We Just Saw It From a Different Point of View*

PerspectivesonCultureWhile I was in Madrid I had several interesting conversations with José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot. One of them was about the differences between books written by authors who are members of the cultures they write about, and books written by authors who aren’t. One the one hand, someone who’s not a member of a given culture can offer a distinctive perspective on that culture. On the other, a member of a culture has an intimate knowledge of that culture’s subtleties and nuances. So the reader can really get an ‘insider’s view.’

The diversity of crime fiction lets us use both perspectives, and that in turn gives us a better understanding of the places and cultures that are discussed in the genre. Let me just offer a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll have many more to offer.

Ruth Rendell is English. Her novels under her own name and as Barbara Vine reflect her background; she is very much a member of the culture that’s featured in her work. Whether it’s her Inspector Wexford novels or one of her other works, we really get the ‘insider view’ on her culture. The same could be said of course of many other English authors. By contrast, Martha Grimes is American, although most of her Inspector Richard Jury novels take place in England. Like any two authors, these two have different writing styles and that’s clear in their novels. But beyond that, there’s an interesting question of the way they write about England. One has the intimate knowledge of the ‘insider.’ The other has the distinctive perspective of someone from a different culture.

We also see a contrast in crime fiction that takes place in Spain (and this is what José Ignacio and I spoke of in our conversation). In recent decades, there’ve been several Spanish authors who have given readers an ‘insider’s’ look at life in different parts of Spain. Authors such as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote the Pepe Carvalho series, and more recently Domingo Villar (the Inspector Leo Caldas series) and Teresa Solana (the Martínez brothers PI series) have portrayed Spanish life from a ‘local’s’ point of view if I may put it that way. There’ve also been many novels set in Spain that weren’t written by Spanish authors. For instance, Roderic Jeffries (the Inspector Enrique Álvarez series) is English. And Jason Webster, author of the Chief Inspector Max Cámara series, is Anglo-American. There are lots of other such examples too. These authors do vary in their writing styles of course. But you could also argue that there is a difference in perspective between novels about Spain written by Spaniards, and novels about Spain that are written by members of other cultures.

Both H.R.F. Keating and Tarquin Hall have written series that take place in India. Keating’s of course features Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force. Hall’s sleuth is Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Neither author was born in India, so you could argue that these series are written from the perspective of people who aren’t members of a given culture. On the other hand, Kishwar Desai is Indian. Her Simran Singh series has an ‘insider’ perspective because she is a member of one of India’s cultures. When it comes to India, one could make the point that because the British were in India for a long time, they became members of one Indian culture – the Anglo-Indian culture. And there are still close ties on many levels between India and the UK. But there is arguably a difference between books about India written by, say, English authors and those written by members of one of India’s original cultures.

The Chinese detective story has a long history, and many Chinese crime fiction stories haven’t been translated into other languages. But there are authors such as A Yi, Qiu Xiaolong and Diane Wei Liang, whose novels have been translated. Through those authors’ perspectives, readers get an ‘insider look’ at life in Beijing, Shanghai and other places in China. There have also of course been crime fiction stories set in China that aren’t written by Chinese authors. For instance, there’s Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series, which is set in China’s northwest. Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing takes place mostly in Beijing. So does Catherine Sampson’s The Pool of Unease. And of course plenty of authors have had their protagonists visit China, even if the novel wasn’t set there. Those novels also depict life in China, but many people would say the authors have a different perspective, since they are not native members of any of the Chinese cultures.

Thai author Tew Bunnag has given readers a unique perspective on life in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Admittedly he doesn’t exclusively write crime fiction, but through his stories we get an ‘insider’ look at the country. Many other authors, such as John Burdett, Andrew Grant, Timothy Hallinan and Angela Savage, also write about Thailand. Their perspectives are different because they aren’t members of that culture, but that’s just what makes those perspectives valuable. We get a broad look at the country from both points of view, if you will.

