Category Archives: Malla Nunn

All the Cats Who Are So In, I Don’t Fit In*

assimilating-or-notVery often, when two cultures come into contact, one of them ends up becoming dominant. There are many reasons for this, and many consequences of it. One of them is that members of the minority culture frequently have to make a painful choice – one of several. Do they keep their own language, cultural ways, and so on, or do they assimilate? If they assimilate, there’s more of a chance of surviving well within the dominant culture. But it means rejecting their own culture and language, with all of the loss that entails. Keeping that culture and language, though, means likely being cut off from a lot of opportunity.

This isn’t an easy choice to make, and matters aren’t helped by the pressure to assimilate and the equal (and opposite) pressure not to ‘sell out.’ And that pressure can come in several ways. And, in some cultures, being a member of a minority culture carries a stigma that greatly impacts a person. That, too, plays a role in the decisions a person might make. There are plenty of crime-fictional characters who face these dilemmas, and it adds to their characters.

In Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, we are introduced to Janet Pete. She’s a half-Navajo/half-white attorney whom we first meet in Skinwalkers. At first, she lives and works in Washington, D.C., where she has a position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Later, she works for the Navajo Nation. For a time, she and Jim Chee are also romantically involved. Pete has learned how important it is to assimilate if one wants to ‘get ahead.’ She lives a white lifestyle, and at one point, encourages Chee to accept a position off the Reservation, so that they can live in a more dominant-culture way. But at the same time, she is well aware of her Navajo background, understands its traditions, and has a deep respect for her people. She has to make some very painful decisions as the story arc concerning her plays out. And part of the reason for that is the pressure she feels both to assimilate and to be a part of the Navajo world.

Jason Matthews faces much the same challenge in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary. He’s a Brisbane police detective who is also a member of the Corrowa people. He’s been able to manage his life by (mostly) assimilating, as have some other Aborigine characters in this novel. And so far, he’s done all right. Then, the Corrowa people get into a land dispute with a development company over Meston Park. Both groups lay claim to the place, and the situation gets very ugly. Judge Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa, and a few hours later, he’s found dead. Then there are other murders, each of someone involved in the case against the land claim. Matthews is on the team that investigates the killings, and the experience tests his views about assimilating, about identity, and about culture.

Then there’s the question of what’s sometimes been called ‘passing’ – being a member of one race, but identifying oneself (at least publicly) as a member of another. In the US, at least, there’ve been blacks who chose to ‘pass’ as white, rather than identify as black, and it’s been a difficult choice. On the one hand, ‘passing’ has meant opportunities that wouldn’t be available otherwise. On the other, many blacks have seen ‘passing’ as turning one’s back on one’s own. There’s a Walter Mosley book featuring PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins that addresses this very issue, but naming it would be too close to spoiling for my taste.

It’s been an issue in other places, too. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series, for instance, takes place in 1950s South Africa, a time when Apartheid was the law of the land. The rules about race were strict, and brutally enforced. They determined where one lived, what sort of education and job one got, whom one could marry, and much more. Being identified as white (whether Afrikaans or English) meant privilege, power, and opportunity. Being identified as non-white relegated one to a lower class of citizenship, with little opportunity and less voice. In that world, it’s so important to be considered white that many people hide any evidence that they might not be. And that fact figures into more than one character’s choices in the series.

One of Anya Lipska’s sleuths is Janusz Kiszka, a Polish immigrant to London. He’s a well-known member of the Polish community there, and has become sort of a ‘fixer’ – a person who can get things done. He doesn’t always use the ‘usual channels,’ but he always knows someone who knows someone, if I can put it that way. Although he has no burning desire to return to Poland, Kiszka has kept many of his cultural ways, as well as his own language. And he dislikes the tendency for some Polish immigrants to immediately adopt English ways, drop their language, and so on. It’s an interesting perspective on the meeting of cultures.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Roisin McPhedren. When we first meet her in A Madras Miasma, she serves as cook and housekeeper for Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu. They are also lovers, but they keep that secret. The series takes place in 1920s Madras (today’s Chennai) during the last decades of the British Raj. Roison is Anglo-Indian, and well aware of the social advantages of being as ‘English’ as possible, particularly since she is not of the upper class.  And that includes English social mores. It’s a painful situation for both her and Le Fanu. By contrast, Le Fanu’s assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah makes no attempt to ‘be English.’ He is unashamedly Indian, and Muslim. He may not assimilate, but Habi has earned the respect of others, most particularly his boss, because he is very, very good at what he does.

