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. They seem quite interesting. English critics have praised her series and also drawn blood.

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 (or she) is a genuine product of his/her 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.

Christopher G. Moore
Author, Vincent Calvino crime novels

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I hope I'm a good example myself. Unlike Cotterill's hero, mine is not only of another nationality but also of another historical time and of a culture that is strange to Westerners. It took a lot of research, more than twenty years of it in my case.

But for that matter, I'm a "stranger" to the culture in which I live and don't make the sorts of demands that perhaps some British critics make of Elizabeth George. I think they resent her poaching on their own territory. I like George very well. My main reading matter is British police procedurals and I haven't really stumbled over mistakes in her books -- though it may be that George isn't firm on recent changes in the UK. There are more important things to consider here, the human character for example. And that pretty much spans the globe and time.
In the opening scene of John Rickards' novel, Winter's End, two American men talking baseball refer to a player not being, "on form." Now, I've been following North American sports for forty years and I've never heard the phrase, "on form."

I got over it. It's a good book.
I like George too but gotta say her dialogue is pants. She tends to pick bits of slang and throws them in where they really don't belong. It's not wrong exactly, just clunky.
HB x
I liked a couple of her earlier novels but you're right - her dialogue doesn't work on any level, bit like Martha Grimes as well - liked her earlier books but the dialogue again got more and more unrealistic and flat out cartoonish, which became more and more annoying as it went on.

Colin Cotterill does a fantastic job and a very brave job as he takes you into a completely different culture and he includes some different social sensitivities into the bargain.

There are a couple of Australian authors who have opted to write books set in the US recently which has been interesting - PD Martin and Michael MacConnell - although both of them have spent time there, it would be interesting to see if that worked from an American perspective (I've seen some positive feedback for PD Martin's books on lists like 4MA).
Lee Child, an Englishman, transplanted to the USA has a highly successful series with his Jack Reacher hero taking the lead. I understand that the author has lived for some period in the States. I wonder, though, if there might be a faint echo of what John has referred to as "on form" which no one in the States would use in that context? His American editors no doubt would pick these "English" moments up.

Like "senior moments" the cultural gaff is always half a sentence away when you tackle a situation inside a culture that you've adopted. Could a crime fiction writer from New York handle the Australian speech pattern and way of policing and crime detection in such a fashion that it would pass as authentic? Or would the Australian reader spit the dummy?
Remembering that none of us sound anything like Meryl Streep in that movie about LIndy Chamberlain and that shrimps are called prawns would be a good start [VBEG]

But it's an interesting question. Of course research is required, and maybe that is part of the problem sometimes - if you're writing about a country or a culture that is obviously totally different, then perhaps more care is taken. It's too easy to assume that because another country (like us for example) speaks English and sort of "looks" the same as where the author is from, that there are no subtle or even extreme differences.

Listening to Stuart MacBride on In for Questioning at the moment reminds me - he's speaking English / I can follow every word / every bit of slang he uses, but it's most obviously Scottish English and that's not just because of the accent.

Perhaps that's also what's slightly off about some of the books quoted earlier for some readers.
Lee Child does a very nice job with his novels. As a rule, I'm not fussy, but copy editors for American publishers do not always pick up on differences. Another British author who chose a U.S. setting and an American police officer for his protagonist has him taking paracetamol for his headache. That sort of thing can ruin an illusion.
I think it's true that editors can't be relied on for this too much.

But I had an odd experience. The American editor asked to change "ensuite" to "bathroom off the bedroom."
My Italian translator once asked: Could you tell me what's a truck with "Clint Eastwood mud flaps"? In Thailand, the macho truck drivers had Clint, Rambo, Arnold, etc. on their rear mud flags, a kind of statement that they were tough, A-list action heroes.

The possibility for confusion multiplies once translations come into play. And a number of "Canadian" expressions that find there way into a draft are knocked back by my editor in New York. Proving that even inside our own language there are substantial differences. When writing about expat culture those difference increase as the members of this culture include Canadian, Australians, Americans, English, Indian, etc.
In "The Reception", I made my first attempt at a foreign hero with Chef Merle Blanc, a transplanted Frenchman who operates an upscale restaurant in America. I knew going in that for a gringo to portray a Frenchman accurately, I had to do a lot of research, and I put every effort into making him as plausible as I could. Especially because in so many books, Frenchmen throw in a little French that doesn't always really fit, etc. and/or they have the characters do things a Frenchman would rarely do. All I can do now is hope that Chef Blanc didn't do anything too outrageous. Anyway, he solves the bloody murder!


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