Category Archives: Alexander McCall Smith

You Wear Smug So Very Well*

SmugnessMost of us know that no-one’s always right, and no-one has all of the answers. Still, there are some people who are so convinced of their own perspective that they’re unwilling to even consider the possibility that they may be wrong, or that there may be other perspectives out there. That sort of smugness can be grating for anyone who has to deal with a person like that. It’s limiting for the person who’s smug, too, if you think about it.

In crime fiction, smugness can even make a person vulnerable. After all, if the only ‘correct’ perspective is your own, you’re not willing to consider that you might have enemies that could get the better of you. Such a character can also add a nice dose of conflict to a series, so that human frailty can be a useful tool for the writer as well.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten people accept an invitation to go to Indian Island. On the evening of their arrival, it becomes clear that their host, whoever she or he is, will not be there. That’s odd enough, but things take a darker turn when each person is accused of having been responsible for the death of at least one other person. One of the guests, Miss Emily Brewster, has been accused of being responsible for the suicide of a former housemaid. It comes out that when she discovered that the maid was what used to be called ‘in trouble,’ she fired her, leaving the young woman with no place to live and no options. In her smugness, Miss Brewster believes that she was correct, and that it wasn’t her fault if the maid had ‘loose morals.’ Miss Brewster ends up paying for her smug perspective when she becomes a victim to a killer who seems to be preying on all of the guests.

Louise Penny’s series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. In one story arc in this series, he is assigned a new member of the Sûreté, Yvette Nichol. On the one hand, when she first begins working with Gamache, she’s eager to make the best impression she can. On the other, she is smug. Because of this, she’s unwilling to learn from anyone else, and unwilling to take even the friendliest of advice. This makes for a host of problems for Gamache’s team. Not only does Nichol make mistakes (as we all do), but she isn’t willing to admit she’s wrong, watch and learn, or accept the fact that she doesn’t always know best. This is really limiting for her, as we see in the course of the series. She alienates people who might be real allies for her, and she’s not really welcome socially, either. It’s difficult for everyone.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma Precious Ramotswe takes on the case of a client who wants to make amends for wrongs he did years ago. In order to do that, he needs to locate his former landlady. That’s not going to be easy, but Mma Ramotswe thinks of a good starting place. The woman her client is looking for is the widow of a government worker, so it’s quite likely that her address and contact information can be found at the office that deals with government pensions. The clerk at that office is not helpful, though, and at first, refuses to give her any information. In fact, he’s quite smug about it:
 

‘‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘…The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address.’
The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’’

 

Mma Ramotswe has to think quickly, since this clerk is really her only solid lead. But she comes up with a way to best the clerk, and ends up getting the information she needs.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow. As the novel begins, she seems to have the perfect life. She’s married to a successful attorney, she’s the mother of two healthy children, and she herself is both attractive and intelligent. Everything begins to fall apart, though, when a secret from Jodie’s past comes out. Her daughter, Hannah, is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years before, Jodie herself gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about this, but a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that the child was adopted, but the overcurious nurse can find no formal records. Now, questions begin to be asked, and before long, Jodie becomes a social pariah. Of no help at all is Jodie’s mother-in-law, Helen Garrow. She’s a ‘blueblood’ who wasn’t happy when her son married Jodie, and who certainly doesn’t befriend her very much. She does ‘damage control,’ as far as the media goes, but that’s only to preserve the Garrow reputation. She’s quite convinced she’s right about the kind of person Jodie is, and although she does help to take care of the children, her smugness alienates Jodie, just when Jodie needs support the most.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Arthur Jepson. Jepson is Madras Commissioner of Police in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai) during the British Raj. He’s not only very conscious of his position, but he’s absolutely convinced he’s right about the way to investigate. For instance, in The Pallampur Predicament, the Rajah of Pallampur is murdered. Jepson is sure that the victim was killed by disgruntled servants (Jepson is no fan of Indians). And that’s not an impossible explanation. But Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu (Stoddart’s protagonist) and his team believe that this is much more than just a ‘grudge murder.’ And they have more than one possible suspect. Still, Jepson is unwilling to listen to anyone else’s point of view. It all makes the case much more challenging for Le Fanu.