It can be painful and difficult to decide whether and how much to assimilate, if one’s not a member of a dominant culture. And there isn’t really a ‘right’ answer. Perhaps that’s part of what makes such characters so interesting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beat’s I Don’t Fit In.

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Filed under Anya Lipska, Brian Stoddart, Malla Nunn, Nicole Watson, Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley

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

Looking For the New World*

ColonialismOne of the factors that’s shaped our lives in profound ways has been what I’ll call cultural domination. It’s also been called empire-building, imperialism, and expansionism, among other things. Whatever you call it, it’s had a lasting impact on both/all cultures involved. And, interestingly, just about every culture has been a colony at some point in time; many have also created colonies of their own.

The process has been going on for millennia, and we see its effects in crime fiction, just as we do in real life. There are so many instances that it would be impossible for me to mention them all. But here are a few examples; I know that you’ll think of others.

Many people think of England as an empire-builder, and it certainly has been (more on that shortly). But of course, it’s also been a colony, During the Roman Empire, what we now think of as England was the Roman province of Britannia. To the north was Caledonia (today’s Scotland), and to the west was Hibernia (today’s Northern Ireland and Irish Republic). Lindsey Davis’ A Body in the Bathhouse gives readers a look at the UK and Ireland of that time. In that novel, her sleuth, Marcus Didius Falco, travels to Britannia with his family. He’s there on commission from Emperor Vespasian, with orders to investigate a building project that’s been running late, and over budget. The project involved building a granary and supply station for the Roman army, as well as a home and bathhouse for the local British chieftain, Togidumnus. It seems clear that there’s corruption involved, and Falco’s mission is to get to its source. He finds himself involved in a case of murder, though, when Pomponius, the chief architect on the project, is found murdered in the newly-built bathhouse. You can still see Roman palaces, baths, roads and so on in Fishbourne, Bath, and other places in England.

England went on to become an empire-builder, too, and that impact is still felt today. In Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, for instance, readers follow the lives of London bargeman William Thornhill and his family. In 1806, he’s caught stealing a load of wood and is sentenced to transportation to Australia. Thornhill, his wife Sal, and their children arrive at Sydney Cove and try to start life again. Sal opens a makeshift pub, while Thornhill earns a living working for Thomas Blackwood on Blackwood’s boat The River Queen. When Thornhill finds the perfect piece of land by the Hawkesbury River, he persuades a reluctant Sal to relocate. There’ve been people in that area for many thousands of years, and Thornhill and other settlers are going to have to deal with the fact that the indigenous people were there first. Not all of them are willing to do that; and of course, the indigenous people are none too pleased at the newcomers who are claiming the land and making no effort to acknowledge those who already live there. As you can imagine, this leads to some brutal crime.

The impact of this cultural domination is still felt, as we see in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary, which takes place in contemporary Brisbane. One plot thread of that novel concerns a land dispute between the Corrowa people and a development company, both of which lay claim to Meston Park. Judge Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa people, and not many hours later, he’s killed. Then there are other murders, each of someone involved in the case against the claim. Police officers Jason Matthews and Andrew Higgins investigate; as they do, we see the influence both of empire-building and of the Aboriginal people.

Seán Haldane’s The Devil’s Making takes place in 1868/69 Victoria, British Columbia. Chad Hobbes has recently finished his studies at Oxford, and has come to Victoria armed with a letter of introduction to the Governor. That letter results in his appointment to the position of police constable. For the most part, the job consists of such things as settling drunken quarrels and, sometimes, removing prostitutes from the area. Then, the body of Richard McCrory is discovered. At first, it looks to be an easy case. The victim had been involved with Lukswaas, a member of the Tsimshian people. Her partner, Wiladzap, is a leader among the Tsimshian, and it’s assumed he murdered McCrory both as an act of vengeance and as a means of asserting his leadership. Wiladzap says he’s innocent and, as a matter of form, the police have to make a superficial attempt to seem fair. So Hobbes is given the task of asking questions of people who knew McCrory. The more he does so, the more he begins to believe that Wiladzap is telling the truth. In this novel, we see the impact of colonialism in several ways. There’s the British influence, of course. And there’s the influence of the Tsimshian people who were in the area first. There’s also the American influence, and the strong hint of American expansionism.

