Category Archives: Alexander McCall Smith

She Seems to Have an Invisible Touch*

ManipulatingHave you ever asked yourself, ‘How did I get talked into doing this?’ If you have, then you know what it’s like to be under the spell of someone who’s a good manipulator. By that I don’t mean someone who deliberately and maliciously exploits others. Rather, I mean someone who has a way of getting people to do things without threatening, blackmailing, using social status (i.e. ‘Do you know who I am?’) or ‘pulling rank.’

Such people can sometimes be so subtle about it that you’re not even aware you’ve been persuaded…until you’re actually doing something. And they don’t always need to coax or obviously persuade; they just have a way of organizing things the way they want.

There are definitely such people in real life. There are in crime fiction, too, and they can be interesting characters. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Lady Lucy Ankgatell. She and her husband, Sir Henry, invite a group of people to spend a weekend at their country home. Two of the guests are Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch, so he arrives just after the murder. At first, he’s not even sure it is a real murder, because the scene looks deliberately set up for his ‘amusement.’ But soon enough he sees that it is all too real. Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is. Throughout the novel, we see Lady Lucy’s way of getting people to do things. For instance, there’s a dinner-table scene in which she persuades one of the guests to engage another in conversation without saying a word. As Sir Henry says to one of the guests,

‘‘She gets away with things. She always has…She’s flouted the traditions at Government House – she played merry hell with precedence at dinner parties…She’s put deadly enemies next to each other at the dinner table… I’m damned if she hasn’t got away with it.’’

Lady Lucy arranges everything exactly the way she wants without ever being overbearing. I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the disappearance of Andreas Winther. When Andreas’ mother Runi first goes to the police about her son, Sejer doesn’t take the matter overly seriously, since the young man has only been gone for a couple of days. But as time goes on, Sejer begins to believe that something bad might have happened. So he starts to look into the matter. His first stop is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, Andreas’ best friend. At first, Zipp says as little as possible to Sejer, for several reasons (and no, lest you make the obvious inference, he didn’t kill Andreas). But slowly, Sejer finds out what has happened to Andreas and why. And as he does, we see how Andreas has been able to manipulate people around him, including Zipp, without bullying, threatening, and so on. He’s been able to get people to do what he wants through his own charisma.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue begins when academician and criminologist Cait Morgan takes an injured colleague’s place at a conference in Nice. One afternoon, she’s relaxing at a café when an old acquaintance (and former supervisor) Alistair Townsend, happens to pass by. He sees her and, much to her chagrin, invites her to a birthday party he’s having for his wife, Tamsin. She dislikes Townsend, and certainly doesn’t want to go to the party. But she finds herself going all the same. And that’s how she ends up getting involved when he’s poisoned during the event. He doesn’t bully or blackmail her into going; it just never seems to occur to him that she won’t. It’s a sort of power of persuasion, if you think about it.

One of the ‘regulars’ in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is Mma. Silvia Potokwane, who runs a local orphanage. She is deeply devoted to the children in her charge, and goes to great effort to make sure they are well. Part of doing that involves getting other people in the area to help, and she is a master at that. In several story arcs and sub-plots, she arranges for orphanage events, gets people to donate time and money, and more. In fact, in Tears of the Giraffe, she even gets Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take in two of the orphans living there. Here is his thinking about it:

‘How Mma. Silvia Potokowane…had managed to persuade him to take the children was beyond him…Mma. Potokwane was like a clever lawyer engaged in the examination of a witness. Agreement would be obtained to some innocuous statement and then, before the witness knew it, he would have agreed to a quite different proposal.’

That’s also how she gets Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to agree to a parachute jump as a part of a fundraising event in The Full Cupboard of Life.

Several fictional sleuths have partners who have that power of persuasion. For example, Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh is married to such a person. She’s not at all what you’d call shrewish. But she has a way of making him do what she wants. Donna Leon’s Paola Falier has the same gift, although she is a different sort of character. She is often able to persuade her husband, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to go places and do things that he might not otherwise want to do. And she serves, in part, as his conscience, so that she also gets him to do the ethical thing (not that he’s unethical by nature). What’s interesting is that she’s not a nag, and he’s not a weak-willed person. She manages to get what she wants without resorting to yelling or browbeating.

