Category Archives: Kate Atkinson

Zero to Hero – Just Like That*

HeroesIf you’ve ever seen those news stories where people get thrust into the limelight for doing something very brave, you may have noticed that many of these people say the same thing: ‘I’m not a hero.’

There are people, of course, who crave glory. But most true heroes are fairly reluctant about making much of it. In fact, they just want to get back to their normal lives when it’s all over. That’s as true in crime fiction as it is in real life, if you think about it. Plenty of characters end up being reluctant heroes for one reason or another.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp investigate the shooting death of Henry Morley in his dental surgery. One of Morley’s patients is well-known, powerful banker Alistair Blunt. He’s got enough enemies that one very real possibility is that he was the actual target. If that’s the case, then Howard Raikes may be the killer. Raikes is a political radical who wants to get rid of powerful bankers such as Blunt and set up a whole new kind of society. And Raikes was known to be at the dental surgery on the day of the murder. In an odd twist, Raikes turns out to be a hero later in the book. Blunt is spending the weekend at his country place when someone fires a shot at him. Raikes catches the person holding the gun, and there’s a very awkward moment when Blunt has to be grateful to someone whom he knows intensely dislikes him, and when Raikes has to get public attention for looking out for someone he holds in contempt.

In Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York homicide detective Tom Shawn is going for a late night walk when he comes upon a distraught young woman on a bridge. She’s about to jump off, and it takes him a bit of time to convince her not to. But he finally succeeds. When he does, he takes her to an all-night diner where she tells him her story. It turns out that she is Jean Reid, daughter of wealthy and successful Harlan Reid. Although she lost her mother at a very young age, her life had been more or less happy until recently. Through a series of strange events, the Reids met Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who, as he puts it, is cursed with knowing the future. Harlan Reid began to visit Tompkins more and more often, finding that all of Tompkins’ predictions seemed to come true. Then came the day that Tompkins predicted his death on a certain date at midnight. Now his daughter is devastated. Shawn is no hero. He’s not out for glory, and certainly doesn’t want public notice. But he does feel for the young woman. So he does what he can to help. And it turns out that he gets drawn in to a very strange case…

Kate Atkinson’s Martin Canning, whom we meet in One Good Turn, is anything but the heroic type. He’s a retiring sort of person, a crime writer by trade, who happens to be in Edinburgh one afternoon picking up tickets for a lunchtime comedy radio show. While he’s waiting his turn, he happens to witness an accident in which a blue Honda hits a silver Peugeot driven by Paul Bradley. Both drivers get out and start to argue. As you can imagine, the argument escalates until the Honda driver brandishes a baseball bat and begins to hit Bradley. Canning sees what’s happening and, without thinking much, throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. His sense of obligation makes him accompany Bradley to the nearest hospital, to make sure he’ll be all right. That heroism draws Canning into a web of fraud, murder and more. Little wonder he didn’t want to be a hero…

Neither, really, does Kishwar Desai’s Simran Singh, whom we meet in Witness the Night. She is a social worker based in Delhi. Everything changes when she gets a call from an old friend from university who’s now Inspector General for the State of Punjab. He wants her help with a terrible case of murder. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested for the poisoning deaths of thirteen of her family members. Some were stabbed as well, and the house was burned. There are signs that Durga may have been a victim, too, who just happened to escape. But it’s also possible that she is responsible for this set of crimes. The police can’t get much information, because Durga has said nearly nothing since she was arrested. The hope is that if Simran can get the girl to talk, the authorities can find out what really happened that night. Very slowly, Simran gets to know Durga, and as she finds out the truth, Simran ends up being what most people would call a hero. She doesn’t really want that recognition; she doesn’t do anything to get the credit or ‘earn points.’ She works to find out the truth mostly to help Durga if she can.

