Category Archives: Qiu Xiaolong

You Thought You Were Clever*

If there’s anything that crime fiction should teach us, it’s that very few people are as clever as they think they are. Whether a character tries to double-cross a partner in crime, evade detection, or something else, there aren’t that many characters who get away with it.

Of course, there are exceptions (right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia?). But, in the main, it’s just not safe to try to be overly clever. And we see that all through the genre.

For instance, at the beginning of Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to a dancer who calls herself Nadina. From the beginning, we learn that she is planning to double-cross a man called the Colonel, for whom she’s worked. It’s not spoiling the story to say that, not long afterwards, Nadina is found dead in an empty house. Her death is soon connected with the mysterious death of a man at an underground station. And both deaths turn out to be related to jewel thefts and international intrigue. Anne Bedingfield gets caught up in this web when she witnesses the tragedy at the station. She happens to find a piece of paper that fell out of the dead man’s pocket, and works out that the message on it refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. Impulsively, Anne books passage on the ship, and gets more adventure than she’d planned. It turns out that the two victims weren’t nearly as clever as they thought they were.

Neither is Lewis Winter, whom we meet in Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He’s a small-time drug dealer who’s trying to make a name for himself in the Glasgow underworld. And he’s caught the attention of Peter Jamieson and his right-hand man, John Young. That’s going to be a big problem, because Jamieson is a ‘rising star’ in the criminal world, and has a lot more power than Winter thinks. And Winter isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is. Still, Jamieson and Young don’t want an upstart like Winter getting any credibility, so they hire Callum MacLean to take care of their problem. He’s got the skills and the reputation to do the job, and soon puts things into motion. Things don’t go exactly according to plan. Still, I can say that Winter’s belief that he’s cleverer than Jamieson and Young turns out to have disastrous consequences.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China concerns the death of Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The real action starts when an online watchdog group targets him. They’ve been working to expose corruption at all levels of government, and they’ve found evidence that he may be guilty. On the one hand, the Party leaders distrust this group and the members of it distrust the Party. On the other hand, the Party needs the information that the group provides in order to monitor its highly placed members. In this case, Zhou isn’t as clever as he thinks he is, because the government finds out the information that the watchdog group has. Zhou is promptly arrested, and held over for trial. One morning, he’s discovered dead in his hotel room, apparently of a suicide. At least that’s what the government wants on the police report. Chief Inspector Chen Cao, who is well aware of the government’s power, is at first prepared to ‘rubber-stamp’ the official explanation for Zhou’s death. But he notices a few things that aren’t consistent with suicide. So, very carefully and very quietly, he and his assistant, Yu Guangming, look into the matter. And they find that this death was very much a murder.

In Patricia Melo’s The Body Snatcher, we are introduced to an unnamed narrator who makes a startling discovery one day. He witnesses a small plane crash into a river near the Brazilian town of Corumbá, not far from the Bolivian border. He rushes to the scene, but he’s too late to save the pilot. But he’s not too late to find and take a backpack and a watch from the dead man. When he gets home, he’s startled to find that the backpack is full of cocaine. Instead of reporting the matter to the police, the narrator decides to sell the cocaine, just this one time, and make some money so that he and his girlfriend, Sulamita, can start a new life together. So, he partners with his friend, Moacir, who lives nearby and who seems to know all the right people for this sort of transaction. Soon enough, the two have made the connection they need. And that’s when the trouble really starts. It turns out that the dead pilot was involved with the drug dealers Moacir’s met; and they are none too happy at what they see as a double-cross. After all, that was their cocaine. Now, the narrator and Moacir, who aren’t nearly as clever as they thought they were, will have to come up with a large amount of money, very quickly, if they’re going to stay alive. The narrator comes up with a plan, but it just gets them deeper and deeper into trouble. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to try to be too clever…

And then there’s Ray Berard’s Inside the Black Horse, which takes place in a small New Zealand town on the North Island. The real action in the story begins when Pio Morgan decides he’s going to rob the Black Horse Bar and Casino. Morgan’s in debt to a vicious local pot grower who’s duped him. He’s been given a ‘friendly warning’ to pay up. Quickly. He feels completely trapped, and decides that the best way to get a lot of money very quickly is to commit a robbery. The Black Horse offers off-course betting services, so there’s sometimes quite a lot of money in the place, and that’s why Pio has targeted it. But he’s chosen a bad day. Local drugs courier Rangi Wells happens to be in the pub at the time, and his drugs deal is interrupted; that’s going to have serious consequences. The robbery goes badly wrong and there’s a murder. What’s more, the pub’s owner, Toni Bourke, is out a great deal of money, and the off-track betting authorities and police are very interested in what happened. So is Toni’s insurance company, Now, Pio is on the run from the drugs dealer he owes, the police, and the insurance company. And it’s all because he thought he might be able to outwit them.

