Make of Our Hearts One Heart*

Intercultural RelationshipsAll couples have to make adjustments; it’s what happens when two different people share their lives. That’s especially true of intercultural couples. They face the same issues as other couples, and they have to bridge sometimes vast cultural gaps. Although it’s not always easy, many such couples do build successful relationships. Other intercultural relationships don’t work out as well.

In crime fiction, an intercultural relationship can add a fascinating layer of depth to a character, even if the novel’s central focus isn’t the sleuth’s home life. It also allows the author to explore different cultures and cultural interaction in a very personal way.

Agatha Christie touches on this plot point in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Wealthy Emily Arundell suspects that one of her family members is trying to kill her. She’s even more convinced of this when she has what seems to be an accidental fall down a flight of stairs late one night. It’s no accident though, so she writes to Hercule Poirot to ask for his help. By the time Poirot receives the letter and travels to Market Basing, where Miss Arundell lives, it’s too late. She’s died of what the doctor termed ‘liver failure.’ But Poirot suspects otherwise and continues to investigate. Just about everyone in the Arundell family circle had something to gain by the victim’s death. One of the interested parties is Miss Arundell’s niece Bella, who is married to Dr. Jacob Tanios. It’s an intercultural relationship, as Tanios is Greek. And it’s interesting to see how wide that gap is perceived to be in this novel. There are actually several comments about the wisdom (or lack theoreof) of marrying someone from a different culture.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn also has an experience with an intercultural relationship. In A Colder Kind of Death, she meets Inspector Alex Kequahtooway of the Regina Police. He’s investigating the murder of Kevin Tarpley, who was killed during an exercise break in the prison yard where he’s serving time for murder. Kilbourn has a strong motive for hating Tarpley, since the murder he committed was of her husband Ian. So at first, she and the Inspector are not exactly friendly. But before long he comes to believe that she’s innocent. Later, the two become romantically involved, and that presents challenges for both. He is a member of the Standing Buffalo Dakota First Nation; she is Anglo. To the two of them, their differences don’t matter as much as their relationship does. But not everyone feels that way, and both have to deal with the ‘baggage’ of being involved with someone from a very different culture.

So do Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Mary Landon. Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, and an officer in the Navajo Tribal Police. He is also studying at the time to become a yata’ali, a Navajo singer/healer. In People of Darkness, he meets Mary Landon, who teaches at Crown Point Elementary School. The two begin to date and then fall in love. At first it doesn’t matter to either that he is Navajo and she is White. As time goes by, though, they face a real obstacle. Chee loves Landon, but couldn’t really be happy living in the dominant-culture world. Landon loves Chee, too; but she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life on the Reservation. As time goes by, she finds herself more and more drawn back to her own community. At the same time, though, as she writes to him in The Ghostway,


‘I won’t force my Jim Chee to be a white man.’


In the end, those differences separate them permanently, but not without a deep sense of loss on both sides.

Does this mean that all intercultural relationships are doomed? Not in crime fiction, at any rate. Just ask Nicolas Freeling’s Amsterdam Inspector Piet Van der Valk and his wife Arlette. Van der Valk is thoroughly Dutch, with that culture’s background, values and so on. His wife Arlette is French, and her cultural identity reflects that background.  There are certainly some cultural differences between them, and adjustments to be made on both sides. But as Van der Valk puts it in Double Barrel, being married to Arlette helps him to be


‘…not quite so Dutch….’


in his thinking. It helps a lot too that Arlette is an excellent cook.

More recently, there’s Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Raffterty series. Those novels take place mostly in Bangkok, where Rafferty lives and works. He’s an ex-pat American travel writer who’s also good at finding people who don’t want to be found. Rafferty’s wife Rose is thoroughly Thai, a former bar girl who now owns her own apartment cleaning company. Together, they’re raising Miaow, a former street child they’ve adopted. Rafferty and his wife come from very different backgrounds, and they see the world differently. Sometimes this gets in the way of their communication. But each respects and is devoted to the other, and both want the best for Miaow. So they do everything they can to understand each other and resolve the differences they sometimes have.

So do Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel. Keeney is Australian, although she’s quite content to live in Bangkok. In The Half-Child, she meets Patel, who at the time helps to run his uncle’s bookshop. Patel is from India, at first only staying in Bangkok temporarily. But things change when he meets Keeney and the two strike up a friendship. They become business partners and, later, lovers as well. There are certainly cultural differences between them, even in terms of things like non-verbal communication. But as time goes on, it becomes clear to each that they respect each other and depend on each other. They are better together than they are alone.