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s Dance of the Seagull. In that novel, Vigàta police inspector Salvo Montalbano is faced with a particularly difficult case. One of his team members, Giuseppe Fazio, has gone missing. At the time he disappeared, Fazio was working on a smuggling case, so Montalbano is hoping that if he follows the trail Fazio left, he’ll find out what’s happened to his colleague. It’s not spoiling the story to say that the team members find Fazio, wounded but alive, and get him into a hospital. That’s how Montalbano meets Angela, one of the nurses who works there. She’s a skilled nurse, but she certainly doesn’t see herself as a hero. In fact, she doesn’t really want to get involved with the police or with the case they’re investigating. But as it turns out, she behaves heroically. She doesn’t want credit for it, and she never wanted to be involved in the first place. She just wants to do her job.

And that’s the way it is for a lot of people whom we regard as heroes. They’re people, like us, who do remarkable things. They don’t regard themselves as ‘extra special,’ and certainly don’t look for the situations that make them heroes. It just works out that way.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Zippel and Alan Menken’s Zero to Hero.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Cornell Woolrich, Kate Atkinson, Kishwar Desai

Everyday Things*

Everyday ThingsOne of my very top crime novels** begins this way:

‘Crime was out there.’

That line makes sense, when you think about it, especially when it comes to crime fiction. Sometimes doing the most ordinary things can get a person involved in a fictional murder. One of the first things that comes to mind is, of course, the stereotype jogger or dog-walker who discovers a body. I won’t mention those examples in this post, because they’re just too easy. Besides, there are a lot of other ordinary, everyday things people do that can get them involved in a crime, whether they want to be or not.

What could be more ordinary than looking out a window when you’re on a train? People do it all the time. But it has a sinister outcome in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!). Elspeth McGillicuddy takes a train to visit her friend Miss Marple. During the trip, another train on a parallel track catches up to and then passes the train. Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look out the window into the windows of the other train – a very ordinary, even mundane thing to do. But this time, she sees a man strangling a woman. Almost everyone thinks that Mrs. McGillicuddy simply drifted off to sleep and dreamt the whole thing. But Miss Marple knows her friend isn’t fanciful. She does some of her own research and determines that the body was probably pushed off the train and likely landed on the grounds of Rutherford Hall. Knowing she herself doesn’t have an ‘in’ there, she gets a friend of hers, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to take a position at Rutherford Hall. Sure enough, a woman’s body turns up. With Lucy’s help, Miss Marple figures out who the dead woman was, why she was killed and by whom. And all of this comes from one glance out of a window.

Looking out of a window gets Maura Cody involved in a dangerous case in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. Cody is a former Roman Catholic nun who’s left the convent and started again on her own. She lives a very quiet life, and certainly doesn’t look to call a lot of attention to herself. She’s not really the ‘curtain-twitching’ type, either. But when she does happen to look out of her window, she sees something that puts her in a great deal of danger. So Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney have to try to keep her safe as they look for the murderers of banker Emmet Sweetman. As it turns out, Cody is in even more danger than anyone thought. Vincent Naylor and a group that included his brother Noel planned and carried out what was supposed to be the perfect heist. It went tragically wrong, and now Naylor wants revenge. When he suspects that Cody might have seen something, he decides to get rid of his problem.

If you’re a teacher, very little is more ordinary than planning a trip with your class, especially to a local place. But in Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, a class trip turns out to be anything but mundane for fourth-grade teacher Hildegarde Withers. She and her students have spent the morning visiting the New York Aquarium, and are gathering to leave. But one of the students notices that Miss Withers’ hatpin is missing. It’s finally found at the bottom of a flight of steps. But then, Miss Withers discovers that one of her students is not with the rest of the group. A search leads to the penguin pool, where the child is found watching the animals. Just then, a man’s body slides into the pool. That’s how Miss Withers gets involved in what turns out to be a case of murder.

Getting on a bus is another everyday sort of thing people do. How often have you ridden a bus without even thinking about it? But it’s not so ordinary in Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. One day, Emma Curtis is taking a bus home from work, as she always does. It’s another regular day for her. Also on the bus is Luke Murray. At one stop, a group of young people get on the bus and begin to bully Murray. Finally, fellow rider Jason Barnes intervenes, telling the group to leave Murray alone. For a time, things quiet down. Murray gets off the bus. So do the young people who’ve been harassing him. So does Barnes. The fight starts up again and in fact escalates. It continues all the way to Barnes’ front yard, where he is fatally stabbed. Emma now finds herself involved in what has turned out to be a case of murder, and all because she took a certain bus on a certain day.

