Category Archives: David Whish-Wilson

In Loyalty to Our Kind*

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot solves the stabbing murder of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. The victim is killed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express, and the only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car. One of those passengers is Princess Natalia Dragomiroff, a formidable elderly lady whose strength is in her personality. At one point in the story, she has this to say:
 

‘‘I believe…in loyalty – to one’s friends and one’s family and one’s caste.’’
 

She’s not alone. Being loyal to the members of one’s group is a highly-valued trait, and that makes sense if you think about it. People depend on other group members for a lot, including, at times, survival. So, it’s important that groups stick together, as the saying goes. And there are sometimes very severe penalties for breaking that rule. Loyalty matters, but it can sometimes go too far, and that can make for an interesting layer of character development in a crime novel. It can also allow for plot points.

For example, one of the cardinal rules of the Mafia and of other criminal groups is what the Mafia has called omerta – silence. Every member is expected to keep quiet about the group’s activities, or about anyone else who might be involved. That’s how one proves loyalty to the group. We see that, for instance, in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. In that novel, Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move from the US to a small town in Normandy. The four settle in and begin the process of getting used to an entirely new culture.  But all is not as it seems. ‘Fred Blake’ is really Giovanni Manzini, a former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against his fellow mobsters in court. Now, he and his family are in the US Witness Protection Program, and have been resettled in Normandy for their own protection. The plan is successful enough, until word of the Manzini family’s whereabouts accidentally gets back to New Jersey. Now, Manzini could very well pay a terrible price for his disloyalty.

Police officers depend on each other, sometimes for their lives. That’s one reason why there’s such a premium placed on loyalty to other officers. In many cases, that’s part of the ‘glue’ that holds the force together. But this loyalty, too, can be taken too far. In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, for instance, we are introduced to Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police. One afternoon, he is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him, he takes probationer Lucy Howard. They’re investigating at the house when White is stabbed to death. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who already has a history with local law enforcement. The other officers are loyal to White, and want to mete out their own kind of justice. But the media is paying very close attention to this case, and everyone knows that if they don’t do everything exactly ‘by the book,’ there’ll be a lot of trouble. It’s all complicated by the fact that Rowley is part Aboriginal. All of the police know that the least misstep on their part will lead to accusations of racism. It’s clear throughout the novel, though, that loyalty to each other and to White impacts all of their choices. There are many other crime novels, too, where loyalty to other police officers comes into play (I’m thinking, for instance, of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight). This is part of the reason for which so many police officers are biased against Internal Affairs and other internal investigation groups.

There’s also the tendency for people in elite groups to protect themselves and one another. We see this, for instance, in the work of Qiu Xiaolong. His Chief Inspector Chen Cao lives and works in Shanghai at the end of the 1990’s/beginning of the 21st Century. Chen is respected, and has an important position within his police department. However, he isn’t at the very top of the proverbial tree. That place is reserved for the elite of the Party – the High Cadre people. Those individuals make all of the important decisions, and displeasing them can lead to the end of a career, or sometimes worse. High Cadre families are loyal to each other and protect one another, and would far rather police themselves than have independent investigators look into their business. Chen is very well aware of the power the High Cadre people have, and their tendency to be loyal to their sociopolitical group. So, when his investigations lead to high places, as they often do, Chen has to move very carefully.

And then there’s family loyalty. Most of us would agree that being loyal to one’s family is a highly valued trait. In crime series such as Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels, we see this loyalty in action. Rafferty is a ‘rough travel’ writer who lives and works in Bangkok. He also happens to be very good at finding people who don’t want to be found. That’s why he’s in demand when people are looking for someone in hiding. Rafferty’s married to Rose, a former bar girl who now owns an apartment cleaning company. Rose loves her husband and adopted daughter, Miaow. But she is very loyal to her family of origin. Here’s what she says about it to Rafferty:
 

‘She [Rose] turns to face him. ‘We have ten dollars left,’ she says. Her voice is so low he has to strain to hear it. ‘Miaow is hungry. My little sister up north is hungry. Who gets the ten dollars? … I would send the money to my sister,’ Rose says. ‘Without a minute’s thought.’’
 

Of course, family loyalty can create all sorts of obstacles to criminal investigation, too. In many crime novels, people don’t want to talk to the police about their siblings/parents/cousins/etc., because those people are family members.

