Don’t Believe Everything You Hear*

StereotypesIt’s only the beginning of September, but, at least in the US, there are already intense conversations going on about, ‘what to be for Hallowe’en.’ Even if you live in a country that doesn’t observe Hallowe’en, or you don’t observe it yourself, you may have been to a fancy dress/costume party.

If you look at costumes, you see something interesting: many of them make use of the ‘shorthand’ that stereotypes offer. A pointy hat and a dark cape, and you’re a witch. A scarf around the head, a lot of jewelry, and a deck of cards, and you’re a gypsy. You get the idea.

Those stereotyped symbols may be all right for a party. But in reality, we know that people are much more and go much deeper than stereotypes. And some of those stereotypes can be damaging. That’s why one of the many things I love about crime fiction is that it goes beyond those ‘surface’ assumptions, and explores the lives of real people. Those people may happen to be members of a heavily stereotyped group, but they are still people. And this invites readers to re-think stereotypes they may have, even if they’re not conscious of them.

For example, all kinds of stories have been told about witches for many centuries. You don’t need to look really hard to find such legends; they’re a part of a lot of cultures in one way or another. I’ll be you’ve read at least some of those stories yourself. But those who really practice Wicca aren’t very much like the stereotypes at all. For example, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman lives and has her bakery in a large Melbourne building that houses several residents and businesses. One of them, The Sibyl’s Cave, is owned by Miriam Kaplan, who goes by her Wiccan name of Meroe. Meroe is hardly a stereotypical witch. She’s knowledgeable about herbals, and there are other ways in which she’s almost mystical. But a witch such as you see in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (I know there were other directors, too, including George Cukor)? No. And she’s nothing like the evil witches you read about in fairy tales, either. As time goes on in this series, we learn a little about Meroe’s Wiccan traditions and beliefs, and Trick or Treat, offers insights into some Wiccan observances and ceremonies.

Another group about which there’ve been a lot of legends, stories and stereotypes is the Roma people. Often called ‘gypsies,’ they’ve often been vilified in legend. There’s even been some crime fiction that hasn’t exactly been kind to them. But if you read, for instance, Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones, or Susan Kelly’s The Lone Traveller, you get a different portrait of the Roma people. They’re certainly not all portrayed as nice, loving, good people. But books such as these and Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams portray these characters as human people. And once you get to know a group of people as humans, it’s harder to ‘buy into’ the stereotypes about them.

There’ve been many stereotypes, misconceptions and worse about Native Americans and other Indigenous people. And if you read novels such as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, you can see how the first encounters between Indigenous people and new arrivals resulted in a lot of misunderstanding, which led to conflict, which led to terrible tragedy. Those stories persisted for many generations and gave rise to a lot of ‘taming of the West’ myths in the US, and other myths in other countries. The fact is, though, that the myths about Indigenous people don’t have much to do with reality. And crime fiction shows us that. Work by Tony Hillerman, Adrian Hyland, Scott Young and other authors show us the real lives of Indigenous people, behind the masks they frequently wear when Whites or others are around. They are, first and foremost, just people. And they are a far more diverse group than the stereotypes would suggest. In fact, that’s one issue that Hillerman brings up more than once in his novels. In the US, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is supposed to be the government’s connection to the Native American Nations. But as Hillerman portrays it, many Native American people have nothing but contempt for it. To many of them, it’s staffed by people who have no conception at all about the real lives of the Indigenous people of the US, and of what their cultures and priorities are. To the BIA (according to a lot of Native Americans), there’s not much difference among Nations. The truth is, though, that they are very diverse.

And then there are the persistent myths about bikers and biking. You know the stories: they’re drug-crazed, they’re dangerous, they’re…  Of course, it’s quite true that some biker groups do live up (down?) to the stereotypes about them. But the world of biking is a lot more complex than you’d think just by reading the stories. And Geoffrey McGeachin shows us that, at least a little, in a few of his stories. In Fat, Fifty and F***ed, banker Martin Carter meets up with a new-age biker gang that runs a very clean, well-kept motel and retirement home. Not at all a vicious gang. And in The Diggers Rest Hotel, Melbourne copper Charlie Berlin has his own share of encounters with a bike gang. He finds out there’s a lot more to those people than just roaring around on bikes, striking terror in people and causing trouble wherever they go.

There are a lot of other stereotyped characters I could mention, but space won’t allow it. Besides, I’m sure that you can suggest more than I ever could, anyway. At least we have some well-written crime fiction to clear up those misconceptions…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blank Uhuru’s Solidarity.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Donna Leon, Geoffrey McGeachin, Kate Grenville, Kerry Greenwood, Scott Young, Steff Penney, Susan Kelly, Tony Hillerman

26 responses to “Don’t Believe Everything You Hear*

  1. Col

    I think the stand-out for me with the shattering of stereotypes is John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night. More in the eyes of some of the other characters, than the readers.

  2. LOL — Stereotypes about professions such as psychiatrists (the shrink) and accountants (the pencil pusher) make us expect boring when novels often show they’re anything but. Consider “The Vampire Shrink” by Lynda Hilburn which is (in my opinion) ought to be classified as paranormal suspense, and Meyer the economist sidekick of Travis McGee. And those bankers and accountants in Christopher Reich’s thrillers — they’re definitely not the boring guys one would expect “pencil pushers” to be.

    • You’re absolutely right, Pat! Admittedly I’ve not read the Hilburn. But the others are terrific examples of how crime fiction puts paid to those stereotypes. Glad you mentioned Meyer, by the way; I think he’s a great character.