Kate Atkinson makes use of this strategy in One Good Turn. A group of people that includes mystery writer Martin Canning is waiting to purchase tickets for an afternoon comic radio show. It’s the most ordinary thing, if you think about it – waiting to buy tickets. But it’s hardly mundane this time. As the group watches, a silver Peugeot driven by Paul Bradley is hit by a Blue Toyota. Both drivers get out of their cars and start arguing. The argument gets worse; finally, the Toyota driver brandishes a baseball bat and starts to attack Bradley. Almost instinctually, Canning, who’s never done a truly brave thing in his life, hurls his computer case at the Toyota driver, stopping him and saving Bradley’s life. Canning feels a responsibility to make sure that Bradley gets the medical help he needs, so he goes with the man to a local hospital. Before he knows it, he’s drawn into a case of fraud and multiple murder. And it all started with a simple, everyday wait for tickets.

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, involvement in a murder case begins with a simple trip to a dumpster. Academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets an early-morning call from her daughter Mieka, who’s just opened a catering business. Mieka was taking some trash to the dumpster when she discovered the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin. Bernice was one of Mieka’s employees, so she feels a particular sense of responsibility. At first, the murder looks like one of a series of killings that the police have dubbed ‘the Little Flower Murders.’ But as Kilbourn and her daughter ask questions, it turns out that this murder is different…

So do be careful if you wash dishes, walk the dog, look out a bus or train window, or wait for tickets at the cinema. You never know where it all might lead…



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by David Usher.

** Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. If you haven’t read it yet, I heartily recommend it.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Gene Kerrigan, Kate Atkinson, Stuart Palmer

The Time to Hesitate is Through*

Quick thinkingA recent post from crime writer Sue Coletta got me thinking about how protagonists get out of difficult and sometimes dangerous situations. On the one hand, unless you’re reading the kind of novel where you’ve cheerfully suspended your disbelief, you don’t want the characters to be superheroes. A believable protagonist could therefore potentially be in a life-threatening situation. On the other hand, Sue makes the point (and she’s right!) that there are ways to create a credible ‘in the nick of time’ way to get out of danger.

It requires some quick thinking and resourcefulness to get out of such situations. But in a way, that makes such escapes, if you want to call it that, all the more believable. And that kind of quick thinking can add some interesting ‘spark’ and suspense to a novel.

In Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, for instance, Charles Moray returns to England after an absence only to find that his house has been taken over by a criminal gang. What’s worse, he has good reason to believe that his former fiancée Margaret Langton may be in with this group. Moray tells his friend Archie Millar about what he’s discovered, and Millar suggests a visit to private investigator Maude Silver. Miss Silver isn’t exactly what Moray would have imagined, but she listens to his story and begins her investigation. And in the end, with her help, Moray learns who the members of the gang really are, and what their target is. It’s not spoiling the story to say that at one point, Moray and his former love end up trapped in a basement by the leader of the gang. Neither one of them is a superhero, but Margaret hits on a way to get help. She manages to scribble a few words on a piece of paper and sticks it where it just might be seen. She doesn’t use brawn or weapons, and that makes the scene more believable.

In Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Bedingfield. When her father dies, she’s left with very little money and no real ties to London. She has no real desire to settle down, so on impulse, she lets her curiosity get the better of her when she witnesses a fatal accident. She retrieves a note left from the accident scene and deduces that it refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. She can’t resist booking a ticket, and ends up caught in a web of jewel theft, intrigue and murder. At one point, she’s been taken prisoner and locked in an attic. She uses her wits and a piece of glass left on the dusty floor to get free and manages to escape. There are other places in the novel, too, in which she uses her ingenuity (no spoilers). The story itself may not be an ‘everyday life’ kind of crime story, but Christie didn’t give Anne superhuman powers, and she’s more believable because of that.

Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn sees crime writer Martin Canning getting ready to pick up tickets to an afternoon comedy radio performance one day. As he’s waiting, he’s one of several witnesses to a car accident in which a blue Honda hits a silver Peugeot driven by Paul Bradley. Both men get out of their cars and begin to argue. The conflict escalates until the Honda driver wields a baseball bat and attacks Bradley. Canning is by no means a ‘tough guy.’ In fact, he’s never done a really courageous thing in his life. But in this instance, he thinks quickly (almost instinctively) and throws his computer bag at the Honda driver. It’s quick thinking, but it’s believable, and the act saves Bradley’s life. Feeling duty-bound, Canning sees that Bradley is taken to the nearest hospital; he then stays with the man to see he’s cared for properly. Canning’s sense of responsibility gets him in more trouble than he could have imagined.

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher isn’t a superhero, but she’s very quick-witted, and it often gets her out of trouble. For instance, when we first meet her in Cocaine Blues,   she has returned ‘on assignment’ from London to her home in Melbourne. Some London friends are concerned about their daughter, whom they fear may be in danger from her husband. Phryne looks into the matter with the help of some friends she makes along the way, and discovers a deadly web of drugs trade, murder and more. At one point, she and her friend Bert Johnson have ‘staked out’ a pharmacy that could hold a key to the mystery. That’s when a group of thugs makes an appearance. Phryne and Bert follow them to see if they might lead the two to some answers. When they’re spotted, they have to think quickly, because neither is armed or strong enough to hold off a gang of thugs. So they pretend to be lovers taking advantage of a dark alley until the thugs move on.

We also see that kind of quick thinking in Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Genealogist Jefferson Tayte has come to Cornwall from Boston ‘on commission.’ Walter Sloane has hired Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift to her, and the trail leads to the Cornish coast. But there the history of the family seems to stop cold, as the saying goes. So Tayte starts asking questions. That’s how he meets Amy Fallon, whose husband Gabriel died two years earlier in a sea accident. In one plot thread of this story, Amy discovers a very old writing box that may hold the key to the mystery Tayte’s investigating. There are some ruthless people, though, who don’t want the truth discovered; and at one point, they abduct Amy. Her fisherman friend Tom Laity sees what happens, and follows the launch where Amy’s being held. He’s spotted and attacked, but recovers. When he does, he thinks quickly and leaves a ‘water trail’ of fishing line that Tayte is later able to follow. That allows both to be rescued.

Getting out of danger doesn’t always require brawn. In fact, sometimes, it’s more credible if the protagonist doesn’t grab a weapon or smash out of a prison. It does require quick thinking and cleverness, and sometimes, that’s more than enough to keep the reader’s interest.

Thanks, Sue, for the inspiration. If you’re interested in crime writing and how it’s done, you want Sue’s blog on your blog roll. It’s a rich resource with a lot of very useful insights and information.

ps. People can think quickly in real life too. Don’t believe me? Check out this real-life story of one woman’s brilliant, quick-thinking way to get free from an awful situation. My hat is off to her.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ Light My Fire.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Kate Atkinson, Kerry Greenwood, Steve Robinson, Sue Coletta

I Heard it on My Radio*

RadioAn interesting post on podcasting from crime writer Elizabeth Spann Craig has got me thinking about broadcasting. Her excellent writing blog inspires me; it’s a must-visit for writers and anyone interested in the process of writing. Podcasts are a very new form of broadcasting, but radio has been around for a very long time. In fact, it was arguably the first real-time medium of mass communication. And even with the advent of television and the internet, radio is still a popular and powerful tool. It’s not surprising then that radio plays a role in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of dozens more than I can.

In Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are on a holiday in Cornwall. There they meet Magdala ‘Nick’ Buckley, who has a house there. Poirot soon comes to suspect that someone is trying to kill Nick, although she herself doesn’t believe him at first. Then, she has a few ‘near misses.’ Poirot doesn’t want her staying in the house by herself, so Nick invites her cousin Maggie for a few weeks. Tragically, Maggie is killed during her visit. She was wearing one of her cousin’s shawls at the time of the murder; and this obvious case of mistaken identity convinces Poirot that Nick is in imminent danger. He arranges for her to be safely cared for at a hospital, where she’s told to eat nothing from ‘outside.’ When the murderer tries to strike again, Poirot has to act quickly. In this case, a radio broadcast is key to what the killer chooses to do.

