Teach Me to Be More Adaptive*

AdaptivenessSpecies do best when they can adapt to their surroundings. Species that don’t develop adaptations don’t tend to survive. That’s a basic part of the explanation for a lot of phenomena, from humans’ opposable thumbs to the spines on a cactus. Just take the fellow local resident you see in the ‘photo. These lizards are well adapted to living where I live. They don’t need a lot of water, they do exceptionally well in a fairly warm climate, and they move fast, too, so they’re less vulnerable. They’re even well-camouflaged, so they can hide from both predators and prey.

People need to adapt, too, of course, and I don’t just mean in the evolutionary sense. If you look at crime fiction, you can see all sorts of examples of characters who have to adapt to different environments. Some are successful and some aren’t. Either way, though, that process of adapting (or not adapting) can add an interesting layer of character development and tension to a crime novel.

Adaptation, of course, doesn’t necessarily have to mean a character changes everything. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for instance, has lived in London for many years. His first language isn’t English, but he speaks it quite fluently. He’s adapted to English customs, too, and understands the nuances of life in England. But that doesn’t mean he’s completely changed. He isn’t much of a one for the custom of tea (well, at least not as it was at the time Christie was writing):

“If one partakes of the five o’clock, one does not,’ he explained, ‘approach the dinner with the proper quality of expectant gastric juices. And the dinner, let us remember, is the supreme meal of the day!”

There are other ways, too, in which he has not stopped being Belgian. But I think one could safely say he’s adapted (I know, I know, fans of Nicolas Freeling’s Arlette Van der Valk).

Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels take place mostly on the Navajo Reservation, where people have had to adapt to the desert climate – not an easy task. Leaphorn and Chee have had to make other adaptations, too, in order to function within the dominant US culture. In fact, Leaphorn attended a high school where,

‘The word was, give up the old ways or die.’ 

So Leaphorn did. He still identifies as a Navajo, and respects his people’s traditions. He’s thoroughly adapted to desert life, too, and is well able to deal with its harshness. But he’s quite secular, and his customs are more dominant-culture than Navajo. For his part, Chee hasn’t adapted in quite the same way, although he certainly functions well within the dominant culture. In fact, he has more than one opportunity to join the FBI and other dominant-culture law-enforcement agencies. But Chee is Navajo and doesn’t really belong anywhere else. He’s more traditional in his thinking than Leaphorn, and that makes for an interesting contrast between the two.

Eva Dolan’s DS Melinda ‘Mel’ Ferreira, whom we first meet in Long Way Home, is a member of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit. She’s originally from Portugal, although she’s been living in England for quite some time. She’s had to adapt to much more than the English language (although she certainly speaks it fluently). She’s also had to adapt to all sorts of other English ways, and it hasn’t been easy for her. For one thing, her schoolmates didn’t make life particularly easy. For another, she lives with her parents, who in some ways, have retained their own customs (although her father is determined to assimilate, and uses British wit to try to do so). Ferreria has at times had her issues with life in England, but she’s adjusted, and does her job well.

In Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Crhis’ Le Fanu series, we see an interesting contrast in the way people adapt (or don’t) to a different environment. The series takes place in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai) during the British Raj. Le Fanu is English, and in some ways, he retains his ‘Englishness.’ But he’s adapted effectively to life in India. He’s made adjustments for the very different climate, he enjoys the local food, and so on. He’s also learned to work with the local people to do his job. Here’s an example from A Strait Settlement:

‘A senior official eating local food and mixing with Indians bucked the normal pattern.’

By contrast, the series also features Arthur Jepson, Madras Commissioner of Police. In several ways, he is Le Fanu’s nemesis, and is all too eager to sabotage him in any way possible. But beyond that, Jepson hasn’t adapted to life in India. He certainly doesn’t mix with the locals, enjoy the local food, or in other ways adjust. And it’s interesting to see the different ways in which the two men react to the environment.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to secondary school teacher Ilse Klein and her mother Gerda. They moved from Leipzig in then-East Germany to New Zealand when Ilse was a child. For Gerda, the move represented escape from the Stasi – the East German secret police. Ever grateful to her adopted home, she adjusted to life there, and so did her husband, who’s since died. She remembers what it was like to live under the East German regime, and is very glad she’s adapted to life in New Zealand. Ilse, on the other hand, left Leipzig when she was too young to really appreciate how dangerous it was to live there. She has a different perspective on the situation, and didn’t adapt as easily to New Zealand. Her point of view makes for an interesting contrast to that of her mother. Both views play their roles when Ilse becomes concerned about a pupil, Serena Freeman, who seems to have disengaged from school. What’s especially worrisome is that Serena was one of the most promising students in Ilse’s class, so her detachment marks a major change. Matters get even worse when Serena disappears…

There are plenty of other examples – more than I have space for here – of crime-fictional situations where characters have to adapt. Some do so relatively easily, and some not so easily. Either way, adaptation can add a layer to a crime novel.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s Green Finch and Linnet Bird.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Eva Dolan, Nicolas Freeling, Paddy Richardson, Tony Hillerman

18 responses to “Teach Me to Be More Adaptive*

  1. Observation: Failures to adapt (especially to society’s norms) leads too often to criminal behaviors (disrupting stasis); the sleuth’s challenge is to restore balance (stasis) to society by eliminating the criminal.

