The Timesonline has an interview/profile about Elizabeth George, an American, who has written a series of crime novels set in England. Her latest is Careless in Red .
“George is an Anglophile crime writer from California; Thomas Lynley, her detective hero, is an English aristocrat with posh friends and a titled wife whom the author killed off in the 13th book to cries of anguish and outrage from her readers. Her stories are all set in regionally distinctive bits of Britain such as Yorkshire or Cornwall…”
Marcel Berlins, the Times crime fiction critic, has written “She is an exasperating writer, insists on perpetuating a police procedure that hasn't existed for decades, is not good on social mores and her dialogue often reveals a tin ear.”
I have not read any of George’s novels but would do so with an open mind. Perhaps the most important promise that a crime fiction writer makes on behalf of his/her foreign hero is that he is a genuine product of his environment. Of course, in England or any other place there is a broad range of characters sharing the same habitat. But if the hero has attitudes, values, or opinions that fall outside of this range, then the writer owes an obligation to explain how and why this happened.
I am not certain how important the authenticity of such crime fiction is to most readers or indeed to their publishers. How many American or Canadian readers would spot cultural mistakes in a novel set in North Korea, Tibet, Iceland, Gaza, China, or Thailand? Yet there are crime novels set in these places and often the writer isn’t a native of that country nor has the writer spent a significant about of time living in the place, fitting into the community, learning the language, studying the history. Mostly the mistakes that I find (I can speak only about Thailand based novels) are subtle mistakes about the personal relationship of the characters.
It may be a blank stare, or a silence that can only come from understanding how people in a foreign land respond to an act or event or situation in which they find themselves. To be a hero, by definition, means the central character understands the people where he is carrying out heroic acts. Yes, misunderstanding occur, and often frequently among people of the same culture, but even misunderstandings and they are resulted are grounded in their culture.
There are authors who are foreign to the land about which they write but their characters are locals and do not live in that place. That is the most difficult to successfully pull off. They must re-create that which is real but lack the day-to-day contact with the reality of which they write. The writer, in that case, must be equal parts linguist, behavioral scientist, anthropologists, and sociologist. A background in ethnography is also helpful. The other group contains foreigners to the land but who live day-to-day in the area about which they write. Colin Cotteril is a good example of the latter. His next book is out on 1st August. Colin knows Laos; he’s worked and lived in Laos, and until recently lived a few hours from the border. You can be certain he’s got the cultural details correct.
It may be that readers lost in a good story, strong characterization that is well plotted could care less about the finer points of the culture where the story is set. My feeling is that a reader would like something else. They want to feel confident that given all of the above are five-star in quality; the author has delivered narrative faithful to the culture where the hero operates. Fidelity to culture is no small thing. It should be demanded; it should be valued. Because most readers have never been to these places, or if they have, it has been for a holiday. They deserve more than a holiday tour of the culture. They deserve a genuine guide to the back streets.