For a lot of people, there’s something very appealing about the exotic – the different. That’s arguably part of the reason why readers so often enjoy books that take place in very different parts of the world. And it’s why we sometimes choose to eat in restaurants that serve what we think of as exotic food. Our regular food ‘haunts’ are fine, even terrific, but sometimes, a touch of the different is irresistible.
And we see that appeal all throughout crime fiction. That shouldn’t be surprising, as crime fiction so often shows us ourselves. The exotic can have a way of drawing people in, and that plays its role in a number of novels.
In Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, for instance, we are introduced to Anne Bedingfield. When her professor father dies, she learns (and it’s no surprise) that he had nearly nothing to leave her in terms of inheritance. So, she’s going to have to make some choices. There’s no particular young man in the picture, and Anne’s not dying to get married, anyway. That means she’ll have to find some sort of employment. But being a secretary (which is one of the few professions open to women at the time) has absolutely no appeal. So, Anne’s a little betwixt-and-between. Then, by chance, she witnesses a terrible accident in which a man falls (or is pushed) under a train. She gets her hands on a piece of paper that fell out of the man’s pocket, and soon learns that it makes reference to an upcoming sailing of the HMS Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. The exotic location, the mystery, and the change from her ordinary life are too much for Anne to resist, so she books passage on the ship. That trip draws her into a web of murder, stolen jewels, and international intrigue.
William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel introduces readers to low-rent PI Harry Angel. As the story opens, he gets a new client, Louis Cyphre. Through his attorneys, Cyphre hires Angel to find a former jazz artist nicknamed Johnny Favorite. According to Cyphre, he supported Favorite and helped him along in his career in exchange for certain ‘collateral,’ which he doesn’t specify. Then, Favorite was drafted for service in WWII (the novel takes place in the 1950s). The war took its toll on Favorite, and he ended up in a psychiatric facility, from which he’s now gone missing. It’ll be Angel’s job to find the missing man. Angel takes the case and starts his search. Along the way, he meets a young woman named Epiphany Proudfoot, whose mother knew Favorite. Epiphany owns an herbal pharmacy that sells incense, lucky powders, candles, and so on. To Angel, she’s both exotic and beautiful, and he’s drawn to her. Epiphany isn’t the reason for Favorite’s disappearance. But she is a sort of piece of the puzzle. Before he knows it, Angel’s search for Favorite leads him into a web of the occult and other dangerous elements. And, as the novel goes on, he finds himself in increasing danger, with less and less chance of escaping it.
Walter Mosley’s A Red Death introduces Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. He’s an informal PI who’s good at finding people who don’t want to be found. In this novel, he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence, claiming that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes, and that he’ll go to prison if he doesn’t pay it immediately. Rawlins doesn’t have that kind of money and resigns himself to some prison time. Then, FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers him a way out. The FBI is investigating a man named Chaim Wenzler as a possible communist (the novel takes place in the early 1950s, the McCarthy Era of anti-communist hysteria). Craxton wants Rawlins to help bring Wenzler down, in exchange for which he’ll make Rawlins’ tax problems go away. Seeing no other option, Rawlins agrees. He ends up regretting his choice as he gets to know Wenzler, and the two become friends. Still, he doesn’t see how he can extricate himself. In the end, his decision ends up getting him involved in a case of three murders. Along the way, Rawlins is injured, and Wenzler’s daughter, Shirley, nurses him. To her, he’s exotic, since he’s black and she’s white, and it makes for a layer of character development and interest, although it’s not key to the murders. It also draws her to him.
Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride) is the story of Gundar Jormann, who’s lived all of his life in the Norwegian town of Elvestad. He’s no longer a young man, but he’s a steady worker, he’s smart enough, and he presents a decent enough appearance. He sees no reason why he shouldn’t be able to find a wife, and that’s what he sets out to do. He sees a picture of a beautiful woman from India in a book that belongs to his sister and decides that he’ll go to Mumbai to find his bride. When Jormann arrives in Mumbai, he finds it just as exotic as you’d imagine he would. The climate, the food, the languages, are all different, and that’s part of their appeal. Then, he meets Poona Bai. He’s soon drawn to her, and she to him. By the end of his trip, he’s proposed marriage, and she’s accepted. Their agreement is that he’ll return to Norway, and she’ll stay behind for a short while, to finish her life in India. Then, she’ll join him in Elvestad. On the day of Poona’s arrival, Gormann’s sister is involved in a terrible car accident, and he can’t leave her side. So, he delegates a friend to meet Poona at the airport. They miss each other, though, and Poona sets out to get to the Gormann home on her own. She never makes it, and her body is found in a nearby field the next day. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, investigate the murder. The fact that Poona is exotic isn’t really the reason she was killed. But it adds an interesting layer to the novel.
And then there’s Megan Abbott’s Die a Little. Lora King is a schoolteacher in 1950s Pasadena, California. When her brother, Bill, meets a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant named Alice Steele, Lora tries to be happy for him. But she immediately dislikes Alice. That doesn’t stop Bill and Alice marrying, and Lora tells herself that her feelings are mostly because she’s protective of her brother and (perhaps) a little jealous that he has someone new in his life. She does start to have questions about her new sister-in-law, though, and the more she learns about Alice’s life, the more repulsed she is. At the same time, though, Lora finds Alice exotic and different, and that draws her into Alice’s world. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could very well be mixed up in it. Telling herself it’s for Bill’s sake, Lora starts to ask questions about the murder, and finds herself getting more than she bargained for, as the saying goes.
And that’s the thing about the exotic. We’re sometimes drawn to it just because exotic people, things, and places, are so different. And that can add a lot to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pentangle’s Ever Yes, Ever No.