But that’s the thing about loyalty. Like most other human traits, it’s a proverbial double-edged sword. It’s valuable to an extent, and in many situations. On the other hand, it can also be tragic.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, James Ellroy, Qiu Xiaolong, Timothy Hallinan, Tonino Benacquista, Y.A. Erskine

I Know I’ll Never be Forgiven*

Everyone makes mistakes, and plenty of people do things they shouldn’t do. That’s part of being human, really. And often, those mistakes – those ‘sins’ if you want to call it that – are forgiven. You pay that speeding ticket, and watch your driving, and you’re forgiven. You pay the overdraft fee on your bank account, and don’t let it happen too often, and you’re all right.

But every profession has certain ‘sins’ that aren’t forgiven. For instance, responsible news journalists report the truth and only the truth. That profession doesn’t easily forgive a person who makes up news stories, or who reports something that isn’t true.

Those ‘unforgiveable sins’ can make interesting contexts or plots for crime fiction. They can create a motive for murder, add character development, move a plot along, and build suspense. They also do happen in real life, and this can add to a story as well.

For instance, in the world of banking and finance, embezzlement is unforgiveable. People caught doing so are often ‘blacklisted’ and not able to work again within the field. It’s a serious enough sort of crime that those committing it will sometimes do whatever it takes to avoid getting caught – at least in fiction. In John D. MacDonald’s Nightmare in Pink, for instance, Travis McGee is drawn into a dangerous case involving embezzlement when an old military friend, Mike Gibson, asks for his help. Gibson’s younger sister, Nina, has just lost her fiancé, Howard Plummer. On the surface of it, Plummer’s murder looks like a mugging gone wrong. But she suspects otherwise. Plummer worked for an investment company called Armister-Hawes, and had begun to suspect that there were irregularities in some things happening at the company, including embezzlement. And, as McGee finds out, there are some well-connected people at the company who do not want him to find out the truth.

In the field of academia, one of the ‘unforgiveable sins’ is plagiarism. Presenting someone else’s work as one’s one can constitute grounds for failing a course, and later, for losing (or not getting) a job. And once word gets around that it’s happened, it usually means that the guilty party is unlikely to get another job, a speaking invitation, or a publishing contract. Plagiarism is part of the plot of Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret. In the novel, sessional lecturer Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig makes ends meet by teaching courses as needed for Grant McEwan University, in Edmonton. Her friend, Denise Wolff, asks her to work on an alumni event to coincide with the University of Alberta’s Homecoming (Craig got her M.A. at that institution). Craig agrees, and the planning begins. Then, Wolff tells her a disturbing piece of news. A new novel by Margaret Ahlers is about to be published. What’s unsettling about this is that Craig did her M.A. thesis on Ahlers, and knows for a fact that the author has been gone for years. And it’s very, very unlikely that an unpublished manuscript would have turned up after all this time. If it’s not a genuine Ahlers novel, then someone is a plagiarist. All of this brings up a mystery that Craig was involved when she was working on her thesis; that mystery ties into the present-day mystery, and puts Craig in a great deal of danger.

In the world of sport, one of those ‘unpardonable sins’ is fixing games or matches. It can be very tempting, though, especially if a lot of money is involved. Just ask rugby player Mark Stevens, whom we meet in John Daniell’s The Fixer. He’s a former star of New Zealand’s legendary All-Blacks team, who’s heading towards the end of his career. Now, he plays for a French professional team, and doing well enough. Everything changes when he meets Rachel da Silva, who works for a Brazilian magazine. She’s been sent to France to do an in-depth piece on rugby, and wants to interview Stevens. He’s happy to do the interview, and before long, the two are working together on the article. Soon, da Silva tells Stevens about a friend of hers named Philip, who’s made a lot of money betting on rugby. And it’s not long before Philip’s very generous gifts, and da Silva’s very personal attention, draw Stevens into a web of providing ‘inside information,’ so that Philip can make even more money. That’s one thing, but then Stevens discovers that what Philip really wants is for him to fix matches. Now, Stevens faces a serious dilemma. He’s as opposed to fixing matches as any real athlete, or fan of sport, is. On the other hand, he’s in deep, as the saying goes. And there will be real danger for him if he doesn’t do as he’s asked.

