No Border Fence Can Separate Us, No*

BorderlandsI live less than an hour’s drive (depending on the traffic) from the U.S./Mexican border. What’s interesting about a borderland area like this is the distinctive culture that’s developed. There are certainly influences on both sides of the border of both the U.S. dominant culture and the Mexican dominant culture. But really, life here is a blend of those cultures, and that makes it unique – neither one nor the other, if I can put it that way.

There are ‘border cultures’ all over the world, whether the border is between two very friendly allies or two enemies. And if you think about it, borderlands are very effective settings for crime novels. For one thing, there is, as I say, a unique culture. For another, even between the friendliest of allies, there are often big and little tensions that can add to a novel’s suspense. Put that together with the mystery that’s the main focus of the novel, and you can have a very absorbing read.

Borderlands figure into a few of Agatha Christie’s stories. For example, in both The Murder on the Links and The Mystery of the Blue Train, Hercule Poirot, who lives in London, investigates murders that take place in France. Several of the characters in those novels cross between the two countries more than once, and do business in both places. That ‘border culture’ of cosmopolitan travel is distinctive – neither French nor English really – and it’s interesting to see how it plays out in these stories. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

Philippe Georget’s Summertime, All the Cats are Bored takes place in the Perpignan region of France, near the French/Spanish border. Two Perpignan police officers, Gilles Sebag and Jacques Molina are dealing with the usual life of a long, hot summer. Sebag’s concerned that his wife Claire may be having an affair, and Molina has his own concerns. Everything’s put aside though when the body of Josetta Braun, a Dutch tourist, is discovered. Then Anneke Verbrucke, who is also Dutch, is abducted. It looks very much as though there’s a serial killer at work, and the media wastes no time making much of that. Now Sebag and Molina have to try to outwit the killer before there are any more murders. In this story, we get a look at the culture of this border area – neither thoroughly French nor thoroughly Spanish, but distinctive.

The Austria/Italy borderland is the setting for Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski, which introduces her Scotland Yard sleuth Henry Tibbett. He and his wife Emmy take a skiing trip to Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’re staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, which caters to skiers. Then late one afternoon, one of the other guests is murdered. Austrian-born businessman Fritz Hauser is shot and his body discovered on the downward-facing ski-lift. Tibbett doesn’t have jurisdiction, but once the investigating officer Capitano Spezzi finds out Tibbetts is with the Yard, he slowly starts to trust him and Tibbetts gets to work. Santa Chiara is in Italy; however, there’s a strong Austrian influence in the area, not least because this borderland has changed hands more than once. There are important cultural differences between the Italians and the Austrians; there’s even a bit of tension. But really, the local culture is Alpine – neither distinctly Italian nor distinctly Austrian.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice takes place partly in the borderland between the US and Mexico. It begins in Los Angeles, when Harry Bosch gets word on his police scanner that the body of a suicide victim has been discovered. The dead man is identified as Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, a fellow cop. The first theory is that Moore killed himself because he’d ‘gone dirty.’ But certain things don’t add up for Bosch, and he starts to investigate. His search leads him to the ‘twin cities’ of Calexico (in California) and Mexicali (in Mexico), and to a connection with Moore’s past. This area is a blend both of languages (English, Spanish and Spanglish are spoken on both sides of the border) and of cultures. There’s some tension there, but people who live in this borderland have developed their own distinctive culture and ways of living.

The U.S./Canada border is one of the friendlier borders in the world (not that there’s never any tension or strong disagreement). Because it’s such a long border (it’s the world’s longest international border), there isn’t what you’d call one ‘borderland’ culture. There are several. One such culture is the Great Lakes culture in the borderland between the U.S. state of Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario. Steve Hamilton explores the rural part of that culture in his Alex McKnight series. McKnight is a former Detroit police officer who’s left the force and now makes a living renting cabins near Sault Ste. Marie (Soo) Michigan/Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. There are of course formalities when McKnight crosses the border, but the area isn’t really completely Canadian or completely U.S. Instead, it’s a unique rural hunting/fishing/sport tourist area.

The capital of Botswana, Gabarone, is in the borderland area between that country and South Africa. So Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe, whose detective agency is in Gabarone, visits South Africa in more than one of her cases. And in both that series and the Michael Stanley writing duo’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, we see several examples of people who live on one side of the border but work on the other. It’s a culturally and linguistically unique place, and you can see that in the language patterns. English is the official language of Botswana, but most of the people also speak Setswana. Setswana is also spoken just across the border in South Africa. It’s an interesting case of cultural and linguistic borders being different to geopolitical borders.

Fans of Brian McGilloway’s Garda Ben Devlin series will know that it takes place mostly in the borderlands between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. And fans of Kate Atkinson and Val McDermid will know that several of their novels take place in the Scottish Border area. In both of those cases, we see a distinctive way of life that blends both sides of the border. Dialect, daily life, and so on are all unique to those areas. And that’s really what a borderland is. It’s not one side’s culture or the other. Instead, it’s a unique culture that has elements of both. Which bordlerlands novels and series stand out for you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Boom Shaka’s Unite.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Brian McGilloway, Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Patricia Moyes, Phillipe Georget, Steve Hamilton, Val McDermid

33 responses to “No Border Fence Can Separate Us, No*

  1. Very interesting post, Margot. I have only read the first book by Steve Hamilton (years ago) and had forgotten exactly where it was set. Got to get to the 2nd one now.