As these quick examples show, it’s never a good idea to try to be too clever. Sooner or later, it’s bound to catch up. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Long Blondes’ Too Clever by Half.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Malcolm Mackay, Patricia Melo, Qiu Xiaolong, Ray Berard

How the Mighty Have Fallen*

Being powerful certainly has its advantages. Things get done on your say-so, and you have access to things that you otherwise wouldn’t. It’s not surprising that a lot of people would like to be powerful.

But that’s just the problem. People in power can be very vulnerable, because others want that power. And there’s no guarantee that someone with power will stay in that powerful position. Just ask Thomas Cromwell, who was arrested on this date in 1540. As you’ll know, he was one of King Henry VIII’s most trusted advisors. And he had a great deal of influence. But that didn’t stop the king having him arrested and, a bit more than a month later, executed.

Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the upcoming The Mirror and the Light, tell the story of Cromwell’s rise, fall, and execution. They may not be, strictly speaking, considered crime fiction. But there are plenty of crimes mentioned in them. And they show how illusory power can be. And there are plenty of other historical figures whose stories show that, too. I’m sure you can think of many more than I could. We certainly see it in historical crime fiction, right, fans of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels?

We see how vulnerable the powerful can be in lots of crime fiction, actually. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia. He’s soon to marry a wealthy Scandinavian princess, and that union is expected to advance both of their fortunes. But there’s one big problem: an actress named Irene Adler. She and the king are former lovers, and she has a compromising photograph of them. The king wants Holmes to get that photograph, because he knows that if his fiancée finds out about it, the marriage won’t happen. Holmes agrees, and soon learns that he is up against a most worthy adversary. In fact, as fans of the Holmes stories know, she bests Holmes.  In this case, power has advantages for the king, but it also leaves him at a disadvantage.

In Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which takes places in the late 1990s, we are introduced to the wealthy, powerful families who live in an enclave called The Cascade Heights Country Club. Known as ‘The Heights,’ it’s a gated, ultra-exclusive community located about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthiest and most powerful people can afford to live there, and even they are ‘vetted’ carefully. The people who live in The Heights are protected from the daily struggles that a lot of people in Argentina face, and they are in completely unassailable social positions. Everything changes, though, when Argentina’s economic problems find their way into the community. The very power that has protected its residents also means that they have to live up their reputations. Many aren’t prepared to leave the community, find more affordable places to live, and so on. And for some, their social status has become so important that they can’t imagine life without it. And that leads to real tragedy.

Olavo Bettencourt learns how vulnerable power can make a person in Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy. He’s an advertising executive whose services are much in demand. And, with Brazil’s political process getting more open, Bettencourt has found that political candidates are advertising more and more. And this means he’s steadily acquiring more and more power. But he’s trapped, although he’s not really aware of it, because he’s engaged in several corrupt business deals. He’s certainly being manipulated more than he thinks. That becomes all too painfully clear when a gang decides to kidnap his son, Olavinho. It’s a logical choice, given Bettancourt’s money and power. But the gang abducts the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinho, they take the son of the Bettancourts’ housekeeper. Now, the gang has to decide what to do with the boy they kidnapped, and what to do about their original plans. And Bettancourt has to decide how much to tell the media and the police. After all, if he shares too much information, he could be vulnerable to prosecution. Not enough, and the result could be tragic.

Fans of Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series can tell you that these novels often focus on those in power – the High Cadre. On the one hand, they are very important people. They make the decisions, they have all of the ‘perks’ that power brings, and so on. On the other hand, because they’re in such enviable positions, there are plenty of other people who would like nothing better than to take that power for themselves. So, even though they tend to protect each other, they are also very vulnerable to one another. And, they’re vulnerable to the ‘court of public opinion.’ Their public reputation can be, and is, used against them.

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache isn’t what you’d call wealthy. And he’s not at the proverbial top of the tree when it comes to his position within the Sûreté du Québec. But he’s legendary in terms of his ability to solve cases. And he’s well-known as a person who supports his teammates, and coaches his juniors in helpful ways. So, in that sense, he has a certain amount of ‘clout’ within the Sûreté. And that’s part of what makes him vulnerable. In one story arc, we learn that several people would like to see him fail, and will stop at very little to succeed in that.

And that’s the thing about power. It’s most definitely got its advantages. But it also puts a person in a very vulnerable position. These are only a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Hoodoo Gurus.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, C.J. Sansom, Claudia Piñeiro, Edney Silvestre, Hilary Mantel, Louise Penny, Qiu Xiaolong

You Had One Eye In the Mirror*

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to help her persuade her husband, 4th Baron Edgware, to give her a divorce. Poirot doesn’t usually take on this sort of case, so at first, he demurs. Then, she says,
 

‘‘You’d like me to be happy, wouldn’t you?’’…
‘I should like everybody to be happy,’ said Poirot cautiously.
‘Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of everybody. I was thinking of just me.’’
 