The police are entrusted with a great deal of power and authority. Abuse of that power is grounds for, at the very least, disciplinary action. It can be grounds for much more, including termination or even imprisonment. There are many novels that feature corrupt police and those who try to bring them to justice. One of those is David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which introduces Perth Superintendent Frank Swann. He’s been away from Perth for a few years, but returns when he hears about the murder of an old friend, Ruby Devine. He starts asking questions about the death, but soon runs into a proverbial wall of silence. One reason is that he called a Royal Commission hearing on corruption in the police department. That alone makes him a ‘dead man walking.’ What’s more, the police who are the target of this investigation – a group called ‘the purple circle’ – are powerful. No-one wants to run afoul of them. So, Swann gets very little help. Even so, he finds out the truth about his friend’s murder, and about its connection to the ‘purple circle.’

Nurses work with sometimes very vulnerable people. So, they’re held to what you might call a higher standard when it comes to caring for their charges. For a nurse, causing harm to a patient is a very serious matter. Even if it’s unintentional, it can get the nurse fired. Neglect or intentional harm is an even more serious ‘sin.’ We see how that plays out in Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy.  This novel tells the story of Sally Narelle ‘Snow’ Delaney. As the story begins, she’s in prison (for reasons which are revealed in the novel). In one plot thread, she begins to write letters to New South Wales journalist Jack ‘Tap’ Fawcett. Her purpose is to set the record straight about some things he’s written. Through those letters, we learn a great deal about Snow’s childhood, her training as a nurse, and the experiences she’s had in that profession. We also learn about the events that led to her imprisonment. As the story unfolds, we get an ‘inside look’ at a system that’s supposed to protect the most vulnerable, and about what happens when it doesn’t.

Each profession has its standards, and when members violate those standards, the consequences can be especially severe. Among other things, there’s a sense of, ‘you’re supposed to know better, so it’s doubly wrong when you break this rule.’ These are only a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Echo and the Bunnymen’s Forgiven.

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Filed under Caroline Overington, David Whish-Wilson, Janice MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, John Daniell

No One Dare Disturb the Sound of Silence*

One of the major challenges that police and private investigators face is people’s reluctance to talk to them. Sometimes that’s because those people have their own secrets, and they’d rather the police didn’t find them out. Many times, though, it’s because they’re afraid of what will happen to them if they do co-operate.  If there’s a lot of what I’ll call peer pressure not to be involved in an investigation, people find that hard to resist.

For instance, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Glasgow Detective Inspector (DI) Jack Laidlaw is faced with a very troubling case. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson has been raped and murdered, and her body discovered in Kelvingrove Park. In that part of the city, there is a lot of pressure not to talk to ‘the polis.’ Everyone knows who co-operates with the authorities, and those people are not made to feel welcome. Laidlaw knows this, so he takes a different approach to finding information. He and his second-in-command, Detective Constable (DC) Brian Harkness, pay a visit to John Rhodes, who is unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the victim was found. If Rhodes wants something to happen, it will happen. Laidlaw also knows that Rhodes has a certain ethic. He’s not going to be pleased about the rape and murder of a young woman on ‘his patch.’ So, Laidlaw and Harkness appeal to that ethic, and Rhodes agrees to put the word out for anyone who knows anything to come forward. Sure enough, that strategy turns out to be successful, and Laidlaw gets some useful information.

In Friedrich Glauser’s Thumprint, we are introduced to Sergeant Jacob Studer of the Bern Cantonal Police. He is responsible for the arrest of Erwin Schlumpf on the charge of murdering his sweetheart Sonja’s father, travelling salesman Wendelin Witschi. Studer decides to visit Schlumpf in prison, and arrives just in time to prevent the man’s suicide. He’s developing a liking for Schlumpf, so he decides to investigate Witschi’s murder again. There was certainly enough evidence against Schlumpf to arrest him, but Studer finds that there are other possibilities when it comes to the murderer. He faces a major challenge, though: very few people are willing to talk to him. It’s not so much that they dislike Schlumpf. Rather, they have to live in the small town where the murder occurred, and don’t want to upset the proverbial apple cart, especially considering that some suspects have quite a lot of local power.