And that’s the thing about smug characters. I’ll bet we’ve all met people like that, and they have a way of making everything more difficult. Such people can be downright annoying in real life, but in crime fiction, characters like that can add interesting layers to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Poliça’s Smug.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Brian Stoddart, Louise Penny, Wendy James

We Got All the Friends That Money Can Buy*

Hangers on to WealthOne of the famous quotes usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin goes like this:
 

‘Now I’ve a sheep and a cow, every body bids me good morrow.’
 

Whether or not Franklin actually originated this saying, there’s a lot of wisdom to it. People who find themselves in possession of a large fortune often discover that they have a whole new group of ‘best friends,’ relatives they never knew about, and ‘loyal business associates.’ It’s something I’ve been thinking about as the US Powerball lottery jackpot reaches a record high (as I write this, it’s at US$1.4 billion. Yes, billion).

A lot of us dream of what it’d be like to be that rich. But it’s not without pitfalls. One of them is the number of people who want their share of all that money. It’s certainly true in real life, and it’s all over crime fiction, too. Space only permits me a few examples; I know you’ll think of lots more.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father Charles. There’s evidence against him, too; he was known to have had a serious quarrel with his father just before the killing. But he says he’s innocent, and his fiancée Alice Turner believes him. She goes to the police to plead for his release. Inspector Lestrade thinks the police have the right man, but he asks Sherlock Holmes to look into the case. Holmes agrees, and he and Dr. Watson investigate. They discover that McCarthy was originally from Australia, and made quite a bit of money there. That money ended up attracting the wrong kind of attention…

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Katherine Grey. She’s worked as a paid companion for ten years, in the employ of wealthy Mrs. Harfield. When Mrs. Harfield dies, Katherine is startled to discover that she has inherited her employer’s entire fortune. Right away, those who find out about this are more than eager to get their share. For example, one of Mrs. Harfield’s distant relatives writes, insisting that she and her husband should inherit, and that they’ll raise legal issues if Katherine objects. Then Katherine gets another letter, this time from a cousin of her own, Rosalie Tamplin. Lady Tamplin has learned of Katherine’s newfound wealth, and of course, wants whatever part of it she can get. So she invites Katherine to visit her in Nice, so she can ‘introduce her to the right people.’ Not being a fool, Katherine knows exactly why her cousin has suddenly become so interested in her. Still, she’s always wanted to travel, so she decides to go. That trip gets Katherine involved in the strangling murder of another wealthy woman, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Unnatural Death, Dr. Edwin Carr overhears a conversation between Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend Inspector Parker. This leads Carr to tell them about a case of his own that’s been troubling him. He was treating elderly Miss Agatha Dawson for cancer. When she died, no-one was surprised about it, and her death was put down to her disease. But Carr has never been satisfied that her death was natural. Although his view has more or less cost him his patients, Carr still thinks he’s right. So he asks Wimsey and Parker to look into the matter, and they start to ask questions. They find that more than one person has claimed or taken advantage of kinship to try to get some of Miss Dawson’s fortune.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma. Precious Ramotswe uses some of her inheritance from her father to open her own private detective agency. One of her first clients is Happy Bapetse. As is the custom in her culture, Happy has been taught that caring for elderly parents and other relatives is one of her responsibilities. So, when a man shows up at her door, claiming to be her long-lost father, Happy is pleased to take him in. She earns a good living as an accountant at a bank, and has been doing well for herself, so caring for him is not a problem. But Happy has come to suspect that the person claiming to be her father isn’t really her father. Instead, so she tells Mma. Ramotswe, she thinks he may be an imposter who perhaps knew her father and knew that she had done well in life. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to look into the matter, and finds a very clever way to discover whether the man claiming to be Happy’s father really is who he claims to be.

And then there’s Charity Wiser, whom we meet in Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas. She is a very wealthy executive and heiress, who has come to suspect that one of her relatives may be trying to kill her. At her behest, her granddaughter Flora hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out which relative it is. To do that, she invites Quant to join the family on a cruise aboard her private boat. The plan is to have him meet everyone, and ‘vet’ the various family members. As it turns out, Charity is not popular in the family. Each member dislikes her for one reason or another, some more than others. But because of her money, they do her bidding, which includes all sorts of ‘family trips’ designed to make them all uncomfortable. It’s surprising (or perhaps not!) what people will do if they think they’ll get a lot of money in the bargain.

