Category Archives: Tony Hillerman

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

CollectivismTo a greater or lesser extent, cultures tend to be either collectivist or individualist. In collectivist cultures, the emphasis is on group membership and group achievement. The individual gets her or his identity from the group, and in turn is responsible to that group. Collectivism also often includes a strong sense of duty to family, including extended family.

It’s more complex than that, as most concepts involving people are, and cultures and groups do vary greatly in the degree to which they are collectivist. Sound boring? It’s not, when you think of what it means on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully a few examples from crime fiction will show you what I mean.

There are several intances of the way collectivism works in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels. In The Ghostway, for instance, Chee is assigned to locate a missing sixteen-year-old Navajo teen Margaret Billy Sosi, who’s disappeared from her school. This case turns out to be related to the death of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s recently moved to the Big Reservation. What these cases have in common is kinship. Margaret Billy Sosi is distantly related to Albert Gorman, who at one point stays with Margaret’s grandfather. Chee uncovers this relationship, and since he is also a member of the Navajo Nation, he understands the ties that bind extended families. He tracks Margaret to the Los Angeles area where he gets important information about both investigations. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t occur to Margaret to avoid danger, stay in school, focus on her studies, and so on. She is a part of the web that links all Navajos and her family in particular. So naturally she does what she can to help. And I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the Navajo community takes responsibility for her, too, when she is in need of them.

We also see collectivism in action in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. One plot thread concerns two young girls, Preeti and Basanti, who are members of India’s Bedia group. Their families are in desperate need for money, and their one sure way out is if the girls enter the dhanda, a name for India’s sex trade. The idea is that their families will be paid money for their services. After working for a few years, they’ll return to their villages with yet more money, and be ready to settle back into community life. Instead of being seen as ‘cheap whores,’ young women who do this actually command a type of respect for fulfilling their duties to their families and helping to see that their siblings don’t starve. Preeti and Basanti are taken to Scotland, where they are separated. Basanti gets free of the people who are keeping her as soon as she can, and goes looking for her friend. She soon discovers that the key may be oceanographer Calladh ‘Cal’ McGill. With his help, she finds out what happened to Preeti.

One of Timothy Hallinan’s series features ‘rough travel’ writer Phillip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, an ex-pat American now living in Bangkok. His wife Rose is a former bar girl who has opened up her own apartment-cleaning company. Rose has much to teach Rafferty about the Thai culture in which they live, and one of those lessons has to do with her sense of collective identity and duty to friends and family. She left her home village and ended up as a bar girl so that she could make money to send back to her family. It would never occur to her to do anything else with any extra money she has. And although she’s endured more than her share as a bar girl, it would also not occur to her not to contribute to her family’s welfare. As an aside, Rose’s employees are all former bar girls she’s known who want to get out of that life. Her sense of group membership is strong enough that their welfare is her welfare. So they’re the natural choice when she is ready to hire people.

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney takes on a new client, Jim Delbeck. His daughter Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Center, a Pattaya home for adoptable babies and young children whose families can’t take care of them. She jumped, or fell, or was pushed, from the roof of the building where she lived, and Delbeck’s been trying to find out how it happened. The police theory is that she committed suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe it. So Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate. As she does, she gets to know several of the volunteers at New Life, and some of the young women whose children are ‘boarders’ there. In their lives, we see how important kinship and extended family networks are in this society. Not to have such a network is devastating to someone who’s been brought up in a collectivist culture.

We also see collectivism in Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels. Tempest is half-Aboriginal, but has spent several years away from her roots at Moonlight Downs. When she returns to her home in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs) she is welcomed as a family member and taken in. There isn’t much at the Moonlight Downs encampment, but Tempest is welcome to what there is. She is part of the community. For her part, Tempest feels just as responsible to that community. In Gunshot Road, for instance, she briefly takes in Danny Brambles, a fifteen-year-old who’s going through some personal difficulties. It never occurs to her to do anything else. The Brambles family is part of her group – her mob – so she has a responsibility to them.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen novels take place mostly in Shanghai. While there are many cultures in China, one dominant cultural force is the traditional Confucian belief in filial duty. And in several novels in this series, we see examples of characters (including Chen) who place a premium on caring for loved ones. Other characters send money to their families, or promote the careers of family members. Sometimes that works very well; sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s a clear example of how collectivism has become infused into the Chinese culture. We also see that in another way too. A high degree of loyalty to the state is expected of everyone, and it’s also expected that everyone will make many personal sacrifices to further the good of China. Individuals are strongly discouraged from amassing great personal wealth or calling a lot of attention to themselves. The collective is more important.