There’s a similar sort of concern in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. In that novel, Amsterdam police detective Piet van der Valk is seconded to the small town of Zwinderen. There’s been a spate of anonymous ‘poison pen’ letters, and the matter has gone far beyond annoying. The letters have been responsible for two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to find out much information, chiefly because Zwinderen’s residents are close-mouthed. They have to live in this town, where everyone knows everyone’s business. If anyone is seen as helping the police, there’s immediately talk as to why. Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette, travel to the town, and settle in. Because of the natural suspicion, van der Valk pretends to be a bureaucrat conducting a study for the Ministry of the Interior. In that guise, he slowly gets to know the residents; and, in the end, he finds out who wrote the letters and why.

Maureen Carter’s Working Girls introduces readers to Birmingham Detective Sergeant (DS) Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss. The body of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas has been found by a local school caretaker, and the police begin their investigation. One of their first tasks is, of course, to find out as much as possible about the victim. When they learn that she was a sex worker, a natural next step is to talk to other local sex workers and find out about any enemies she’d made. That proves more difficult than it might seem. These women have to live in town and do their jobs. If they’re seen as helping the police, they’ll alienate some of the very people who are their support system. That’s not to mention that several of them work for Charlie Hawes, a dangerous pimp who’s not afraid to use violence to keep ‘his girls’ under control. He’s happy to use the same tactics against anyone else who crosses him, too, so people are inclined to keep quiet. Morriss knows how difficult it’s going to be to get Michelle’s friends and co-workers to talk, so she slowly develops a rapport with some of them, outside of the police station. Little by little, they learn to trust her, and she learns quite a lot of useful information.

Harry Bingham’s DC Fiona Griffiths faces the same challenge in Talking to the Dead. When part-time sex worker Janet Mancini and her six-year-old daughter, April, are killed, Griffiths joins the team that investigates the murders. She tries to make contact with some of the other sex workers in the area, but few of them are willing to talk. They still have to earn their livings. Besides, there are some very dangerous people who might be involved in the killings. It makes no sense to put their own lives in peril if anyone suspects they’ve been co-operating with the police. Still, Griffiths slowly finds out some of Mancini’s background. And she gets some important information about the killings.

And then there’s David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which takes place in late-1970s Perth. Superintendent Frank Swann’s been away from the area for a few years, but returns when he learns of the death of a friend, Ruby Devine. He soon finds that almost no-one is willing to talk to him about her death, though. For one thing, Swann has convened a Royal Commission hearing to look into possible corruption among a group of police known as the ‘purple circle.’ That’s already made him a marked man. And the people who might know something sill have to live in and around Perth. They have to deal with the consequences if it gets around that they helped Swann. It’s a difficult situation for everyone, but Swann eventually finds out the truth.

And that’s the thing about getting people to talk. The police need to get answers, but the people who could help them still have to go on with their lives, perhaps next door to someone they’ve accused. Or perhaps the next target of someone who doesn’t want to be ‘known to the police.’ Either way, this can make it very challenging to get information.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence.

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Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Friedrich Glauser, Harry Bingham, Maureen Carter, Nicolas Freeling, William McIlvanney

Will You Give All You Can Give*

risking-to-helpWe’ve all read and heard stories of those who risked everything, including their lives, to right a wrong and/or to help others. While some of them are well-known, others are not so well-known. For instance, do you know who Miep Gies was? She was a secretary for the Dutch offices of the German firm, Opekta. She was also one of those who helped to hide Otto Frank (who worked for Opekta), his wife, Edith, and their daughters, Margot and Anne, among others, from the Nazis. Miep and her husband Jan (who was a member of the Dutch Resistance) took grave risks to help the Frank family and the others who hid with them. What makes this story especially remarkable is that neither Gies was what you call a ‘superhero.’ They were ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

They aren’t the only examples of such courage, of course. We’ve seen them in real life, and we see them in crime fiction, too. It’s a bit tricky to create such a character, because it’s so important that the character be believable. But when they’re well-drawn, characters who risk everything to help others, or to do good, can add much to a story. They can be interesting in and of themselves, and the risks they take can add tension to a plot.

