Take All My Preconceptions*

We arguably have a more global society now than ever before. This means that most countries have a diverse population – some more diverse than others. And that means we often encounter people from lots of different backgrounds.

So far, so good. I’d guess most of us believe, at least in principle, that we should be able to work with all sorts of different people. The problem is, it doesn’t always work out that way in day-to-day encounters. Part of the reason for that is that we often have preconceptions of people that we don’t even know we have. They may be unconscious, but they can be no less hurtful for that. In fact, they can end up creating a group of ‘second class’ citizens. To see what I mean in real life, you really should read this excellent post from Marina Sofia, who blogs at Finding Time to Write. G’head, read it now. I’ll wait.

Back now? Thanks. The same thing can happen in crime fiction, even when the characters involved aren’t consciously xenophobic, or even consciously bigoted. It’s simply a set of assumptions that frames those characters’ reactions to others.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates when Celia Austin, a resident of a student hostel, is murdered. Her death turns out to be connected to a number of other strange and unsettling events at the hostel, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out the truth. That involves interviewing the other people who live at the hostel. Here’s what Sharpe says to Poirot about it:
 

‘‘You met some of them the other night and I wonder if you could give me any useful dope – on the foreigners, anyway.’
‘You think I am a good judge of foreigners? But, mon cher, there were no Belgians among them.’
‘No Belg – oh, I see what you mean. You mean that as you’re a Belgian, all the other nationalities are as foreign to you as they are to me. But that’s not quite true, is it? I mean you probably know more about the Continental types than I do – though not the Indians and the West Africans and that lot.’’
 

It’s not spoiling the story to say that Sharpe doesn’t assume the killer has to be someone who’s not English. He doesn’t use cruel slurs, and so on. But his assumptions are there nonetheless.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives follows the fortunes of the Eberhart family when they move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. What seems to be the right move to an idyllic town turns into a nightmare as Joanna Eberhart and her new friend, Bobbie Markowe, discover some very dark secrets that the town is hiding. At one point, Joanna has a conversation with one of the residents of the town, who tells her:
 

‘‘A black family is moving in on Gwendolyn Lane. But I think it’s good, don’t you?’’
 

Admittedly, this novel was first published in 1972. Still, it’s interesting to see how those assumptions come through.

Sometimes, people’s assumptions are clear, or seem clear, even without words. For instance, in one plot thread of Elizabeth George’s With No One as Witness, there’s a series of three murders, all of young boys. The police haven’t ignored the case, but they haven’t made a lot of progress, either. And the media hasn’t paid a whole lot of attention. Then, there’s another murder. Unlike the other victims, this boy is white. Now, the media starts to devote a lot more time and energy to the murders. And there’s a lot of talk that the police are only ramping up their efforts because this newest victim is white. Whether that’s true of each individual journalist and police officer, it seems to show a general assumption that some deaths are more meaningful than others. And that isn’t lost on the police, who return to the older cases and try to put the puzzle together.

Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club takes place in 1950’s Auckland. The real action in the story begins when a ship from England docks. One of the passengers is Istvan Zieglar, a refugee from Hungary who wants to start a new life in New Zealand. He’s heard about jobs at Auckland Harbour, and has come to help build the new bridge there. He soon gets involved in a dark mystery surrounding a local children’s home called Brodie House, and its connection to some terrible tragedies. Along the way, Zieglar has to get used to life in his new home. For one thing, he isn’t fluent in English, although he can get by. But, because he sometimes doesn’t understand what people say, his workmates assume that he,
 

‘‘…understands nothing…thick as a brick…’’
 

In fact, the assumption that he can’t do the work costs him the job. The foreman on the job has some other assumptions, too:
 

‘‘…a team of Italians are due here to assist with girders D, E, and F. Not sure what a bunch of Dago tunnellers know about steel girders, but the bosses hired them in their wisdom and we’ll just have to make the most of them.’’
 

Here, it’s very clear that certain assumptions are made about New Zealand workers vs workers from other places.

