When you travel in the US, you see one thing very clearly: America is composed of a lot of very different communities. Of course, many other countries are quite diverse, and have all sorts of different smaller communities within them. Those smaller communities add depth, texture and complexity to the fabric of the country and (in my opinion) make it richer. And fortunately, there’s plenty of good crime fiction that gives readers a look at those communities. There’s not nearly enough space here to mention all of the smaller communities that make up America. Here are just a few that have added to the national tapestry.
The Native Americans were here first, and several crime fiction series and novels offer insight into their experiences. You’ll probably already likely know about the work of Tony Hillerman, whose Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels focus on life in the Navajo Nation. These novels give a fascinating perspective on the Southwest US, among other things. But Hillerman is hardly the only writer who explores the Native American experience. So does Stan Jones, whose Nathan Active novels take place in Alaska. Active is an Alaska State Trooper, and a member of the Inupiaq Nation. Although he was raised in Anchorage, Active now lives and works in the small town of Chukchi. This series does feature crime and its investigation. But it’s also a look at life among the Native Americans who live in Alaska. There’s also Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden/Father John O’Malley series. Those novels take place mostly on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, among the Arapaho people. Holden is a member of that community; she’s also an attorney. As she and Fr. O’Malley investigate, readers learn a lot about life among the Arapaho. There are plenty of other crime novels and series that take place among, or that feature, Native Americans (I know, I know, fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series). To understand the United States, it’s important to have at least some understanding of the people who were here first.
Another fascinating community of the modern US is the Cajun community of (mostly) Louisiana. You’ll know from your history that they’re the descendants of Acadians, who migrated to what was then French territory after being expelled from what are today Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Cajun music, food, lifestyle and language have had a powerful impact on Louisiana. And that influence has spread as people have discovered that rich resource. James Lee Burke has shown millions of readers life among the Cajuns through his Dave Robicheaux novels. As fans will know, Robicheaux is a cop with the New Iberia (Louisiana) Police. He himself is a Cajun; and he certainly interacts with many other Cajuns in the course of his work. So readers get a really interesting perspective on that community.
I don’t think it’s possible to accurately discuss the American experience without discussing the Black experience. Perhaps the most important, and basic, thing about that experience is that it’s been fundamentally different to the White experience. Understanding that fact, and gaining a perspective on Black America, is important (at least I think it is) to understanding the modern USA. Walter Mosely has written a few series that explore the Black experience. His Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins novels take place in Los Angeles in the years just after World War II, and leading up to and through the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s. In those novels, we follow Rawlins, who starts out as an informal PI, but later gets his license. Another of his series features Leonid McGill, a modern-day New York PI. What’s interesting is that a comparison of this series shows that the Black experience is not identical across the country. What’s more, it’s not identical over time. You could say the same thing about Attica Locke’s work. Her novels explore both the Houston area and Louisiana, both in the present day and the recent (and not at all recent) past. Throughout those stories, we see the complexity as well as the evolution of the Black community.
No less rich and complex is the US Latino community. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that there really isn’t one Latino community. Still, for the sake of space, there are crime writers who’ve explored the Latino experience in America. One is Manuel Ramos. His Denver-based attorney Luis Móntez was at one time involved in the Chicano activist movement. When we meet him in The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, he has to return to that past when he learns that several other former activists – members of El Movimiento – are dying. The key seems to be their history and their possible involvement years ago in the death of one of their own, Rocky Ruiz. Steven Torres’ Precinct Puerto Rico series features Luis Gonzalo, a small-town Puerto Rico Sheriff. There are plenty of other novels, too, that depict different Latino communities.
Just about every major American city has a Chinatown of one sort or another. The Chinese community in the US has become a unique blend of traditional Chinese culture, language and lifestyle with elements of the surrounding culture. And the list of ways in which that Chinese culture has influenced the US would go on for far too long. Both S.J. Rozan and Henry Chang explore life in New York’s Chinatown. And Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons takes a look at life in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.
There are plenty of other smaller communities in the US, too. For instance, Linda Castillo explores the Amish community in her Kate Burkholder novels. And Mette Ivie Harrison depicts life in the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) community in The Bishop’s Wife. All of these communities are unique and distinctive.
But here’s the thing. They are also all American. So although every community’s experience is different, there’s also a shared history. Stitching all of this together to form a national identity is an extremely complicated, sometimes horribly messy, and always fascinating process. After 239 years, it’s still a work in progress. It’ll be exciting and interesting to see where the journey takes us next. Happy Independence Day/Fourth of July to those who celebrate it!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s America.