Do You Really Think I Care What You Eat or What You Wear*

small-and-diverse-communitiesOne of the most important sociological changes we’ve seen in modern times has arguably been the transformation of smaller-town/suburban demographics. If you read the work of Agatha Christie or other classic/Golden Age crime writers, you see that small towns and villages are often composed of people who have very similar cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Christie mentions some diversity (there are Belgians and a German in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, as well as the English people who live in the small village of Styles St. Mary). There are a few other examples as well. But, by and large, we don’t see major cultural and ethnic diversity in the small towns and villages that figure so much in crime fiction of the times.

We do now. Wars, easier travel, easier communication, and other factors have meant that now, suburban towns and small towns have gotten very diverse. People in big cities (or even medium-sized cities) have been aware of this trend for a long time. But it’s a fact of life now in smaller places, too. And crime fiction reflects that. In the best depictions of more modern small-town diversity, it’s discussed in a very matter-of-fact way. People from other cultures settle in, make lives for themselves, and not a great deal of fuss is made about it. At the same time, though, there is the extra layer of cultural differences and the need to adjust (on both sides). That can add to character development, and certainly makes for a more realistic depiction of today’s small towns and villages.

We see this more modern sort of town in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola. Dr. Raymond Akande is from Nigeria; his wife is from Sierra Leone. They’ve settled in the English town of Kingsmarham with their twenty-two-year-old daughter, Melanie. As far as Inspector Reg Wexford is concerned, the Akandes are simply another family living in the town, and Raymond Akande happens to be his doctor. At least that’s what Wexford thinks on the surface. He starts to question those assumptions about himself when Melanie Akande goes missing. Her father is worried when she doesn’t come home (it’s not like her) and asks for Wexford’s help. That request ends up drawing Wexford into a case of multiple murders. It also forces him to confront his own assumptions. It’s an interesting case of a changing small town, and what that means for the people who live there.

Fans of Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series will know that he is chief of police in the small town of St. Denis, in France’s Périgord region. People have lived there for hundreds of years, and created a solid community. In recent decades, that community has changed and begun to include people from many different places. For instance, the owner of the Café des Sports is Karim al-Bakr, whose family immigrated from Algeria. He and his wife, Rashida, are woven into the fabric of the community, as is his father, Mohammad (Momu). As far as Bruno is concerned, they’re at least as much a part of St. Denis as he himself is. For the most part, their presence is taken for granted and they’re treated just like anyone else. This isn’t to say that there’s no tension ever. But they aren’t regarded as oddities or outcasts.

Neither are the members of the Basque community in Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series. We learn a bit about that community in Death Without Company. In that novel, Longmire and his team investigate the murder of Mari Baroja, a resident of the Durant Home for Assisted Living. She’s been poisoned; and on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much motive. As it turns out, this crime has roots that go back fifty years. As Longmire looks into the case, readers meet the Sheriff’s Department’s newest hire, Santiago Saizarbitoria, who also has a Basque background. And it’s interesting to see how, in both his case and that of the Barojas family, there’s not much fuss made about the fact that they’re Basque. They’re simply farmers who live in rural Wyoming. Yes, they have a unique culture, and some references are made to it. But this community is woven into the fabric of Absaroka County, where Longmire lives and works.

Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark introduces readers to Gerda Klein and her daughter, Ilse. They immigrated to New Zealand from the former East Germany during the Cold War, and settled in the small South Island town of Alexandria. Now Ilse teachers secondary school, and has become an accepted part of the community, as has her mother. One of Ilse’s most promising students is fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. That’s why she’s so concerned when Serena starts skipping class. And when she is there, she no longer shows much interest in learning anything. Ilse contacts the school’s counseling team, and a visit is paid to the Freeman family. That’s less than successful, though. And then, Serena disappears. Ilse and her mother find themselves drawn into Serena’s life in ways they hadn’t imagined. It’s obvious throughout the novel that the Kleins are accepted in the community, just as everyone else is. And Gerda is extremely grateful to the people in her new home for making her welcome and considering her ‘one of them.’ Ilse doesn’t feel the same way (she misses her old home in Leipzig), but that’s not to say she dislikes New Zealand or its people. She knows that she’s been most fortunate in being accepted with no real fuss.

