We Can Learn From Each Other*

Cultural NexusOne of the plot threads in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead concerns the Andalusia Museum, a Toronto facility which is designed to celebrate the nexus of cultures in the Spanish region of Andalusia, especially during the Islamic Empire. Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty take an interest in the place when they investigate the murder of a major donor. It’s run by Mink Norman, who is passionate about that nexus. Here’s what she says about it:

‘‘Moorish architects designing a Jewish place of worship on Christian soil. Can you imagine such a sharing of religious space today?’’

That’s a very clear example of the way a variety of different cultures co-existed in that place at that time. And what’s interesting is, they didn’t just co-exist. They shared ideas and learned from each other. It wasn’t a question of members of different cultures who lived in the same city; you can see that in a lot of large, modern cities. Instead, it was a place where the cultures really blended.

Andalusia is a powerful example of a nexus of cultures, but it’s not the only one. And it’s very interesting to see how that sort of blending of cultures is portrayed in crime fiction. It can make for a compelling and interesting setting.

The region where I live, in Southern California, is arguably such a place. There’s a really interesting interconnection here of the traditional Spanish ‘mission’ culture, the more modern Mexican culture, and the dominant US culture. There are other influences,too. If you’ve been in this area, you’ve probably noticed it yourself. And there are several crime fiction authors who capture that blend in their work. For example, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch goes to several different places in Southern California as a part of the cases he works. In The Black Ice, he goes to the border towns of Calexico (California) and Mexicali (Mexico) in search of answers about the death of a fellow police officer, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. In fact, as we learn in the novel, Moore himself is a product of that nexus. You can also see this cultural blend in the work of Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer lives and works in the same area.

Another place where one can see that sort of infusion of many cultures is in the US state of Louisiana. As you’ll no doubt know, one group of people who’ve had a profound influence there is the Acadians, French speakers who were exiled from the eastern provinces of Canada. Today they’re known as Cajuns, and their language, music, food and culture are an important part of, especially, the southern parts of Louisiana. Just ask James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux. He’s a Cajun who works for the New Iberia Police, and in the novels that feature him, we see a great deal of that culture. But we also see the other cultures that have blended into that part of Louisiana. For instance, there’s the influence of voodoo and other spiritual influence from Africa and the Caribbean (I invite you to check A Morning For Flamingos for interesting mentions of that). There are also many, many characters in the novels who are members of the black culture that has also profoundly influenced the region. There are other influences, too, and they’ve all contributed to the unique way of life there.

Shamini Flint’s series features Singapore-based Inspector Singh. He is a Sikh, although he doesn’t exactly observe the religion to the letter. Malaysia, where Singh lives, is another fascinating example of a nexus of cultures. There is influence from India (Singh even travels to India in A Curious Indian Cadaver). There is also Dutch influence, dating from the time of European exploration. There’s also a lot of influence from China (that link is clear in A Calamitous Chinese Killing). These and other cultures have all played important roles in life in Malaysia, and that’s evident in this series.

Another place where we see that sharing of cultures is Cape Town. There is Dutch influence (it was a Dutch colony), and English influence, too. There’s also indigenous influence from the people who were always there, and from indigenous groups who came later. There’ve also been many contributions from French Huguenots who made their way there as a result of religious wars in France. Despite apartheid, those different cultures influenced each other, learned from each other, and so on. We see that particular nexus in Deon Meyer’s work. In Meyer’s Benny Griessel novels and his standalones, we see that blending. Fans of Roger Smith’s work will know that we can also see what a cultural crucible Cape Town is in those stories.

There are other places, too, where different cultures have co-existed, have learned from one another and have benefited from the interactions. In those cases, the whole of a place is much more than the sum of its parts, as you might say. That certainly isn’t to say that it happens without tension, and even conflict – quite the contrary at times. But over time, and in the larger sense, that sort of co-existence can lead to a unique sort of setting. And it can serve as a fascinating context for a crime novel. Which ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hooters’ All Around the Place.


Filed under Ausma Zehanat Khan, Deon Meyer, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Roger Smith, Ross Macdonald, Shamini Flint

28 responses to “We Can Learn From Each Other*

  1. Consider the topic from a different angle: novels featuring settings/cultures resistant to outsiders and outside influences. Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlendur novels, to my mind, stand out as examples of that type. Perhaps there are others where the people, society, and culture are a bit xenophobic and nativist.

  2. Col

    I do like Roger Smith’s work.

