be sent to Beijing to find out what has happened to her son. Justin Tan was killed one night in what the police have called a robbery gone very wrong. And there is evidence to support that theory. That’s also the theory that both governments find most expedient, if tragic. But Tan suspects there’s more to the story, and Inspector Singh has developed a reputation for finding answers. So very reluctantly, he travels to Beijing where he begins to look into the case. As he investigates, readers see some of the cultural changes that have come to that part of China, and the tensions they’ve caused. There is still a strong element among some of the characters of family loyalty, filial duty and traditional Chinese values and beliefs. We also see the effect of Maoist cultural and political values; in fact, there is an interest in reviving some of those values. We also see the element of modern capitalism. Here is what one character says about the effect of some of these changes:
‘‘The government pays lip service to his [Mao’s] memory, but the hero worship of past eras is over.’
‘And what about the ordinary people?’ [Singh]
‘The so-called proletariat?’
‘They’ve found another god to follow.’
‘Xi Jinping?’ referring to the current leader’
Throughout this novel it’s interesting to see how Singh, who is an outsider, perceives all of the changes and their effects on modern China.
Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe sees the changes that have come to Botswana and the effect that they’ve had. She’s certainly no prude, but she doesn’t always like what she sees, especially among those who seem to have forgotten traditional Botswana values. The topic comes up for instance in Morality For Beautiful Girls, in which Mr. Pulani hires the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He runs a famous beauty pageant and wants the agency’s help in choosing the winner for this year. Mma. Ramotswe is otherwise occupied, so her assistant Mma. Grace Makutsi takes the case. She interviews the four finalists and in her discussions with them, there’s a larger discussion about modern values, traditional values and how they have affected Botswana.
The Thai culture has changed a great deal over the years as it’s come into contact with Westerners. And we see some of that change in Angela Savage’s series featuring Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney. One the one hand, there is a strong thread of traditional Thai culture, family structure, values and spirituality. It’s woven into the lives of several of the characters who appear in Savage’s novels. Keeney herself is not Thai, but she has learned about these traditional ways and respects them. At the same time, the culture is changing. There’s an influence of Western music, food, and of course, Western values. In some ways this change has helped Thailand to be a part of the global community. But in others, we can see that the changes have not all been positive. That tension adds a solid thread of both context and conflict to these novels.
Culture change and the tension that it can bring are a reality of life. So it’s not surprising that they also form a solid undercurrent to crime fiction.
ps. The ‘photo? I think it shows cultural change in action. That’s the very traditional and lovely British Museum. The people there are the face of modern London, with all of the cultural change that’s happened in that city.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from UB40’s Hand That Rocks the Cradle.