Readers of series such as Stan Jones’ Nathan Active novels, M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk novels or Scott Young’s Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak novels will know know that collectivism is an important part of many Arctic and Far North Native/First Nations communities. In those novels, among many groups, people do take responsibility for each other. Doors are left unlocked, food and supplies are gladly shared and so on. Of course, it’s not quite so simple as that, but there is a sense that one person’s welfare impacts everyone’s. And that makes sense in a place like the Far North, where it’s well nigh impossible to go it alone.

These are by no means the only examples of collectivism that we see in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte). But they serve to illustrate how that cultural dimension can add richness to a character or a community.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bryan Adams, Robert John Lange and Michael Kaman’s All For Love.

20 Comments

Filed under Adrian Hyland, Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, M.J. McGrath, Mark Douglas-Home, Qiu Xiaolong, Scott Young, Stan Jones, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman

You’ll Learn Things You Never Knew You Never Knew*

Questioning AssumptionsOne of the real benefits (at least to me) of reading is that sometimes, what we read challenges our beliefs and invites us to re-think them. Books like that can be a little uncomfortable; it’s not always easy to question our own assumptions about life. But those books are valuable for just that reason. They challenge us to grow and to re-shape the way we think.

Everyone has a different list of authors, series and books that have had that effect – that have helped us to question what we ‘always knew.’ So your mileage, as the saying goes, will vary. But here are a few books and authors whose work has invited me to question what I always thought. And that’s a good thing.

Before I started reading the work of Deon Meyer, I always thought I knew what a thriller was (And I’m not talking here of espionage stories; that’s a different category): an action-packed, adrenaline-loaded book. The characters wouldn’t have a lot of depth and the plot might require some suspension of disbelief, but it could be a fun and exciting literary ride. Meyer’s work has taught me that really fine thrillers have well-drawn characters who act in credible ways. Well-written thrillers also have more depth to the plot than I’d thought before. I’m very glad to have learned that there’s a lot more to this sub-genre than I’d imagined.

I’d never thought of myself as a person who liked science fiction. I could appreciate some science fiction authors’ skilled writing, and there were some novels I liked. But as a genre? Not for me. Well… until a number of years ago when I read Isaac Asimov’s Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley series. Those novels are unquestionably science fiction. Yet they cross the line into crime fiction as well (for those unfamiliar with these novels, Baley is a New York police officer). And that fact tempted me to try the series. I’m very glad I did. I discovered that science fiction has a lot to offer. It invites us to speculate; it encourages us to think of solutions to real problems, and; it can be very well-written. Science fiction characters can be deep, human, and quite memorable, and the plots can be terrific. Just goes to show you how much I ‘knew’ before I read Asimov.

A similar thing happened with my assumptions about post-apocalyptic fiction. I never thought I’d enjoy it. I’m generally not one for that sort of bleak, sometimes despairing, story. So I’ve typically avoided it. Imagine my surprise when I read and enjoyed Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight. Those novels take place in a world where the supply of oil has been cut off; so needless to say, it’s a very different world to the one we live in now. The story of how one family tries to make a life after this catastrophe was – surprise! – interesting and engaging, at least to me. There’s also Ben Winters’ trilogy featuring police detective Hank Palace. Imagine me, who ‘always knew’ exactly what post-apocalyptic fiction was about, drawn into a very real, human set of stories.

Does this all mean I’ll ‘click here to purchase’ every new adrenaline-loaded thriller, sci-fi or post-apocalypse novel? No. I’m still cautious about them and in general wouldn’t choose them first. But I am a lot more open to excellent stories told in those ways. Perhaps I can learn…

I’ve also learned about about different people and things that I always ‘knew’ about before. For example, my assumptions about the sex trade have been challenged in the last few years. I thought I knew ‘all about’ why people become commercial sex workers, and why other people hire them. I didn’t. It’s a complex business, and people get into it for a lot of different reasons. The people who engage in the trade are not all cut from the same proverbial cloth, and they don’t all have the same experiences. Work by Angela Savage (Behind the Night Bazaar), John Burdette (e.g. Bangkok 8), Timothy Hallinan (e.g. A Nail Through the Heart) and Jill Edmondson (Dead Light District and Frisky Business) have all invited me to question what ‘I always knew’ about that business.