And that’s the thing about some people. They have a way of getting others to do things without really seeming to be manipulative about it. And they can certainly add ‘spice’ to a novel.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Invisible Touch.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Cathy Ace, Donna Leon, Karin Fossum, Shamini Flint

Let Me Be Your Mechanic*

MechanicsYou probably don’t think about them much, unless of course your car won’t start. Yes, I’m talking about auto mechanics and garages. Nobody likes to think about what it costs to keep a car running, even if nothing goes wrong. There are oil changes, required government inspections, and more. If you add in things such as brakes, alternators and timing belts, the price tag goes up. And those aren’t even the most expensive things on cars.

Working on cars has changed drastically, of course, as cars have developed and as computer technology has become an important part of a car’s insides. Unless you are a mechanic (or someone in your family is), you probably depend on an auto repair shop to fix things when you hear that funny noise or one of your warning lights goes on.

With people as dependent as they are on both cars and mechanics, it’s no surprise that we see mechanics figuring in crime fiction. Sometimes they play minor roles, and sometimes, not so minor. Either way, they add a slice of everyday life to a novel.

A mechanic becomes a suspect in a murder case in Friedrich Glauser’s The Spoke. Sergeant Jacob Studer of the Bern police is visiting the town of Schwarzenstein with his wife Hedy to celebrate their daughter’s wedding. Staying in the same hotel is Jean Steiger, who is assistant to PI Joachim Krock. When Steiger is found murdered by a bicycle spoke, suspicion falls quickly on mechanic Ernst Graf. But Studer isn’t sure it’s that simple. He is proven to be right when Krock is killed, too. Now Studer looks into the PI agency’s doings to see who would have wanted both Steiger and Krock dead.

Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress is the story of the murder of Mary Gerrard. She’s the daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, the home of wealthy Laura Welman. Mrs. Welman’s always taken a great interest in Mary and her future, even sending her away to be educated ‘above her station.’ Among other things, this caused a rift between Mary and her admirer, auto mechanic Ted Bigland. When Mary is found poisoned, Ted is ‘a person of interest,’ since Mary ended up rejecting him. The prime suspect though is Laura Welman’s niece Elinor Carlisle, who had more than one motive for murder. Local GP Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. One of the interesting things we see in this novel is the class system of the day. Auto mechanics definitely don’t have the social status to be interested in ‘young ladies.’ Even today, some people don’t put them in the same class as, say, accountants, educators or lawyers. And yet, there’s no-one more important when the car needs service…

In Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, we meet freelance professional hit man Callum MacLean. At twenty-nine, he’s gained a reputation in Glasgow’s underworld as a man who gets the job done right. And in this novel, his job is to take care of a problem for some of Glasgow’s crime leaders. Small-time drug dealer Lewis Winter is more ambitious than is good for him, and is starting to go after territory claimed by more powerful people. MacLean’s assignment is to get rid of Winter. But he won’t do it alone. Part of what he’ll need is transportation that can’t be traced directly to him. For that, he relies on his brother William, who works at a mechanic’s shop. William is trying to stay legal, but Callum is his brother after all. So he arranges for Callum to have access to a car. It’s one of the many details that need to be worked out before the hit on Winter can go off. It does make you stop and think about what happens to your car while it’s in the shop…

Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road follows Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen as he investigates the death of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan, whose body is discovered by a road near the rural South Australia town of Tiverton. Hirsch faces several obstacles as he investigates. Not least is the fact that he’s regarded as a traitor among the other police, because he was a ‘whistleblower’ in an earlier case. So he gets very little help from his peers. Still, he starts by trying to find out what he can about the victim’s background. He also tries to find out who might have seen what on the night of her death. That’s how he learns about a certain car that might have been seen in the area.  And that (plus some car trouble of his own) is how he comes into contact with Bernie Judd, who runs Redruth Automotive. Judd is not exactly eager to help Hirsch, since he thinks Hirsch is cut from the same cloth as the other police in the area – police who too often abuse their authority. But gradually Hirsch gets some valuable information from Judd.