And that’s the beauty of the diversity in the genre. There’s room enough for both perspectives. These are just a few examples. Lots of other countries and cultures have been portrayed in crime fiction both by members and by non-members. My guess is that you’d be able to contribute a much longer list than I would.

How do you feel about this issue? Do you see a difference between novels written by members of a culture, and novels that aren’t? Writing style aside, for instance, do you see a difference between the work of Donna Leon and that of Andrea Camilleri, both of whom write about Italy? Do you see a difference between the portrayal of South Africa in the work of Malla Nunn, who is Australian, and its portrayal in the work of Deon Meyer, who is South African?  If you do see such a difference, do you find it off-putting?

And then there’s perhaps a more difficult question. How do you feel about the way your own culture is portrayed in crime fiction? Does it bother you when it’s portrayed by someone who’s not a member (assuming of course that the writer is accurate)?

If you’re a writer, do you write about another culture? If you do, what drew you to it?


ps  The ‘photo is of a sculpture by Joan Miró, which now makes its home in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía,




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.


Filed under A Yi, Andrea Camilleri, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Barbara Vine, Catherine Sampson, Deon Meyer, Diane Wei Liang, Domingo Villar, Donna Leon, H.R.F. Keating, Jason Webster, John Burdett, Kishwar Desai, Malla Nunn, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Martha Grimes, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Van Gulik, Roderic Jeffries, Ruth Rendell, Shamini Flint, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana, Tew Bunnag, Timothy Hallinan

37 responses to “We Just Saw It From a Different Point of View*

  1. One of my favourite subjects – and I love reading books from both points of view. Michael Dibdin, Donna Leon vs. Camilleri and Massimo Carlotto? I love them all and there is a certain consistency but also difference in their perspectives of Italy.

    • Marina Sofia – You put that very well – Much better than I did. As you say, when you read books about the same culture from both the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ you do some consistency, but you also get some fascinating differences. That’s why I’m such a fan of wide reading.

  2. Then there’s the detective-on-holiday trope. As in Inspector Morse finding himself with or without his comfortably reliable sidekick Lewis in, say, Italy or Australia.

    With the TV versions, I suspect that some of these outsider ventures are to reward the production crew and cast with a “jolly” overseas.

    • Mel – I suspect you’re probably right about that. You also have a point about novels in which the sleuth travels in another culture. We then get to see the sleuth out of his/her ‘element’ and having to look at life differently. When it’s done well it can be quite effective.

  3. I think it’s educational to read novels from both the insider and the visitors’ point of view. I love the Deon Meyer novels, so now I’ll have to check out Nunn’s books.

  4. kathy d.

    Just to elaborate about Malla Nunn: Her parents, considered a so-called “mixed-race” couple, fled South Africa’s apartheid and moved to Swaziland, where she was born and lived for part of her childhood. Then they moved to Perth in the 1970s.
    Malla Nunn’s parents told her about her African ancestors, and she identifies as an African woman, which she mentions in interviews. So she far more information about life in the 1950s under the brutal apartheid system than many other authors would have.
    Yes, writers who live in a country have a lot to offer. For instance, Fred Vargas, French archaeologist and historian, puts a lot of French folklore, Medieval myths and history into her books. They have a distinctly French flavor, which is unique.
    Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Siggurdadottir put a lot of Iceland into their series. And Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo had observations about Swedish society that were very much their own. Kishwar Desai’s books about India and Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s books set in Rio de Janeiro give much information about their countries for readers.
    I think it’s very different for “outside” writers to do the same things. A good story can be written by all writers.
    Donna Leon has lived in Venice for 30 years, and she knows and understands a lot about life there and the residents. And I love her books.
    But, there are some distinctly Sicilian traits in Andrea Camilleri’s books, temperaments, emotions, culture that seems a bit different.

    • Kathy – Thanks for sharing what you know about Malla Nunn. You have a very well-taken point that members of cultures can teach us a lot in their novels. As you say, it is a different experience when people who aren’t members of a culture write about a place. It can be just as interesting and of course, it has nothing to do with whether a story is compelling or not. But it is different.