And that’s the thing about coming into a lot of money. One of the consequences is that you suddenly find yourself getting acquainted with good friends, close relatives and helpful business partners you never knew existed. But that won’t stop me dreaming of that big Powerball win. Fortunately, I have very good friends all over the world who will help me make wise decisions about how to spend it all…😉

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Shel Silverstein’s The Cover of the Rolling Stone, made famous by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers

Sit Around With the Folks*

Tension in the OrdinaryIt doesn’t take a physical fight, an explosion, or other such dramatic scene to build tension in a novel. Sometimes, just as in real life, tension can mount even during something as mundane as eating lunch or dinner. And an everyday event like washing up dishes or eating a meal can form a very effective contrast to tension that may be building up between characters.

Crime novels use such scenes a lot, and they can work very well when they’re done deftly. I’m sure some of those memorable scenes have stayed with you. Here are just a few that have stayed with me.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda have been invited to send the weekend with Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. The plan is for them to leave right after lunch on the Friday, and Christow is eager to go. For one thing, he enjoys the Angkatells. For another, one of the Angkatell cousins (and Christow’s mistress), Henrietta Savernake, will also be there. For her part, Gerda loathes going to the Angkatells. She feels completely uncomfortable with them, and wants nothing more than to stay in the family’s comfortable home, where she feels safer. Her husband has no real idea of this, though, and happily talks about the trip. As if that’s not enough, Gerda is very worried about what to do about the lunch, since John is late on that day. She frets about it for quite a while, during which time the meal is getting cold. It all makes very a very tense meal. I know, I know, fans of And Then There Were None.

In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, insurance salesman Walter Huff happens to be in the same area where one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, lives. So he decides to pay a visit and try to get a renewal on Nirdlinger’s policy. Huff’s client isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis is. She and Huff strike up a conversation and before he knows it, Huff is completely smitten with Phyllis. She does nothing to discourage him, either. Soon enough, Huff is so besotted that he falls in with Phyllis’ plan to kill her husband so that she can inherit. Part of the plan involves getting some paperwork signed off and getting some signatures and money from Nirdlinger, so Huff has to think of a plausible excuse. He does, and pays a visit to his client at Nirdlingher’s office. Their conversation is more or less what you’d expect: a perfectly normal conversation between insurance representative and client. But under the surface, a great deal of tension has built up, chiefly because readers know what Huff’s plan is, and Nirdlinger doesn’t. It’s a very effective use of an ordinary conversation to build suspense.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn has a very tense couple of interactions in A Killing Spring. That novel begins with the murder of Reed Gallagher, who heads the Department of Journalism at the university where Kilbourn teaches. In a separate incident, there’s vandalism to the building that houses the department, and Kilbourn’s friend and colleague Ed Mariani ‘bunks’ in her office until the repairs are made. At first, the arrangement works well. But then, Kilbourn begins to wonder if her temporary office mate might be the killer. She doesn’t want to jump to conclusions, but there are pieces of evidence that suggest he could be responsible. This makes for an extremely tense situation in her office, since at least on the surface, Mariani has no idea that she suspects him at first.

There’s also awkwardness and suspense in Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls. One of Mma. Precious Ramotswe’s clients in that novel is an important Government Man, who believes that his new sister-in-law is trying to poison her husband (and his brother). He insists that Mma. Ramotswe travel to his family home and find out whether his suspicion is true. She agrees to go, and when she arrives, joins the family for lunch. On the surface, it’s an ordinary sort of lunch, set out to welcome a guest. Underneath, though it’s a very awkward meal, since Mma. Ramotswe is there to see if someone is poisoning other people. The tension is built, too, with some remarks about men and women, and by the fact that the food tastes just a little odd to Mma Ramotswe, All in all, it’s not a comfortable meal; and it’s made worse when everyone later gets sick. It turns out that someone has poisoned the food, so now Mma. Ramotswe has another mystery to solve.

Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quiet Holiday begins as Judge Harish Shinde and his law clerk Anant travel to the town of Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, for what’s supposed to be a relaxing couple of weeks of holiday away from the crowds and heat of Delhi. They’ll be staying with an old friend of the Judge’s, Shikhar Pant, who’s also hosting some other house guests. Two of them are Ronit and Kamini Mittal, who run an NGO that has an emphasis on AIDS information and education. Not everyone thinks that disseminating information about AIDS is a good idea; some people are even deeply offended at any hint that they or someone they know might have AIDS. Still others dislike what they see as obscenity. So conversation with and about the Mittals is bound to be tense, and it is.  At one lunch in particular, there’s a very awkward and stressful conversation about whether the Mittals are, in fact, distributing obscene material, as is alleged. The different characters stake out their positions, and it’s interesting how some of the characters try to balance what’s supposed to be a pleasant, ordinary lunch with expressing their views. When one of them, Kailash Pant, is murdered, suspicion falls on the Kittals, since they’re already considered dubious. But the Judge and, later, Anant, are not so sure they are guilty.

Possibly one of the best examples of using an everyday event like a dinner to build suspense is in Herman Koch’s The Dinner. Two Amsterdam couples, Paul and Claire Lohman and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette, meet at a very upmarket restaurant for dinner. On the surface, it’s simply two brothers and their wives meeting for a meal. But as we soon learn, it’s much more suspenseful than that. As each course is served, we learn more and more about these brothers, their families, and the dark secret they’re keeping. We discover what actually brought them together, and a lot about their family histories. It may seem like a family dinner at a nice restaurant, but this meal is much more than that.

Ordinary things – meals, cups of tea, dishes, and so on – may be mundane. But they can serve as an effective backdrop, and can be very useful as a context for building tension. All you need do is look below the surface.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Great Suburban Showdown.

 

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Filed under Aditya Sudarshan, Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, James M. Cain

We Have Come to Relate Many Stories*

Separate Plot ThreadsIn many crime novels, the focus is on one main case. There may be sub-plots related to the case, but the novel really features one major investigation. But there is some crime fiction where several cases come under investigation. A few have completely separate plot lines.

It takes a deft hand to do that sort of novel well, as it can be difficult to follow separate plot lines through effectively. And it can be tricky for the reader to keep the plot lines straight. But when it’s done well, this approach can add some richness to a story. What’s more, if you think about modern police precincts, for instance, it’s realistic. The police don’t usually have just one case going, and most PIs don’t, either.

Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories often take this format. For instance, in The Chinese Maze Murders, Judge Dee has been newly appointed as District Magistrate for Lan-fang, on China’s northwestern border. He soon discovers that the area is more or less run by a local tyrant Chien Mow, who expects Dee to serve as his puppet. This Dee will not do, so the first order of business is finding a way to best Chien Mow. With that completed, Dee takes on three major cases. One concerns a former blacksmith named Fang, whose daughter White Orchid has gone missing. Another has to do with a cryptic message left to the widow of the late Governor Yoo. She was told that if she was ever in need, she should bring the scroll with the message to the magistrate, who would help her interpret it. In the third case, retired general Ding Hoo-gwo has been murdered. His son, Ding Yee, has accused Woo Fang, Commander of the Board of Military Affairs, of the crime. But Woo says he’s innocent. So Judge Dee investigates this ‘locked room’ mystery to see who is responsible.

Fans of ‘ensemble’ police series such as Ed McBain’s 87the Precinct novels, Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series, or Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that these often feature more than one case at a time. For instance, in Vargas’ The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg travels to the small town of Ordebec to investigate a series of strange events and a disappearance. At the same time, his team back in Paris is investigating the murder of the wealthy and well-connected Antoine Clermont-Brasseur. He was burned, along with his car, and the official theory is that a local arsonist named Momo is responsible, but he claims that he’s innocent. And Adamsberg is inclined to believe him. So along with solving the mysterious occurrences in Ordebec, Adamsberg and his team also look into Clermont-Brasseur’s death.

