In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Death, Hercule Poirot agrees to investigate a series of odd occurrences and strange petty thefts at a hostel for students. When one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits that she was responsible for some of the thefts, it’s believed that the matter is settled. Everything changes, though, when she dies two days later, an apparent suicide. It’s soon proven to be murder, though, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who is guilty. At one point, Sharpe and Poirot have a conversation about the residents:
‘‘You met some of them the other night and I wondered if you could give me any useful dope, on the foreigners, anyway.’
‘You think I am a good judge of foreigners? But, mon cher, there were no Belgians amongst them.’
‘No Belg- Oh, I see what you mean! You mean that as you’re a Belgian, all the other nationalities are as foreign to you as they are to me. But that’s not quite true, is it? I mean you probably know more about the Continental types than I do – though not the Indians and the West Africans and that lot.’’
Among other things, this conversation shows the challenge police face when the cases they investigate involve people from different cultures. Even police who aren’t particularly culturally sensitive know that they’ll get more information about a case if they have a connection of some kind to the community/culture in which the crime occurred.
Another thing this exchange shows is that when that sort of cultural ‘reaching out’ is not done with some thought and insight, it simply doesn’t work very well. In this case, for instance, it doesn’t occur to Inspector Sharpe (at least at first) that you can’t group people under the ‘umbrella’ category of ‘Continental types.’ Each European culture is a little different, and has a different language and world view. So it makes little sense to expect that Poirot would be any more knowledgeable about, say, the Dutch students at the hostel than Sharpe is.
We see this kind of duality, if you will, in other crime fiction, too. On the one hand, there’s the understanding that a certain kind of ‘cultural bridge’ will help solve crimes. On the other, sometimes it’s done in a sort of ‘top down’ way, by people who don’t have a lot of understanding themselves, so that it doesn’t work the way it was intended to work.
Fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte will know that part of the reason he is so successful as a sleuth is that he has a deep understanding of the Aboriginal communities within his jurisdiction (and sometimes, outside of it). More than that, he has a deep understanding of the ‘book of the land.’ He reads nature and natural cues very well. So in that sense, the Queensland Police’s choice to have a half White/half Aboriginal police detective gives them a real edge in solving crime. Bony can be accepted by both the White and the Aboriginal communities. But at the same time, he sometimes uses very unconventional approaches to solving crime. And from the perspectives of some of his superiors, that’s not always a good thing. So he sometimes has difficulty doing the very thing he’s been hired to do, because of the people who hired him to do it.
Eva Dolan’s DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira are a part of the Peterborough Hate Crimes unit. In this case, members of the top brass know that it’s the politically ‘right thing to do’ to have a multicultural staff. And they want media and public support. At the same time, someone who’s too ‘different’ may not fit in with the department or with the public perception of the way police ‘should’ be. For this reason,
‘The ACC needed a foreign name to head up Hate Crimes, and he wanted it attached to a third-generation body. Someone just different enough.’
Zigic fits the bill, as third-generation English. And it’s very interesting to see how he and Ferreira negotiate the difference between the reality of life for immigrants (and of solving crimes that concern them), and the bureaucratic perception of what that process should be.
In Peter May’s Entry Island, we meet Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec, who’s based in Montréal. He gets a new assignment when James Cowell is murdered on Entry Island, one of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine/Magdalen Islands. Unlike the other islands, Entry Island is composed of English speakers, with a very different culture to the surrounding French-speaking, mostly Roman Catholic culture. Mackenzie’s family is of Scottish origin, and he’s a native speaker of English (although he speaks French quite fluently). So it’s believed he’ll be helpful as a sort of ‘bridge’ to the Entry Island people. He’s pragmatic enough to understand this; it’s one of the times when his being somewhat of an outsider is helpful. When he and the other members of the team get to the island, they begin the investigation. Almost instantly, Mackenzie feels a deep connection to the island, although he’s never been there. What’s more, when he meets the victim’s widow Kirsty, he is convinced he knows her, although they have never met. The investigation starts out as a sort of ‘rubber stamp,’ since the evidence seems to point to Kirsty as the killer. But Mackenzie becomes convinced she is innocent. As he searches for the real killer, he also has to make sense of the strong conviction he has that somehow, he is connected to this island.
It’s not just police departments that depend on these cultural liaisons. Businesses often do as well. For example, in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach, Bangkok-based PIs Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel are taking a few days of much-needed rest in Krabi. They’re especially impressed with their tour guide Chanida Manakit, an expert swimmer whose nickname is Pla. So they’re particularly distressed when they learn that her body has washed up in a cave. The official police report is that it was likely an accident. But both PIs know that she was far too good a swimmer for her death to have been an accident. So after some debate, they decide to stay in Krabi a bit longer to find out what happened to her. One thing they soon learn is that Miss Pla served as a kind of liaison for an environmental group. Her job was to attend meetings between a development company and local villagers, to articulate the villagers’ concerns and requests. The development company needed her help, so they could show they obey Thai law respecting new development in the area. The villagers were grateful for her presence too, because it allowed them to ‘save face’ by not appearing confrontational or ignorant. Miss Pla might have been useful, but she was also very vulnerable, since she found out some things it wasn’t safe for her to know.
There are a lot of other examples, too, of people who act as such cultural ‘bridges.’ Sometimes they work very well. Other times, they don’t work well at all. But either way, they can add interest to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Elton John song.