Tony Hillerman’s novels show clearly the impact of American colonialism on the Native Americans who were in the country first. In those novels, we see the way in which the dominant culture has impacted education, infrastructure and much, much more. But we also see the influence of the indigenous people on the dominant culture. Stan Jones’ Nathan Active novels, which take place in Alaska, show that mutual influence as well.

As you’ll already know, the British Empire also included, for many years, India. And there are lots of Golden Age crime fiction novels that include characters who served in the military in India. Sometimes they’re the subject of gentle ridicule; sometimes not. Either way, you can see how their experience there impacted them. And there’s plenty of Indian influence today in England. Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu novels capture that colonial experience in India. They take place in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai), where Le Fanu works among the various groups of people who live there. In his life, we see the influence of his own British background and the local culture within which he works. On the one hand, there are certain very English customs he retains. On the other, though, he’s adopted the local customs in other ways. He enjoys the local food, he’s adapted his schedule to accommodate the sometimes-intense heat, and so on.

Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper novels take place in 1950’s South Africa, a place with a long history of colonialism. Cooper himself is English. But in his work, he interacts quite a lot with the Afrikaners, who are, of course, descendants of Dutch colonists. He also works with the indigenous people. As he does, we see the strong influence in language, food, and other ways of colonialism. And what’s fascinating is that that influence doesn’t just work in one direction.

And that’s the thing about colonialism. Empire-building has, of course, deep and lasting effects on colonies. But those who build those empires are also heavily influenced by the places and cultures they encounter. I know there are many, many examples of colonialism in crime fiction that I haven’t mentioned here. Space doesn’t come near to acknowledging all of them. Over to you.

ps. The ‘photo is of John Hall’s engraving of Benjamin West’s painting, The Treaty of Penn With the Indians.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer.

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Filed under Brian Stoddart, Kate Grenville, Lindsey Davis, Malla Nunn, Nicole Watson, Seán Haldane, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman

A Matter of Trust*

Rebuilding TrustOne of the most difficult things to do, especially for people who’ve been betrayed, is to learn to trust (or trust again). After all, why should you trust if you’ve already seen what can happen? The tension caused by the instinct not to trust, whether or not it’s warranted, can add an awful lot to a novel. And it is a natural human reaction, so it can also add a layer of credibility to a character. There are myriad novels that make use of this plot thread; I’ll just mention a few.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson, who is Black, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, who is White. He says that he is innocent, but that doesn’t count for much in the small-town Alabama community where he lives. Robinson has no reason at all to trust his lawyer Atticus Finch, if you think about it. Finch is White, and Robinson has learned the hard way to be wary of Whites. What’s more, Finch is well-connected in the town. If he takes up an unpopular cause like Robinson’s, and gives it more than ‘lip service,’ his law practice (and perhaps much more) is at risk. And yet, the only way to go about this case is for Finch and Robinson to trust each other. It’s awkward at times, but once each man is able to have some faith in the other, the case moves forward.

Malla Nunn’s work discusses similar issues of trust. This series ‘stars’ Emmanuel Cooper, who lives and works in 1950s South Africa, when apartheid was strictly enforced. Even before those laws, there was mistrust among the different ethnic groups in that country; in this series, we see how that mistrust has hardened as a result of the laws. Cooper is White, and a police officer. So it’s easy to see why non-Whites don’t trust him at all, at least at first. Why should they? He is also not completely trusted by the Afrikaners he encounters, because his background is English. As he investigates cases, Cooper has to work very hard to negotiate the deep layers of mistrust he encounters. It takes time, but he demonstrates that he can be trusted. And slowly, he develops contacts in several different ethnic groups. He’s able to penetrate the superficial ‘face’ that people put on in the presence of those they cannot trust.

