It Don’t Mean You Have to be Afraid of How We’re Not the Same*

Contemporary crime fiction features a wide range of main characters from all sorts of backgrounds. I won’t list them all (I couldn’t), but there are gay and straight protagonists, white and non-white protagonists, protagonists with disabilities, protagonists from different socioeconomic classes, and more. Many readers (myself included) think that’s a very good thing. After all, society is diverse, and the best crime fiction reflects that.

This sort of diversity raises a question, though. How does an author accurately reflect that diversity? On the one hand, there’s a lot to be said for writing characters who just happen to be [fill in blank]. In other words, one approach is to simply not say much about race or sexual orientation or other characteristics. For instance, an author can mention that a character is Black in a matter-of-fact way, and just get on with the story. But the fact is, people do notice race, and our races impact our entire set of life experiences. People notice gender, too; life as a man is much different to life as a woman. The same thing goes for sexual orientation and identity, as well as for socioeconomic status. So how does an author acknowledge that without contrivance, preaching, or pushing an agenda?

There are different ways to do this, and there are crime writers who’ve managed it very effectively. For instance, Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is a Queensland police detective. He is also half white/half Aboriginal. On the one hand, Upfield’s novels focus on the plots and characters involved; they are sometimes complex mysteries, and quite often, the emphasis is on the puzzle. At the same time, Upfield acknowledges that Bony’s experience is quite different to the white experience in Australia. In several novels, we learn about Aboriginal cultures, we see the racism that Bony sometimes encounters, and Upfield doesn’t gloss over the impact that race has on Bony’s life.

We see a similar balance in Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series. Gamache is a chief inspector (later retired) with the Sûreté du Québec. Many of his investigations are set in the small town of Three Pines, so as the series goes on, we get to know the residents of that town, and several of them figure in the cases Gamache investigates. The local B&B is owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. Penny is often very matter-of-fact about the fact that these are gay men. On the one hand, she portrays them as bistro/B&B owners who just happen to be gay. But at the same time, she doesn’t deny that their experiences are quite different to the experiences straight people in town have. For instance, in Still Life, there’s an unpleasant gay-bashing incident, and that’s not the only time in the series where the topic is brought up.

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a Saskatoon PI who’s good at finding people who would rather not be found. He’s gay, and Bidulka mentions that in an almost offhand way. These novels focus on the plots and on the way Quant goes about solving cases. But Bidulka also addresses the fact that gay people have different experiences in life than straight people do. And he sometimes has a witty way of doing that. For instance, in Tapas on the Ramblas, Quant’s been hired to find out who is trying to kill wealthy matriarch and business magnate Charity Wiser. She invites him to join the family on a private cruise so he can ‘vet’ the various suspects. During the cruise, there’s a fight in a bar on the ship. At that point, Quant describes the differences between gay bars and straight bars in a way that acknowledges what it’s like to be gay, but doesn’t set Quant up as a curiosity, if I may put it like that.

One of Cathy Ace’s series features the four members of WISE Enquiry Agents, a Welsh detective agency. One, Carol Hill, is Welsh; another, Christine Wilson-Smythe, is Irish. There are also Mavis MacDonald, who is Scottish, and Annie Parker, who’s English (hence the acronym used in the agency’s name). Annie is Black, and Ace brings that up without making too much of it. Much more is made of what Annie brings to the agency than of her racial background. That said, though, Annie does discuss having been teased for being Black, and having people make assumptions about her based on her race. It’s clear that, partly because of that, her experiences have been different to those of her white colleagues.

In David Ahern’s Madam Tulip, we are introduced to actress Derry O’Donnell, who spends more time ‘between roles’ than actually being onstage. She reads cards and tells fortunes, more for fun than for anything else. Her predictions are right often enough that her best friend Bella persuades her to tell fortunes for money. Not long afterwards, she’s at a local racetrack with her father Jacko when she meets wealthy horse breeder Peter Doyle and his wife, famous actress Marlene O’Mara. When she happens to be right about a horse winning, she’s invited to tell fortunes at a posh weekend party at the Doyle/O’Mara home using the name Madam Tulip. At first reluctant, she accepts because she can’t turn down the fee. Bella comes along as assistant, and it’s not long before both are caught up in a web of smuggling, drugs, and murder when Bella finds the body of famous rapper Mojo. Bella is framed for the murder and for supplying the drugs that killed Mojo. Then, Derry’s framed, too. She’s going to have to work hard, and get some help from some friends, if she’s going to survive. Bella is Black, and Ahern shows how that impacts her. For instance, it’s simply assumed that she provided the drugs, mostly because of her race. And she finds it harder to get roles than Derry does. At the same time, there’s much more focus on her wit, her loyalty to Derry, and her quick mind than there is on her race.

And then there’s Paul Thomas’ Tito Ihaka, an Auckland police detective. He’s Maori, and observes several Maori traditions. Thomas treats Ihaka’s background in a very straightforward way; he’s a cop who happens to be Maori. The emphasis is much more on the cases Ihaka investigates than it is on his background. At the same time, there are glimpses of what it’s like to be an indigenous person in a white-dominated society. For instance, there’s a scene in Death on Demand that takes place in a bar. In it, Ihaka muses on the white women he’s met who are more interested in the fact that he’s indigenous than they are in him as a person. There are other scenes, too, that show that the Maori experience is not the same as the white experience.

It’s interesting to see how different authors address the fact of characters from different backgrounds and with different experiences. It’s a delicate balance to acknowledge those differences, and talk about their impact, but still focus on the plot, and on the characters as, well, people. How do your top authors manage that balance? If you’re a writer, how do you do that?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s State of Grace.

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

4 thoughts on “It Don’t Mean You Have to be Afraid of How We’re Not the Same*

  1. As a reader, I take notice only when something doesn’t ring true, so it is very interesting to see just how delicate a balance creating a character actually is. I also noticed something else when reading this post; names. “Charity” jumped out at me, and I found myself curious about her character. Also, the four members of “WISE” caught me by surprise. With the wealth of information you put into a post, I’m guessing that would be a post in itself. Thanks for another wonderful class!

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    1. I’m glad you found the post interesting, Christy. And you’re right about names; sometimes they give some interesting information about a character’s personality. I thought Cathy Ace had a brilliant idea to call the agency WISE – it’s clever. It’s true, too, that creating a believable character (and I think most readers notice when they’re not believable) is a tricky matter.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So interesting, Margot! One writer who I feel gets the balance right between writing a mystery and giving the reader insights into a different culture is Tony Hillerman with his Navajo settings. I love his books.

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    1. Oh, I love that series, too, Christine (and thanks for the kind words). Hillerman really did an outstanding job of depicting the Navajo culture and context. At the same time, the focus is on the mysteries – on the who/why/howdunits and the other aspects of actually telling the story. I’m glad you mentioned those novels.

      Liked by 1 person

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