We’re Not the Same But We Can Talk*

Different CulturesAs 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Angela Savage, Anya Lipska, Craig Johnson, Domingo Villar, Margaret Coel, Shamini Flint

30 responses to “We’re Not the Same But We Can Talk*

  1. That’s my ‘day job’: helping people minimise culture clashes, so of course I enjoy reading about it in crime fiction too! So here are just some recent favourites which come to mind, as I could go on forever…
    I like the culture clashes between the American and Thai side of Bangkok’s half-breed investigator Sonchai Jitpleecheep (as well as any dealings he has with the US embassy there). There are some lovely statements concerning the ‘Anglos’ by the French-speaking Quebecois cops in Louise Penny’s novels (and their love of curling, for instance). And in The Poisoned Pawn by Peggy Blair (as well as in the first book in the series), there are some great observations about the differences between Canadian and Cuban culture, beliefs and reactions to events.

    • Marina Sofia – You have a lot of expertise then in the ways in which culture affects us, and how that affects interactions. And I’m glad there are experts like you to take on that role, because cultures do differ, sometimes quite a bit. Simply getting people to try to understand each other is a big step in easing those potential conflicts.
      You’ve also added some wonderful suggestions to the post too, for which thanks. I do love that thread of cultural differences in Louise Penny’s excellent series. And you’ve reminded me that I absolutely must spotlight a Sonchai novel. I haven’t done that yet *sigh.* I’m less familiar with the Blair series, but there’s an incentive to dive in.

  2. Margot – I read recently that Doming Villar, himself a Galician, is married and his wife is ….. obviously, from Aragon.

  3. I’m about to start Ghost Money and looking forward to it.

  4. kathy d.

    There is also the team, although perhaps by necessity, rather than choice, of Carl Merck, a Danish cop and Assad, who is Muslim, but his country of origin is unclear. They work in Department Q in Denmark, and their job is to solve cold cases. They do it, and sometimes the results are funny, although the cases surely are dead serious.

    • Kathy – Oh, that’s a perfect example of precisely what I had in mind with this post! Right you are indeed that they do have their cultural differences, although they come to respect each other. Each learns that the other has important skills. I agree that sometimes the results of their differences can be funny and I like that; as you say, it lightens up what can be sad stories.

  5. Margot – I’m reminded of the cultural clashes of partners, of a type, in the novel and later film Touch of Evil, when the American Captain Quinlan and Mexican Inspector Vargas work together, so to speak, with disastrous results. The two characters had not only a culture clash, but one of style and philosophy as well: one by the book, the other a realpolitik form of rough justice.

    • Bryan – That’s a wonderful example of exactly the sort of cultural differences I had in mind when I put this post together. Those two have such different ways of looking at the world, at the investigation and at, well, life. And it’s interesting that although there are differences between the novel and the film of course, we do see that culture clash in both cases. And I think it really comes out in the film. Thanks for making the post better.

  6. Coming from a bi-lingual, bi-cultural family this is certainly a point well taken (and well made). In the case of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin they come from two distinct literary traditions but I loved it when the detective Montenegrin background came to the fore – thanks as always Margot.

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words. And that’s an interesting point about Goodwin and Wolfe. I hadn’t thought about the literary traditions when I put this post together but you have a strong point. And I do like it when Wolfe’s background comes into play in stories. It reminds the reader that he’s had to get accustomed to U.S. culture. Can’t have been easy for him.

  7. Margot, I love mysteries that highlight cultural differences. I am very interested in several of the examples here.

    • Tracy – I like that very much as a plot thread too. It can really add to a novel. I hope that if you do sample what’s been mentioned here, you’ll like what you read.

  8. Margot: In discussing the divide between French and English Canada the author, Hugh MacLennan, in 1945 wrote a famous work of fiction titled Two Solitudes. The title has summed up the division within our country.

    Robert Rotenberg’s ensemble of lawyers and police in his series set in contemporary Toronto features the ethnic diversity of the city. There are Anglo Canadians, a retired engineer from India, a Latino Crown Prosecutor, a black immigrant journalist and a newspaper editor from England among the characters.

    • Bill – Thanks for recommending Two Solitudes. That divide between French and English Canada is fascinating, and it’s a clear example of how people from different cultures may or may not interact. It reminds me just a bit of Giles Blunt’s John Cardinal and Lise Delorme.
      And you’ve reminded me that I want to spotlight a Rotenberg novel – thanks.

  9. Poirot and Hastings were the first to come to mind. But I love how affectionate they became later in the process. And Hastings was always one to defend Poirot when others discounted him as “foreign.”

    • Elizabeth – I really like the way Poirot and Hastings develop their friendship over time too. It is a deep and lasting friendship, and it adds much to the novel I think. And you’re right; I hadn’t thought about the way Hasstings defends Poirot, but he does. To me that shows just how that friendship transcends cultural differences.

  10. Col

    The only example I can think of at the minute is film – Rush Hour with Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan! Might not be what you were looking for!

  11. A couple of series set in Italy spring to mind. In Magdalen Nabb’s wonderful series Marshal Guarnaccia is stationed in Florence, far from his Sicilian home, where they do things very differently. And doesn’t Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen often find himself posted away from his native Venice?

    • Chrissie – He does indeed. Thanks for mentioning the Zen series. That series also highlights just how different cultures can be, even within the same country. And I must try the Nabb series, so thanks for suggesting it.

  12. This is a bit different, but in Robert Harris’s Officer and a Gentleman, looking at the Dreyfus case, it is stressed that a huge issue was the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish, and that a strong anti-Semitic feeling in the French army ensured that he couldn’t get a fair hearing, even though any investigation should have shown that he was very patriotic, and innocent.

    • Moira – That’s such an interesting way to look at this issue. There’s certainly an argument that besides being a religion and lifestyle, Judaism is a culture. And when you look at this particular case, you see that, you see the military culture and you see the French culture. It’s absolutely fascinating. The case itself was of course shameful, but it does show one of the tragic possible consequences of cultural differences.

  13. kathy d.

    I think that Dreyfus was framed up because he was Jewish, and there was much anti-Semitism in France at the time. The real spy was behind that. It took a lot of work to get Dreyfus out of jail, and Emile Zola helped to do that by working on the case and publishing his famous “J’accuse” treatise defending Dreyfus.
    I’m wondering if you’re also including police detectives from one city in a country going to rural areas to work with local cops; there may be many cultural differences, as Commissaire Adamsberg often does in The Ghost Riders of Ordebec and other wonderful books.

    • Kathy – There is no doubt in my mind that Dreyfus was framed because of his religion. And you ask a good question about city vs country culture. Certainly Vargas addresses that and she’s not the only one. Thanks for making me think about this that way.

  14. The books by Earl Derr Biggers featuring Charlie Chan often contain examples of how cultural differences can be overcome by two (or more) investigators. In the first book, “The House Without a Key,” set in Honolulu, it takes a while for the aristocratic Winterslip family, in the midst of a murder investigation, to learn how to work with Charlie Chan and overcome many of the differences between them. By the end, both John Quincy Winterslip and Inspector Chan have joined forces and uncover the murderer more or less simultaneously.

    • Les – You know, I hadn’t thought about the Charlie Chan novels when I planned this post, but you have a well-taken point. Chan often has to interact with people from other cultures, and they with him. Both ‘sides’ have to get used to their cultural differences.

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