Imagine There’s No Countries*

GLobalismIt’s no secret that modern technology has dramatically increased the contact we have with people from, quite literally, all over the world. This globalisation has meant that more and more, we’re aware of and influenced by other cultures and ways of doing things. The global nature of communication certainly presents its share of challenges. Different cultures have of course different values, priorities and ways of looking at the world. So negotiating meaning can be a challenge. So can the personal preferences, biases and so on that we all have. There are other challenges too such as language differences. But the payoff can mean that some major issues that affect everyone can be addressed as a wealth of expertise and innovative perspectives can be brought to bear.

It can work in real life, and it does in crime fiction too. There are lots of crime fiction novels and series where the investigation crosses geopolitical borders, and even when there are challenges, the end result is often more productive than it would be without that kind of co-operation.

In Agatha Cristie’s Death in the Clouds, for example, Hercule Poirot is on a flight from Paris to London when a fellow passenger Marie Morisot suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the flight, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp sift through the various possibilities to find out who would have wanted to murder the victim. She was a well-known moneylender who did business as Madame Giselle, and more than one of the suspects might have had good reason to want her dead. Madame Giselle was French, so British and French authorities will have to work together to solve the case. And in this particular instance they do. There are a few moments of awkwardness, but in the main, the investigation is successful. And it’s clear that without that co-operation, it might very well not be. Fans of Christie’s work will know that The Murder on the Links presents a slightly different view of a joint effort between French and British police. And such ‘team efforts’ don’t always work smoothly. But when they work well, they lead to better investigation.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna offers an interesting look at the way Swedish and American police work together to solve a case. When the body of a young woman is dredged up from Lake Vättern, it’s extremely difficult at first to find out who she is. But eventually she is identified as twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, a native of the US state of Nebraska. She was touring Sweden when she was killed, and at first there seems no motive for the murder. Little by little though, we get a more detailed portrait of her personal life and of those who interacted with her. And that leads slowly to the killer. In the end, Beck and his team find out who the murderer is. But it would arguably have been impossible without the information provided by Detective Lieutenant Elmer Kafka of the Lincoln, Nebraska police. At the time the novel was written, this kind of global approach to crime solving involved cables, sometimes-unreliable international telephone calls and letters. It’s a lot easier with modern communication.

In Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil, Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team investigate the murder of schoolteacher Jacob Schyttelius and his parents. At first, the murders seem to be the work of a Satanist group. That’s not a far-fetched theory, as Schyttelius’ father is a member of the clergy. But it’s not long before that theory is disproved. Now the possibility arises that someone is killing the members of the family for more personal reasons. If that’s the case, then Schyttelius’ sister Rebecka could very well be the murderer’s next target. She lives in London, so Huss and her team will have to work with UK authorities to protect Rebecka Schyttelius and solve the case. Huss travels to London and works with Inspector Glen Thompson of the Met. Although Huss speaks English, Thompson’s knowledge of the local scene and his connections are essential to solving the case. Huss’ knowledge of the family background and of the murders themselves is just as important.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch deals with a global sort of a case in 9 Dragons. When Los Angeles liquor store owner John Li is shot, Bosch and his partner Ignacio Ferras investigate. Evidence suggests that Li was making protection payoffs to one of Los Angeles’ triads, or ‘protection groups’ with connections to Hong Kong. Bosch is starting to follow up that lead when he gets a call from his daughter Maddie, who’s living there with her mother (and Bosch’s ex-wife) Eleanor Wish. Maddie says that she’s been kidnapped, so Bosch immediately travels to Hong Kong to find her. In the end, we find out what happened to Maddie; we also find out the truth about John Li’s murder. And throughout the novel, we see how the global nature of today’s world impacts these cases.

Ian Hamilton’s Toronto-based sleuth Ava Lee is a forensic accountant. She works for a Hong Kong-based company whose specialty is recovering large debts. In The Water Rat of Wanchai, The Disciple of Las Vegas and The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, Lee travels to many different parts of the world as she traces lost money. This series takes a very global perspective on the way money is earned, stolen, managed, transferred and hidden. Because today’s technology allows transactions to be global, financial investigation has to be global as well.

