Is Mystery Fiction the Prerogative of Individualist Cultures?
Today I thought I would share with you a piece I wrote for CADs magazine a few years ago. I very much feel I have only begun to scratch the surface of this topic, so would definitely appreciate other opinions and idea on the matter.
My starting point for this piece came from this excerpt by Dale Salwak on individualism in mystery fiction:
‘Among the ideological values transmitted by crime and mystery fiction, none is more significant than individualism. Created in an historical period characterised by the diminishment of community ties […] and the erosion of collective belief systems that had rooted a person in a traditional caste or class, the genre of fiction about criminal detection made the singularity of character its sole fixed point’ (Salwak, 1999: 234).
It is easy to see how the value and the role of the individual is prioritised in mystery fiction, namely through the figures of both the detective and the killer, as evinced by Salwak (1999) who writes that:
‘The detective’s mental powers, therefore, expressed the fact of independence from the conventions that constrain the minds and behaviour of ordinary citizens and the possession of a personal code that allows the sleuth to serve as ethical judge as well as investigator of crime’ (Salwak, 1999: 234).
Equally some of these criteria can also be applied to the criminals whose personal code and beliefs cut them off from legal ideas of right and wrong. Yet for me the question which immediately sprang to mind when reading this was: What about mystery fiction in collectivist cultures?
However, before I begin to unravel this question I think it is important to first define what I mean by individualist and collectivist cultures. According to Darwish and Huber (2003):
‘Individualistic cultures emphasise promoting the individual’s and his/her immediate family’s self-interest (underlining individual rights, not responsibilities), personal autonomy, privacy, self-realisation, individual initiative, independence, individual decision making [and] an understanding of personal identity…’ (Darwish & Huber, 2003: 48).
Examples of such countries with such cultures include the UK, USA, Australia, Italy, Spain and Germany. Conversely, countries such as China, India, Japan, Russia and Romania which have been defined as collectivist cultures:
’emphasise loyalty to the group (while the group in turn cares for the well-being of the individual), emotional dependence on groups and organisations, less personal privacy, the belief that group decisions are superior to individual decisions [and] interdependence…’ (Darwish and Huber, 2003: 48-49).
Returning to my original question concerning the mystery fiction produced in collectivist cultures, I think a key role such fiction has in such cultures is to become a vehicle through which the failings of a country to implement its collectivist ideals are highlighted. Very often in these cultures where community and interdependence are emphasised, the detective figures nevertheless remain isolated and cut off; in a way you could argue that detectives in such cultures feel the isolation more acutely, their status of the outsider being far more prominent. This can be found in the mystery fiction of Qiu Xiaolong in his Inspector Chen series. In his novel Death of a Red Heroine (2000), the victim publically appears to be the model communist party worker and initially it is very hard for Inspector Chen to find evidence of a private life behind this public mask. Once this does happen, having revealed how difficult it is to have a private life in a culture which is vigilantly community focused, failings within the larger community appear, revealing individual corruption and felonies, undermining the promises of group loyalty being returned with group care. The frailty and insecurity of individual rights against the almost covenantal or contractual nature of collective communities comes up in Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee series, especially The Chinese Nail Murders (1961).
Another example can also be found in the work of Josef Skvorecky, whose Lieutenant Boruvka novels are set in the former Czechoslovakia. At the denouement of The End of Lieutenant Boruvka (1975) for instance, we find Boruvka going to jail for going against group decisions on a case. This could be read as Boruvka being punished for believing that his individual decisions to achieve justice should not be superseded by the group decision to withhold it. In The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka (1980), the subsequent story, Boruvka migrates to Canada. This migration mirrors Skvorecky’s own life when he and his wife fled to Canada after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. His provocative and challenging writing style led to his work becoming very unpopular with the Communist authorities. I think it is fair to say that throughout the Boruvka series, collectivist culture ideals are frequently depicted in a less idealistic light, such as instead of characters such as Boruvka feeling unity and closeness within his community, he finds the lack of personal privacy invasive. Perhaps this is why the detective in collectivist culture set mysteries is often far from popular, as not only do such figures increase this level of invasion for a time, but they are also figures who have the power to reveal the failings of not only an individual but the community as a whole.
