Category Archives: Malla Nunn

A Bomb or Two and Very Few Objected*

Very often, fictional sleuths have to move a bit carefully as they do their jobs. They may be investigating powerful and/or very dangerous people. Or (for police sleuths), they may have been told not to focus their energies on certain cases. There are other reasons, too, for which a sleuth might have to be very careful in investigating.

Sometimes, it’s the larger political situation that limits or even threatens what a sleuth can do. That context can add an interesting layer of suspense to a novel or series. In those situations, the sleuth has to go up against not just a group of suspects, but also political and other authorities that can be even more dangerous. One post isn’t enough space to list all of the novels and series that have this context; I know you’ll think of more examples than I could, anyway.

After the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930s, ordinary citizens soon learned that they had to be extremely careful about where they went, what they did, what they said, and so on. Anything that brought them to the notice of the authorities could potentially result in a death sentence or worse. Several authors have used this climate of fear as a background for their novels and series. For example, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series begins in 1936, when the Nazis are fully in power. Gunther is a former police officer who’s turned private investigator, and sometimes, the trails he follows lead to some high places. He often has to balance finding out the truth against staying alive.

The same is true of Rebecca Cantrell, whose Hannah Vogel series begins in 1931. Vogel is a crime reporter who’s well aware of how powerful and dangerous the Nazis are. In several of the novels in this series, she has to come up with very creative ways to avoid calling attention to herself. When she does find herself in Nazi crosshairs, she has to find ways to stay alive, and it’s not always easy. Even when something isn’t directly happening to Vogel, it’s clear that she’s living in the sort of fearful atmosphere in which no-one can be trusted.

There’s a similar atmosphere in William Ryan’s series featuring Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. These novels take place just before the outbreak of World War II. Stalin is firmly in power, and the dreaded NKVD is, as the saying goes, everywhere. Citizens are encouraged to denounce anyone who says or does anything that could be conceived as disloyal to the Party or its leadership. So, people have learned, sometimes the hard way, not to trust anyone. Against this backdrop, Korolev is charged with solving crimes, which sometimes include murder. And sometimes, the crimes he investigates get very close to very highly-placed people. So, he and his assistant, Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka, have to be extremely careful as they do their work. It doesn’t help matters that Moscow’s criminal underworld is also dangerous, and sometimes takes an active interest in the crimes that Korolev and Slivka investigate.

Fans of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels can tell you that they, too, take place against the background of Party power and in a climate of distrust and fear. As the series begins (in Gorky Park), Renko is a Moscow homicide detective. As he investigates, he often finds himself in conflict with high Party officials, corrupt bureaucrats, and sometimes criminal gangsters. And he discovers that that corruption doesn’t end when the Soviet Union breaks up.

From 1948 to 1991, South Africa’s official policy was apartheid. This set of laws had powerful impacts on every aspect of people’s lives. The rule governed where one lived and worked, whom one could marry, and where one’s children went to school. They also governed the sort of social relationships one had. And there were several government agencies whose task it was to enforce the laws, often brutally. People know that speaking out, being seen with someone from a different race, or otherwise questioning the system, could get you killed. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series takes place in this environment. Beginning in the early 1950s, it tells the story of Cooper, who is a Johannesburg-based Detective Sergeant (DS) with the police. As he looks into cases, Cooper frequently has to cross racial lines. That in itself is risky, especially since people are strongly encouraged to report any suspected anti-apartheid activity. And Cooper isn’t universally liked, especially when the trail leads to people in authority. So he has to be very careful whom he trusts.

That’s also true of Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. He is a Buenos Aires-based police detective at a very dangerous time (the late 1970s) in the country’s history. The military government wields supreme power, and anyone seen as ‘trouble’ is quickly ‘disappeared.’ Often, such people are later found dead. Lescano knows that anyone might denounce him to the authorities, so he is very careful in his choices of confidants. That doesn’t entirely keep him out of trouble. But it keeps him alive.

And then there’s Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen series. Chen Cao lives and works in late-1990s Shanghai. At that time, Chinese society is integrating a few elements of capitalism, and ‘pure’ Maoism isn’t as common as it was. But the government is still very much in control what people see, read, and so on. And it’s not wise to go against the wishes of those who are high on the Party’s ‘ladder.’ More than once in the series, Chen and his assistant, Yu Guangming, have to move very quietly and carefully as they look into cases. That’s especially true when what they find goes against the official government line.

It adds real challenge to a fictional sleuth’s investigation when it has to take place against a sociopolitical climate of fear and lack of trust. That element can add suspense and conflict to a novel or series. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s The Lady’s Got Potential.


Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Malla Nunn, Martin Cruz Smith, Philip Kerr, Qiu Xiaolong, Rebecca Cantrell, William Ryan

And Share a Little of That Human Touch*

An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the way authors can hold up a mirror to society. In some ways, those ‘mirrors’ can get people thinking deeply about that society, especially if the issue the book addresses is brought down to the human level.

