Looking For the New World*

ColonialismOne of the factors that’s shaped our lives in profound ways has been what I’ll call cultural domination. It’s also been called empire-building, imperialism, and expansionism, among other things. Whatever you call it, it’s had a lasting impact on both/all cultures involved. And, interestingly, just about every culture has been a colony at some point in time; many have also created colonies of their own.

The process has been going on for millennia, and we see its effects in crime fiction, just as we do in real life. There are so many instances that it would be impossible for me to mention them all. But here are a few examples; I know that you’ll think of others.

Many people think of England as an empire-builder, and it certainly has been (more on that shortly). But of course, it’s also been a colony, During the Roman Empire, what we now think of as England was the Roman province of Britannia. To the north was Caledonia (today’s Scotland), and to the west was Hibernia (today’s Northern Ireland and Irish Republic). Lindsey Davis’ A Body in the Bathhouse gives readers a look at the UK and Ireland of that time. In that novel, her sleuth, Marcus Didius Falco, travels to Britannia with his family. He’s there on commission from Emperor Vespasian, with orders to investigate a building project that’s been running late, and over budget. The project involved building a granary and supply station for the Roman army, as well as a home and bathhouse for the local British chieftain, Togidumnus. It seems clear that there’s corruption involved, and Falco’s mission is to get to its source. He finds himself involved in a case of murder, though, when Pomponius, the chief architect on the project, is found murdered in the newly-built bathhouse. You can still see Roman palaces, baths, roads and so on in Fishbourne, Bath, and other places in England.

England went on to become an empire-builder, too, and that impact is still felt today. In Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, for instance, readers follow the lives of London bargeman William Thornhill and his family. In 1806, he’s caught stealing a load of wood and is sentenced to transportation to Australia. Thornhill, his wife Sal, and their children arrive at Sydney Cove and try to start life again. Sal opens a makeshift pub, while Thornhill earns a living working for Thomas Blackwood on Blackwood’s boat The River Queen. When Thornhill finds the perfect piece of land by the Hawkesbury River, he persuades a reluctant Sal to relocate. There’ve been people in that area for many thousands of years, and Thornhill and other settlers are going to have to deal with the fact that the indigenous people were there first. Not all of them are willing to do that; and of course, the indigenous people are none too pleased at the newcomers who are claiming the land and making no effort to acknowledge those who already live there. As you can imagine, this leads to some brutal crime.

The impact of this cultural domination is still felt, as we see in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary, which takes place in contemporary Brisbane. One plot thread of that novel concerns a land dispute between the Corrowa people and a development company, both of which lay claim to Meston Park. Judge Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa people, and not many hours later, he’s killed. Then there are other murders, each of someone involved in the case against the claim. Police officers Jason Matthews and Andrew Higgins investigate; as they do, we see the influence both of empire-building and of the Aboriginal people.

Seán Haldane’s The Devil’s Making takes place in 1868/69 Victoria, British Columbia. Chad Hobbes has recently finished his studies at Oxford, and has come to Victoria armed with a letter of introduction to the Governor. That letter results in his appointment to the position of police constable. For the most part, the job consists of such things as settling drunken quarrels and, sometimes, removing prostitutes from the area. Then, the body of Richard McCrory is discovered. At first, it looks to be an easy case. The victim had been involved with Lukswaas, a member of the Tsimshian people. Her partner, Wiladzap, is a leader among the Tsimshian, and it’s assumed he murdered McCrory both as an act of vengeance and as a means of asserting his leadership. Wiladzap says he’s innocent and, as a matter of form, the police have to make a superficial attempt to seem fair. So Hobbes is given the task of asking questions of people who knew McCrory. The more he does so, the more he begins to believe that Wiladzap is telling the truth. In this novel, we see the impact of colonialism in several ways. There’s the British influence, of course. And there’s the influence of the Tsimshian people who were in the area first. There’s also the American influence, and the strong hint of American expansionism.

Tony Hillerman’s novels show clearly the impact of American colonialism on the Native Americans who were in the country first. In those novels, we see the way in which the dominant culture has impacted education, infrastructure and much, much more. But we also see the influence of the indigenous people on the dominant culture. Stan Jones’ Nathan Active novels, which take place in Alaska, show that mutual influence as well.

As you’ll already know, the British Empire also included, for many years, India. And there are lots of Golden Age crime fiction novels that include characters who served in the military in India. Sometimes they’re the subject of gentle ridicule; sometimes not. Either way, you can see how their experience there impacted them. And there’s plenty of Indian influence today in England. Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu novels capture that colonial experience in India. They take place in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai), where Le Fanu works among the various groups of people who live there. In his life, we see the influence of his own British background and the local culture within which he works. On the one hand, there are certain very English customs he retains. On the other, though, he’s adopted the local customs in other ways. He enjoys the local food, he’s adapted his schedule to accommodate the sometimes-intense heat, and so on.

Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper novels take place in 1950’s South Africa, a place with a long history of colonialism. Cooper himself is English. But in his work, he interacts quite a lot with the Afrikaners, who are, of course, descendants of Dutch colonists. He also works with the indigenous people. As he does, we see the strong influence in language, food, and other ways of colonialism. And what’s fascinating is that that influence doesn’t just work in one direction.

