As this is posted, it’s 152 years since General Robert E. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, who was headquartered with the Army of the Potomac. As you’ll know, that was more or less the end of the U.S. Civil War (or, the War Between the States, depending on where you live).
Of course, that didn’t end the hostility and bad feeling between the former combatants. The war left deep and lasting scars all around, and even today, there are times when resentment flares up on both sides.
Certainly, there are important cultural differences between the northern and southern parts of the country. There are other regional differences, too. And it’s interesting to see how those differences, and that war, play roles, even in more modern crime fiction that doesn’t take place during the 19th Century.
For example, Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series takes place in the small town of Crozet, Virginia. As the series begins, Harry is the town’s postmistress. Since most of the residents have post office boxes, Harry gets to hear a lot of what’s going on in town. She’s also a member of one of the region’s oldest families, so she has an ‘in’ to all the ‘better’ events and social circles. Throughout the series, there’s a thread of people from the North as ‘other.’ At the very least, ‘Yankees’ are clearly from another culture and another way of life. They’re often to be looked on with suspicion, and families who happen to be from the North are only accepted after a long time.
In Deborah Johnson’s The Secret of Magic, which takes place just after World War II, we are introduced to Regina Robichard, an idealistic young New York attorney, who works for the Legal Defense Fund. One day, the Legal Defense Fund gets a letter from a reclusive author, M.P. Calhoun. It seems that a black veteran named Joe Howard Wilson was murdered, and Clahoun wants his death investigated. As it happens, Calhoun wrote one of Robichard’s best-loved books from childhood, so she already knows the name. That’s enough to interest her in going to Revere, Mississippi, where Calhoun lives, and where the murder takes place. For Robichard, it’s a completely different world, and she already has some preconceptions about it. But, as she investigates, she finds that things aren’t what they seem, and she’s forced to examine life in her own New York City. This is a legal novel, but it’s also an interesting look at the differences between North and South – both perceived and real.
Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw is quite familiar with the cultural differences that come when North meets South in the US. He’s a history professor at Kenan College, in North Carolina. He’s happy to live and work where he does, and he considers himself a southerner. But his mother was from New York, and he has quite a lot of family there, so he does visit. His perspective is impacted by both those experiences and his upbringing, so he really does interact, as you might say, with both cultures.
When we first meet P.J. Parrish’s Louis Kincaid in Dark of the Moon, he has returned from Detroit to his home town of Black Pool Mississippi. His mother is dying, and he’s agreed to look after her during her last illness. He’s been hired to work under Sheriff Sam Dodie as the county detective, and that’s problematic enough. Kincaid is bi-racial in a place where that’s enough to exclude him from most of the local life. But then, a hunter discovers the remains of a man who’s been dead thirty years, and some very dark secrets are about to come out. The closer Kincaid gets to the truth, the more danger he faces. In fact, his experiences in Black Pool are part of the reason that, in Dead of Winter, he accepts a job working with the Loon Lake, Michigan police. He thinks it’ll be a fresh start in a new place. But it’s not long before he finds that buried secrets are not the exclusive property of the South. Throughout this series, we see how Kincaid ideals with the very different cultures of North and South.
And then there’s Adam Hall, a Chicago lawyer whom we meet in John Grisham’s The Chamber. His firm sends him to its Memphis office when an older man named Sam Cayhall is convicted of a Ku Klux Klan murder, and sentenced to execution by the state of Mississippi. Hall is Cayhall’s grandson, so for him, this trip isn’t just for professional reasons. He isn’t experienced when it comes to murder cases, but he does everything he can to win a stay of execution for his grandfather. Hall’s legal strategies, and the question of the death penalty, are important plot threads in this book. But so is Hall’s story. In a way, he is caught between his family’s southern roots, and his own life in the north. And it’s interesting to see how the different cultures play out in the novel.
There are other stories, too, where we see how the end of the Civil War/War Between the States didn’t really put an end to the deep divides between North and South. Which ones come to your mind? You’re absolutely right, fans of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Robbie Robertson. Listen to the version by The Band, and by Joan Baez, and see which you prefer. There’s a version by Johnny Cash, too.