  3. For those particularly interested in books featuring Wicca, and set in the present, one just published, which is an excellent police procedural, is Lin Anderson’s excellent The Silent Dead. It’s up for Scottish Crime Novel Of The Year – shortlist of six.

  4. I’m half asleep! Repetition, crimeworm, repetition! – as my primary school teacher used to shout. Just to clarify – that’s the Bloody Scotland Scottish Crime Novel Of The Year. In case anyone thinks there are lots of Scottish crime fiction prizes – there aren’t. Although they do do well in crime prizes generally, this is for books by a Scottish born or resident author, and/or set primarily in Scotland. It’s only four or so years old. I thought I’d read a couple – but in fact I’ve read none of them, due to the vagaries of publishing date qualifications. I have reviewed others by the same authors (and the same series, in two cases) though, particularly recently. Thank goodness I actually NOTICED that before I got to Bloody Scotland (thanks Margot, however tangentially!) – don’t want to congratulate someone on the wrong book! Although it’d definitely be worse congratulating the wrong author…;-(

    • It would indeed, Crimeworm. I’m actually very glad you’ve mentioned Bloody Scotland. I must admit I’ve not (yet) had the chance to go and see for myself, but it really sounds like a terrific festival. I really do hope to get there someday. You’re right about Scottish authors, too; they are well-represented among award winners. And I do think the Anderson sounds like a really interesting read.

  5. I wonder what the blogger stereotype would be? Are we all computer-bound geeks? Hang on a minute, perhaps I am…

  6. Margot: I think of how lawyers are often stereotyped depending on whether the “hero” lawyer is a prosecutor or defender. If the former then defence counsel are sleazy hacks only in it for the money. If the latter then prosecutors are persecutors acting with utter disregard to the rules of court. One of the many reasons I admire Robert Rotenberg’s legal mysteries is that the prosecutors and defenders are each portrayed in positive and negative ways.

    • You really have a well-taken point, Bill. I don’t often find legal novels where both sides are portrayed as both good and bad, with both competent and incompetent attorneys doing the work. I agree with your other point, too, that the way a group of characters is stereotyped (in your example, lawyers) depends on whose point of view is expressed in a story. That’s a reason I like Rotenberg’s work: you really do get to see both sides in action. It’s balanced, if that makes sense.

  7. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Years ago, I hung with a notorious biker gang. They were kind and generous to me, but… Anyway, I think I’d really enjoy The Diggers Hotel and Fat, Fifty, and F***d. <- what a title!

    • Isn’t that a great title, Sue? And that one and The Diggers Rest Hotel are both fantastic books. McGeachin is a gifted author, and a gracious, generous, friendly person too. I didn’t know that you ran with a biker gang; I’m sure you’ve got lots of stories to tell. Or write…

      • I don’t publicize it, but yes, I even lived with two of the presidents (at separate times, of course). Yup. I’ve got many stories, but most will have to be weaved into my stories very carefully so as not to step on toes, if you know what I mean. 🙂

  8. Margot, I always thought of Russian cops and spies as being cold and,hard-hearted, as opposed to their American or British counterparts, till I read Cruz Smith’s depiction of Arkady Renko. Renko is very much a product of that stereotype but you know he is different from the rest of his kind. His character is intense and he comes with layers of baggage that he can’t shed, and yet he endears himself to the reader.

    • Oh, that’s a terrific example of what I had in mind with this post, Prashant – thank you. Renko certainly puts the lie to the stereotype of the cold, unfeeling Russian cop. So, by the way, does William Ryan’s Alexei Korelev. I recommend that series if you get the chance.

  9. Kathy D.

    The Vampire Shrink? The mind is still boggled. The visuals alone. Think of a vampire, fangs showing, blood on his chin, lying on a long couch with a therapist taking notes. And what protects the shrink?
    What is the vampire saying? “I want to drink your blood because your bills are so high!”
    I only know a joke about a Jewish vampire which doesn’t help here.

  10. Really interesting look at this topic Margot. In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly there’s going to be a fortune teller at the local fete, and someone says ‘don’t make her a gypsy, everyone hates gypsies in agricultural areas’. Christie isn’t giving her own view, but she is probably very accurately describing others’ prejudices and stereotyping.

    • Oh, I think so, too, Moira. And thanks for the kind words. In fact, I almost mentioned that scene as an example of the prejudice. There wasn’t space, so I’m very glad you filled in that gap.

  11. Kathy D.

    Actually, I was thinking of the vampire client, not therapist. So, does the “vampire shrink” take payment in involuntary blood donations? Wild.
    Glad you brought up Wiccans, hadn’t thought of them. Like Meroe in Corinna Chapman’s books.
    The Silent Dead sounds like a good one, hope to hear more about it from readers in Scotland.
    And the Roma, need to hear more about them.
    Harry Hole deals with a jailed Roma gangster with whom he plays chess, and the detective makes some very sympathetic comments about the Roma in Nemesis, a great thriller.

    • I’d actually like to read more about the Roma people too, Kathy. And thanks for reminding me of Nemesis and of Harry Hole. Another example of crime fiction that dispels stereotypes. About Meroe? I like her very much, too.

  12. Very interesting post, Margot. I love it when crime fiction explores various prejudices and stereotypes. No matter how we try, we all have some prejudices and assumptions based on stereotypes.

    • Thanks, Tracy. And I think you’re right. We may not like to think about it, but we all do have those stereotypes. Crime fiction helps show us what they are and how they impact us.

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