We also see the slow development of a kind of trust in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow. When a body is discovered in an abandoned mine on Windigo Island, John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police investigates. To his dismay, the body is identified as thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who disappeared five months earlier. Cardinal took the lead in searching for her, but wasn’t able to find her. Now he has the thankless job of informing her mother Dorothy that her body has been discovered. His task is made all the more difficult because he wasn’t able to find her daughter until it was far too late. As if that wasn’t enough to make Dorothy mistrust him, there’s another barrier. Cardinal is White, and the Pines are Ojibwa. So Dorothy has very little reason to trust that he will make her case a priority, or that he can be taken at his word. In the end, Cardinal does find out what happened to Katie. It doesn’t make things all fine again, but it justifies some trust in him.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is half White/half Aboriginal. She is trusted and accepted among her mother’s people at the Moonlight Downs encampment, and that helps to give her a place to belong. That matters, too, because in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs) and Gunshot Road, we see that she is not trusted, and certainly not respected, amongst several members of the White community. The feeling is most definitely mutual, as Tempest has seen little reason to trust any of the ‘whitefellers.’ In both novels, members of both groups have to learn to trust each other in order to get cases solved. Tempest has to learn that there are some Whites, including her boss Tom McGillivray, who are trustworthy and in whom she can have faith. In turn, her White counterparts have to learn that Tempest can be trusted to do her job as an ACPO (Aboriginal Community Police Officer).

And then there’s Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. In one plot thread of that novel, Preeti and Basanti, two young girls from India’s Bedia community, embark on what they hope will be a lucrative adventure. Their families have been paid considerable money, in exchange for which they’ve agreed to become part of the dhanda, one name given to India’s sex trade. They’re both hoping that if they can earn enough from a few years in the trade, they’ll be able to return to their villages and support their families. Things go very, very wrong when they are sent to Scotland, where their services are bought by dangerous people. Once they arrive, they are separated. Basanti manages to escape, and goes looking for her friend, but Preeti has disappeared. Basanti learns that the body of a young woman has been discovered in the sea, and that the victim is most likely Preeti. Basanti’s search for answers leads her to oceanographer Calladh ‘Cal’ McGill, who is an expert on tide patterns. He, too, is interested in the discovery of the body and has gathered a great deal of information about it. In order to trace Preeti’s murder back to her killers, Basanti is going to have to learn to trust Cal, something that’s not easy for her, given what she’s been through. And Cal is going to have to trust this enigmatic young woman. In the end, they are able to work together and get some answers.

In all of these examples, there is every good reason for lack of trust. The only way for these characters to get beyond that barrier is to demonstrate – not just with words, but with sincere action – that they are trustworthy.

The terrible murders in Charleston, South Carolina have got me thinking about this issue of trust and mistrust. The murders themselves are of course, horrible. There is no justification for them, and there are no words, even for a writer, to adequately capture the awful reality of what happened. I hope that the victims’ families and friends are at least a bit comforted by the fact that millions of people, including me, stand with them at this time.

Along with standing by those who mourn, I think we need to consider where we go from here. Tears and sorrow are a part of it all, and they are important. But they are not enough. An already-fragile trust was shattered. Now, at least in my opinion, we need to take proactive, meaningful steps – steps that go beyond rhetoric – to deserve trust again. It will be awkward, difficult and painful. It will require soul-searching that will hurt. But in the end, it may spare us something else like this. I hope so.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Giles Blunt, Harper Lee, Malla Nunn, Mark Douglas-Home

Obeys All the Rules*

Unwritten RulesEach social group has its own ‘code of conduct.’ The rules may not be written anywhere, or even clearly articulated, but they’re there. If one’s going to belong to a given group, or have anything to do with anyone in that group, one has to follow those rules. And depending on the group, there can be severe consequences for anyone who doesn’t.

When those rules are woven into the plot of a crime novel, the result can be an interesting layer of tension. There are also lots of possible directions the story can take (e.g. a broken rule as the motive for murder). So it shouldn’t be surprising that we see those rules a lot in the genre.

One of the deep-seated traditions among the police is the rule of staying loyal to fellow cops. And that makes sense at one level. Police have to work together and trust each other implicitly if they’re to do their job well. Speaking out against another officer is therefore often seen as disloyal or worse. There are several novels that include that plot point. One is Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police goes to the scene of a home invasion with probationer Lucy Howard. While they’re there, White is stabbed. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of trouble with the law for a long time. The police have to do everything ‘by the book’ in this case; since Rowley is part Aboriginal, the media will be watching closely for anything that may smack of racism. As the novel evolves, we see how the death of one of their own impacts the force. It permeates everything the police characters do.