Several of D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington stories take place in the fictional village of Tuesbury. Heatherington is a retired milliner who now does occasional work on special order. He also seems to get drawn into murders and their investigation. In Model For Murder, we are introduced to one of the shop owners in town, Elroy Tuvey. He’s originally from Jamaica, and has found success as an antiques dealer in Tuesbury. On the one hand, he’s had to deal with prejudice. On the other, he is very matter-of-fact in his business dealings, and Heatherington doesn’t really see him as ‘other.’ There’s a little awkwardness at times, as there often is when culture meets culture. But in the main, Elroy Tuvey is much a part of life in the village as anyone else is.

And that’s the thing about many modern small towns and villages. They’re more diverse than ever, and cultures mix there in a way they didn’t in the past. And it’s interesting the way crime fiction depicts that change.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Join Together.


Filed under Craig Johnson, D.S. Nelson, Martin Walker, Paddy Richardson, Ruth Rendell

12 responses to “Do You Really Think I Care What You Eat or What You Wear*

  1. Tim

    You touch on a corollary that deserves consideration: social class distinctions in fiction once mattered quite a bit to writers and readers, especially as many readers living everyday ordinary lives could enjoy seeing upper crust families being undermined by crime (i.e., no one was immune from criminals); I think that era with its focus on social classes is gone, and hard-boiled crime and noir crime hastened the change. But I could be wrong.

    • You make an interesting point, Tim. Certainly our ideas of social class have changed dramatically. And you’re right; crime fiction no longer looks mostly at the lives of the rich and privileged. I actually like that development, as it makes the genre more interesting, and certainly more reflective of real life. I think most readers enjoy stories that are about ‘the rest of us.’

  2. Interesting theme, Margot. I wonder how much of “cultural and ethnic diversity in the small towns and villages” can be fictional when the reality of migrations and cultures within and across countries has been happening for centuries. There’s a lot of fodder for such stories.

    • Thank you, Prashant. And you have a well-taken point. I would imagine that the reality is, most smaller towns and villages have at least some cultural and ethnic diversity. People are to mobile (and have been for a long time) for it to be otherwise.

  3. It’s quite a tricky one to get right in fiction, I think. I like it best when authors just see immigration as part of the normal wider picture rather than emphasising it as if it’s something unique. Like the US, we’ve had wave after wave of immigration here since the Romans! And within a couple of generations each wave just turn into Brits like all the rest of us…

    • That’s exactly the thing, FictionFan. Immigration has certainly brought all sorts of different people to even the smallest of villages. And they bring diversity with them, which I think adds to the texture of a place. But, as you say, it’s happened for millennia. And it’s one of those larger social patterns that’s best seen in a matter-of-fact way. To me, that’s not to say that there are no immigration horror stories. Of course there are. And there’s bigotry everywhere. But if you look at the social structure of a lot of places, there are people from all over the world who’ve settled in without a whole lot of fuss. And they add to small-town/village life, too.

  4. An interesting point to make and of course over time the fabric of towns with shops and places of worship springing up – I did like the Simisola which tried to show the confused views when people from an entirely different background moves to a small town.

    • I liked that about Simisola, too, Cleo. I thought Rendell handled that quite well. And you’re right about the nature of towns as new groups of people make their homes there. It makes for a rich new variety of shops, places of worship, points of view, all sorts of things.

  5. It’s not a topic that’s going to go away in real life, so is also going to feature in books! As in so many situations, you will see things that depress you a lot, and then a different conversation or deed will give you back your faith in human nature.

    • Exactly, Moira. And, in a way, that’s what makes it such an interesting context for a story. There are all sorts of immigrant communities. Some situations, as you say, are enough to make you despair. Others are far more positive. And there are plenty of immigrant communities that really are tightly woven into the larger community. Those are fascinating, because it’s happened without people making a big fuss about it.

  6. This is a topic that interests me, so thanks for the suggestions. Simisola by Rendell falls in that group of Wexford books written in the late 1980’s through the 1990’s that I missed reading, so I really need to get to that one. I have read Death Without Company and enjoyed learning about the Basque community.

    • I thought Johnson did a fine job with that aspect of the setting and context, Tracy. I’m glad you enjoyed it, too. And I do recommend Simisola. In some ways it’s unsettling, but it does tell a good story.

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