Tarquin Hall’s Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri and his team frequently have more than one case going at the same time. Much of their day-to-day business involves ‘vetting’ potential spouses for families who want to be sure their son or daughter is marrying the right person. So, for example, in The Case of the Missing Servant, Puri takes on the case of an attorney, Ajay Kasliwal, who’s been accused of rape and murder. But at the same time, he’s looking into the background of Ramesh Goel for the family of Goel’s intended bride Vimi Singla. He’s also investigating Mahinder Gupta at the behest of Brigadier Kapoor, whose granddaughter Tisca is planning to marry Gupta. These cases aren’t closely related to each other; they’re separate plot threads. But Hall explores all three. Fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe series will know that those novels, too, follow several cases, rather than just one mystery at a time.

Sometimes, authors explore separate plot threads even when the story doesn’t include an ensemble police or PI team. For example, Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective has two distinct plot threads. Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill is an Edinburgh oceanographer and Ph.D. student whose specialty is tides and wave motion. He’s using his expertise to find out the truth about his grandfather Uilliem, who disappeared during a sea voyage years earlier. The trail leads to ilean Isagaich Mor, Great Fishing Island, where his grandparents met, and where they lived until Uilliem’s disappearance. At the same time, readers follow the story of Preeti and Basanti, members of India’s Bedia group. They’ve agreed to become part of the sex trade for a few years, so that their families can earn money. They’re sent to Scotland where they’re separated. After a time, Basanti escapes from the people who brought her to Scotland, and goes looking for her friend. That’s how she finds McGill, who has expertise she thinks can help her find out what happened to Preeti. While both of these plot lines involve McGill, they are separate stories, really.

So are the two stories in Donna Malane’s Surrender. Diane Rowe is a Wellington-based missing person’s expert whose sister Niki was murdered a year before the events in this novel. When Rowe learns that James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson has been murdered in the same way, she wants to find out more. Not long before Snow was murdered, he confessed to having murdered Niki, and having been paid for it. Rowe reasons that if she finds out who hired Snow, she’ll learn who killed her sister. So one plot line in this novel is her search for the truth about Niki’s death. The other concerns a missing person case for which she’s been hired. Some human remains have been found in the Rimutaka State Forest, and Inspector Frank McFay wants Rowe to find out whose they are. These cases don’t really intermix, beyond the fact that Rowe investigates both. But they are both followed to their conclusions.

And that’s the thing about crime novels where more than one major plot thread is explored. When it’s done effectively, both (or all) stories are followed, so that the reader has a sense of conclusion. It’s not always easy to manage, but it can work quite well.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steeleye Span’s A Calling-On Song.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Dell Shannon, Donna Malane, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Robert Van Gulik, Tarquin Hall

Consider Yourself One of Us*

Fittiing InCulture is very deeply ingrained into the way we look at the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we naturally feel more comfortable with people who understand our culture, at least somewhat, and can operate effectively within it. Even subtle aspects of culture, such as physical distance between speakers or the ‘right’ formulaic expressions, can make interactions go more smoothly. In fact, research shows that those pragmatic things are more important than things such as accent, pronunciation, or standard grammar when it comes to social interaction.

If you travel outside your own culture, you’ve probably already experienced that bit of camaraderie when you know how to order the kind of coffee you want, or the ‘right’ thing to do about tipping. You may not know a lot of the language, or you may have a different accent, but those little cultural things can still make you feel more welcome.

Crime fiction is full of incidents like this, which shouldn’t be surprising considering how small our world has become. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll be able to add many more than I ever could.

Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia takes place mostly at an archaeological dig site and expedition team house a few hours from Baghdad. The dig is being led by noted expert Eric Leidner. He’s brought his wife Louise along, and she’s been having a great deal of difficulty since their arrival. In fact, Leidner decides to hire a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to attend to his wife, who claims to see hands tapping at her window and has other fears. One afternoon, Louise Leidner is murdered in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to look into the case. At first, Nurse Leatheran is not inclined towards much confidence in Poirot, and at least part of her concern is that he’s not English. Her view begins to change when Poirot insists that she have tea with him and Dr. Reilly, who first introduced her to Leidner.