  5. Thank you very much Margot for your link. Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza and the late Leighton Gage also provide a good example. I read most of Leighton’s books and only recently my first García-Roza, but I’ve enjoyed their books and their differences.

    • José Ignacio – It’s a pleasure to let others know about your blog. And thank you for mentioning both Gage and Garcia-Roza. That’s an excellent example of exactly the sort of ‘insider/outsider’ difference I had in mind with this post. Both talented authors I think, and both convey Brasil. But there is I think a difference in perspective.

  6. Paddy Richardson’s crime novels are set in New Zealand, where I come from originally, and she tells her riveting stories in the context of important historical events, without getting bogged down in details. Another one that comes to mind is the Russian author Boris Akunin, who writes the Sister Pelagia mysteries. I read the first, Pelagia & the White Bulldog, which is, fascinatingly, set in a small Russian town named Zavolzhsk at the end of the 19th century. The protagonist is a nun, Sister Pelagia: “bespectacled, freckled, woefully clumsy and astonishingly resourceful”, as the blurb says. The book was first published in Russian in 2000 and translated to English in 2006 by Andrew Bromfield. (Akunin has a unique way of opening and closing the book, which I have never come across before).

    • Caron – I’m glad you’ve mentioned Paddy Richardson. I am an absolute fan of her work, and you’re right that she gives readers a strong sense of New Zealand without bogging readers down in detail. And she tells a cracking story, too. Folks, do try her work. And you’re right about the Sister Pelagia novels, too. A great sense of place in my opinion – a really fine sense of place. And in both cases, a real sense of the ‘insider’ view.

  7. You picked some interesting examples there, Margot. I think it does matter to me because I need to be convinced of the authenticity. So Donna Leon passes – she’s lived there long enough to understand the culture. On the other hand, I was completely put off the Inspector Ghote books when I discovered that Keating had never so much as visited Bombay – suddenly the endearing quirks described by an insider became rather insulting stereotypes created by an outsider. In general, I feel if an author is going to write about a culture they don’t know intimately, it’s probably best if they do it through the voice of an outsider – someone from their own culture perhaps. Trying to write in the voice of a native of a culture that is foreign to the author can tend to lack a feeling of authenticity. Sometimes. Maybe. 😉

    • FictionFan – I understand your point. People such as Donna Leon who, as you say, have lived in a culture for a very long time, have probably developed some sort of understanding of it. Those folks I think are in a position to discuss it in their novels in an authentic way. And that really is essential. Of course, people who are members of a culture also get a pass. I’ve read some novels where the author wasn’t a member of a given culture but it still came off authentic. That’s really unusual though. More often it doesn’t seem quite authentic. And it’s interesting you’d say that about using the voice of an outsider. That’s what Angela Savage has done with her series. It’s set in Thaliand, but Savage’s PI sleuth Jayne Keeney is, like her creator, Australian.

  8. I’m with Fiction Fan – I found it off-putting that Keating wrote those books without visiting India. And in general I would distinguish between people writing about an outsider in a culture, and trying to get into the heads of the locals. The first can be illuminating, the second is surely close to impossible.
    A lot of people write books set in the UK who don’t live here, and in some cases seem scarcely to have visited. I sit reading, clocking up the basic mistakes, getting crosser and crosser – though I know it doesn’t bother some people at all.

    • Moira – I understand exactly what you mean. When authors set their books in a given place/culture, then they need to have a solid understanding of that place. It may be because they live there and are members of that culture. Or it may be because they’ve spent enough time there to have a real understanding of the place. Either way, I like it best when stories feel authentic. And you’re right: if one’s not a member of a certain culture, one can write well about it as an outsider, but it’s hard to write about it as a local. Tony Hillerman managed it in his Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels. Hillerman was not Navajo, but he conveyed that group’s love and culture quite authentically. It took him decades of living there though. You can’t do that if you only have a passing knowledge of a place.

  9. I think as long as the book is accurate and not relying on stereotypes, and it’s a great book, then I don’t have a problem. Reading is after all, about leaving some of your belief and expectations behind.