And that’s quite true. As we learn in the novel, Jane Wilkinson is thoroughly self-absorbed. She’s not cruel about it, or even particularly rude. But it’s obvious that her only concern is herself. In the course of the story, Poirot pays a visit to Edgware, who says he has no objection to granting a divorce. That night, Edgware is murdered. His widow is, of course, the most likely suspect. But several witnesses are willing to testify that she was at a dinner party in another part of London. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look for other suspects. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Jane’s self-absorption shows in her character.

She’s hardly the only self-absorbed crime-fictional character, though, and that’s not surprising. Characters who are completely self-absorbed can bring disaster on themselves and others. And they’re often vulnerable in ways that we don’t see in those who are concerned about others.

In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, we are introduced to Phyllis Nirdlinger. She’s completely self-absorbed, but she’s so attractive that when insurance agent Walter Huff meets her, he’s soon besotted with her. In fact, it doesn’t take long for him to agree to a plan she has to get rid of her husband, in order to get the money from his insurance policy. Huff writes the double-indemnity policy she has in mind, and when the time comes, the murder is carried off as planned. That’s when it really occurs to Huff what he’s done: participated in a murder to get a woman. As if that’s not enough, there are questions both from the police and from Huff’s employer about the policy. What’s worst, though, is that Huff slowly learns just what sort of person Phyllis really is. As things spin out of control, Huff sees that he’s going to have to take some drastic action.

Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat introduces readers to Oxford Professor Belville-Smith. He’s doing a lecture tour of Australia, and has consented to give a few talks at Drummondale University. From the start, things go badly. For one thing, Belville-Smith isn’t accustomed to life in Australia, and adjusting isn’t easy. He’s also getting older, and not as scintillating as he used to be. In fact, he’s given the same lectures so many times that he drones them. He even mixes up two lectures at one point, beginning with one and ending with the other. What’s worst, though, is that he’s self-absorbed. Others’ views and reactions to what he says don’t occur to him. So, he is also insufferable. Then, Belville-Smith is found murdered in his hotel room on the morning after a ‘greet the guest’ party. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before, but he’s going to have to do just that now. And it turns out there’s more than one very good possibility.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is the story of brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They’ve grown up in the same abusive home, but they’re quite different. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity he can, and gets a scholarship to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his considerable athletic talent, and ends up living on money from his mother and from his girlfriend. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The argument ends, but not the rancor. Later that night, the Hunt brothers are on their way home from a night out. They encounter Thompson again, and the argument resumes. Almost before anyone knows it, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime. Years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s convicted and given a long prison sentence. He reaches out to his brother, who’s now a county prosecutor, for help getting out of prison. This time, Mason refuses. Then, Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When Mason still refuses, Gates carries out his threat, leaving his brother to face a murder charge for a crime he didn’t commit. Throughout the novel, we see how self-absorbed Gates is. He has no real concern for his girlfriend, his brother, their mother, or anyone else. And that impacts the course of the novel.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine is his first novel to feature Shanghai Chief Inspector Chen Cao. In the novel, the body of an unknown woman is pulled from a canal not far from Shanghai. She is soon identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker. Because of her celebrity, this is going to be a delicate case. Chen and his assistant, Yu Guangming, are all too aware of the ramifications of a case that leads to high places. That’ll be especially true if the killer turns out to be a Party member. Still, they persevere, and slowly trace the victim’s last days and weeks. As they do, we learn quite a lot about the lifestyles of those who are high-ranking Party members – the High Cadre – and their families. Several of them are self-absorbed, and see things only from their own point of view. Without giving away too much, I can say that this self-absorption plays its role in the novel.

And then there’s Eve Moran, whom we meet in Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. Since childhood, Eve has been preoccupied with what she wants. And she’s had no trouble manipulating people and situations to acquire, whether it’s jewelry, clothes, or other things. She’s had the same view when it comes to men. She stops at nothing, including murder, if that’s what it takes. Eve doesn’t even really consider the needs of her daughter, Christine. She’s raised Christine in a very toxic environment, so that relationship is quite dysfunctional. Then, Christine begins to see the same thing happening to her three-year-old brother, Ryan. Now, she’ll have to find a way to free both herself and her brother if there’s to be a chance for either of them.

Self-absorption can be more than just an annoying character trait. It can lead to disastrous choices and dysfunctional relationships. Little wonder we see it in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Martin Clark, Patricia Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Barnard

She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

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Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Liane Moriarty, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Reginald Hill, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
 

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

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