Of course, no discussion of mechanics and auto repair in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who features in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. He is the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and has a reputation as a gifted and honest mechanic. He is able to fix just about any machine, especially a car, and is trying to help his two young apprentices learn the same love of and devotion to the profession as he has. That part of his job is not easy, as his apprentices are more interested in girls and popular culture than they are in doing a good job and being responsible adults. But they’re learning. And Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is a good role model. More than once in this series, his ability as a mechanic becomes extremely helpful. And he shares office premises with his wife, Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who runs Botswana’s only female-run detective agency. It’s a very successful partnership.

We may not relish going to get the car fixed. But imagine what it would be like if we couldn’t rely on a mechanic to do the job. They’re just as important in crime fiction, really, even if we don’t think about them very often. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get my oil changed and my fluid levels checked…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Brownie McGhee’s Auto Mechanic Blues. Credit for this also goes to Baby Dodds, Campion Jack Dupree and Sonny Terry.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Friedrich Glauser, Garry Disher, Malcom Mackay

Am I My Resume?*

Job SearchIf you’ve ever looked for a new job, you know how difficult it can be. To begin with, people don’t usually look for work actively unless they’re unhappy in their present job (which is a stress in and of itself) or they’re unemployed (also a major stressor). So it can be hard to muster the energy you need to present yourself at your very best. And even when times are good and jobs are available, there’s sometimes a lot of competition.

And then there’s the fact that a lot of potential employers don’t treat applicants particularly well. Some keep applicants waiting for a long time, and some are all but rude during interviews. And then there are those who never follow up to let you know whether you’ve gotten the job. If you add to that the very real power imbalance of a job interview, it’s easy to see why the process of finding a new job is so difficult.

That pressure is hard on anyone, but it’s exactly that challenge that can add an interesting layer of tension to a novel. And the job search can be a compelling plot thread. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s short story Jane in Search of a Job, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, a young woman who is, as the title would suggest, looking for work. She’s up against competition from many other young women with a decent education; and most have more work experience. So she’s at a point of real concern when she sees an unusual employment advertisement. After a thorough ‘vetting,’ she is hired as a ‘double’ for Her Highness, Grand Duchess Pauline of Ostrova. The grand duchess believes that revolutionaries from her homeland may try to kidnap her, and the idea is that Jane will impersonate her on certain public occasions, as a decoy, in case those enemies strike.  All goes well enough until a charity bazaar at Orion House. At that event, Jane finds herself in more danger than she imagined.

People don’t always consider John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to be a crime novel. But there’s definitely a murder in it, and deeply involved in the whole thing is Tom Joad, who’s recently moved with his family from Oklahoma to California. It’s the time of the Great Depression, and, combined with the ‘Dust Bowl’ in certain parts of the US, these years have been almost more than the Joad family can survive. They left their Oklahoma farm because of the dust storms, and were told there was plenty of work on California’s farms. But when the Joads arrive, they find that conditions are abysmal. Those who can find work are given the barest of essentials when it comes to living quarters (and not even always that much). And there are so many people looking for work that the Joads face a lot of competition. One of the elements that comes through in this novel is the power imbalance between farm owners and managers, who are in a position to hire, and job applicants. This sort of job search is among the most humiliating there is, and it doesn’t help matters that there is no legislative or other support for farm workers. Basically employers can hire and fire whomever and whenever they wish, and pay whatever they wish.

There’s also Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank. Stephen Booker is an architect who’s recently been made redundant. At first, he and his wife do their best to take matters in stride; after all, people do lose their jobs. And he believes that it won’t be long before he finds something else. So he applies, goes on interviews, and endures the difficult process of trying to look for work. Nothing pans out though, and he’s forced to take a night job driving a cab. The idea is that he can still use daytime to keep applying. But he gets a whole different perspective when he meets professional thief Mike Daniels, who takes his cab one night. Bit by bit, Daniels and Booker become friendly, and Daniels finds that Booker could be a real asset. Daniels and his team are planning a major bank heist, and they can use the services of an architect to help them plan the break-in. Booker is reluctant at first, but money is money. So he eventually agrees to Daniels’ plan. Everything goes smoothly, even on the day of the robbery, until a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…

