As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, culture has profound effects on the way we think, act, dress and speak. Sometimes we’re not even aware of how much we are affected by culture until we work with someone from another culture. The experience of working with a team-mate from another culture can broaden our horizons and enrich us. But it can be awkward at times too. Different cultures see the world in different ways, and those differences can result in ‘culture clash.’ But as the world continues to get smaller, so to speak, it’s more and more the case that people work with others from different cultures.
In fiction, those cultural differences, and the way they’re worked out, can add a really interesting layer to a story. Certainly it can in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I can.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are from two different cultures. In many ways their cultural differences don’t impede their work. Yet there are some cultural issues that both of them have had to get used to over time. For instance, Poirot grew up in a culture where greeting and leave-taking involves embracing. Hastings on the other hand is not accustomed to that kind of physical contact in that context. So Poirot has had to learn to shake hands, because he knows that anything else makes Hastings feel awkward. For his part, Hastings has had to get used to Poirot’s habit of hot chocolate for breakfast and tisane instead of beer, wine or something like whisky. Their cultural differences add an interesting layer to their characters and a measure of interest to the stories that feature them.
In Anya Lipska’s Where the Devil Can’t Go, we meet Janusz Kiszka, unofficial ‘fixer’ for London’s Polish community. When a young woman named Weronika goes missing, her landlady Pani Tosik gets concerned and asks her priest about it. The priest in turn asks Kiszka to try to find out where Weronika is and what happened to her. The trail leads to a friend of Weronika’s, who is later found murdered. That’s how Kiszka’s path crosses that of DC Natalie Kershaw, who is investigating a series of deaths. The two are suspicious of each other at first. Kershaw sees Kiszka as a possible suspect in the murders. For his part, Kiszka isn’t fond of the police to begin with, and Kershaw is certainly not his idea of what a cop ought to be like. They have many cultural differences too that make communication a challenge. But slowly they begin to work together as each comes to see that the other can be helpful. You couldn’t call them friends, even at the end of the novel, but they do establish an understanding and they do learn to work together.
Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan has to work with someone from a different culture in Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money. Madeleine Avery has hired Quinlan to find her missing brother Charles. Since Charles Avery’s last known whereabouts was Bangkok, Quinlan starts his search there. It turns out that Avery isn’t in Bangkok though. He’s gone on to Cambodia, so Quinlan follows the trail there. When he gets to Phnom Penh, Quinlan meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin, who’s lived in Cambodia all his life. Sarin and Quinlan are from different cultures, but each has reasons to want to find out what happened to Avery. As the novel goes on, Nette uses those cultural differences to share some of Cambodia’s history and culture with the reader. And it’s interesting to see how these two, who are from very different backgrounds, work together.
Angela Savage’s PI Jayne Keeney is also Australian. She lives and works in Bangkok though, so she’s gotten accustomed to the Thai culture. Keeney is a reader of crime fiction (you gotta like that in a fictional sleuth ;-) ) so she becomes a regular at a bookshop in Bangkok’s Indian neighbourhood. That’s how she meets Rajiv Patel, whose uncle owns the shop. In The Half Child, we learn that Patel is from a traditional New Delhi family. He doesn’t want to live that traditional lifestyle, but he is a product of that culture. Keeney of course has her own culture and cultural assumptions. The two become business partners and later, lovers, so they are motivated to work together and get along. But they do sometimes have to bridge cultural gaps. For instance, Patel communicates a great deal of information by moving his head in certain ways. As we learn in The Dying Beach, Keeney comes to know that Patel’s side-to-side head nods are
‘…as nuanced as a Thai smile…’
Patel has to get used to Keeney’s way of looking at life too, and it does cause friction between them. Those cultural differences and nuances add much to this series.
In Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing, Inspector Singh of the Singapore Police is asked to go to Beijing to help investigate the death of Justin Tan. Justin was the son of Susan Tan, First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy, so his death is not going to be ignored. What’s more, his mother believes he was deliberately murdered. The police theory is that he was murdered in a robbery gone wrong, and that’s the theory under which Singh operates when he begins his investigation. But soon enough he begins to suspect that Susan Tan is right. As he digs more deeply into the case, Singh works with former Beijing police officer Li Jun to find out who would have wanted to kill the boy and why. Singh and Li Jun are from different cultures, and they have to get used to each other. And sometimes that does cause some tension. But each respects the other and each has skills that contribute to solving the case.
What’s interesting about cultural differences is that you don’t even have to be from a different country to have cultural differences. Just as an example, Domingo Villar’s Leo Caldas is Galician by birth and culture. He lives and works in Vigo and is accustomed to life there. His assistant Rafael Estevez on the other hand is from Zaragoza, in the autonomous community of Aragon. Even though both men are Spanish, they are from different cultures and have different ways of looking at life. And those differences do come up in the course of their investigations, although each respects the other. It’s an interesting look at the number of different cultures there can be, even in the same country.
I’ve only had space to mention a few examples of team-mates who work through cultural differences. There are a lot of others of course (e.g. Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear, or Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden and Fr. John O’Malley). Which ones do you like best?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Unholy Trinity.