Species 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.