 

‘‘Oh, no doctor,’ I protested. ‘I couldn’t think of such a thing.’
Poirot gave me a little friendly tap on the shoulder. Quite an English tap, not a foreign one.
‘You, ma soeur, will do as you are told,’ he said.’

 

Nurse Leatheran agrees, and as she gets to know Poirot a little, she sees that even though he’s not English, he does understand the culture well enough to put her at her ease.

In Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, we are introduced to ex-pat American Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, who’s now living in Bangkok. Rafferty is a rough travel writer, who’s written some popular books on adventure travel in different places. He’s also gotten a reputation for being able to find people who don’t want to be found. And that’s why Clarissa Ulrich wants to hire him. She’s always been close to her Uncle Claus, who lives in Bangkok. But she hasn’t heard from him for a few months, and has gotten concerned about him. She’s heard that Rafferty is good at finding people. And even though she’s Australian and he’s American, they have more in common culturally than she feels she has with the Thai culture. Rafferty understands the local culture and speaks Thai, so he’s well-suited for the job. One lead on this case takes Rafferty to the home of a very wealthy and enigmatic older woman named Madame Wing. She agrees to give Rafferty information he wants if he’ll do a job for her. Soon, he finds that both cases are much more involved and dangerous than he thought.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, private detective Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Andrea Curtin. She is an ex-pat American who moved to Botswana when her husband took a position there. When it was time to return to the US, their son decided to stay, and joined an eco-commune there. When he died, the police reported that he was probably killed by a wild animal, but his mother has always wanted to know the real truth. She wants closure, and asks Mma. Ramotswe to find out what happened to her son. Here’s Mma. Ramotswe’s reaction to her new client:

 

‘The woman took her hand, correctly, Mma. Ramotswe noticed, in the proper Botswana way, placing her left hand on her right forearm as a mark of respect. Most white people shook hands very rudely, snatching just one hand and leaving the other hand free to perform all sorts of mischief. This woman had at least learned something about how to behave.’

 

Andrea Curtin’s understanding of the local culture, even if she doesn’t speak all of the different languages, puts Mma. Ramotswe more at her ease, and helps to create a rapport between the two women.

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was volunteering at New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she jumped, or fell, or was pushed from the roof of the building where she was living. Delbeck has never believed the suicide explanation, and he wants Keeney to find out the truth. So she travels to Pattaya to get some answers. Part of the trail leads to a bar frequented by American military personnel, and Keeney goes there to follow up. She soon finds herself needing to make a quick escape from an overzealous contact and manages to do so, only to end up in another predicament when she blunders into a room where a group of kratoey, ‘ladyboys,’ are preparing for a pageant:

 

‘Jane had to think fast.
‘Younger sisters,’ she said with a wai, ‘my name is Jayne. There’s a tall, dark, handsome Marine chasing me and I don’t want anything to do with him. I need to hide fast. Can you help me?’

There was a moment’s stunned silence as they took in Jayne’s ability to speak Thai, her flattering form of address, and the implications of her predicament. Then the room burst into a flurry of activity.’
 
 

The beauty queens help Jayne, not least because she understands the culture well enough to behave in the ‘correct’ way within it.

There’s also Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home, which introduces DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira, of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit. They are called in to investigate when there’s a fire in a shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. In the ruins of the shed is the body of a man who was very likely a foreigner. If that’s true, then this might be a hate crime; hence Zigic and Ferreira’s involvement. Zigic is third-generation English; Ferreira is originally Portuguese. Ferreira has learned the English way of doing things, and knows how to operate within the culture well enough to have gained some acceptance. Yet she still maintains some of her own culture, and her fluency in Portuguese turns out to be useful in this case. Her case is an interesting example that shows how immigrants and those with immigrant backgrounds can find more acceptance if they understand how to operate within their new culture. At the same time, this doesn’t mean at all that simply knowing some cultural nuances will automatically mark someone as ‘one of us.’

There are a lot of other examples of crime-fictional characters who’ve mastered some of the nuances of another culture (I know, I know, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte). It’s an important skill to have if you want to fit in within a culture that’s not your own. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Consider Yourself.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, Eva Dolan, Timothy Hallinan