  3. A.M. Pietroschek

    I think Malta & Sicily are underestimated. The first due the role as airport in the last World War, and the Second due the Mafia-Cliche.

    The United Kingdom and Scotland, too, have cultural blends few ever learned to appreciate. The zones where English, Irish, Walisian and Scottish culture learned and grew are near-legendary.

    I am ill-termed on this, meaning no disrespect, just busy being a half-educated part time moron:

    The Ex-Russian States which are no Free States have several proudly independent and quite successful ones. I think they deserve to be welcomed, as that old ‘Iron Curtain’ has been felled due both sides agreement on it being outdated.

  4. Margot: The Devil’s Making by Sean Haldane is set in Victoria, B.C. during the mid-1800’s. Within the book are interactions between the English settlers, the indigenous peoples adjusting to the white presence and Americans. Not surprisingly the three cultures do not mesh well.

    • No, you’re quite right, Bill. That’s a really interesting example of how members of different cultures can be in the same place, but not interact well and certainly not learn from each other.

  5. mudpuddle

    i don’t remember whether i mentioned james doss at some point… his books about charlie moon, the indian rancher, his great aunt(a sort of witch) and her familiar, having mysterious adventures with the local county sheriff as coinvestigtor (a white cowpoke type) shouldn’t be missed. an eclectic mix featuring ingenious plots and unusual writing style. they take place in southern colorado(i think-the locale is not pinpointed in the books…). he recently passed away but is fondly remembered by his devotees….

    • Oh, that sounds like an interesting series, Mudpuddle. And Colorado has a really interesting blend of cultures. There are the indigenous people, dominant-culture white Americans, and many members of the Mexican culture, too.

  6. Izzo’s Marseille trilogy captures the flavoursome, and often troublesome mix of cultures and points of view in France’s second-largest and perhaps most cosmopolitan city. Jakob Arjouni describes a Frankfurt far less monochrome or monocultural than most of us imagine, starting of course with his detective, good old Kemal Kayankaya. And you just know that I am going to mention Louise Penny’s Three Pines, which is a mix of anglophone, francophone and all sorts of eccentric characters.

    • I couldn’t imagine you not mentioning Three Pines, Marina Sofia. There is a great mix of cultures there, more than one might think, isn’t there. And I really must spotlight one of Izzo’s novels, so I appreciate that you reminded me of them. And of Anjoumi’s work, too. You really have given us a good reminder that one can find that blending of cultures in all sorts of different places.

  7. Margot, I have read a couple of novels by Indian writers settled abroad and I found cross-cultures a dominant theme in both stories. In fact, the Indian diaspora is a recurring theme in most books written by Indian immigrants. I think it’s their way of holding on to their roots.

    • Oh, that’s really interesting, Prashant! There is definitely something about one’s own cultural background that can seem especially important if one’s living in another place. Fascinating!

  8. Kathy D.

    Different cultures in Australia, especially seen in the Emily Tempest series by terrific writer Adrian Hyland, and also in Nicole Watson’s “The Boundary.”
    And different cultures of immigrants in Finland, much not understood by the Finnish. See the Anna Fegete books, “The Hummingbird,” and “The Defenceless,” by Kati Heikkapelto.
    Also, intolerance of Muslim cultures in England by some “nativists.” This shown in Eva Dolan’s second book, “Twice Told Tales.”

  9. Arab Jazz by Karim Miske looks at the melting pot aspects of Paris – I thought it was terrific, a different city from the one tourists see. My favourite passage from the book is this:
    ‘Strangely they feel as though they’re carrying out this investigation as a threesome, rather than a twosome. An Ashkenhazi Jew, a spaced-out Breton and a loony Arab. The dream team of the nineteenth arrondissement! Now it’s time to play cops and robbers.’

    • That’s a great passage, Moira! Thanks for sharing. And you know, I almost included Arab Jazz here, but at the last moment, I didn’t. I’m really glad you added it in.

  10. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series sounds very interesting. I also want to read more of Deon Meyer’s books.

  11. Keishon

    Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead

    Read Barbara’s post about enjoying this author so I bought this book. Looking forward to reading it. Also, I haven’t had a good experience with Deon Meyer even though he’s revered in the mystery community. I’m still working on finding that mind blowing book of his so I can say I enjoy him as well. But then it could never happen. We’ll see 😉

    • No book is for everyone, Keishon, even if the author is well-regarded in the community. I really hope you’ll enjoy The Unquiet Dead when you get to it. That’s not an easy book to read, but there’s an awful lot to it.

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