There are of course a lot of other intercultural couples in crime fiction. Freeling, for instance, wrote another series featuring Henri Castang, who is originally French, but lives and works in Brussels. His wife Vera is Czech. And this is by no means the only example. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s One Hand, One Heart.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Gail Bowen, Nicolas Freeling, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman

24 responses to “Make of Our Hearts One Heart*

  1. Ah, now that’s a song I do know… from West Side Story!
    Surprisingly, for all my love of intercultural topics, I can’t think of other couples in crime fiction than the ones you mention above. Will have to wrack my brains and get back to you on this one… (mutters darkly, while scouring her shelves for inspiration).

  2. This is so timely! In Timber Point (one of the excerpts you read today) my MC’s love interest is African-American. I didn’t really exploit the differences of a bi-racial relationship too much, but I’m thinking I should. It could really add some great tension and/or some funny misunderstandings. Thank you!

  3. I haven’t read any of the S.J. Rozan series featuring Bill Smith and Lydia Chin but I’m wondering if those characters qualify for this topic. I’ve had the series on my list forever, so maybe it’s time to move some of those books to the top of my list.

    • Pat – I’m very glad you mentioned Bill Smith and Lydia Chin. They’re a terrific pair, aren’t they? I do recommend that series. I know all about long TBR lists, but if you get the chance to read this series, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  4. tracybham

    You have featured a lot of interesting series in this post. Bowen’s A Colder Kind of Death is the next book in that series for me to read. I have only read the first in Angela Savage’s series. Most of the books you mentioned are ones I want to read. Now I have to find the time.

    • Oh, Tracy, I know all about not having enough time to read!! I wish there were 50 reading hours in a day. And I really think you’ll A Colder Kind of Death. That’s one of my top series.

  5. The only example I can think of is the Sherlock Holmes story, ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’, where the whole thing hinges on someone hiding a previous mixed-race marriage for fear of being rejected by her new husband. Conan Doyle takes a surprisingly sympathetic line considering the time of writing.

    • Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that one, FictionFan. I meant to and then didn’t, so you filled in a gap. And you’re absolutely right that it shows a mixed-race marriage effectively, particularly for the times.

  6. Col

    I enjoyed a Mike Nicol book – Payback a few years ago, set in South Africa and featuring a couple of ex-gun runners and friends – Bishop and Buso – one black, one white.

    • Thanks, Col. I’ve not (yet) read Payback. But it sounds like a great example of what I had in mind with this post. And of course, talking of South Africa, you’ve reminded me that Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series (set in the 1950s) also deals with the issues around inter-racial marriages.

  7. Margot: A couple of examples from Canadian crime fiction are:

    1.) In R.J. Harlick’s series set in contemporary Canada sleuth Meg Harris marries Eric Odjik, an Ojibway Indian, and they work together; and,
    2.) In The Devi’s Making by Sean Haldane taking place in the 1860’s in Victoria, B.C. it is the reverse with Chad Hobbes falling in love with Lukswaas, a West Coast Indian.

  8. Ha! I managed to find an example – told you I’d be back. The series by Graeme Kent set in the Solomon Islands features native sergeant Ben Kalla and the rebellious American missionary nun Sister Conchita working together. A most unlikely and hilarious pairing.

    • And I’m so glad you stopped back, Marina Sofia. I like that example very much, and I need to read the Kent series. So I’m also glad you reminded me of it. 🙂

  9. I am always pleased when reading Golden Age books that are smart about playing the ‘johnny foreigner’ card to wrongfoot more commonplace xenophobia. Really like the sound of the more modern mysteries with very mixed crime solving partners.

    • Sergio – Oh, I like that premise too. Christie used that of course with her Hercule Poirot, and she’s by no means the only one. It does add to a story. And yes, some of the modern crime novels do have very well-drawn relationships across cultural groups. I think it adds a real layer of interest when it’s done well.

  10. Kathy D.

    I’m glad you mentioned Emmanuel Cooper. He has an illegal romantic relationship with an African woman, which creates great dangers for them, especially for her. Also, her parents’ relationship violates the apartheid laws and they have to hide it very carefully.
    I know somewhat about different cultures and religions in one family, as one side of my family was Irish and the other Russian Jewish immigrants. It made for a rich childhood and lots of holidays and food! I still miss my mother’s potato latkes and corned beef and cabbage!

    • I think Cooper is a great character, Kathy. And I think Malla Nunn does a terrific job of depicting the South Africa of the 1950s. You’re right, too, of course, that any inter-racial relationship would have to have been carefully hidden. It’s interesting too that you grew up in a bi-cultural home. There’s so much opportunity for rich experiences in a multi-cultural family.

  11. I’m glad you mentioned the Joanne K/ Alex K relationship in the Gail Bowen books. I thought that was very well done: very sensitive and very real and rather sad. Another good reason for loving those books….

    • I thought so too, Moira. Bowen makes the relationship very real, as you say, and shows at a very human level what this sort of relationship is like. But then, as I’m sure you know, I’m a Bowen fan, so I’ve lots of reasons for loving that series…

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