‘Cause When It’s All For One, It’s One For All*

CollectivismTo a greater or lesser extent, cultures tend to be either collectivist or individualist. In collectivist cultures, the emphasis is on group membership and group achievement. The individual gets her or his identity from the group, and in turn is responsible to that group. Collectivism also often includes a strong sense of duty to family, including extended family.

It’s more complex than that, as most concepts involving people are, and cultures and groups do vary greatly in the degree to which they are collectivist. Sound boring? It’s not, when you think of what it means on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully a few examples from crime fiction will show you what I mean.

There are several intances of the way collectivism works in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels. In The Ghostway, for instance, Chee is assigned to locate a missing sixteen-year-old Navajo teen Margaret Billy Sosi, who’s disappeared from her school. This case turns out to be related to the death of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s recently moved to the Big Reservation. What these cases have in common is kinship. Margaret Billy Sosi is distantly related to Albert Gorman, who at one point stays with Margaret’s grandfather. Chee uncovers this relationship, and since he is also a member of the Navajo Nation, he understands the ties that bind extended families. He tracks Margaret to the Los Angeles area where he gets important information about both investigations. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t occur to Margaret to avoid danger, stay in school, focus on her studies, and so on. She is a part of the web that links all Navajos and her family in particular. So naturally she does what she can to help. And I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the Navajo community takes responsibility for her, too, when she is in need of them.

We also see collectivism in action in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. One plot thread concerns two young girls, Preeti and Basanti, who are members of India’s Bedia group. Their families are in desperate need for money, and their one sure way out is if the girls enter the dhanda, a name for India’s sex trade. The idea is that their families will be paid money for their services. After working for a few years, they’ll return to their villages with yet more money, and be ready to settle back into community life. Instead of being seen as ‘cheap whores,’ young women who do this actually command a type of respect for fulfilling their duties to their families and helping to see that their siblings don’t starve. Preeti and Basanti are taken to Scotland, where they are separated. Basanti gets free of the people who are keeping her as soon as she can, and goes looking for her friend. She soon discovers that the key may be oceanographer Calladh ‘Cal’ McGill. With his help, she finds out what happened to Preeti.

One of Timothy Hallinan’s series features ‘rough travel’ writer Phillip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, an ex-pat American now living in Bangkok. His wife Rose is a former bar girl who has opened up her own apartment-cleaning company. Rose has much to teach Rafferty about the Thai culture in which they live, and one of those lessons has to do with her sense of collective identity and duty to friends and family. She left her home village and ended up as a bar girl so that she could make money to send back to her family. It would never occur to her to do anything else with any extra money she has. And although she’s endured more than her share as a bar girl, it would also not occur to her not to contribute to her family’s welfare. As an aside, Rose’s employees are all former bar girls she’s known who want to get out of that life. Her sense of group membership is strong enough that their welfare is her welfare. So they’re the natural choice when she is ready to hire people.

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney takes on a new client, Jim Delbeck. His daughter Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Center, a Pattaya home for adoptable babies and young children whose families can’t take care of them. She jumped, or fell, or was pushed, from the roof of the building where she lived, and Delbeck’s been trying to find out how it happened. The police theory is that she committed suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe it. So Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate. As she does, she gets to know several of the volunteers at New Life, and some of the young women whose children are ‘boarders’ there. In their lives, we see how important kinship and extended family networks are in this society. Not to have such a network is devastating to someone who’s been brought up in a collectivist culture.

We also see collectivism in Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels. Tempest is half-Aboriginal, but has spent several years away from her roots at Moonlight Downs. When she returns to her home in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs) she is welcomed as a family member and taken in. There isn’t much at the Moonlight Downs encampment, but Tempest is welcome to what there is. She is part of the community. For her part, Tempest feels just as responsible to that community. In Gunshot Road, for instance, she briefly takes in Danny Brambles, a fifteen-year-old who’s going through some personal difficulties. It never occurs to her to do anything else. The Brambles family is part of her group – her mob – so she has a responsibility to them.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen novels take place mostly in Shanghai. While there are many cultures in China, one dominant cultural force is the traditional Confucian belief in filial duty. And in several novels in this series, we see examples of characters (including Chen) who place a premium on caring for loved ones. Other characters send money to their families, or promote the careers of family members. Sometimes that works very well; sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s a clear example of how collectivism has become infused into the Chinese culture. We also see that in another way too. A high degree of loyalty to the state is expected of everyone, and it’s also expected that everyone will make many personal sacrifices to further the good of China. Individuals are strongly discouraged from amassing great personal wealth or calling a lot of attention to themselves. The collective is more important.

