I’ve Come to Look For America*

FireworksWhen you travel in the US, you see one thing very clearly: America is composed of a lot of very different communities. Of course, many other countries are quite diverse, and have all sorts of different smaller communities within them. Those smaller communities add depth, texture and complexity to the fabric of the country and (in my opinion) make it richer. And fortunately, there’s plenty of good crime fiction that gives readers a look at those communities. There’s not nearly enough space here to mention all of the smaller communities that make up America. Here are just a few that have added to the national tapestry.

The Native Americans were here first, and several crime fiction series and novels offer insight into their experiences. You’ll probably already likely know about the work of Tony Hillerman, whose Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels focus on life in the Navajo Nation. These novels give a fascinating perspective on the Southwest US, among other things. But Hillerman is hardly the only writer who explores the Native American experience. So does Stan Jones, whose Nathan Active novels take place in Alaska. Active is an Alaska State Trooper, and a member of the Inupiaq Nation. Although he was raised in Anchorage, Active now lives and works in the small town of Chukchi. This series does feature crime and its investigation. But it’s also a look at life among the Native Americans who live in Alaska. There’s also Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden/Father John O’Malley series. Those novels take place mostly on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, among the Arapaho people. Holden is a member of that community; she’s also an attorney. As she and Fr. O’Malley investigate, readers learn a lot about life among the Arapaho. There are plenty of other crime novels and series that take place among, or that feature, Native Americans (I know, I know, fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series). To understand the United States, it’s important to have at least some understanding of the people who were here first.

Another fascinating community of the modern US is the Cajun community of (mostly) Louisiana. You’ll know from your history that they’re the descendants of Acadians, who migrated to what was then French territory after being expelled from what are today Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Cajun music, food, lifestyle and language have had a powerful impact on Louisiana. And that influence has spread as people have discovered that rich resource. James Lee Burke has shown millions of readers life among the Cajuns through his Dave Robicheaux novels. As fans will know, Robicheaux is a cop with the New Iberia (Louisiana) Police. He himself is a Cajun; and he certainly interacts with many other Cajuns in the course of his work. So readers get a really interesting perspective on that community.

I don’t think it’s possible to accurately discuss the American experience without discussing the Black experience. Perhaps the most important, and basic, thing about that experience is that it’s been fundamentally different to the White experience. Understanding that fact, and gaining a perspective on Black America, is important (at least I think it is) to understanding the modern USA. Walter Mosely has written a few series that explore the Black experience. His Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins novels take place in Los Angeles in the years just after World War II, and leading up to and through the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s. In those novels, we follow Rawlins, who starts out as an informal PI, but later gets his license. Another of his series features Leonid McGill, a modern-day New York PI. What’s interesting is that a comparison of this series shows that the Black experience is not identical across the country. What’s more, it’s not identical over time. You could say the same thing about Attica Locke’s work. Her novels explore both the Houston area and Louisiana, both in the present day and the recent (and not at all recent) past. Throughout those stories, we see the complexity as well as the evolution of the Black community.

No less rich and complex is the US Latino community. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that there really isn’t one Latino community. Still, for the sake of space, there are crime writers who’ve explored the Latino experience in America. One is Manuel Ramos. His Denver-based attorney Luis Móntez was at one time involved in the Chicano activist movement. When we meet him in The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, he has to return to that past when he learns that several other former activists – members of El Movimiento – are dying. The key seems to be their history and their possible involvement years ago in the death of one of their own, Rocky Ruiz. Steven Torres’ Precinct Puerto Rico series features Luis Gonzalo, a small-town Puerto Rico Sheriff. There are plenty of other novels, too, that depict different Latino communities.

Just about every major American city has a Chinatown of one sort or another. The Chinese community in the US has become a unique blend of traditional Chinese culture, language and lifestyle with elements of the surrounding culture. And the list of ways in which that Chinese culture has influenced the US would go on for far too long. Both S.J. Rozan and Henry Chang explore life in New York’s Chinatown. And Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons takes a look at life in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

There are plenty of other smaller communities in the US, too. For instance, Linda Castillo explores the Amish community in her Kate Burkholder novels. And Mette Ivie Harrison depicts life in the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) community in The Bishop’s Wife. All of these communities are unique and distinctive.

But here’s the thing. They are also all American. So although every community’s experience is different, there’s also a shared history. Stitching all of this together to form a national identity is an extremely complicated, sometimes horribly messy, and always fascinating process. After 239 years, it’s still a work in progress. It’ll be exciting and interesting to see where the journey takes us next. Happy Independence Day/Fourth of July to those who celebrate it!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s America.


