To a Land of Opportunity*

immigrationOne of a country’s great strengths is arguably the talent, energy and intelligence of those who immigrate. Fresh ideas and other perspectives add richness to a country. Of course, there is no need for me to detail how difficult immigration can be. And I think we’re all familiar with the all-too-true horror stories of immigrants who’ve been mistreated or worse. There are plenty of crime fiction novels that have that motif, too.

But there are also stories of immigrants who’ve made good lives in their new homes, where both they and their adopted countries have benefited. Those stories, too, are important. And in crime fiction, they allow for all sorts of character development and plot twists, too. They also reflect reality in our world, where it’s increasingly easy to move from one country to another.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he is originally from Belgium. He came to England as a result of World War I, and quite frankly, hasn’t really looked back. There are things about life in Belgium that he no doubt misses; in general, though, he is content in his adopted home. Interestingly, apart from a few characters and remarks (I know, fans of Taken at the Flood), he’s been more or less accepted. He’s most definitely a foreigner, and treated differently sometimes for that reason. But he’s been accepted.

So has Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who immigrated to the United States from Montenegro when he was a young man. He’s become an American citizen, and has had a good experience in his new country. In fact, he’s grateful to the United States, and has done well.

One of the main characters in Anya Lipska’s series is Janusz Kiszka, who immigrated to London from his native Poland. Now he is a sort of ‘fixer’ in London’s Polish community. He knows how to get things done, whom to talk to, and so on. And he knows most of the other people in the community. So he proves to be very helpful to DC Natalie Kershaw. The two are very different, and certainly come from different cultural backgrounds. But they slowly learn to work together and trust each other. Kiszka is content with his Polish cultural identity. At the same time, though, he has no burning desire to return to Poland. His immigrant experience has been more or less a successful one, and he’s made a new life for himself in London.

We might say a similar thing about Gerda Klein, whom we meet in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Gerda and her husband, along with their daughter Ilse, emigrated from Leipzig, in the former East Germany, when Ilse was a child. They ended up on New Zealand’s South Island, in the small town of Alexandria, and made a good life for themselves. And New Zealand has been, in the main, welcoming to them. For that, Gerda is grateful, and she’s been more than content to stay in her adopted country, even after Germany’s reunification. Ilse, though, has a different perspective. She, too, has been treated well, and has made a good life for herself (she’s a secondary school teacher). But she was a child when the family left Leipzig, and doesn’t have the troubling memories of the Stasi (the East German secret police) that her mother has. Still, she likes New Zealand, and has done a fine job teaching. Her dedication is exactly why she starts to get concerned when one of her most promising pupils, Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. When she does come to class (which isn’t often), she doesn’t participate. And she doesn’t compete much schoolwork. Ilse grows even more worried when Serena disappears. And it turns out that she and her mother will get more drawn into what happened to Serena than either imagined.

In Three Little Pigs, Apostolos Doxiadis tells the story of the Franco family, who immigrated to New York from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco started out making a living as a shoemaker. As time went on, he and his family saved their money, adopted many American ways (they even changed their last name to Frank), and began to fit in. Ben opened his own shoe repair shop and shoe store, and the family prospered. In many ways, this family began to live what some people have called ‘the American dream.’ Everything changed when Ben got into a bar fight one night and ended up killing Luigi Lupo, who, as it turns out, was the son of a well-known criminal and member of the Mob, Tonio Lupo. This Lupo cursed the family, saying that each of Ben Frank’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, Luigi’s age when he was murdered. As we follow along with the family’s story, we see how the curse played out. We also see how that family became not Italian so much as Italian-Americans.

And then there’s Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club. In that novel, which takes place in 1950’s Auckland, we are introduced to Istvan Ziegler. He left his native Hungary after World War II, wanting to make a new life for himself. After a stop in London, he learns that there’s work available on a new bridge at Auckland Harbour, and decides to go there. He has no family, and there’s nothing really keeping him in Europe, so he takes a chance. When he arrives in Auckland, he starts work on the bridge. There are moments when things are more difficult for him because he’s a foreigner. But in general, he’s treated fairly and shows by his hard work that he can do the job. And that’s what really matters. Istvan soon finds himself drawn into complex and dangerous situation when he helps a young girl, Judith Curran, recover from a (then illegal) abortion. It turns out that that act gets him involved in a case that uncovers some truly ugly things going on just under the surface of this seemingly peaceful city.