    • Thanks, Tracy. Trust me, I know all about reading the first book in the series and not having the chance to catch up with the rest. I only wish there were about fifty reading hours in a day…

  2. Another fascinating post Margot – the one that chimes most with me is the Inspector Devlin series mainly because it is most familiar to me – of course living on a little island we don’t have any boarders…

    • Thanks for the kind words, Cleo. That’s the thing about small islands as you say: there aren’t the borders that there are on larger pieces of land. And I think McGilloway’s Ben Davlin series does a fine job of portraying life that ‘neither here nor there’ area between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

  3. Although I live on a slightly bigger island than Cleo, we also don’t really have a border, except with the other countries in the Union. So it’s always fascinating to me to see how cultures blend at borders, especially when two different languages are involved. The lack of land borders has made us very insular, despite our sea-faring heritage, I think. We’re so bad at undertanding other people’s languages and customs…

    • I think a coutry’s geography plays a very big role in its attitudes and culture, FictionFan. Lots of people in the US (certainly not all!) are not interested in and not serious about learning any language but their own good ol’ American English. And an important part of the reason for that linguistic insularity I think is geography. It’s a big country with innumerable places to live where only English is required. In other words, there’s no need to learn another language as there is in, say, Continental Europe, where national boundaries are much nearer the average person.

  4. Thanks for this topic, which I find really fascinating. I’ve lived where Italy borders Slovenia, and you’re right–the culture is distinctive. The idea of setting a story there is irresistible.

    • Thank you for the kind words, JoLynne. I’ll bet the Italy/Slovenia border really is an interesting place to live, and it’s certainly an example of a truly distinctive borderland culture. My guess is that a story set there would be great!

  5. Patti Abbott

    Interesting topic. really liked the one Steve Hamilton book I read.

  6. Margot: The Border Guards by Mark Sinnett is an alright mystery. It is more interesting for its portrayal of how the U.S. changed with regard to the border with Canada after 9/11.

    Presto Variations by Lee Lamothe deals with the problems in getting $10,000,000 in illicit cash across the river from Detroit to Windsor. The criminals find transporting the cash across the river border a formidable challenge.

    • Bill – Those are great examples of exactly the kind of borderland story I had in mind with this post. You’re right that the U.S./Canada border has been profoundly impacted by 9/11, and mysteries that reflect that are more credible. And I can well imagine that taking that much money, even the short distance from Detroit to Windsor, is harder than it seems…

  7. Keishon

    Interesting post, Margot and thanks for the examples as ever. I’ve enjoyed Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight books. Need to get crackin’ on the Alexander McCall book that’s been languishing in my virtual library.

    • I know all about books that languish, Keishon. I never have enough time to read all I want. I do recommend McCall Smith’s work when you get the chance. And I like Steve Hamilton’s work too.

  8. A book that immediately comes to mind is And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing to the Dark Side of the American Border By D Niewert – it reads like crime fiction but sadly is not.

  9. Great topic Margot and I certainly connect to that after spending half go my life as an expat of one sort or another.

  10. Col

    I did enjoy McGilloway’s book a few years ago. I don’t really have a series that stands out for me. I’ve enjoyed a few espionage books in and around Berlin during the Cold War – Brian Freemantle’s Charlie M with the crossing over between East and West.
    I’ve read a few standalones where the criminal on the run heads south to Mexico and sanctuary and a safe haven and conversely books involving the journey north to the US and safety and a better life – David Corbett’s Do They Know I’m Running. There’s always a tension crossing the border illegally or if you’re a fugitive.
    Most recent border crossing I enjoyed was David Putnam’s The Replacements.

    • I’m glad you mentioned the division of Berlin, Col. That’s a very unusual case of a city with a national border going through it; and of course, given the politics of the times, that was not a friendly border area. Lots of opportunity for tension and danger there for authors who want to tap that. And you’re right about the tension of crossing the U.S./Mexican border. I’ll admit I’ve not read the Corbett, but a fwe stories I’ve read feature people trying to get across the border in one direction or the other, and that can add a lot of suspense. And I’m glad you reminded me of The Replacements. Folks, if you want to get a sense of what that book’s like, check out Col’s terrific review.

  11. There’s a wonderful Canadian crime film about precisely this point called “Bon Cop, Bad Cop”. The victim’s body is literally half in Ontario and half in Quebec; it’s balanced on the top of the sign that indicates the border. A handsome rule-breaking French-Canadian police officer and his uptight Ontarian colleague must investigate the crime together. In order to really grasp the hilarity, you have to be — like many Canadians are — fully conversant with Quebecois French and English. Even if you’re not, though, there is plenty here that will amuse you. It’s a delightful “unlikely cop pairing” movie that I’ve enjoyed a couple of times.

    • Oh, thank you, Noah! I’m not familiar with that film, but it sounds absolutely fantastic. Certainly in keeping with this post, and one I want to look up. Appreciate you mentioning it.

  12. I really have to read The Black Ice. I’ve heard so many great things about it, and after reading your mini-synop. it’s definitely going on my TBR pile. Thanks, Margot!

  13. I’ve read a couple of book about the polygamist communities in Utah, including Desert Wives by Betty Webb. I can’t remember if it was that book or another, where a community compound is built straddling a state line – Utah/Arizona perhaps? – so if the police force of one state raids the place looking for evidence of wrong-doing, the inhabitants just cluster in the other side of the compound, out or reach. Quite chilling I thought.

    • Good memory, Moira. It is indeed Desert Wives that explores that polygamous community and yes, it straddles the Utah/Arizona border. I thought the story was haunting, too, and it does bring up the question of how the US states interact in cases of crime.

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