Filed under Attica Locke, Craig Johnson, Henry Chang, James Lee Burke, Linda Castillo, Manuel Ramos, Margaret Coel, Mette Ivie Harrison, Michael Connelly, S.J. Rozan, Stan Jones, Steven Torres, Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley

32 responses to “I’ve Come to Look For America*

  1. Within the total Latino community there are so many variations based on country of origin. I especially like the Lupe Solano series by Carolina Garcia-Aguilera. Solano is a Cuban-American PI living in Florida.

    • That’s just it, Pat. There really are so many Latino communities, and they vary in several ways. I’m glad you mentioned the Lupe Solano series; it’s an interesting look at the Cuban-American experience. Which is not the same as the Mexican-American experience. Or the Honduran-American experience. Or the ….

  2. This is a nice way to look sty the American experience. For Native Americans, I would add Jason Aaron’s superb graphic novel series Scalped, probably the best noir/melodrama I have read in years. For American Jews, I recommend Stuart M. Kaminsky’s Abe Lieberman novels, which make the protagonist’s culture and religion an integral part of the story without, however, descending into pop anthropology, and defy at least one big stereotype along the way.

    Joe Nazel’s Street Wars is a lesson in the internal dynamics of a black community, an exciting thriller, and a tribute to Chester Himes all in one. And, as a dark horse, James Ellroy’s most recent novel, Perfidia, offers a view of Los Angeles’ Japanese and Chinese communities, and the interaction between thew two, that one is unlikely to get elsewhere.
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”
    Detectives Beyond Borders

    • Thank you, Peter, for your kind words, and for your additions. There’s never enough room in one post to mention everything, and I’m glad you’ve filled in these blanks. You’ve also made me remember Kemelmen’s Rabbi Small series – another solid look, I think, at the Jewish community.

  3. Happy Rebellion Day, Margot! 😉

    I find all the different cultures within the US fascinating. Of course, our culture is getting more diverse now too, but the sheer volume of immigration from all points of the world added to the indigenous cultures really does make America unique. And crime fiction, and other fiction, is such a good way to learn more about it…

    • 😆 Thank you, FictionFan!
      You’ve highlighted something that really does help to define America: the sheer variety of different people here. It is fascinating, and adds to the richness of our national texture. It can be challenging, too, with all sorts of complications. To me, the payoff is worth the tradeoff, as they say. And you’re quite right: fiction by and about the different communities is a good way to learn about the different kinds of Americans that there are.

  4. Keishon

    I’d add Chester Himes as being a good example of the Black experience in America even if it is exaggerated. His novels depict racism and black poverty in Harlem, NY during the late 1950’s.

    I enjoy Stan Jones’ books for their cultural depiction and education of the Inuit people (Native Americans). You’ve mentioned books that I need to read, like, Linda Castillo’s books. I’ll have to put it on my list. Interesting discussion as always, Margot. Thanks and Happy Fourth to you!

    • Thank you, Keishon – and to you. And you make a good point about Himes, actually – an author I’d not thought of when I was preparing this post, but should have included. And I agree; Jones does a very effective job of depicting life among the Indigenous people of Alaska. I do recommend Castillo’s work. It’s an interesting look at that particular community.

  5. Love your outlook, Margot. I didn’t realize almost every area has a Chinatown. Interesting. Hope you’re enjoying your holiday weekend!

    • Thanks, Sue! And it really is interesting to think about how many Chinatowns there are in the USA. That community has had a powerful influence. Hope you’re having a great weekend, too.

  6. One of my favourite songs for some reason…I saw Simon & Garfunkel in concert years ago and they had the whole crowd singing along with this one (funny as we are about as far from America as you can get down here). As for this subject I recently read a book called THE BISHOP’S WIFE which was set within the Mormon community in Utah and I thought at the time how many different Americas there are within the one country

  7. Kathy D.

    Hope everyone had a good 4th of July, those who celebrate it. I celebrated by finishing a great book, English writer, Eva Dolan’s second book, “Tell No Tales.” I could rave about the writing and politics for an entire post. And I’m watching a BBC mystery, “The Missing.”
    I watched a few minutes of fireworks, but for me who has seen so many of them, a little bit goes a long way.
    Very interesting and thought-provoking post. Glad you brought up so many good authors. This reminds me to read some recommended Walter Mosley books and to dig into Attica Locke’s second book in her series.
    Of course, the history of African Americans differs from that of other peoples as they were not immigrants, but were forcibly removed from their homelands and brought here in chains, then treated so abominably that it is nearly indescribable. Today’s racial violence against this community continues as we saw in Charleston, S.C., and with the burning of several Black churches in the South since then.
    Today I honor my African-American sisters and brothers country-wide and hope there is justice. And I cheer on Bree Newsome, who climbed the flagpole and took down the Confederate flag in Columbia, S.C.
    I would add to this excellent list books by Nina Revoyr, who writes of the history of Japanese people in the U.S., particularly well in “Southland,” and “The Age of Dreaming,” set in California’s cities. There are mystery components.
    Henning Mankell’s “Man from Beijing,” also harks back to Chinese immigrants’ experience building the railroads out West in the 1800s.
    And as for Jewish immigrants, I have to check out the two series mentioned here about them. But they must have humor. To read about Jewish immigrants without humor is like writing about the oceans without mentioning their sealife. My relatives were hilarious just in daily conversation. “Norwegian by Night” encompasses much about Jewish life in the U.S.