Crime fiction also shows us globalism on a small scale too. For instance, Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series takes place in and around Paradise, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That part of Michigan is of course very close to the border with the Canadian province of Ontario. So in several of McKnight’s stories, there’s a lot of communication and interaction between Canadian and American people, and that includes police authorities. As Hamilton shows, globalism has several facets. On the one hand, there are sometimes-subtle but distinct differences between the Canadian way of doing things and the American way. They’re different cultures. They see life differently and that’s portrayed in the series. And yet, we also see the easy communication, the overall willing co-operation, and the recognition that each side benefits from the other’s knowledge. What’s even more interesting (at least to me) is that that area of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan has its own unique culture, distilled from the Indigenous cultures, the Candian culture and the American culture. It’s a global way of looking at life at a very local level.

In today’s world, easy travel and even easier communication have arguably resulted in a more global perspective on life. Certainly crime has ‘gone global.’ So it makes a lot of sense that perspectives on investigation would do the same. I’ve only touched on a few examples here. So now, it’s over to the rest of you folks in the global crime fiction community…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Imagine. He would have been 74 today as this is posted. Imagine…


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Hamilton, Irene Tursten, Maj Sjöwall, Michael Connelly, Per Wahlöö, Steve Hamilton

26 responses to “Imagine There’s No Countries*

  1. “Easy travel”? Yes, but sometimes I get the feeling it’s too easy.

    A case in point is Henning Mankell’s heroine in “Kennedy’s Brain”. She would give you jetlag from the amount of air travel she does in her quest to find her son’s killers: Greece, Sweden, Spain, Australia, South Africa, Mozambique and so on?

    Eeven James Bond and Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary don’t do so many air miles in a month. And she’s no secret agent yet she never has a problem with the practical stuff about arranging visas and all that other palaver when she buys air tickets here, there and everywhere on the spur of the moment.

    • Mel – You have a point there. Travel certainly is easier today than it was, but knowing what we know about going anywhere by air, it’s not credible that a sleuth would be able to travel as much as we see in Kennedy’s Brain. As if the physical/frustration toll of travel weren’t enough, certainly the logistics are, as you point out. Your comment is a good reminder that the best stories are credible.

  2. I forgot to mention what we might call the “Bridge effect”. TV crime fiction increasingly involves co-productions, so it’s only natural that the police investigators come from different countries – Denmark and Sweden in the case of “The Bridge”, and the UK and France in terms of its remake.

    • Mel – I’m so glad you mentioned The Bridge. I meant to, but didn’t, so I’m glad you filled in that gap. You’re quite right that we see that kind of co-investigation more than we did in TV and film; it’s an interesting parallel to what we see in fiction.

  3. I can’t think of many other murder stories with endless travel – but those spy stories are a different matter! I am Pilgrim was a prime example last year, as the protagonist wandered all over the world….

    • Moira – That’s a very good point. Espionage fiction really does involve a lot of global situations, and especially with today’s connectedness. And I Am Pilgrim is a terrific example.

  4. I think I’ve noticed cross-border co-operation most in Nordic fiction. They always seem to be able to speak each other’s languages, which I assume is true to life, and in one book – and I’m scratching my head but just can’t remember which – I was really surprised to learn that one of the smaller countries (Iceland perhaps?) sends their most dangerous prisoners to a jail in another country because they don’t have enough prisoners to make it feasible to have their own high-security facility.

    • FictionFan – I think you’re probably right that there is cross-border co-operation. I know I’ve seen it in Scandinavian crime fiction before and as you say, it makes sense. I’m sorry not to be able to be much help about which book you mean. If you think of any other details about it, let me know. It sounds like an interesting premise. And it sounds logical, too. Hmmm….now curious….

  5. Col

    I read the first Nesbo book which had Harry Hole in Australia looking into the death of a Norwegian national.
    I think I notice the jurisdiction-cooperation theme more as point of conflict in a lot of US crime fiction, where there’s a bit of macho posturing over whose case it is, regarding the crime committed, FBI v State or city police. It’s usually an interesting development allowing the reader to decide who they like, who they don’t with some character insights

    • Col – You’re right; The Bat features Harry Hole having to co-operate with the Australian authorities (and vice versa) when a Norwegian woman is killed. It is interesting too to see the ‘patch wars’ among different branches of law enforcement. There’s local police, there’s the national police, and other agencies too. And although they should co-operate, as you say, they don’t always. And it does give the reader the chance to decide who to like, who not to like, and so on.

