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…”
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
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.