Much of the focus of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola is on Kingsmarkham’s Employment Bureau. Twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande has a meeting there one day with her employment counselor. After that meeting, she disappears. When she doesn’t return, her father, Dr. Raymond Akande, asks for help from Inspector Reg Wexford, who is one of his patients. Wexford isn’t overly concerned at first. After all, there are many reasons a young woman might take off for a few days, and it doesn’t mean anything’s wrong. But when she remains missing, Wexford decides to look into the matter. Part of trying to find the young woman is tracing her movements, so Wexford and his team interview the staff at the Bureau. They want to talk to Annette Bystock, the counselor with whom Melanie had her meeting. But by the time they track her down, she’s been murdered. As Wexford and the team unravel the mystery, we see the inner workings of an employment office. Rendell also shows readers what it’s like to be looking for work.

And then there’s P.J. Parrish’s Dead of Winter. Louis Kincaid has come to Loon Lake, Michigan, for an interview with the police department there. He’s looking for a new start, and he’s hoping that he’ll get this job. When he gets to the department’s building, he’s interviewed by Police Chief Brian Gibraltar. It’s an odd interview (some of them really are!), and doesn’t last long. To Kincaid’s surprise, he is hired within moments, and arrangements are made for his start date. Although it is strange, Kincaid doesn’t want to turn the job down, so he accepts. Soon enough, he is drawn into two murder cases. One is the killing of his predecessor; the other is the murder of a retired police officer. It turns out to be a complex investigation that puts Kincaid in a great deal of danger.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Grace Makutsi graduated from the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills with the highest score of any other graduate. At first, she thinks that will get her a good job. But as she starts applying for work, she finds out that the women who get those jobs are more often hired for their looks than for their skills. But Mma. Precious Ramotswe is different. Mma. Ramotswe sees that Mma. Makutsi is willing to work hard and is skilled. Besides, she needs a secretary for her new detective agency. So she hires Mma. Makutsi. As fans will know, it’s a very good match for both of them. Still, at one point (in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive), Mma. Makutsi considers leaving the agency. She goes looking for a new job, only to be reminded that applying for work is enervating and can be humiliating. It’s not a pleasant lesson, but McCall Smith does remind readers of what it’s like to be a job applicant.

No matter the circumstances, it’s never fun to look for work. But it is a part of life for a lot of people, and it can make for an effective plot thread.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Hamlish and Edward Kleban’s I Hope I Get It.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, John Steinbeck, P.J. Parrish, Robert Pollock, Ruth Rendell

Wanna See My Picture on the Cover*

FameSeveral cultures place a premium on fame. Perhaps that’s at least in part because fame is often seen as a mark of individual achievement. Name recognition is often a status symbol, too. There’s also the fact that fame can open proverbial doors for a person; and it can mean lots of money. It’s little wonder then that plenty of people want very much to be famous. That goal can push people to work harder, do better, and so on. It can also lead to conflict and much worse. But even when it doesn’t, the desire for fame can add an interesting layer of character development, and it can add tension to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we are introduced to actress Veronica Cray. She’s becoming quite famous; and her goal is to get to the top rung of the acting ladder. When her former lover John Christow is shot, she becomes a suspect in the murder. For one thing, she wanted very much to resume the relationship, although Christow had gotten beyond it. In fact, they had a bitter argument about it. For another, she’s staying in a getaway cottage near the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, where Christow was a house guest. She had easy access to the part of the property where Christow was killed. Hercule Poirot also has a nearby cottage, and in fact, is at the Angkatell home on the day of the shooting. So he works with Inspector Grange and his team to find out who killed Christow. Here’s what Veronica says about herself at one point:


‘You mean that I haven’t got to the top of the tree. I shall! I shall!’


She’s not just egotistical; she’s determined to get to the top.

Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth is in part the story of aspiring actress Kerrie Shawn. She’s hoping for fame and success in Hollywood; but so far, she’s not found much of either. She and her friend Violet ‘Vi’ Day share a dingy place and scrape by the best they can. She’s worked very hard, and she has ambition. Still, there are a lot of people who want to make it in the acting world; Kerrie has a lot of competition. Everything changes when eccentric millionaire Cadmus Cole returns from years at sea. He wants to track down his relatives so that they’ll be able to inherit when he dies. So he hires the PI firm that Ellery Queen has just opened with his friend Beau Rummell. There’s a hefty commission at stake, so even after Queen is laid up with illness, Rummell continues to search. As it turns out, Kerrie Shawn is related to Cole. When Rummell finds her, she is shocked at her good fortune. After Cole’s death, she and her friend pull up stakes and move into the Cole mansion on the Hudson River (that’s one of the conditions Cole laid down in his will). The other heir is Margo Cole, who’s been living in France. She, too, moves into the mansion, and, not surprisingly, conflict soon comes up. When Margo is shot, Kerrie is the natural suspect. Then, there’s what seems to be an attempt on her life, too. Now, with Queen’s guidance, Rummell has to find out whether Kerrie engineered that attempt, or whether someone else has targeted both young women.

In Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, the focus is on television fame. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne is the successful host of Saturday Night. But she’s reached more or less a crossroads in her career. She’s very well aware that there are other ambitious people coming up behind her, as the saying goes, and she wants to ensure her place at the top. In fact, up-and-comers such as Janet Beardsley, the darling of the network, are already making their mark. So Thorne needs the story – a story that will make her career. And that just may be the case of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. Thorne learns that there are pieces of evidence that suggest Bligh may not be guilty. If he’s innocent, that story could be Thorne’s breakthrough. So she starts to pursue it. And one of the story elements is the reality of television ambition and the search for fame.

Kylie Manners and Gossamer Judge, whom we meet in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, are also out for television fame. It’s not so much that they’re egotistical. They are, however, both determined to ‘make it’ on ‘the soapies.’ By day, they work in Chapman’s bakery. But they also go to every audition they can; and when they do get parts, Chapman cuts back on their hours (without firing them) so they can do their television work. They’re young enough to have the energy to carry the load of two jobs, as it were. And they’re ambitious enough to do what they have to do.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls, Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, gets a new client. Mr. Pulani runs a very famous and popular Botswana beauty pageant. Now he wants Mma. Makutsi to help him find the best candidate to win the Miss Beauty and Integrity contest. It’s an odd request, but Mma. Makutsi agrees, and begins to meet the top candidates. She doesn’t have a lot of time to make her choice, but she soon gets to know enough about these young women to decide which one best embodies the pageant’s ideals. It’s an interesting look at the drive to win pageant fame. So, by the way, is Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann CraigHickory Smoked Homicide, which goes ‘behind the scenes’ of the beauty pageant circuit.

Then there’s the interesting case of Clara and Peter Morrow, whom Louise Penny fans will know as residents of the small Québec town of Three Pines. The Morrows are both artists, and when we first meet them in Still Life, Peter is widely acknowledged to be the one with the greater talent, and certainly more recognition. In one story arc, though, Clara finds her own artistic voice and begins to get some attention and notice of her own. She’s really not what you’d call greedy or overly ambitious. But it is interesting to see what happens to the dynamic between the Morrows as Clara begins to get noticed. I won’t spoil the arc for those who don’t know it. I can say, though, that it’s a case of up-and-coming fame changing a lot.

On the outside, anyway, fame seems to offer a great deal. So it’s little wonder so many people dream of it. But as any crime fiction fan knows, that ambition can carry a hefty price tag…


*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. Yes, that Shel Silverstein.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Paddy Richardson, Riley Adams

No Border Fence Can Separate Us, No*

BorderlandsI live less than an hour’s drive (depending on the traffic) from the U.S./Mexican border. What’s interesting about a borderland area like this is the distinctive culture that’s developed. There are certainly influences on both sides of the border of both the U.S. dominant culture and the Mexican dominant culture. But really, life here is a blend of those cultures, and that makes it unique – neither one nor the other, if I can put it that way.

There are ‘border cultures’ all over the world, whether the border is between two very friendly allies or two enemies. And if you think about it, borderlands are very effective settings for crime novels. For one thing, there is, as I say, a unique culture. For another, even between the friendliest of allies, there are often big and little tensions that can add to a novel’s suspense. Put that together with the mystery that’s the main focus of the novel, and you can have a very absorbing read.