  6. I do think that the clash of cultures scenario, when done well, can reall serve to focus the attention on what is strongest about a character or series – in MY FRIEND MAIGRET we have a Scotland Yard Inspector come to observe the methods of the Parisian detective, though he claims not to have any methods – but the ‘contest’ between the two is ultimately very telling – great topic, thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words. And My Friend Maigret is a great example of the kind of co-operation I had in mind when I wrote this post. You’re right that there can be culture clash, and as you say it can add to character depth and tension. I think it’s realistic too. After all, crime doesn’t know borders; detection really can’t, either, if that makes sense.

  7. Hi Margot – Great post. It occurs to me that Golden Age mysteries usually involved persons of a high social class who might tend to know each other across political and cultural boundaries.
    Thanks for mentioning Murder on the Links, as it’s a mild example of Agatha’s tendency to xenophobia, of which she’s been taken to task by some commentators. For all that her stories usually take place in a ‘cosy’ setting, there is, for me anyway, an undercurrent of cultural and class tension. For example, Poirot is looked upon with some suspicion, by the authorities as well as suspects, because of his foreign status.
    The clash-of-cultures theme can also be used to humorous effect. I recall the Lt. Columbo stories when he visits places like Britain and Mexico.

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. And that’s an interesting point about social status. It does tend to transcend other boundaries, especially in GA novels. And yet, there is often tension when people from different cultures have to work together. As you say, in the GA novels, you see it when Poirot works with people who are suspicious of foreigners. Among contemporary novels and series, you see it in Anya Lipska’s series featuring Janusz Kiszka, who is Polish, and DC Natalie Kershaw, who is English. They work together, although it’s not an ‘official’ partnership, but that doesn’t mean there are no cultural boundaries. And yes, those episodes of Columbo show it too.

  8. The Cask, the first book by Freeman Wills Crofts, is an interesting and successful example of an investigation moving between England and France. The Perfect Murder by Christopher Bush ventures something similar.

  9. And doesn’t Adamsberg and two of his team in Fred Vargas’ series go to visit Quebec, ostensibly for some sort of cultural exchange programme, but then it all gets very messy indeed, with Adamsberg himself accused of a murder?

    • Marina Sofia – Good memory! In Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, Adamsberg and his team go to a forensics/DNA conference in Canada. But as you say, all does not work out well when Adamsberg ends up accused of murder…

  10. Margot: I also thought of Jo Nesbo and Harry Hole. In the second book he is in Thailand and has a very interesting relationship with the Thai police during the investigation.

    • Bill – Right you are indeed. It’s interesting how Hole travels to different places in the course of the novels, and that’s a good example of it. And in several of those novels, we see that crimes that come to Norway are in a sense ‘global’ as well.

  11. kathy d.

    This is a good and exciting topic. “Imagine” what we couldn’t read or even know about without the Internet and global communication. We’ve all read books from around the world, from places we never thought of as settings for crime fiction. I mean the Solomon Islands!
    But in addition to that, as the post and commenters say, many plots take sleuths to several countries to track down clues or a perpetrator.
    A book which I and friends liked that embodies this theme is Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing.
    There are murders in a town in Sweden. The book then goes back to the U.S. West more than a century ago. Then it zooms to London, then Beijing. And then to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It’s rather a masterpiece.
    And as for “Imagine,” one of the best songs ever written. Imagine everyone sharing and the world living as one. A goal to be dreamed of and sought.
    RIP John Lennon.

    • Kathy – RIP indeed. I’ve always loved Imagine too, both as a piece of music and as a message.
      As far as crime fiction goes, you’re right. Many crime plots (and The Man From Beijing is one of them) take a global perspective on crime. The sleuth travels, or works with partners from other countries, or shares information with those from other countries. It’s I think a realistic perspective on crime, as in today’s world, it’s more globl than ever.
      You’re right too that the global nature of our world means that we can instantly find out what’s going on just about anywhere in the world. It allows us to be better informed and more connected than ever.

  12. kathy d.

    And the Internet has brought us so many wonderful writers and bloggers from Oz whom we would have never known about without it.
    When I think that we’re reading blogs written in other countries, and commenters are from so many countries, it just boggles my mind.

  13. tracybham

    Some great examples in your post and in the comments. I could make up a reading list out of these. I am pleased to say I got a copy of Ian Hamilton’s The Disciple of Las Vegas at the book sale. But of course, being somewhat obsessive about reading in order … I want to find The Water Rat of Wanchai now.

    • Tracy – Thanks for the kind words. I’ve been enjoying learning from the comments, too. I think the Ian Hamilton series is a good one. And I know just what you mean about liking to read novels in order. I’m the very same way.

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