There’s also the matter of what I always ‘knew’ about Native Americans and First Nations people. I had no idea how much I didn’t know and how much I wrongly assumed until I began to read the work of Tony Hillerman some years ago. I was invited to develop a whole new perspective on a group of people I only thought I understood. I felt the same way after reading Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series and Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden/Fr. John O’Malley series. Oh, and there’s Scott Young’s novels and Stan Jones’, too. All of them have challenged my assumptions in a good way.

I could go on and on about things I’ve learned about history, other countries and so on that I always ‘knew’ before. I think you get the idea without that though. To me anyway, learning to question what I’ve always believed is one of the very good reasons for reading. What about you? Which novels and series have invited you to learn what you always ‘knew?’
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken’s Colors of the Wind.

28 Comments

Filed under Alex Scarrow, Angela Savage, Ben Winters, Craig Johnson, Deon Meyer, Isaac Asimov, Jill Edmondson, John Burdett, Margaret Coel, Scott Young, Stan Jones, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman

Trying to Get the Balance Right*

RestoringBalanceIt seems to be human nature that we want to set things back in balance when they’ve gone awry. For example, if people don’t have a balance of work, leisure and so on in life, things don’t feel comfortable or ‘right’ until that balance is struck. And part of the reason people feel guilt when they’ve hurt someone is arguably that whatever has happened has set the relationship out of balance.

Balance is also arguably part of the reason so many people love crime fiction. A crime fiction story is very often a story of things being out of balance (because of a murder or other crime), and then set right, at least in a way. Of course not all crime novels end with the culprit being led away in handcuffs, but in a lot of crime novels, there’s a sense that solving the crime puts things at least a little right. So it’s no surprise that we see that search for balance throughout the genre.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is aboard the famous Orient Express train on a trip across Europe. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed to death. M. Bouc, a director of the company that owns the train, asks Poirot’s assistance in solving the case so that the solution can be offered to the police. Poirot agrees and begins to investigate. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the train, so he interviews them and puts together the pieces of what actually happened on the night of the murder. As it turns out, Ratchett’s murder has everything to do with something that happened in the past. And it has everything to do with an attempt to put things back into balance.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. In many ways, Chee is a traditional Navajo; in fact, in several novels in this series, he is studying to become a yata’ali, or Navajo singer/healer. Because of his sense of identity with the Navajo culture, Chee takes seriously the Navajo concept of hozro – beauty – which really means harmony. When things are out of harmony, whether because of a disagreement, an illness, or something else, there’s a need to bring them back into balance. And Chee feels that need at various times in the series. For example, in The Ghostway, Chee investigates a case of multiple murder that’s connected to the disappearance of a Navajo teenager from the school she was attending. Chee finds out who’s behind the events in the story, and in that sense, matters are put right. But he still senses that he is out of harmony because of some of what happens in the novel. So he engages in a Navajo healing/cleansing ritual to re-establish that harmony.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a new client. Mr. Molofelo is a successful civil engineer who also keeps an ostrich farm. After a very dangerous encounter with some poachers, he decides to set some things right in his life – to re-establish the balance in it. Years ago, when he was a student, Mr. Melofelo stole a radio from the Tsolamosese family, with whom he lodged. At the same time in his life, he was involved with a young woman Tebogo Bathopi. When she became pregnant, he did little to support her. Mr. Melofelo knows he can’t take back the past, but at least he wants to find those people again and try to make things right if he can. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to see what she can do. After a search, she finds out what happened to the family and to Tebogo Bathopi, and it’s interesting to see how she helps her client restore some balance.

Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker series begins with The Ritual Bath, in which we see another example of this desire to restore balance. Much of the novel takes place at Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, an Orthodox Jewish community and place of religious study. It’s located in a remote area outside of Los Angeles, and in general, the people who live and worship there are left alone, apart from some anti-Semitic graffiti. Then, in one plot thread, one of the residents Sarah Libbey is raped as she is leaving the community’s mikvah – its ritual bath. LAPD detectives Peter Decker and Marge Gunn look into the case, and immediately face a problem. In order to catch the rapist, they want Sarah to go through an examination so they can get whatever DNA and other evidence they can. However, Sarah Libbey has strong Orthodox Jewish beliefs that include the need for a ritual cleansing after a terrible incident like rape. What’s more, Sarah is unwilling to discuss the rape, and doesn’t want to have a doctor examine her. With help from the mikvah‘s supervisor Rina Lazarus, the police are able to work out an arrangement that will allow Sarah to go through the process of restoring balance in her own way, and still get at least some of the evidence they need.