Readers of series such as Stan Jones’ Nathan Active novels, M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk novels or Scott Young’s Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak novels will know know that collectivism is an important part of many Arctic and Far North Native/First Nations communities. In those novels, among many groups, people do take responsibility for each other. Doors are left unlocked, food and supplies are gladly shared and so on. Of course, it’s not quite so simple as that, but there is a sense that one person’s welfare impacts everyone’s. And that makes sense in a place like the Far North, where it’s well nigh impossible to go it alone.

These are by no means the only examples of collectivism that we see in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte). But they serve to illustrate how that cultural dimension can add richness to a character or a community.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bryan Adams, Robert John Lange and Michael Kaman’s All For Love.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, M.J. McGrath, Mark Douglas-Home, Qiu Xiaolong, Scott Young, Stan Jones, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman

20 responses to “‘Cause When It’s All For One, It’s One For All*

  1. (Well, since you’ve already covered Upfield’s Bony books, Margot…)

    A number of Golden Age books include interactions with groups of “Gypsies,” nomadic and very closely knit groups who live in their own encampments in the (mostly English) countryside, generally following their own rules and standards. A group of Gypsies play a very significant role in Margery Allingham’s Look to the Lady (also known as The Gyrth Chalice Mystery) in freeing Albert Campion from a predicament and enabling him to escape a particularly nasty gang of thugs. Fortunately the Gypsies regard him as a friend…

    • Les – That’s quite true about GA/classic crime novels and Gypsies. They figure quite often in those plots, and I appreciate your example of that. It rounds out my post very nicely πŸ™‚

  2. In The Raven’s Eye by Barry Maitland, he writes about the odd community who live on the canals in London – I found that fascinating, a really insightful look at a way of life that is going on under our noses, but about which most of us (and very much me) knew nothing.

    • Moira – That really is interesting, that there can be those communities that are there, as you say, right under our noses, and we aren’t even aware exist. And Maitland is so good at showing readers those different sides of London…

  3. I think I’ve mentioned just about every one of Peter May’s recent books on your blog in the last couple of weeks, Margot, but here goes again… In ‘The Blackhouse’, as the plot plays out we see how this rather closed and very traditional island community has banded together to deal with its own problems, rather than involving police or other state organisations. It’s very credible, and also a bit frightening to those of us who aren’t used to that kind of direct community retribution.

    • FictionFan – Feel free to mention May’s work as often as you like. He’s very talented! And you’re right about the insular island community. It is unsettling isn’t it to see how the people on the island police themselves. There’s actually a bit of that in the other major plot thread of Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. When places are isolated like that, it is a bit scary to think how the people can develop their own approaches to dealing with problems…

  4. Margot: Amin Wiebe wrote a stand-alone mystery, Murder in Gutenthal, set in a rural Mennonite community in southern Manitoba. The flavour of the book is illustrated by the flavour of the nicknames for the young farm sleuth, Neil Bergen. He is better known as horny Corny o Corny Pee-Eye or, most commonly, Schneppa Kjnals (Flat German for Corny the Snoop).

    • Bill – That’s a really interesting context for a mystery. The Mennonite community is interesting in and of itself. Put that together with life in southern Manitoba, and you have a look at a fascinating collectivist group. I like those names for the protagonist too.

  5. Interesting that Les brought up the gypsies…that’s a collective group that I read a lot about when I was reading mainly Golden Age. Another interesting topic, Margot.

  6. Patti Abbott

    There is a whole series set in an Amish community but I am blanking on the author’s name. And there must be one or two set among the hippies.

    • Patti – Are you perhaps thinking of Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series? That’s set among the Amish of Ohio. And I think you’re right about the hippies. Must do a post about that…

  7. I was going to mention The Blackhouse but FictionFan beat me to it – great post and another aspect to look out for when I’m reading.

  8. tracybham

    I had no idea there were so many examples of collectivist cultures in crime fiction, Margot. A very good way to learn about cultures so different from my own.

  9. Col

    A few of the examples are waiting on the piles for me, more books than time. I think it’s an interesting element to read about, like Tracy comments above – its a good way to learn while being entertained

  10. Kathy D.

    I’ve got to get Peter May’s books, especially Entry Island. That does it! A promise for this year.
    Many people still live in communal societies in Native nations in the States, in Canada, throughout South America, in Asia, Australia, Africa, etc. And sharing what is available is intrinsic to these societies, an admirable trait.
    The Roma (their preferred term) in Europe do live collectively still, but with a reduced population since WWII’s horrors and terrible discrimination and poverty today, even being chased out of countries, including France. It’s awful. Stef Penney wrote a novel featuring Roma characters, including a charming teenage boy.

    • Kathy – Oh, I do hope you’ll like Peter May’s work! And you’re right that there still are colelctivist groups in many different parts of the world. A shared identity and working together is, as you say, an intrinsic part of their societies. I’m glad you pointed that out, as collectivism is a strong and viable option for a culture.

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