When we see the way one or another aspect of society impacts a person or a family, we can get a real sense of the effect of that aspect. And, when a story is also entertaining (i.e. it draws the reader in), it’s often got more impact than it otherwise might. After all, most people don’t want to be ‘preached at’ when they read. They want stories that invite them to be engaged.

Agatha Christie often showed the human side of her society, if I may put it that way. Just as one example, during and after World War II, there were shortages of many different items, so an awful lot was rationed. It was difficult to get things such as coffee, meat, bread, and clothing. We see how that fact of life played out in Taken at the Flood. Lynn Marchmont has just returned to her home in the village of Warmsley Vale after service in the war. She hasn’t made permanent future plans yet, although it’s understood that she will marry a cousin, Rowley Cloade, a local farmer. Life’s not been easy for Lynn’s mother, Adela. She wasn’t wealthy to begin with, and now that everything’s rationed, it’s harder than ever to get things. Even simplr home repairs are beyond her reach. But the Marchmonts had always counted on Adela’s brother, wealthy family patriarch Gordon Cloade. In fact, he’d told all the members of his family that he would provide for them financially. Then, he unexpectedly married a widow, Rosaleen Underhay. He was tragically killed in a bomb blast without leaving a will. So now, Rosaleen stands to inherit everything, leaving the Cloades with nothing. Hercule Poirot gets involved with the Cloades when he takes an interest in the death of a stranger who visits Warmsley Vale, claiming that Rosaleen’s first husband is actually alive. If that’s true, then she can’t inherit. This death, of course, plays an important role in what happens to the Cloades. Woven through the story is a picture of what it’s like to live with rationing and other wartime privation.

The worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s had a lasting impact on just about every level of society, even those who didn’t live in poverty. There was financial panic, and many people scrambled to get food. We see what that daily life was like in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which takes place in 1931 Berlin. Hannah Vogel is a crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt. Life is difficult for her, as it is for many people. It’s hard to earn enough money to buy food, let alone a decent place to live. She’s been able to eke out a living, but she doesn’t have much. Then, she learns by accident that her brother, Ernst, has died, and his body found in the water of the Spree. Hannah wants to know how and why Ernst died, but she has to move very quietly. With the Nazis coming to power, she doesn’t want to attract any attention to herself. But she starts to look into the matter. Bit by bit, she finds out the truth, and it does get her into real danger. Throughout the novel, we see the impact of the Depression. People sell anything they have, for whatever they can get, so that they can eat. For many women, that includes selling themselves. Everyone’s insecure, too, about meeting their basic needs. It’s a climate of deep anxiety, and it plays its part in the story.

From 1948 to 1991, apartheid was a fact of life in South Africa. And it had an impact on every part of a person’s life, both professional and personal. This set of laws, designed to separate different racial groups, determined where one lived, whom one could marry, what sort of job one could have, and where one’s children would be educated. Any social contact between races, other than very limited business contacts, was forbidden, and the consequences very harsh. We see how these laws played out in Malla Nunn’s Detective Sergeant (DS) Emmanuel Cooper series, which begins with A Beautiful Place to Die. As Cooper investigates cases, he has to cope with the daily realities imposed by apartheid. It governs whom he speaks to and where, which homes he can visit, and who’s ‘in charge.’ And in many ways, it limits him, although he starts out with the supreme advantage of being classified as ‘white.’ This way of exploring apartheid – taking it to the human, everyday-life level – is arguably more effective at depicting the policy than ‘preaching’ would be.

Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series takes place in the early 1980s, at the height of the Troubles. Duffy is a detective sergeant (DS) in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He is also a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant outfit. Through his eyes, we see the impact of the Troubles brought to a human level. There are certain places one doesn’t go if one’s Catholic, or Protestant. Daily life for a copper involves checking for bombs before starting the car – every time (with the two sides constantly battling, neither side likes the police very much). Different areas are walled-off with makeshift (and sometimes not so makeshift) barriers. The ongoing conflict even affects (sometimes determines) where a person shops, whom a person marries, and who gets included in one’s circle of friends. Duffy has to negotiate all of this as he tries to do his job.

There are still lasting effects of the Troubles, as we see in Brian McGilloway’s Garda Ben Devlin series. Devlin lives and works in Lifford, close to the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. There’s a fragile peace there, and people do try to work together. But that doesn’t mean everything is happy and everyone gets along. The memories of the Troubles are recent enough that there’s still bitterness, and families still live with the ache of lost loved ones. This series depicts, in a human way, what it’s like to live in a place that, until very recently, was a war zone.

There are plenty of other novels that show, in a very human way, the impacts of major events, major policies, and so on. And that approach is often a lot more effective than taking a ‘big picture’ look. Readers are arguably more likely to engage themselves when they read about characters who are like them – human.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, do go visit Clothes in Books. It’s a treasure trove of reviews and discussion of fictional clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Human Touch.


Filed under Adrian McKinty, Agatha Christie, Brian McGilloway, Malla Nunn, Rebecca Cantrell

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.


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?


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.


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