And that’s the thing about colonialism. Empire-building has, of course, deep and lasting effects on colonies. But those who build those empires are also heavily influenced by the places and cultures they encounter. I know there are many, many examples of colonialism in crime fiction that I haven’t mentioned here. Space doesn’t come near to acknowledging all of them. Over to you.

ps. The ‘photo is of John Hall’s engraving of Benjamin West’s painting, The Treaty of Penn With the Indians.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer.


Filed under Brian Stoddart, Kate Grenville, Lindsey Davis, Malla Nunn, Nicole Watson, Seán Haldane, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman

22 responses to “Looking For the New World*

  1. You only have to notice the number of Indian restaurants in the UK to know this is true.

  2. Fascinating post as always Margot and I only recently became aware of how often India is mentioned in those Golden Age novels but of course in the context of British history it is completely understandable why.

  3. ‘Lindsey Davis’ A Body in the Bathhouse’ I found most interesting, as Germans were under occupation of the same ‘imperium romanum’ aka Roman Empire. Our school-teaching involves a lot about that, and it makes us more able, though maybe not scientifically correct about it, to imagine life in that ancient time.

    The complexity of the construction and the interlink with the army is a cute reminder, how many decisions are interwoven in our way of society, as we all seem to know it.

    And I smiled, when ‘India in its Colonial state’ was mentioned once again, for it is a historical period of interest and your legitimate pick of favorite background in one! Do it your way, Margot, all other ways cost the soul.

    I wish you a good night, and a gently energetic start into Monday!

    • Your comment is a reminder, André, that there really are similarities in humans, even though they live in different places and at different times.I think that’s one important reason for which people should read history (and fiction, too, for the matter of that).

      As to Stoddart’s British Raj-Era novels, I really do think they capture the period well. And the plots and characters are well-drawn, too. So why not mention them again? 🙂

  4. Margot: Stephen Legault in the Third Riel Conspiracy is set at the time of the 1885 Rebellion near where I live in Saskatchewan. It was a revolt of the Metis (French/Indian) and some Indians against the government of Canada. They felt their land and way of life were being taken away from them. The book deals with the turbulence of the transition in Western Canada from an indigenous land to a white society.

    • I’m so glad you reminded me of that book, Bill, It’s been on my radar since your post on it. I still haven’t read it (shame on me!), but I will, and I appreciate the reminder. It’s an excellent example, too, of the consequences of colonialism.

  5. Interestingly enough, one of the last panels I attended at the Quais du Polar yesterday was precisely about Old Continents, New Worlds… and one French author Colin Niel talked about his books set in French Guyana (but also neighbouring Brazil and Suriname) and the impact of colonialism, greed for land, civil wars and cultural domination in that area.

    • What timing, Marina Sofia! And I’m especially glad you mentioned that panel, because I didn’t have the space in this post to look at colonialism in that part of the world, and the impact on it. I’ll bet that panel was absolutely fascinating.

  6. Margot, the joke is that there isn’t a place on earth where there is no Indian, or even an Indian restaurant where you can eat spicy curry and butter chicken. The “colonial” influence on India is visible and prominent to this day, in language, culture, and other ways of Western life. I spend a few hours every month browsing through nonfictional books, mostly historical and cultural, written by the English during their occupation of the country. These are all in the public domain. Most of these books have a favourable view of India. I think the English took pains to understand the country, its people, and their culture. Who can forget Rudyard Kipling?

    • I like that joke, Prashant – thanks for sharing. And thanks for your perspective on the impact of colonialism on India. The education system, the language, and much more have all been impacted by the English occupation, and I would imagine you still see it everywhere. I’m glad that most of the books that you’ve read have taken a positive perspective on India. And you’re right; it makes all the difference in the world when there’s a real effort to understand a culture and a people.

  7. England’s reach, in particular, was massive. I remember many books featuring India and Indian influences (even non-mysteries like Secret Garden, one of my favorites as a child) and books also set in India. It lent such a fascinating setting/texture to the books.

    • It sure did, Elizabeth. And you know, I’d completely forgotten about literature such as The Secret GardenA Little Princess, too. They’re great example to show that the influence of colonialism really wasn’t just one way.

  8. I was thinking of Tony Hillerman as I started reading. I also thought of the books by W. Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear.

  9. Thank you – this was fascinating. It made me thing of the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott, a brilliant series of books brilliantly adapted for TV. Although not a crime series per se quite a few crimes are committed in it!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Vicky. Thanks also for the suggestion of Scott’s work. Certainly it fits in beautifully with the topic, and I appreciate that gap being filled in. Interesting isn’t it how people think of one novel/series or another as a ‘crime story/series’ or ‘not a crime story/series.’ So many novels that we think of in other categories have crimes in them; and so many crime novels have elements of the literary novel, the romance, the science fiction novel, or something else. Sometimes I think those boundaries are quite blurred.

  10. tracybham

    I look forward to trying Malla Nunn’s books. And amazingly, I have not yet read anything by Tony Hillerman.

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