"Since the development of Greek thought, however, the tendency of Western civilization has been towards rationalism and hence away from religious life. ... With very few exceptions ... no such marked turning away from religion is to be found in the history of the world outside the West. Almost all civilizations are pervaded or submerged by religion, by the supernatural, and by magic: they have always been steeped in it, and they draw from it the most powerful motives in their particular psychology."Each of the crime writers this reminded me of is of European descent. Each has lived among and writes with respect about a non-European culture, sometimes about spiritual matters not normally accessible to persons of the mental framework Braudel discussed.
The writers are Colin Cotterill and his series about Dr. Siri Paiboun of Vientiane, Laos; Christopher G. Moore and his "cultural detective," Vincent Calvino of Bangkok; and Adrian Hyland and his half-Aboriginal, half-white, half-amateur sleuth Emily Tempest.
A passage in Cotterill's The Curse of the Pogo Stick, I wrote:
"nicely captures the simultaneous irreverence and respect with which Cotterill portrays the worlds of the supernatural and of those who believe in it. Dr. Siri is both a scientist – the chief and only coroner in post-Communist-revolution Laos – and a shaman, an unwilling conduit to the spirit world. Does he believe in the spirits with which he comes into contact and which sometimes help him solve mysteries? He has no choice."Moore says Vincent Calvino "sifts through the evidence in a way that makes sense of the location and people living in Southeast Asia." Hyland said of his first novel, Diamond Dove (Moonlight Downs in the U.S.), that "I suspect one could do more for Aboriginal people by portraying them as a living, loveable people, rather than as a broken museum display which is going to have us all running for the confessional."
And Hyland's second novel, Gunshot Road, opens with a beautiful version of an Aboriginal initiation rite.
In each case the author is an outsider, not pretending to be anything else, keeping an open mind and an open eye. Do that well, and you give the readers one of the special joys of reading international crime fiction. What crime writers do it for you? Who does a good job portraying a culture other than his or her own?
(I'll start you off with an honorable mention for Timothy Hallinan, whose protagonist, Bangkok-based Poke Rafferty, is constantly amazed that his Thai girlfriend loves Nescafe.)
P.S. Here's Hallinan on Rafferty from my interview with the author in 2008:
"(H)e suddenly found himself in a culture to which he actually wanted to belong.© Peter Rozovsky 2010
"But the important thing, from a writing standpoint, was that he didn't belong, and because he didn't belong, he didn't have to understand everything; he could make mistakes about the people and the lives they live. And he spoke only elementary Thai. Those things were very liberating for me. I'd been nervous about writing about Thailand because I knew there was so much I didn't understand. Suddenly, I didn't have to be the guy who could write the Wikipedia entry on Thailand. My character was just another clown trying to find his way in. He was going to get things wrong from time to time."