In theory there is supposed to be greater cooperation within the workplace in a collectivist culture, where everyone is contributing to a group goal, but again I think through the genre of mystery fiction such assumptions are challenged. For example, in India-set novel, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (2015) by Vaseem Khan, group cohesion within the police force is decidedly absent, with superiors trying to hamper investigations and hypocritically judging the work of their underlings and workplace competitiveness is definitely present. Even in the block of flats Inspector Chopra lives in with his wife, there is a lack of unity, with various individuals vying for supremacy. Similar discontent can also be seen in the Swedish Martin Beck series, created by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, where loneliness and lack of connection with others is much more typical than a contented sense of community.
These are but a few examples of how mystery fiction can be used to critique collectivist settings and cultures. The next question I had following the excerpt from Salwak (1999) was this: Is collectivism, in its focus on the community, entirely absent from individualistic cultures? How is the idea of community dealt with in individualistic cultures? From Salwak’s piece there is the idea of community ties, (which are a paramount feature of collectivism), being eroded, which the later Miss Marple novels comment on, yet I would not say this decay is final or complete. Instead I think mystery fiction in individualistic cultures is not completely devoid of communities, but is suspicious and critical of them, such as in Ann Cleeves’ Murder in my Backyard (1991), where community and family units come under close scrutiny by Inspector Ramsay. Furthermore in their critiques of community, Eilís Dillon in Sent to His Account (1954) and June Wright in So Bad a Death (1949, (set in Ireland and Australia respectively), suggest that community failings are often begun by individuals, particularly ones who desire an almost despotic power, but then are upheld by others in the community out of self-preservation, self-interest or just lack of motivation to resist. It is in novels such as these that we see an exploration of how communities should be run or work. It is admitted that because communities are made up of individuals, there is always going to be a risk of corruption and departure from group ideals and again it could be said that it is the detective figure who uncovers these failings through their investigations. This comes up in works such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935), where community culture is shown to be myopic, unable to decipher the culprit amongst themselves responsible for the supposed poltergeist activity. It takes an outside detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, to expose them.
However, I feel that communities as a collective or as a whole are not always just there to be critiqued. In fact, sleuths such as Miss Marple, especially in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) and A Murder is Announced (1950), see such groups in a more positive light, perceiving them as living networks of knowledge, which can be collected and sifted through for key pieces of information. Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver is another example of such a sleuth. Of course, this got me to thinking about whether it makes a difference that the mystery in question has a female or male led investigation. Do female characters try to recreate a sense of community in crime solving? Mavis Doriel Hay’s Death on the Cherwell (1935) sprang to mind, as the female pupils do seem to create a community of their own, doing their own investigating independent of the police. However, I think it is in Juanita Sheridan’s Lily Wu series (which I wrote about in an earlier CADs issue) that we see a female sleuth consistently network and call on friends and relations to assist with the mysteries she solves. I would be interested to hear from other CADs readers any other mystery fiction examples which might apply to this theme.
Community crime solving though is not always portrayed quite so positively and in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939), we see a much darker and chaotic version of community crime solving. This comes about not just because all of the community members, (i.e. the visitors to the island), have sizeable criminal skeletons in their closets, but because there is no outsider to resolve the issue, only one who has plans to destroy the community from within. The innocent and the guilty take on the role of sleuth in this one, which unsurprisingly gives an unsettling feeling to the story. This is a community which is being critiqued by its killer, with death as the only response or solution to the problems and failings this community exhibit.
So overall whilst I think it is impossible to deny the role of the individual in mystery fiction, I equally don’t think the collective community is entirely absent. It is often something the fictional sleuth is a part of and is something the detective is always conscious of in their unveiling of community sins and indiscretions. It is this trait which often sets them apart, exiling them in a way. But it is this more outsider like perspective, which enables them to solve the crimes they face. Yet there are pockets of mystery fiction here and there which have a greater sense of community within them, with the community not being something to solely negatively critique, but something which is actually more positive and able to contribute to the solving of cases.
Darwish, Abdel-Fattah and Huber, Gunter L. (2003). Individualism vs Collectivism in Different Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Study. Intercultural Education. 14 (1), 47-55.
Salwak, D. (1999). Individualism. In: Herbert, R. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 234.