    • Rebecca – I agree with you about accuracy. A book needs to get the details right or (to me, at least) it’s off-putting. And of course, a strong plot and set of characters means it probably doesn’t rely on stereotypes. When a book ticks all the boxes like that, we’re more willing to put aside a bit of disbelief. But I think those basic realities are important if a book’s to feel authentic.

  10. Interesting post. I’m rereading some Martha Grimes books now (“Dirty Duck” presently) and…you know, it makes a difference that I know she’s American. She makes fun of American tourists in “Dirty Duck” and I remember being surprised 22-23 years ago when reading it that a British author would necessarily be so open in doing so (especially with American readers). Makes a lot more sense coming from an American. I do read the books differently, knowing her nationality.

    • Elizabeth – Thanks for the kind words. I think that knowing Grimes’ nationality makes a difference too. There is a different sense to her writing and to her insights. And it’s interesting how those differences come out. You’ve definitely hit on one of them (poking fun at American tourists in a certain way), and there are others too. All that said though, I have a real soft spot for Jury, Plant, Wiggins, et al.

  11. When it comes to an author writing about a different culture than where they live or came from, I first wonder how much research they have done. I like thinking what I’m reading about the traditions and ways of the land are correct. I enjoy reading both styles because, as you mentioned, they each have their own take on the elements. Margot, another intriguing post.

    • Thanks, Mason. You make a well-taken point about research too. More than once I’ve read a novel that felt authentic enough to me, but later found out that the author didn’t do the research. It’s so disappointing! I think it’s really important to convey realistically the place and people that serve as the context for a novel. One can do that by being a member of a given group, or one can can offer an ‘outsider’ perspective if the research is solid and one’s really spent time in a place. Either way works, so long as the author takes the time to ‘do the homework.’

  12. This is a very complicated and fraught topic you’ve written about Margot! I like how bravely you sally forth. Cultural appropriation is a topic much on everyone’s lips these days – who dares to write about another culture, especially if it is one of many oppressed ones, takes on a big task. I think one thing to consider is not only who is writing but who are they writing for? Martha Grimes is a good one to think of in this way – she misses some expressions that a writer like Reginald Hill wouldn’t BUT she is primarily writing for Americans who do have a sense of what a mystery set in Britain should be like. Maybe it isn’t a real Britain but did the quaint little villages that Agatha Christie wrote about ever exist in quite that way? Shall we really only write about what we have intimate and personal experience of? Then all my characters would be reduced to being me – no children, no teenagers, no boys, no other ethnicity but mine, no experiences other than mine, my sexual preferences, food delights and phobias. How tedious for both reader and writer! I remember the first time I read Wally Lamb – ‘She’s Come Undone’ – I had to keep checking the back page to assure myself it was written by a man! How bereft our literary culture would be without those who dared to try on another person’s life for their art. Shakespeare never went to Verona and certainly didn’t know feudal Italian city-states intimately but would be begrudge him Romeo & Juliette? Let authors attempt – be honest about their own experiences and see what happens. Let the readers decide ultimately.

    • Jan – It isn’t at all an easy topic. And thanks for bringing in this question of who the audience is (and Grimes really is a perfect example!). What does the author really want to accomplish? That’s such an interesting question and of course, the answer(s) depend on the author. Either way, I think there’s definitely something to be said for taking the chance of exploring another self, another place, etc.. One has to balance that of course with being authentic. For instance, if an author wrote about places I know well, I’d want those places accurately depicted. Perhaps not down to street names, but definitely I’d want them to be authentic. And that means research. But at the same time, as you say, there is an important place for trying on a different self. That balance is very tricky and to be honest, I don’t have the exact answer to what it should be. In the end, as you say, readers take that decision anyway.
      You also make an important point about cultural appropriation. I’m honestly not sure what the answer is there, either, although I do think about it. Tony Hillerman wrote about the Navajo nation with respect and knowledge. He was named a ‘Special Friend’ by that Nation too, so I honestly don’t think they felt ‘appropriated.’ I’ve read other novels about First Nations people that weren’t written by Indigenous authors; yet they are authentic and I’ve not heard protests. That said though, I think that sort of novel takes years of learning and understanding. One can’t simply do a few Google searches and suddenly have a meaningful novel.