Borderlands figure into a few of Agatha Christie’s stories. For example, in both The Murder on the Links and The Mystery of the Blue Train, Hercule Poirot, who lives in London, investigates murders that take place in France. Several of the characters in those novels cross between the two countries more than once, and do business in both places. That ‘border culture’ of cosmopolitan travel is distinctive – neither French nor English really – and it’s interesting to see how it plays out in these stories. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

Philippe Georget’s Summertime, All the Cats are Bored takes place in the Perpignan region of France, near the French/Spanish border. Two Perpignan police officers, Gilles Sebag and Jacques Molina are dealing with the usual life of a long, hot summer. Sebag’s concerned that his wife Claire may be having an affair, and Molina has his own concerns. Everything’s put aside though when the body of Josetta Braun, a Dutch tourist, is discovered. Then Anneke Verbrucke, who is also Dutch, is abducted. It looks very much as though there’s a serial killer at work, and the media wastes no time making much of that. Now Sebag and Molina have to try to outwit the killer before there are any more murders. In this story, we get a look at the culture of this border area – neither thoroughly French nor thoroughly Spanish, but distinctive.

The Austria/Italy borderland is the setting for Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski, which introduces her Scotland Yard sleuth Henry Tibbett. He and his wife Emmy take a skiing trip to Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’re staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, which caters to skiers. Then late one afternoon, one of the other guests is murdered. Austrian-born businessman Fritz Hauser is shot and his body discovered on the downward-facing ski-lift. Tibbett doesn’t have jurisdiction, but once the investigating officer Capitano Spezzi finds out Tibbetts is with the Yard, he slowly starts to trust him and Tibbetts gets to work. Santa Chiara is in Italy; however, there’s a strong Austrian influence in the area, not least because this borderland has changed hands more than once. There are important cultural differences between the Italians and the Austrians; there’s even a bit of tension. But really, the local culture is Alpine – neither distinctly Italian nor distinctly Austrian.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice takes place partly in the borderland between the US and Mexico. It begins in Los Angeles, when Harry Bosch gets word on his police scanner that the body of a suicide victim has been discovered. The dead man is identified as Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, a fellow cop. The first theory is that Moore killed himself because he’d ‘gone dirty.’ But certain things don’t add up for Bosch, and he starts to investigate. His search leads him to the ‘twin cities’ of Calexico (in California) and Mexicali (in Mexico), and to a connection with Moore’s past. This area is a blend both of languages (English, Spanish and Spanglish are spoken on both sides of the border) and of cultures. There’s some tension there, but people who live in this borderland have developed their own distinctive culture and ways of living.

The U.S./Canada border is one of the friendlier borders in the world (not that there’s never any tension or strong disagreement). Because it’s such a long border (it’s the world’s longest international border), there isn’t what you’d call one ‘borderland’ culture. There are several. One such culture is the Great Lakes culture in the borderland between the U.S. state of Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario. Steve Hamilton explores the rural part of that culture in his Alex McKnight series. McKnight is a former Detroit police officer who’s left the force and now makes a living renting cabins near Sault Ste. Marie (Soo) Michigan/Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. There are of course formalities when McKnight crosses the border, but the area isn’t really completely Canadian or completely U.S. Instead, it’s a unique rural hunting/fishing/sport tourist area.

The capital of Botswana, Gabarone, is in the borderland area between that country and South Africa. So Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe, whose detective agency is in Gabarone, visits South Africa in more than one of her cases. And in both that series and the Michael Stanley writing duo’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, we see several examples of people who live on one side of the border but work on the other. It’s a culturally and linguistically unique place, and you can see that in the language patterns. English is the official language of Botswana, but most of the people also speak Setswana. Setswana is also spoken just across the border in South Africa. It’s an interesting case of cultural and linguistic borders being different to geopolitical borders.

Fans of Brian McGilloway’s Garda Ben Devlin series will know that it takes place mostly in the borderlands between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. And fans of Kate Atkinson and Val McDermid will know that several of their novels take place in the Scottish Border area. In both of those cases, we see a distinctive way of life that blends both sides of the border. Dialect, daily life, and so on are all unique to those areas. And that’s really what a borderland is. It’s not one side’s culture or the other. Instead, it’s a unique culture that has elements of both. Which bordlerlands novels and series stand out for you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Boom Shaka’s Unite.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Brian McGilloway, Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Patricia Moyes, Phillipe Georget, Steve Hamilton, Val McDermid