We also see this rule against speaking out in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. Superintendent Frank Swann returns to Perth after an absence when he learns that a friend, Ruby Devine, has been killed. The police theory is that Ruby’s partner Jacky White is responsible, but there’s no real evidence. Swann believes there’s another explanation: a corrupt group of police known as ‘the purple circle.’ They’re powerful and dangerous enough that no-one has spoken out about them; and their fellow cops obey the ‘loyalty’ rule. Swann has made the dangerous choice to convene a Royal Commission hearing into their activities, so he’s a ‘dead man walking.’ But he is determined to find out who killed Ruby. Throughout the novel, we see how deeply-engrained this rule is, and what the consequences are for breaking it.

In the LGBT community, one of the long-held rules is that you don’t ‘out’ anyone. Coming out is an intensely personal and sometimes very difficult decision, not to be made by anyone else. That rule is touched on in Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. Successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who’s been blackmailing him. He’s been publicly married for several years, but has also had trysts with other men. Someone has apparently found out about those relationships and is threatening to ‘go public.’ One of Quant’s first reactions is that Guest could settle matters in a straightforward way by coming out. But Guest doesn’t want to do that, and Quant respects those wishes. Perhaps a small part of the reason is the fee; the most important reason, though, is that Quant abides by the ‘no outing’ rule. It’s too important not to, and the loss of trust that results from breaking it has serious consequences.

The Mob and other criminal groups have their own rules, like any other social group. Perhaps the most important one is that you don’t discuss the group’s activities with anyone, especially not with law enforcement. Informing on the group usually carries a death sentence. That rule is brought up in a lot of novels; one of them is Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake and their children have recently moved from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. There are a lot of adjustments to be made in order to adapt to the new culture, but everyone makes an effort. They have to. As we soon learn, this is no ordinary family. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mafia. He informed on the group, so he and his family were placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program. At first, it seems that the move to Normandy will be successful. Then, word of the family’s location gets back to New Jersey. Now, the ‘Blakes’ have to face the fact that their lives are in imminent danger.

In many social groups, there’s a rule against marrying or even having strong social bonds outside one’s caste. It’s expected that the different socioeconomic strata will stay separated and people will keep to their places. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. In that novel, we meet Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury. She’s found a patron in wealthy Laura Welman, whose family owns the property. In fact, Mary’s been educated ‘above her station,’ and there are plenty of people who question the wisdom of that. When she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison, local GP Dr. Peter Lord asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. The most likely suspect is Elinor Carlisle, whose fiancé Roddy Welman had fallen in love with Mary. But Lord wants her name cleared. So Poirot looks into the matter more deeply. In the process, he gets to know the local opinion of Mary and of Laura Welman. With few exceptions, it’s believed that it was a mistake to try to move Mary out of her station in life. Here’s what her admirer Ted Bigland says about it:
 

‘Mean well, people do, but they shouldn’t muck up people’s lives by interfering.’
 

Mary also comes in for criticism for ‘going after’ Roddy Welman, who is in a very different social group.

There are a lot of variants on that rule about relationships with people in other groups. Malla Nunn explores the issue of relationships among members of different racial groups in South Africa in her Emmanuel Cooper series. And it’s referred to much earlier than that, too, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face.  Many other novels also address the social rule against mixing of castes/races/ethnic groups.

In many social groups, there’s also a rule that you don’t turn your back on family, no matter what. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that there are countless novels where people feel compelled to do things (or overlook things) because someone is a sibling/parent/child/cousin/ etc… And in some cultures, that family bond is more important than anything else. For instance, in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, we meet ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. One of the plot threads in this novel concerns his relationship with former bar girl Rose, who’s started her own apartment-cleaning business. The third member of Rafferty’s family is Miaow, a former street child Rafferty is trying to adopt. Rose is Thai, with that culture’s view about family. At one point, they’re discussing getting married, and Rose wants to make sure Rafferty is clear about what he’d be getting. Here’s how she puts 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.’
 

On the one hand, matters would be entirely different if Rose and Rafferty get married. On the other, she wants him to know that in marrying her, he’s marrying her family, as the saying goes.

Those rules by which different social groups live are different for each group. They’re not always codified, but everyone in the group learns them. And they can make for compelling plot points and layers of interest.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Depeche Mode’s Shouldn’t Have Done That.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Whish-Wilson, Malla Nunn, Timothy Hallinan, Tonino Benacquista, Y.A. Erskine