It’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.