The police have their own radio frequencies; and police radio plays a role in Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice. One Christmas night, LAPD cop Harry Bosch is ‘on call,’ and has his police scanner running in the background. That’s how he hears that a body has been discovered at a seedy hotel in his district. To him, it’s surprising that no-one called him to let him know, since he’s on duty. He goes to the scene only to find that the dead man is Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, a fellow police officer. The death bears all the hallmarks of suicide, but a few things don’t add up for Bosch. The official explanation is that Moore killed himself because he’d ‘gone dirty’ and was involved in drug smuggling. In order to protect the department’s reputation, Bosch is told to leave the case alone and accept it as a suicide (in fact, that’s why he wasn’t called). Bosch fans will know that leaving things alone is not his style, so he keeps asking questions. In the end, and after a trip to the US/Mexico border area, he finds out the complex truth behind this death.

Even with the popularity of television and the Internet, there are still plenty of successful and well-known radio celebrities. Some of them are quite controversial, too. We see an example of the rise of the ‘shock jock’ in Robert B. Parker’s High Profile. In that novel, we meet celebrity radio personality Walton Weeks. His politically-charged broadcasts have made him a host of fanatic followers and enemies; his private life has been just as full of drama. So when he is found shot and hung, Paradise, Massachusetts Police Chief Jesse Stone has his pick of suspects. For one thing, Weeks’ broadcasts had inspired strong passion on both sides, so to speak. For another, his ex-wives and his current wife all had good reason to want him out of the way. Stone is working on this case when there’s another murder. This time, the victim is Weeks’ pregnant mistress. Stone finds that there were a lot of secrets in Weeks’ life, and that those secrets turned out to be fatal.

In one plot thread of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to comic Richard Mott. He’s been invited to headline a lunchtime radio comedy show, and arranges for his housemate, crime writer Martin Canning, to get tickets. On the day of the show, Canning and several other characters in the novel are waiting for the doors to open when they witness a car accident. A blue Honda hits the back of a silver Peugot driven by Paul Bradley. Both men get out of their cars and are soon arguing bitterly. Then the Honda driver wields a baseball bat and attacks Bradley. Mostly by instinct, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. A sense of obligation drives Canning to ensure that Bradley gets safely to the nearest hospital; before he knows it, he’s far more involved than he wants to be in a case of multiple murders, fraud and theft.

Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall introduces readers to Toronto radio personality Kevin Brace. He and his common-law wife Katherine Torn are both successful, and have an upscale lifestyle which includes a home in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. Everything changes one morning when Torn is found dead in one of the bathtubs. Brace is quickly arrested, and indicates that he wants to be represented by Nancy Parish. Acting for the Crown will be Albert Fernandez. While the attorneys prepare for the legal aspects of this case, Police Detective Ari Green and his team investigate the crime. One possible explanation for the seemingly airtight case against Brace is that he was framed. If that’s the case, then one likely suspect is Donald Dundas, another radio personality who stands to become a broadcasting star with Brace out of the way. And Dundas might have had his own reasons for wanting Torn dead. As the police and attorneys fallow this trail, we learn some interesting things about the modern big-city radio business.

Domingo Villar’s Leo Caldas is a detective with the Vigo police. He also has a radio call-in show. The goal of the show is closer ties between the police and the community, so callers get to ask their questions (or lodge their complaints) in direct conversations with Caldas. The show is so popular that when people are introduced to Caldas, they invariably say something like, ‘Oh, from Patrolling the Waves?’ He’s actually better known for the radio broadcast than he is for anything else.

And that just goes to show that radio still has an important impact. People do listen to audio broadcasts. These are just some instances. You’re now on the air to offer more.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Radio Ga Ga.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Robert B. Parker, Robert Rotenberg

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