Culture is very deeply ingrained into the way we look at the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we naturally feel more comfortable with people who understand our culture, at least somewhat, and can operate effectively within it. Even subtle aspects of culture, such as physical distance between speakers or the ‘right’ formulaic expressions, can make interactions go more smoothly. In fact, research shows that those pragmatic things are more important than things such as accent, pronunciation, or standard grammar when it comes to social interaction.
If you travel outside your own culture, you’ve probably already experienced that bit of camaraderie when you know how to order the kind of coffee you want, or the ‘right’ thing to do about tipping. You may not know a lot of the language, or you may have a different accent, but those little cultural things can still make you feel more welcome.
Crime fiction is full of incidents like this, which shouldn’t be surprising considering how small our world has become. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll be able to add many more than I ever could.
Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia takes place mostly at an archaeological dig site and expedition team house a few hours from Baghdad. The dig is being led by noted expert Eric Leidner. He’s brought his wife Louise along, and she’s been having a great deal of difficulty since their arrival. In fact, Leidner decides to hire a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to attend to his wife, who claims to see hands tapping at her window and has other fears. One afternoon, Louise Leidner is murdered in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to look into the case. At first, Nurse Leatheran is not inclined towards much confidence in Poirot, and at least part of her concern is that he’s not English. Her view begins to change when Poirot insists that she have tea with him and Dr. Reilly, who first introduced her to Leidner.
‘‘Oh, no doctor,’ I protested. ‘I couldn’t think of such a thing.’
Poirot gave me a little friendly tap on the shoulder. Quite an English tap, not a foreign one.
‘You, ma soeur, will do as you are told,’ he said.’
Nurse Leatheran agrees, and as she gets to know Poirot a little, she sees that even though he’s not English, he does understand the culture well enough to put her at her ease.
In Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, we are introduced to ex-pat American Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, who’s now living in Bangkok. Rafferty is a rough travel writer, who’s written some popular books on adventure travel in different places. He’s also gotten a reputation for being able to find people who don’t want to be found. And that’s why Clarissa Ulrich wants to hire him. She’s always been close to her Uncle Claus, who lives in Bangkok. But she hasn’t heard from him for a few months, and has gotten concerned about him. She’s heard that Rafferty is good at finding people. And even though she’s Australian and he’s American, they have more in common culturally than she feels she has with the Thai culture. Rafferty understands the local culture and speaks Thai, so he’s well-suited for the job. One lead on this case takes Rafferty to the home of a very wealthy and enigmatic older woman named Madame Wing. She agrees to give Rafferty information he wants if he’ll do a job for her. Soon, he finds that both cases are much more involved and dangerous than he thought.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, private detective Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Andrea Curtin. She is an ex-pat American who moved to Botswana when her husband took a position there. When it was time to return to the US, their son decided to stay, and joined an eco-commune there. When he died, the police reported that he was probably killed by a wild animal, but his mother has always wanted to know the real truth. She wants closure, and asks Mma. Ramotswe to find out what happened to her son. Here’s Mma. Ramotswe’s reaction to her new client:
‘The woman took her hand, correctly, Mma. Ramotswe noticed, in the proper Botswana way, placing her left hand on her right forearm as a mark of respect. Most white people shook hands very rudely, snatching just one hand and leaving the other hand free to perform all sorts of mischief. This woman had at least learned something about how to behave.’
Andrea Curtin’s understanding of the local culture, even if she doesn’t speak all of the different languages, puts Mma. Ramotswe more at her ease, and helps to create a rapport between the two women.
In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was volunteering at New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she jumped, or fell, or was pushed from the roof of the building where she was living. Delbeck has never believed the suicide explanation, and he wants Keeney to find out the truth. So she travels to Pattaya to get some answers. Part of the trail leads to a bar frequented by American military personnel, and Keeney goes there to follow up. She soon finds herself needing to make a quick escape from an overzealous contact and manages to do so, only to end up in another predicament when she blunders into a room where a group of kratoey, ‘ladyboys,’ are preparing for a pageant:
‘Jane had to think fast.
‘Younger sisters,’ she said with a wai, ‘my name is Jayne. There’s a tall, dark, handsome Marine chasing me and I don’t want anything to do with him. I need to hide fast. Can you help me?’
There was a moment’s stunned silence as they took in Jayne’s ability to speak Thai, her flattering form of address, and the implications of her predicament. Then the room burst into a flurry of activity.’
The beauty queens help Jayne, not least because she understands the culture well enough to behave in the ‘correct’ way within it.
There’s also Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home, which introduces DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira, of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit. They are called in to investigate when there’s a fire in a shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. In the ruins of the shed is the body of a man who was very likely a foreigner. If that’s true, then this might be a hate crime; hence Zigic and Ferreira’s involvement. Zigic is third-generation English; Ferreira is originally Portuguese. Ferreira has learned the English way of doing things, and knows how to operate within the culture well enough to have gained some acceptance. Yet she still maintains some of her own culture, and her fluency in Portuguese turns out to be useful in this case. Her case is an interesting example that shows how immigrants and those with immigrant backgrounds can find more acceptance if they understand how to operate within their new culture. At the same time, this doesn’t mean at all that simply knowing some cultural nuances will automatically mark someone as ‘one of us.’
There are a lot of other examples of crime-fictional characters who’ve mastered some of the nuances of another culture (I know, I know, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte). It’s an important skill to have if you want to fit in within a culture that’s not your own. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Consider Yourself.