    • That’s a fascinating way to conceive of it, Tim. As humans, we want stasis, equilibrium, whatever you want to call it. When there’s a crime, that disrupts that balance/stasis. The sleuth’s investigation restores it. And you have a well-taken point, too, that crime can be the result when someone doesn’t adapt to what society expects.

  2. A.M. Pietroschek

    Adaptation is a crucial survival mechanism, and I agree on your personal insights about it, too. Still I wouldn’t be me, if I wouldn’t know how many egomaniacs, in example among publishers & competing authors, have a habit of meaning ‘submission to their own abusive egomania’ with every term they coin…

    Luckily I know my host well enough to exclude such here. Your examples were good, and once more covered a broader spectrum. Hate crimes though reinforce the observation R.T. (Tim) nearly literally in plenty of cases. Racism is a disruptive force to the modern normalcy which attempts integration and mutual tolerating.

    It does not belong here, but I hope you are living in that warmer climate by choice, and not due job-demands alone.

    My regards


    • You have a well-taken point, André, that adaptation is necessarily for survival. Since it is so important, it’s fascinating that humans don’t always show adaptive skills, either as individuals or as a whole. Your example of racism, and Tim’s of crime, show that humans don’t always behave in an adaptive way.

  3. Totally agree, Margot. In the novel I’m reading now, A Thousand Yesteryears, where the protagonist must learn to re-adapt to her home town, which was destroyed by a devastating event. She’d been living in the city and returned after the death of a family member.

    • Oh, that sounds like a really interesting premise, Sue! And it certainly sets up a situation where someone does have to make (re)adjustments and (re)adaptations.

  4. I have Swimming in the Dark (another one I must read) – I like the sound of the different points of view to the move between the parents and child to the move to New Zealand – I really must read it now!

    • I recommend it highly, Cleo. I admit I’m biased, as Paddy Richardson is one of my top-choice authors. But even so, it’s an excellent novel, I think. If you do read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  5. We all have to adapt to new situations (when we move to a new job, or get married, or have a child) but the situations above are extreme changes to adapt to. Very interesting, Margot.

    • Thanks, Tracy. And you’re right about adapting. People are often faced with new situations, and that means adapting. Those who can’t do that are at a real disadvantage.

  6. Kathy D.

    Agree about Eva Dolan’s books and her adaptive characters.
    Another good series with an adaptive character is the Anna Fegete books by Kati Heikkapelto, from Finland. Protagonist is a Hungarian woman who emigrated as a child from Serbia. Anna thinks of her family and homeland but functions as a police detective within Finland’s legal system.
    The Hummingbird and The Defenceless are excellent. I look forward to the third book.

  7. Margot, I’m thinking of James Bond. Is there a place, culture, situation or climate he doesn’t adapt to naturally? And live to tell the tale each time. Quite unbelievable really!

  8. There’s a tradition in English GA mysteries of the incomer in the village, who will try to fit in but find it hard to be accepted – and will still be the newbie 20 years later. I remember funny scenes with a ‘lady bountiful’ type, and the cheery locals saying ‘means well but we just pay no mind to her’ – and this trope even features a little in yours and my mutual favourite, Rendell’s Judgement in Stone, much more recently. You can’t adapt yourself to an English village very easily…

    • That’s quite true, Moira, about the newcomer to the village. Of course, you’re quite right about A Judgement in Stone. And your comment also made me think of Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, as Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna try to make a life in their new home. It’s quite clear that they simply Are Not One Of Us.

  9. I would actually disagree about James Bond adapting to the different cultures he finds himself in – he plays the ‘English gentleman’ card remarkably well, and does very little to pretend to be part of another culture (although he supposedly understands the others quite well). I think he’s a good commentary on foreign policy in the UK in a certain time period.

    Another favourite subject of mine – and how difficult it is to be so adapted to the new environment that you can never go back to the old one…

    • Oh, now that’s an interesting point, Marina Sofia! It is, I think, possible to be so adapted to a new environment that you can’t go back to the old one. That, too, can add an interesting layer to a character, and of course, tension to a novel. I may have to do a post on that sometime, so thanks for the inspiration.

      As to James Bond, you have an interesting take on him. He certainly manages to get on in any culture he visits, but as you say, that doesn’t stop him being English. And a really interesting analogy to the UK’s foreign policy. Lots of ‘food for thought,’ so thanks!

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s