Much of what we think, do and value is impacted (sometimes dictated) by our culture. We don’t stop to think about each of our decisions or thoughts, but if you do stop and reflect, it’s not hard to see how deeply culture is woven into our lives and thinking patterns. You may notice it in particular if you spend time in another culture or if you read about characters from another culture. The ways in which those characters think, act and choose may seem strange or even wrong. But they may make more sense if you think about it from the point of view of that other culture. Let me show you what I mean with just a few examples from crime fiction.
In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot travels to Nasse House, which is owned by Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, to help his friend Ariadne Oliver. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as an attraction for an upcoming fête, but has come to suspect that more is going on at Nasse House than a planned event. Poirot isn’t there long before he too begins to think that something is wrong. Sure enough, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was to play the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who the killer is. As a part of that process, he interviews the people involved with the fête, including Amy Folliat, whose family owned Nasse house for generations, and who actually introduced Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. As Mrs. Folliat explains to Poirot, Lady Hattie is of subnormal intelligence and after her family died, was under her (Mrs. Folliat’s) care. When Sir George proposed marriage, Amy Folliat urged her ward to accept, with the idea that she would be well provided for and not have to make her way alone. It wasn’t really a love match, and Mrs. Folliat’s concerned about Poirot’s reaction to that. But from Poirot’s perpective, which is impacted by his culture, it’s a wise choice:
‘It seems to me…that you made a most prudent arrangement for her. I am not, like the English, romantic. To arrange a good marriage, one must take more than romance into consideration.’
If you’re from a culture where marriage choices are based mostly on love and romance, Mrs. Folliat may seem almost coldly pragmatic. But it’s perfectly reasonable from a different cultural perspective.
We also see how culture impacts the way characters think and behave in Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath. LAPD Detectives Peter Decker and Marge Dunn investigate when a rape occurs at Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, a secluded Orthodox Jewish community. At first, the detectives think it may be the work of a serial rapist they’re already tracking. But there are enough differences that it could also be someone else. Then there’s a murder at the yeshiva. Now it looks as though whatever is going on has to do with the people there. In the course of the investigation, Decker also works with Rina Lazarus, a teacher at the yeshiva school. She and Decker are attracted to each other and each admits it. But even though she likes Decker, she doesn’t go out with him. If you’re from a culture where people who like each other go on dates, you might wonder why on earth Rina doesn’t say ‘yes,’ to a date. After all, it’s just dinner. But in the Orthodox Jewish culture, it’s not appropriate to spend time alone with a man to whom one isn’t married. Rina’s neither prudish nor afraid of Decker. But she is deeply affected by her culture, so dating as many of us conceive it is not a part of her thinking.
There’s a fascinating look at culture’s impact on people’s thinking and choices in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series. These novels take place in 1970’s Laos, where Dr. Siri is the country’s chief (well, really only) medical examiner. He has very few resources at his disposal, but he is a skilled doctor. He prefers logical, scientific explanations for life, and tries to provide them in the context of his work. But the traditional Laos culture in which he lives sees the world differently. To members of that traditional culture, certain things simply do not have Western-style scientific explanations, and have to be attributed to something else. The Laotian government authorities try to discourage those traditions, but Dr. Siri learns to see the merit of them. As the series goes on, he gets better able to see the world that way and he finds that it’s a very useful ‘cultural lens.’
In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck. Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre when she jumped (or fell, or was pushed) from the roof of the building where she lived. Her father Jim has hired Keeney to find out the truth about her death, so Keeney goes undercover at New Life to find out whether someone there may have had a motive for murder. One of the things that come out in this novel is the Thai custom of disparaging one’s own baby:
‘My Kob has ears like an elephant,’ Mayuree added…
‘Kob has such beautiful eyes,’ Wen said, ‘whereas my poor Moo has small eyes and they aren’t even a nice color.’
If you’re not from the Thai culture, you may wonder how any loving mother could speak that way about her own child. But in the Thai culture it makes sense. It’s a way of protecting a baby from malevolent spirits who might be jealous of a smart, physically appealing child. From the Thai perspective, these two women behave like the loving mothers they are.
Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective introduces readers to Preeti and Basanti, two young girls from India’s Bedia group. Their families are financially desperate, so an arrangement is made for the girls to join the dhanda – a name used for India’s sex trade. The idea is that they’ll work in that business for a few years and send their earnings back to their families. At the end of that time, they’ll return to their villages and settle down. The two girls are both nervous, but they agree. Then they’re shipped to Scotland where they fall into the hands of some very nasty people. Basanti manages to escape, but in the meantime, she has lost contact with Preeti. Her search for Preeti leads to oceanographer and Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, who helps Basanti find out the truth about her friend. You may very well wonder how anyone could allow a daughter to be a part of the sex trade, or how any teen could agree to it. But in that culture, family and family duty are of the utmost importance. These girls see it as their responsibility to help their families. Preeti even sees it as a source of pride. From the families’ perspective, it’s far better than allowing other children in the family to starve. This cultural and financial perspective doesn’t make underage prostitution a good thing. But it does help explain how it happens.
There’s a really interesting case of cultural impact in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Ilsa Klein is a secondary school teacher in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. She’s become concerned about one of her students Serena Freeman, who’s stopped coming to class regularly, and stopped being a part of the group when she’s there. Ilsa’s choices about helping Serena have much more far-reaching consequences than she could have imagined, and through it all, there’s an interesting debate. There are many social services available in New Zealand for students who are struggling. Admittedly sometimes they work well and sometimes they don’t. But most social service professionals try to do their best. Ilsa and her mother Gerda, though, come from Leipzig, in what was once East Germany. To them, trusting any government agency is out of the question, especially from Gerda’s perspective. Government workers were responsible for a great deal of denouncement, spying, and so on that led to the disappearances and deaths of many East Germans during the Soviet era. That cultural ‘rule’ – that you don’t trust any agency – may seem strange if you come from a culture where those agencies do a lot of good. But to these women, from that culture, it makes perfect sense.
And that’s the thing about culture. It impacts the way we see the world, ourselves, others, and their actions and values. It even affects the way we see fictional characters and the way they see each other. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Living Colour’s Pride.