  13. Re your reply to Moira – “When authors set their books in a given place/culture, then they need to have a solid understanding of that place. It may be because they live there and are members of that culture. Or it may be because they’ve spent enough time there to have a real understanding of the place. Either way, I like it best when stories feel authentic.”

    I keep coming up against this issue of authenticity as I choose titles for the 2014 Global Reading Challenge, so I’m particularly grateful for your post and this discussion.

    As I choose which books to add to my reading list, I’ve been trying to restrict myself to writers who are ‘insiders’, as in members of the culture, not just long-time residents from another culture; then I come across a book like David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero. Peace, born in Yorkshire in 1967, writes in the voice of a Japanese police inspector investigating a series of crimes in post-war Tokyo. To me the voice of Police Inspector Minami is utterly convincing. To me, Peace’s depiction of post-war Tokyo is utterly believable … but is this ‘authenticity’ due to David Peace’s 13 year immersion in Japanese culture, or do I believe due to my own preconceptions?

    I realize that my concern here also veers into the issue of ‘voice’, not just setting (which tangles it up in the ongoing controversy over non-natives producing ‘native’ art), but it seems the more I think about this question of ‘authenticity’, the more complex it becomes.

    • Moody Sleuth – It is a complex issue. Voice and setting/character are different constructs, but they all contribute to an overall feeling of authenticity. I’m not sure that one has to confine oneself to only ‘insider’ writers to find that authenticity, as your example shows. I’ve read other books too that were not written by ‘insiders’ that were still utterly convincing and authentic. It takes effort, commitment, time, research and the like, but it can be done. And I think it does take living in a place and developing an understanding of it. Those are not easy things to do. I do think it’s possible though. As far as choosing books to read, sometimes it’s a bit of a gamble, especially if one isn’t familiar with the work of a given author. But a talented author will be authentic, whether s/he is or isn’t an ‘insider.’ I know – not a straight easy answer, but I don’t think this is an easy issue.

  14. kathy d.

    This is such a good discussion it could continue and have parts 2 and 3. This is such an important issue and can bruise feelings of those native to a country and those who are oppressed, too.
    I think of writers in Australia. Adrian Hyland who writes of Emily Tempest, whose mother was Indigenous, writes about culture, way of life, hardships and more about the Indigenous Hyland lived and worked with Indigenous communities, and he seems quite on-target and sensitive. I think the test would be what members of those communities think of his books.
    Then there’s Nicole Watson who is a member of an Indigenous nation and language group, and her feelings about this oppression come through strongly in The Boundary. (Glad you’re discussing this soon) It’s different.
    One can feel the discrimination and abusive treatment, including by police.
    And as far as Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri go, they both are very talented writers and their characters interesting. But where Guido Brunetti goes home to a satisfying lunch or goes to a trattoria for a snack and espresso, Salvo Montalbano dreams about his meals, anticipates them, thinks about what’s on his menu all day and then reminisces about his pasta and pesce. Camilleri gets the obsession and conveys it, so much so that readers want to rush out to the nearest Italian restaurant. (Also, we get a lot of idioms of Sicilian.)
    And I love both Leon and Camilleri: Brunetti, Paola Falier and Montalbano would be characters of choice I’d want to have with me on that proverbial desert island — provided there’s a cafe, biscotti and cappuccino nearby.

