Wednesday, January 18, 2023

When cultures clash


Michael and Stanley - Thursday

We all know that one of the most important issues to grab the reader's interest is tension. When cultures clash, it generates a fracture point where tensions rise and angry people may commit violent acts. This isn’t always colonists versus indigenous people; it can also be tribal or religious conflict. Some fine crime fiction focuses on these situations to provide an intriguing and believable backdrop for an entertaining murder mystery. To illustrate what we mean, here are a few examples we've enjoyed where culture clash is a central theme. Each of the books mentioned takes on culture clash in a different context and comes up with a different type of story. Each could only work in its particular setting, both in terms of character and plot.

In Abir Mukherjee’s series of historical mysteries set in the British Raj, the clash is between the British rulers and the local Indian population. Ex-Scotland Yard detective Captain Wyndham teams up with Sergeant Banerjee, a local whose relationship with the British rulers makes him unpopular with some of his own people. The combination of the two of them allows us to see the crimes they investigate from different, and sometimes opposing, perspectives. In the first of the series, A Rising Man, a senior British official is murdered. The British assume that the murder has been carried out by some branch of the independence movement, but the detectives need to look at the crime much more deeply to make progress. The complex trail leads them through the fractious relationship between the British and their Indian subjects to a surprising conclusion. Along the way Mukherjee recreates the Calcutta of the 1920s with all its nuances. The book won the prestigious Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for best mystery of the year.

James McClure wrote during the apartheid era, and his books were banned in South Africa for some time. In fact, he relocated to the UK. His novels are set in apartheid South Africa, and here the clash is pretty obvious—the powerful minority White Afrikaner rulers of the country versus the local Black peoples. McClure illustrates the conflict through all his books, subtly taking on the premises of apartheid through his two policemen—the White Lieutenant Kramer and the Black Detective Sergeant Zondi – a similar stratagem to the one Mukherjee uses. The detectives’ backgrounds are very different, but they make a good team. McClure cocks a snoot at the racism of the era by making Zondi, lower-ranked because of his color, the smarter of the two.

In The Steam Pig, a beautiful music teacher is murdered with a bicycle spoke through the heart. It’s the collaborative work of Kramer and Zondi that eventually breaks the case and illustrates directly why the apartheid system was at such cost to all sides.

The Steam Pig was another CWA Gold Dagger winner.

Madagascar has a mix of peoples who originated from places as diverse as mainland Africa and Indonesia. It was taken over by the French at the start of the twentieth century and became a veritable boiling pot of diverse cultures and races. After the French left, a republic was declared in 1960 that has creaked under the pressures of a variety of corrupt regimes ever since.

Stephen Holgate worked in the US Foreign Service, and his time in Madagascar as a diplomat not only informed him about the island, but also saw him develop an understanding of the peoples, and that comes through powerfully in his novel. Holgate uses the outsider point of view to observe the cultural conflicts. His protagonist, Robert Knott, is a diplomat at the US embassy. He's spent his career abroad, and has finally washed up in Madagascar. 

The local culture and its belief in the ghosts of ancestors is central to the story. Knott understands this, but, of course, doesn’t believe in it. As he says himself: he prefers to keep the island at a distance. It doesn’t work out that way. 

A great example comes from our own Annamaria Alfieri. South America, too, has historical conflict between the locals and the invaders from Spain and Portugal. (Everyone knows the movie The Mission.) City of Silver was her acclaimed debut. It's recently been translated into Spanish.

The silver mines made Potosi in seventeenth century Peru the richest city in the new world. The wealthy and powerful mayor’s daughter dies at a convent there and is believed to have committed suicide. However, the abbess thinks otherwise and sets out to discover the truth.

The Spaniards, the Inquisition, and the local people produce a three way culture clash for an intriguing mystery in a fascinating historical setting.   

Culture clash is not always White versus Black. Our own crime fiction sometimes uses the clash between the Bushman cultures of the Kalahari and that of the Tswana people of Botswana. It's a major theme in the latest book, A Deadly Covenant. A massacre of a Bushman group by a Tswana gang is the flash point. Although many years have elapsed, the tensions and fears generated by the event lead to apparently inexplicable killings in the present. Kubu has his work cut out for him.

These are just a few examples of a broad spectrum of first-rate crime fiction based on the clash of cultures. We haven't touched on North America - Tony Hillerman’s Native American novels are well known, and the modern-day black-white culture clash in the US is powerfully illustrated in SA Cosby’s work.  Europe, too, has plenty of examples. John Banville’s crime fiction set in Ireland has religious as well as political tensions in the background, and what about all the refugee culture (and other) issues?

It's all grist to the mystery writer's mill. Friction, tension, anger. Maybe even murder...


  1. A great list of recommendations, Michael. Thanks for the winter reads.

  2. I totally agree! Thank you for a great starting point for those of us poking out of our protective shell and trying to understand the wider world.

  3. They all look great, Michael, but how can we find the time to read them all. Time is short now before spring.

  4. Thank you so much for including me, Michael and Stan. I am honored to be in such wonderful company. Clash of cultures is the sort of story I like best. To write and to read. It seems to me that is always part of the Kubu books that I love so much. This is true, as you say here, even when it’s all people in the same country. AA