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Theft of the Royal Ruby (AKA The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding), Hercule Poirot is persuaded against his better judgement, to spend Christmas at Kings Lacey, the home of Colonel Horace Lacey, his wife, Em, their grandchildren and great-niece, and some other house guests. Poirot is ostensibly there to experience an old-fashioned English Christmas. But the real reason for his visit is to recover a valuable ruby that was stolen from an Eastern prince. On Christmas Eve, Poirot finds a note on his pillow, warning him not to eat any of the Christmas pudding. He’s puzzled, but doesn’t ignore the note. The pudding becomes important in the recovery of the jewel, and Poirot discovers that the author of the note is the family maid, Annie. It’s not spoiling the story to say that she didn’t steal the ruby. But she does take quite a risk, especially considering her position, in warning Poirot of what she sees as real danger to him.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series takes place mostly in Berlin, just before and during the Nazi era. As the series begins (with A Trace of Smoke), Vogel is a crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt. The Nazis are rising to power, and it’s getting more and more dangerous to oppose them. This makes it challenging enough for Vogel (and for many other Germans). But she’s got another challenge. She and her brother Ernst lent their identity papers to two Jewish friends who needed them to escape Berlin. Those friends have promised to return the papers, but the Vogels took a real risk. When Vogel discovers that her brother has been murdered, she has to be extremely cautious in finding out why and by whom. If she’s caught without papers, her doom is sealed. As the series goes on, she takes other risks, too. Fans of the novels will know that, more than once, she goes up against the Nazis as she finds out the truth of what they’ve been doing.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack introduces Buenos Aires police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. He lives and works in the late 1970s, a very dangerous time for most people in Buenos Aires. With the military government firmly in control, any whisper of dissent is brutally put down, and anyone who is considered to have ‘the wrong’ sympathies simply disappears. Against that backdrop, Lescano is called one morning to a riverbank where three bodies have been dumped. Two of them look like regular ‘army hits,’ and Lescano knows better than to question them if he can possibly avoid it. The third, though, is a little different. It turns out that this is the body of a moneylender named Elías Biterman, and Lescano doesn’t think he was killed in the usual way. So, very quietly, he begins an investigation. The trail leads to the very highest levels, and Lescano himself takes risks as he looks into the matter. He’s not the only one. When a court office boy named Marcelo discovers some very incriminating documents, he risks his life to get them to Lescano, and they play an important role in the case. Lescano is also helped by the medical examiner, Dr. Fusili, who risks his life to get to the real cause of Biterman’s death.

Malla Nunn’s DS Emmanuel Cooper has to take real risks, as well. This series takes place in the early 1950s, not long after South Africa’s apartheid laws were enacted. In the first novel, A Beautiful Place to Die, Cooper (who is white) is sent from Johannesburg to the small town of Jacob’s Rest to investigate the murder of Willem Pretorius. During the course of this investigation, we see the way the apartheid laws impact every aspect of life. Breaking any of them causes trouble; opposing them can be a fatal decision. Cooper, though, is determined to find out who killed the victim and why. In the course of doing so, he finds himself up against some very dangerous odds. And anyone who helps him faces risks, too. As the series goes on, we see that Cooper risks his life more than once to do the right thing.

So do several characters in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. This novel, which takes place in late-1970s Perth, features Superintendent Frank Swann. Swann left Perth several years earlier, but returns when he learns that a friend, Ruby Devine, has been murdered. He’s taking a risk looking into the case, as he’s already a ‘marked man.’  That’s because he convened a Royal Commission investigation into the activities of a group of corrupt police known as the ‘purple circle.’ They’ve got plenty of power, and aren’t afraid to use it, as brutally as necessary. Going against them can amount to a death sentence, so not many people are willing to help Swann. But a few brave people are. And in the end, we learn what happened to Ruby.

It takes a great deal of courage to risk everything in order to help others, or to right a wrong. But those who do make all the difference in the world. And they can serve as interesting characters in a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Do You Hear the People Sing?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, Ernesto Mallo, Malla Nunn, Rebecca Cantrell

‘Cause When It’s All For One, It’s One For All*

Individualist and Collectivist CulturesCrime fiction arguably says a lot about the culture from which it comes. This is a very large topic, so I’ll just focus on one aspect of culture. One of the important ways in which cultures differ is in the extent to which they’re collectivist or individualist. Of course, very few cultures are what you’d call entirely collectivist or entirely individualist. But most cultures lean towards one or the other.