There are plenty of other stories of fictional characters who’ve immigrated successfully, and of their families (right, fans of Anthony Bidulka’s Russel Quant?). That plot point offers the author some interesting opportunities for character development as well as for a sense of place and culture. There’s only space for a few examples here (I know, fans of Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel!). Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Pogues’ Thousands are Sailing.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Anya Lipska, Apostolos Doxiadis, Jen Shieff, Paddy Richardson, Rex Stout

18 responses to “To a Land of Opportunity*

  1. A.M. Pietroschek

    You reminded me of the wish to leave Germany forever… And of my private investigator license being just 200€ away… 😉

  2. Hmm, I’m trying to think of any private eyes I’m familiar with who might’ve immigrated, but coming up empty so far. I’m sure there must be a couple, but they’re hiding from me! 🙂

    • They’re certainly out there, Michael. For instance, there’s Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee, who wasn’t born in Canada, but has lived a lot of her life there, and considers herself as Canadian as she is Chinese. There are plenty of others, too. I’m actually glad you commented, because I meant to mention her in the post, but didn’t.

  3. The first one that comes to mind for me is Serge Morel, Anna Jaquiery’s Parisen cop who is the son of a French father and a Cambodian immigrée. Jaquiery’s novels also deal with the migrant experience as a theme.

    Similarly, PM Newton’s cop character, Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly is the daughter of an Irish-Australian father and Vietnamese-born mother, who migrated to Australia.

    Arguably all Australian police and detective characters other than Indigenous Australians have an element of the migrant in them. My impression is that second rather than first generation migrant characters seem more common here, but I haven’t subjected that theory to rigorous study.

    • Really interesting, Angela. And thanks very much for adding so much to this discussion. I really like Serge Morel as a character; and you’re right, Jaquiery’s work does deal with immigration as a theme, and she handles it quite well. And your mention of Newton was, of course, right on the money, for which thanks.

      As I think about it, there are second-generation migrants in US crime fiction, too. I’m thinking of S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin, among others. Perhaps that’s something the two countries’ crime fiction have in common? I’m very much enjoying this speculation.

  4. Can’t think of any first generation immigrant detectives but of course Rebus is from an immigrant family – Polish – and since it was his grandfather I’m guessing that was a wartime immigration. And slightly off topic, Val McDermid’s new novel Out of Bounds highlights the current wave of immigration into Scotland from Syria – refugees rather than immigrants mostly – and shows very well how these new arrivals want nothing more than the opportunity to make a new, safe life for themselves and their families.

    • Thanks, FictionFan, for mentioning the new McDermid. That’s one I haven’t (yet) got to, and it sounds like a good ‘un. I think that’s likely true of most refugees: they just want a safe life. And, of course, right you are about Rebus, too. Shows you how immigration works after a few generations, and I think that’s interesting.

  5. None that I can recall, Margot, but quite a few Indian immigrants, known as the Diaspora, have become published writers in USA and Canada. And, not surprisingly, they write about their immigration experience, probably as a way to stay in touch with their roots.

  6. In Jussi Adler Olsen’s Mercy, grumpy Carl has an assistant called Assad, and no-one quite knows where he has immigrated from… he slides around with secrets. Perhaps more is explained in later books in the series – I have read two, and keep meaning to read more…

    • And they are worth reading, Moira. Right you are, too, about Assad. We know he is an immigrant, but we don’t exactly know his story. To me, that makes him all the more interesting.

  7. Agatha Christie was so ahead of her time. It’s amazing how many different topics she’s written about, or at least included in her mysteries. I don’t believe I’ve read a crime novel that revolved around immigration or immigrants who’ve created a life elsewhere.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Sue. Christie was very much ahead of her time. She created so many different characters and contexts that still feel very modern, even today.

  8. Col

    I’m coming up empty on examples. I’m tempted by the Anya Lipska book.

  9. kathyd

    Two of my favorite series feature immigrant police officers or children of immigrants. Zigic, from a Serbian family, and Ferreira, from a Portuguese family, solve crimes together in Eva Dolan’s great books set in England.
    Then there’s Anna Fegete, a police detective in Finland, emigrated there at the age of 10 from a Hungarian section of Serbia.
    Also, V.I. Warshawski’s mother came from Italy, and as a Jewish person, she fled the fascists during WWII. Additionally, her close friend, Dr. Lotte Hershel, is an immigrant originally from Vienna, who left for the same reason as V.I.’s mother.

    • Those are terrific examples of sleuths who are immigrants, Kathy And I think that makes their characters all the more interesting.I’m glad you mentioned them, too, as there’s never enough room in one post to ‘say it all.’

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