There’s also Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight, which features her sleuth, retired Mumbai police detective Lalli. In the novel, a small slum known as Kandewadi is the focus when several children who live there disappear and are later found dead. The media and the police don’t do very much about it. That, in itself, reveals assumptions about the lives of the people who live in Kandewadi. Finally, after several such deaths, the media pick the story up, and Inspector Savio, who regularly consults with Lalli, takes up the investigation. And it’s interesting to see how assumptions about life in slums plays a role in the story.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. In it, newly-minted psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark, who is dealing with the long-ago abduction of her sister, Gracie. Elisabeth’s story is eerily similar to Stephanie’s own. Seventeen years earlier, her sister, Gemma, was also abducted. Now, Stephanie decides to lay her ghosts to rest, and find the person who wrought so much havoc. So, she travels from Dunedin, where she lives and works, to her hometown of Wanaka. Along the way, she meets a hunting guide, Dan, who offers to take her out into the bush. Reluctantly, Stephanie agrees. It’s soon clear that she has preconceptions about Dan:
 

‘‘Wine, please. White wine?’ [Anderson]
‘I can manage both colours. Types as well. So. What type of white?’
He’s grinning again. She sees he’s teasing her.
‘Pinot gris?’ Huh, I guarantee he hasn’t got that.
‘Central Otago?’
‘Uh, yes. Thanks.’
He opens a bottle, fills a glass and hands it to her. ‘I believe I’m making progress.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hope that I’m adequately demonstrating to you that all hunters aren’t blokey yobbos.’
‘I didn’t say they were.’
‘You didn’t actually say it, no.’’

 

It’s an interesting example of the way we can have preconceptions without even being conscious of it.

And that’s the thing about such assumptions and frameworks for thinking. They shape our thoughts and, therefore, our interactions, even when we’re not aware of it.

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. Now, please, do go check out Finding Time to Write. Excellent reviews, thoughtful commentary, and fine poetry await you.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Orianthi Panagaris’ Courage.

10 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Ira Levin, Jen Shieff, Kalpana Swaminathan, Paddy Richardson

10 responses to “Take All My Preconceptions*

  1. Thank you for the mention – and for the very interesting literary references. I’ll check out Paddy Richardson and Kalpana Swaminathan, who are new to me. I’ve just been reading a book set in Jamaica, and there are ready-made assumptions being made there too about blacks, whites and Chinese immigrants…

    • It’s a real pleasure to mention both your blog and that powerful post, Marina Sofia. And I appreciate the inspiration. Folks, do read the post if you haven’t, and check out Marina Sofia’s excellent blog. And I do recommend both Paddy Richardson and Kalpana Swaminathan; both are very talented writers who bring a real sense of place and culture to their stories. The book you’re reading sounds very interesting, too, and a great example of what I had in mind with this post (so thank you). I haven’t read enough fiction set in Jamaica…

  2. janmorrison12

    Insightful post by Marina – thanks for introducing her! Of course this is such a hot topic everywhere. In North America as well as Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere we have the issue of the original people of the land being treated as second-class citizens. The police typically ignore crimes being committed against the indigenous in this country and thus we have nightmares such as The Highway of Tears (aboriginal women murdered or disappeared along a highway in our west) etc…
    Thanks for tackling these important topics, Margot!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jan. And you’re right; Marina Sofia’s post is, indeed, insightful. As we think about who gets the benefits of full citizenship and who doesn’t, you’re absolutely right that, often, indigenous people don’t. And that’s true virtually wherever there’s an indigenous population. There’s a whole searing history that shows that. And it’s still happening; all you need to do is look at news reports. I’m very much hoping that will change.

  3. Margot, I thought Marina’s post on the immigrant’s experience was powerful, insightful and evocative, and so well-written. I’m glad I read it.

  4. Col

    I suppose you see a few assumptions made about Virgil Tibbs in John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night.

  5. As so often, my suggestion is from Mercy by Jussi Adler Olsen: Assad is the assistant to policeman Carl. People assume he’s an immigrant idiot. He’s an immigrant, but he most certainly is not an idiot…

    • And that, Moira, is an excellent example of exactly what I meant in this post. Trust you to do that – thanks. To me, anyway, that’s part of Assad’s appeal as a character, too. He is so much more than what people think of him…

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