Individualistic cultures tend to value individual achievement and efforts. In those cultures, one’s identity comes from individual experiences, choices and the like. In collectivist cultures, on the other hand, individuals’ identities come from their memberships in the larger group. Group goals and achievements have priority over individual goals, and members of the group rely on each other for child and elder care, financial support and the like. The point here isn’t to argue the merits of one type of culture or the other. Rather, it’s to point out that individualism or collectivism really does impact cultures.

We certainly see it in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too. For example, one aspect of individualistic cultures is an emphasis on individual effort. And that’s arguably reflected in the kinds of sleuths and stories that come from US authors (the dominant US culture is considered highly individualistic). If we look at characters such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Bill Pronzini’s Nameless, or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, we see examples of sleuths who generally work alone, and certainly don’t get their sense of identity from membership in a particular group. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have friends, don’t value what they learn from others, and so on. But their individual efforts are really the main point of the stories that feature them.

Another characteristic of a lot of individualistic cultures is what’s often called low power distance. In just about every culture, some people have more power than others. Power distance refers to individuals’ willingness to accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. So, lower-ranking individuals from low power distance cultures are less likely to be comfortable with the unequal distribution of power. To see how this plays out, we can take a look at David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, the first of his Superintendent Frank Swann novels. These take place in 1970’s Perth, in a culture that’s generally considered to be quite individualistic. In Line of Sight, Swann investigates the murder of a former friend, brothel owner Ruby Devine. To get to the truth, he has to go up against a very powerful group of top police brass known as the ‘purple circle.’ The novel shows, among other things, the view that titles and power don’t necessarily equal the respect of others. Certainly they don’t guarantee obedience from others. And that’s not surprising, considering that this is an individualistic culture.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels will probably find that perspective familiar, and that’s not surprising, either. These stories take place mostly in Scotland, which is also considered an individualistic culture. The cultural values of low power distance and an emphasis on individual effort and achievement come through very clearly in the series.

These aren’t the only examples of individualistic cultures and the novels that come from them, of course. There are many, many more. And as we look at novels from individualistic cultures, we see how those perspectives and cultural values come through.

That’s also arguably true of collectivist cultures and the novels that depict them. For example, we can take a look at power distance from the point of view of Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen series. Chen lives and works in late 1990’s Shanghai, a culture that’s considered very collectivist. High power distance (or, the acceptance and expectation of unequal distribution of power) is an important aspect of that culture. And we see that reflected in this series. It is expected that those of higher rank – those considered more important – have more power and make the rules that they see fit to make. That’s not generally questioned very much. You might argue that, in his way, Qiu does question that power structure, since the murders Chen investigates often lead to very high places. But at the same time, there is an acknowledgement of that characteristic of this society.

Another collectivist characteristic that we see in Qiu’s novels is the emphasis on group, rather than individual, goals. One important political goal is social harmony (that’s a main plot point of Enigma of China). The greater good, so the belief goes, is served when nothing disrupts the order and harmony of the group. Fans of this series will undoubtedly be able to think of examples of how this plays out in the novels.

Because collectivist cultures place a high value on group membership, members are responsible for the welfare of other members. Group effort is therefore a very high priority. This is reflected in Swati Kaushal’s Niki Marwah series, which takes place in northern India. There are, of course, many different cultures in India; it’s a large and diverse country. But in general, it’s considered collectivist. Marwah is Superintendent of Police in Shimla, and as such, makes the final decisions. But she’s not really out for personal gain and achievement. And she knows very well that without the efforts of her team members, crimes won’t be solved. Each team member has something to contribute, and each team member is responsible to the others.

This series (and Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri series, too, among others) also shows the vital importance of family in many collectivist societies. Marwah may be an independent and successful police inspector. But she’s also a member of her family, and takes her responsibilities seriously. She attends family events, she listens to what the older members of her family say (even if she doesn’t end up taking their advice) and so on.

These are just a few examples of the ways that culture impacts stories and characters. And of course, collectivism/individualism is just one dimension of culture. There are many, many more. But even with this small peek at the topic, it seems clear (at least to me) that we can tell a lot about a culture from its crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bryan Adams’ All For Love.

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Filed under Bill Pronzini, David Whish-Wilson, Ian Rankin, Qiu Xiaolong, Raymond Chandler, Sara Paretsky, Swati Kaushal, Tarquin Hall