And then there’s Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, the first in his Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series. Rafferty is a travel writer who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s made a home for himself in Bangkok, and shares his life with Rose, a former bar girl who’s now the owner of her own apartment cleaning company. He also has made a home for Miaow, a former street child he wants to adopt. Clarissa Ulrich has come to Bangkok from Australia to look for her Uncle Claus, whom she hasn’t heard from in several months. She makes contact with Rafferty, a man she’s heard can do the job, and hires him to find her uncle. The trail leads Rafferty into a web of murder, theft, and more. It all comes down to things that have happened in the past, and how those events have affected people, even years later. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Rafferty goes through a great deal in the story, and Rose and Miaow have a sense that he is in need of a way to get back into harmony. So they arrange a ritual to help Rafferty re-establish his sense of balance.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series also takes place mostly in Bangkok. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police. As we learn in Bangkok 8, before they joined the force, Sonchai and his police partner Pichai were once involved in the murder of a drug dealer. To Sonchai, who is Buddhist, the murder put many things out of balance, including his own life. As a way of regaining that balance, he and Pichai both became police officers. Their choice of profession won’t bring the dead drug dealer back to life. But having a career dedicated to making life safer for others does something to restore harmony, if I may put it that way.

We see a similar search for harmony in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. When Maryanne Delbeck falls (or jumps, or is pushed) from the roof of the Pattaya building where she lives, the police put it down to suicide. But Maryanne’s father Jim doesn’t believe his daughter killed herself. So he hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to look into the matter. She travels to Pattaya where Maryanne volunteered at an orphanage/adoption facility called New Life Children’s Centre. It’s possible that Maryanne’s death might be linked to her work there, so Keeney goes undercover as a volunteer to find out if there is a connection. In the end, she finds out what really happened to Maryanne Delbeck. She also discovers the role that the need to restore balance and to set things right, so to speak, plays in the things that happen in the novel.

Sometimes we all feel out of balance, whether it has to do with health, relationships or something else. It’s human nature to want things to be in harmony, so it makes sense to see this in fiction, too. There are just a few examples. Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is title of a song by Johnny Duhan, recorded by Mary Black.

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Faye Kellerman, John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman

Move Along, Move Along, Just to Make it Through*

StayingStrongIn Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife Gerda were visiting Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell at their country home at the time he was killed, and among other possibilities, Poirot and Inspector Grange consider all of the people in that house party. One of them is Christow’s mistress Hentrietta Savernake, who’s a well-known sculptor. It’s not spoiling the story, I think, to say that she loved Christow, probably more than she wanted. So his death has devastated her. That’s not to mention the difficulty of being involved in a police investigation. Yet, here is what Poirot says to her:

 

‘But you are one of those who can live with a sword in their hearts – who can go on and smile –’

 

He’s right. Henrietta isn’t by any means perfect. But she is a strong character who goes on and survives despite the things that happen to her.

That sort of character can be very refreshing, especially considering the number of ‘demon-haunted’ fictional sleuths who find it very hard to go on with life. It’s a tricky balance to create such a character too. On the one hand, it wouldn’t be realistic if characters had no ill effects from things they’d been through in life. When we go through tragedy, it affects us deeply. On the other hand, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of creating a character who drowns sorrows in drink, or who can’t possibly have functional relationships. For a lot of readers, that sort of character has become so commonplace as to be almost a trope now, and that can be off-putting. But there are crime-fictional characters who strike that balance. Here are just a few.