    • Kathy – I’m glad you’re enjoying the discussion. I think you make a few important points in your comment. One of them is that it’s certainly possible to write authentically about a group of people even if one’s not a member of that group. It takes time, effort, respect for that group and so on, but it can be done. And I think if it’s done effectively and with care, those who are members of the group won’t be offended. Another important point you make is that all kinds of stories can be excellent novels, whether or not they’re written by ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders.’ A strong plot and well-developed characters matter more. If those things are there, then there’ll already be, for instance, authenticity about members of a culture, whether or not one’s a member.
      That said though, I think you’re right that there is a difference between stories written by ‘insiders’ (like The Boundary) and stories that aren’t. Both can be top-quality novels, but they are different.

  15. I’m just catching up with the comments in this interesting thread: thanks to everyone for such interesting points.

    There are certain things in books by outsiders that raise red flags for me, and one of them is relying on a detailed map instead of getting the details about another country/culture/idiomatic expressions right. I don’t expect perfection, but I do expect the outsider author to make an effort to get things right.

    • Rebecca – Thanks – glad that you’ve been enjoying the comments. I know I’ve learned a lot from them. You’ve brought up something interesting too (and important). It’s easy enough for an author to, say, put a map in a book. It’s harder for the author to get the nuances of language and culture right so that they’re authentic. That takes an understanding, and that understanding takes time and commitment. Without it though, the book can seem superficial, even stereotyped.

  16. kathy d.

    Ooh, lucky you, getting to see that sculpture by Miro. I think I have to look online and try to find the museum’s exhibits and Miro’s sculptures. I didn’t know he sculpted, but had one of his prints in my college dorm room.

  17. Coming in late to say for an ‘outsider’ who writes books set in Thailand, this is always an interesting topic of conversation. In my opinion, some of the most interesting writing in Australia at the moment is coming from diaspora writers like Vietnamese-born Australian writer Nam Le, and most recently Maxine Beneba Clarke, an Australian writer of Afro-Carribean descent. Both authors write from multiple points of view, creating characters from all over the world, influenced but unrestricted by their countries of origin. I particularly like the quote Beneba Clarke uses as an epigraph to her short story collection, Foreign Soil: ‘Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it’ — Chinua Achebe.

    • Angela – There’s no such thing as ‘late’ here. You’re welcome to pop in any time. And thank you for suggesting some talented writers to try. Trust you to have such an interesting angle on this topic, too. Folks, do try these writers’ work.
      And I always liked Achebe’s work, so thanks for that quote. He is missed…

  18. Very interesting topic here, Margot, and I don’t know that I have anything new to add to it. I have enjoyed a lot of books set in the UK written by US authors (Grimes, Elizabeth George, and Deborah Crombie). I have read about half of the Richard Jury series and I enjoyed the ones written in the early 90’s more than the earlier ones. And I think I enjoyed his character and the story apart from the setting. I don’t remember at what point I realized each of those authors was not British. Maybe it would have been apparent had I been from the UK. In general I would prefer to read a book set in a country by an author from the country, but then I enjoyed the books set in Brazil written by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza and Leighton Gage (only one by each so far). So I don’t know. Kind of on the fence.

    I wonder how authors that are not from the US fare writing about the US? I probably would not even notice if they got something wrong, because people act and speak so differently across various parts of the country. My husband from the mid-west uses idioms and phrases I don’t get and vice versa. Lots of sayings from the deep South that no one else would use.

    • Tracy – Glad you’re enjoying the discussion, and thanks for your contribution. Your comment is a good reminder that the real test of a solid book or series isn’t whether the author is from a given area. Rather, it’s how authentic the story is. I think that’s the most important thing. Of course, that authenticity depends on the author really having an understanding of the cultural and geographic context of the story. But I think that can be achieved, with effort, by someone who’s not from a given culture.
      You make an interesting point about people who write about the US, too. As you say, it’s a big and very diverse country, and I definitely think that would affect the way we thought about a book’s authenticity.

  19. kathy d.

    Wow! There’s still food for thought rolling in here. The authors who Angela Savage is bringing up sound terrific, and hope we can get their books over here. Their websites are quite enticing.
    Thanks, too, for that powerful quote by Achebe, which I had never seen; 23 words that can send chills down one’s spine and may even upset governments.
    And, thanks for the museum links. I must visit them quickly.

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