    • Kathy – I couldn’t possibly agree with you more. Wit is the yeast in the bread of Jewish life; it really is. So yes, any book about the Jewish experience has to have some of it. Thanks for mentioning both The Man From Beijing and Nina Revoyr. I agree that the former mentions the Chinese railroad-building experience. I’ve not (yet) read Revoyr, but her work sounds really interesting.

  8. Margot: Let me venture outside the ethnic and religious communities mentioned in your post and the comments above to make a pitch for the legal community of America. There are wonderful books on American lawyers with John Grisham, Scott Turow and Michael Connelly among the best. Lawyers have varying importance in different nations. I can think of no nation in which lawyers play a larger role than America.

    • Lawyers really do play an important role in the US, Bill. And I couldn’t agree more that Grisham, Turow and COnnelly write very high-quality novels about them. The legal community really is interesting, and certainly has its own traditions and ways of speaking. Really interesting, so thanks.

  9. Col

    I think you’ve probably summed up why most of my reading is US based – such a wide variety of community……..50 different countries rolled into one! And such a smorgasbord within most of them.
    Enjoy your holiday (belated good wishes)!

    • Thank you, Col! And I love the way you put that: 50 different countries rolled into one. There really is a wide variety of different communities in the US, and different kinds of people. There’s definitely lots of ‘reading fodder.’

  10. Happy 4th Margot! I learnt a lot about Orthodox Jewish life from Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus books. The wide range of expeiences is one of the great things about America.

    • Thanks, Moira. And you’re absolutely right about Faye Kellerman’s work. I’d recommend it for the stories of course; but it’s also a very effective look at Orthodox Jewish life. And you’re right about America, too: lots and lots of different experiences to enrich the national ‘stew.’

  11. Kathy D.

    And we could mention the Italian family sagas/mysteries in Lisa Scottoline’s books, and they’re funny. And the Irish? Who writes about the Irish here in mysteries? Dennis Lehane does in some of his mysteries about Irish people living around Boston.
    Peter May’s “Entry Island” mentioned Scottish and Irish immigrants (by force) to the Madeline (Magdalen) Islands in Quebec. But I don’t know books about Scots in the U.S.
    Sara Paretsky talks about Polish people living in Chicago. (I lived there, can testify to the Polish community there in the 1950s.) Now I think many Latinos/as live there, too, in addition to the strong African-American community there.
    Three million people watched the fireworks in NYC. They must be from dozens of communities and countries. All exciting.

    • You’re absolutely right, Kathy. There are so many different groups/communities that are woven into the American tapestry due to immigration. You’ve mentioned some great examples, too. And now you’ve got me thinking about the Basque community that we read about in Craig Johnson’s Death Without Company, the second of his Walt Longmire novels. The more you think about it, really, the more there are…

  12. Kathy D.

    In Flushing, Queens, there are people from all over Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. Soccer games get very intense in that borough.
    I think every country has a community.
    Famed Haitian writer, Edwidge Danticat, sets her books primarily in Haiti, but one is set here — and there is a huge Haitian community in New York.
    Then there are Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, and other South Asian communities here. Then Middle Easterners, Africans from every country, I swear.
    I love it. Walk outside my door and see people from all over.
    And when I used to take cabs everywhere, I’d have great discussions with the drivers who hailed from Russia, Ireland, Pakistan, Egypt, Ghana, Haiti, El Salvador, etc. Nothing like New York.
    And I hope mysteries are being written about every one of them.

    • There’s no city quite like New York City for encountering communities from all over the world, is there, Kathy? As you say, step out the door and you meet people from everywhere. And the experiences of all these groups are woven into the country’s history.

  13. Belated greetings, Margot! I have never been to America, not yet at least, but I know more about your country than any other excluding my own. I love America’s cultural diversity, its own and that of the rest of the world it continues to welcome and absorb with open arms.

  14. tracybham

    Reading about different communities is one of the best parts of reading mysteries, Margot. Thanks for all of the suggestions.

    • I agree, Tracy. It’s really interesting to learn about how different communities live and how people in them think. I love that aspect of reading crime fiction.

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