Tony Hillerman’s ‘Legendary Lieutenant’ Joe Leaphorn has had his share of sadness and tragedy. As a young person, he was put under enormous pressure, as were many members of his generation, to give up his Navajo ways and adopt Western clothes, beliefs, lifestyle and so on. Even now, Leaphorn sometimes feels quite separated from his cultural identity, although he is accepted as ‘one of us’ by his people. He married a more traditional Navajo woman Emma, who turned out to be the love of his life. When Emma dies in the course of the series, Leaphorn is devastated. He’s lost a part of himself. And yet, he doesn’t drown himself in drink or behave self-destructively. He picks up his pieces, as the saying goes, and moves on with his life. In fact, as time goes on, he meets another woman Professor Louisa Bourbonette, who studies anthropology and gets involved in few of his cases. The two develop a relationship that works for both of them. It’s not the marriage he had with Emma; it couldn’t be. But it shows his ability to make a life after tragedy.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve shows a similar kind of strength. In the first of this series Deadly Appearances, we learn that she was widowed when her husband Ian was murdered one night when he stopped to help a stranded couple. She’s had to raise their three children by herself and of course, cope with her own grief. In the course of the series, other things happen in her life too, and some of them are frightening and very, very sad. But she doesn’t succumb to those things. Even at her worst moments, she moves along as best she can with her life. In fact, she has other relationships and even marries again. In Joanne’s character, Bowen balances acknowledging the very real loss and grief that happens when you lose a loved one with strength of human spirit.

The same could be said of Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer. An Oslo police inspector, he lost his beloved wife Elise to cancer after twenty years of marriage, and he continues to feel her loss deeply. He misses her all the time. And yet, Fossum doesn’t fall into the trap of making Sejer a pitiable wreck who drinks too much, can’t interact, and …well, you get the idea. Sejer builds his life again the best that he can. He has a strong relationship with his daughter Ingrid and dotes on his grandson Matteus. He develops a relationship too with psychiatrist Sara Struel. The two are not obsessed with each other, but each fills an important place in the other’s life.

And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She made a disastrous choice of marriage partner in musician Note Mokoti, who turned out to be abusive. She also had to face admitting as much to her father Obed Ramotswe, who’d always suspected as much, when she moved back in with him. What’s more, she lost her only child. That’s enough grief to set anyone back for a long time, perhaps permanently. And Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t deny that she has had her share of suffering in life. And yet, she gets on with the business of living, even after the death of her beloved father. She starts her own detective agency, she remains a part of the community’s social life, and she even marries again. Her second husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni proves to be a much better choice of partner, and Mma. Ramotswe learns to find contentment in her life. She also finds that she’s quite good at the detection business.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is also made of sturdy stuff. A WWII veteran, he’s seen his share of death and inhumanity in the war and at times it haunts him. He’s had a difficult time settling back into peacetime Australia, too. He’s had other sadness in his life as well, and we could understand it if he gave up completely. But as we see in The Diggers Rest Hotel, Blackwattle Creek and St. Kilda Blues, he doesn’t crumple up. He makes a real life for himself, complete with a wife Rebecca whom he loves, and two children whom he also loves deeply. Life has its bad moments for Charlie Berlin, but he gets back to the business of living. At the same time, he doesn’t deny some of the awfulness of what he’s seen and had to do.

That’s a difficult balance to achieve, but when it works, the result can be a really memorable and even admirable character. I’ve only touched on a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the All-American Rejects’ Move Along.

22 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Karin Fossum, Tony Hillerman

An Englishman’s Way of Speaking Absolutely Classifies Him*

Adjusting LanguageThere’s an interesting theory of language that suggests that we adjust the way we speak in order to identify with a particular group. If this theory (it’s called Speech Accommodation Theory, or SAT) is correct, people often do that because they’re members of that group, and feel a connection. Or they want to be accepted into the group, so they adjust their language to express solidarity. If you’ve noticed that you change your way of speaking depending on the group of people you’re with, you know from your own experience how this works.

It happens in crime fiction, too, and it’s an interesting way for authors to show not tell, as the saying goes, what a character is like. It’s also an effective way for a fictional sleuth to ‘fit in.’ Let me just offer a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot takes the Orient Express train through Europe back to London to deal with some new developments in a case he’s working. On the second night of the journey, one of his fellow passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed. M. Bouc, who’s one of the travel company’s directors, is also on board the train and asks Poirot to find out who the killer is. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the case. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car as as the victim, so Poirot concentrates his efforts there. It turns out that this murder has everything to do with a past incident. One of the interesting elements in this novel is the way language is adjusted in order to give a certain impression. If you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, and you do read it at some point, keep in mind that not everything is the way it sounds…

Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is a member of the Queensland Police. He’s in the interesting position of being a part of two cultural communities, since his father was White and his mother belonged to one of the Aboriginal groups. He actually identifies himself in two different ways, and in more than one novel there are references to his dual identity. Bony adjusts his language and his cultural ways to suit the needs of situations in which he finds himself. When he’s with other Aborigines, he uses their language and their ways. When he’s with Whites, he speaks standard Australian English. What’s more, he’s even able to adjust his dialect if it’s necessary. This language adjustment is an authentic reflection of Bony’s own identity; it’s also a way for him to put people enough at their ease that they’re more willing to talk to him than they might otherwise be.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a Navajo Tribal Police officer, and a member of the Navajo Nation. He uses English quite a lot of the time, but he also speaks Navajo, and uses it to express his kinship with that group. Even when he’s speaking in English, if the person he’s talking to is Navajo, you’ll find that Navajo words, phrases and cultural references are sprinkled into what he says. And sometimes, he completely code switches to Navajo when he’s speaking to a fellow Navajo. Chee is a cop, so part of the reason he adjusts his speech as he does is to make others feel comfortable enough to tell him what he wants to know. In other words, it’s a deliberate adjustment made for a specific purpose. But he adjusts his speech that way in more casual moments too, so there’s a good argument that he also does it to belong – to be a part of his community.

One of Martin Edwards’ series features Harry Devlin, a Liverpool attorney who works with a somewhat down-and-out firm. Although he’s educated and uses standard British English, Devlin can easily adjust his speech to the Scouser variety of English that’s common in the Liverpool area. And he finds that that’s to his advantage in All The Lonely People. In that novel, Devlin is surprised to say the least when his estranged wife Liz comes back into his life, asking if she can stay with him for a bit. Devlin accepts, hoping that this may mean she is interested in a reconciliation. Two nights later, Liz is stabbed and her body found in an alley. Devlin is determined to find out who killed her, and it’s in his pragmatic interest anyway, since that will clear his own name. So he starts to ask questions. The trail leads through some of Liverpool’s poorer and more dangerous areas, and Devlin knows that he’s not likely to be trusted, to say the least, if he uses his own way of speaking. So he adjusts his speech and adopts
 

‘…a congested Scouse accent…’
 

when he talks to some of those he meets. That change doesn’t solve Liz’ murder, but it does mark Devlin as ‘one of us,’ in some people’s eyes, and that gets him information he probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a proud francophone Québécois, as are several members of the police with whom he works on his cases. And it’s very interesting to see how they interact when they’re speaking with other francophones as opposed to when they’re speaking with native speakers of English. For instance, in Still Life, Gamache and his team go to the small town of Three Pines to investigate the murder of former school teacher Jane Neal. Here’s a snippet of what happens when he speaks to a local police officer Agent Robert Lemieux. Lemieux was first on the scene, and secured the area, so his input about what and whom he saw is important:
 

“Bien sûr! I saw that man over there [indicating a possible witness]. An Anglais, I suspected, by his clothes and his pallor. The English, I have noticed, have weak stomachs.’…
It had also been Lemieux’s experience that the English had no clothes sense, and this man in his plaid flannel shirt could not possibly be francophone.’

 

Lemieux identifies closely with fellow francophones, so he adjusts his language (and his comments!) to express solidarity with them. Fans of this series will know that as a rule, things are different when the team members are speaking with anglophones.

One of Anya Lipska’s protagonists is Januscz ‘Janek’ Kiszka, a Polish immigrant who now lives in London. Kiszka speaks fluent English, and when he interacts with native speakers of that language (such as Lipska’s other protagonist DC Natalie Kershaw), he uses English. He sometimes misses Poland, but he’s comfortable enough in England. However, he’s culturally and linguistically Polish, and uses that language to identify with other Poles. Even when he’s speaking English with fellow Poles, he uses Polish expressions and makes Polish cultural references. He adjusts his language in great part to express solidarity with people from his own background. Kiszka’s ability to adjust his language to fit in is part of why he’s got a reputation in his own community as a ‘fixer.’ He helps his fellow Poles to get things done, to arrange paperwork, to negotiate life in London and so on. And that’s why Kershaw also finds his input useful. In Where the Devil Can’t Go and Death Can’t Take a Joke, she investigates cases that reach into the Polish community. Kiszka is a member of that group and provides valuable insights.

We may not consciously be aware of it, but we do adjust the way we speak, and there’s a solid argument that we do so at least in part to identify with a particular group (or to identify ourselves as not belonging to a given group). So it’s little wonder that we see these language adjustments in crime fiction too. Which ones have stood out in your mind?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Overture/Why Can’t the English.

34 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arthur Upfield, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Tony Hillerman