Ethnicity in Crime Fiction

Term Paper, 1999

12 Pages

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Ethnicity in Crime Fiction

1. Introduction

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionarydescribes “ethnic” as something that is related to a racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic or cultural origin or background. Ethnicity is “ethnic quality or affiliation”1.

Ethnicity plays an important role in literature, not only in the classic fields of litterature but also in crime fiction. Crime ficton is already a mysterious genre of literature itself that has fascinated readers ever since the first authors wrote about it. A touch of ethnicity in literature makes it even more exotic, and sometimes it can even help to understand a different culture. However ethnicity does not make a crime novel automatically more interesting, a boring story will always be boring (even if it takes place in the most exotic place in the world), but it changes the usual setting of a crime novel and therefore breaks the usual pattern. Four different focuses of ethnicity in this paper are speech, food and drinks, cultural differences and intercultural relations. Speech, including all expressions which are used to emphasize the origin of the speaker or his nationality. The field of food contains both the different types of food and drinks and the way something is eaten. Cultural differences include certain behaviors or a typical traditonal piece of clothing or just someone’s physical appearance. Intercultural relations is the picture people have concerning different cultural backgrounds other than their own, including how they communicate with other people, while keeping in mind their expectations, cultural differences and prejudices. Books with great example of speech, food and drinks, cultural differences and intercultural relations areListening Womanby Toni Hillerman andToyotomi Bladesby Dale Furutani.

2.1. Speech inListening Womani

In Tony Hillerman’sListening Womanspeech2 is only mentioned once. He explains that by slightly changing the guttural inflection the meaning of the word can be changed from taking part in a ritual chant into to being kicked and therefore is among the oldest Navajo word plays (see p.133 l.20). An emphasis is put on the different pronunciation of English and Indian.

2.2. Food and drinks inListening Woman

InListening Womanfood does not play an important role at all, but water does. Water is very hard to find since there are only a few water holes and they dry out quickly. It is mentioned several times that water is a source of life in a real sense (see p.24 l. 22, p.41 l.23). All life is yearning for water and all water holes are therefore a meeting point for creatures. The statement is used to show how hard it is to survive in the dessert without knowing one’s way since the sun is burning incessantly.

2.3. Cultural differences inListening Woman

Tony Hillerman shows immediately at the beginning of his novel what the spirit of his novel is like. Listening Woman has “magic odds and ends” on her table (p.2 l.10), placing the setting for a world in which magic is just a normal part of life. In this world humans can influence the winds and make them blow whenever they feel like it (see. p.2 l.20). People do not get blessed with water but with pollen and the song of the Talking God. Moreover paintings on the body and their colors play an important role - blue, yellow, green and gray are the ritual colors used (see p.3 l.14). Hillerman creates a very authentic and magic setting with his descriptions of the spiritual ceremonies. Listening Woman is a medicine woman and therefore has contact to the world of ghosts and spirits. She is in trance and listens to the earth to find out what makes Hosteen Tso sick (see p.4 l.2). A medicine woman hears the voices in the wind and sees the visions that come out of the earth. Listening Woman is “dressed in the traditional voluminous skirt and blue velvet blouse of the People” (p.4 l.8).

Witches, skinwalkers, dogs and wolves are beings closely connected to each other since wolves are men or women who turn from good to evil and gain the power to change themelves to coyotes, dogs, wolves or even bears and fly through the air (see p.101 l.22). Hillerman puts a great emphasis on the spirituality of Native American culture and on their spiritual traditions. He uses spirituality to produce a mysterious atmosphere. Navajos believe that a frog represents one of the holy people and killing it is not only a taboo but has also grave consequences as diseases (see p.6 l.10). Sand-paintings are described as an important part of the culture, and they are necessary for a chant and when are destroyed their magic is gone (see p.63 l.10).

Historically Hillerman mentions only the AIM’s seizure of Wounded Knee and its ineffectiveness (see p.35 l.6).

The Navajo philosophy to live in harmony with nature means to adjust oneself to nature and not to adjust nature to human needs (see p. 44 l.17). This a criticism of the Western way of living.

The Native Americans ability of trace reading is mentioned when Leaphorn finds a footprint and guesses how much time has passed since the person left the mark (see p.47 l.6). Hillerman encourages the stereotype of the way Native Americans used to be over 200 years ago. It seems nostalgic, but Native Americans have changed only very little since then. However the author mentions the current problems with alcohol in the reservoirs when a patrolman writes in his report about an eyewitness: “Subject reportedly drunk at time” (p.55 l.13) and when old McGinnis talks about Tso’s daugther-in-law who went around “drinking and whoring” (p.72 l.12).

The relations within the family are totally different to the patriarchal society we live in because when a man marries he has to move to his wife’s clan and their children belong to the mother’s clan (see p.72 l.27). So “when a marriage broke up in the matriarchal Navajo system, it wouldn’t be unusual for the paternal grandparents to lose track of children” (p.74 l.3)

Hillerman describes the ceremonial menstruation ritual by which a girl becomes officially a woman. Her hair is washed with yucca suds by her aunt and then she has to put on the traditional outfit of a Navajo Woman - a long skirt, a long sleeved blouse and heavy silver jewelry. During three days she has to run three races a day and during her absence the family sings the Racing Songs. On the last day at night they eat a ceremonial cake which marks the end of the transformation (see p.136-138). He even gives the recipe of the cake (see p.140). Once more

Hillerman puts an emphasis on the importance of tradition and spirtitality in the life of a Navajo. In the western society nobody would ever think of throwing a party because his daugthter got her period for the very first time. These traditions are a source of pride for the people (see p.146 l.10)

The stories told by Leaphorn about Hosteen Coyote and how he tricked the Fire Man serve as an example for the profound religiousness of Native Americans (see p.208,209 l.24-l.12).

2.4. Intercultural relations inListening Woman

The Bega Boy says: “They’re just white man’s sheep. They don’t hardly miss ‘em.” (p.21 l.28). But there are also prejudices among the 57 Navajo clans towards the Short Mountain Navajos, known for being “uncooperative, slow, cantankerous, witch-ridden and generally backward” (p.31 l.14). When Leaphorn sees for the first time blue eyes he thinks that “eyes as odd as that must be blind” and the first bearded man is “something to a Navajo as curious as a winged snake” (p.85 l.21,27). This comment emphasizes how alien the Native Americans and White People are towards each other. The character of Goldrim clearly illustrates how some Native Americans think, that they abandon every Native American who assimilates to the white man’s way, believes in his God or mingles with their women (see p.281 l.23).

3.1 Speech inToyotomi Blades

Speech plays a very important role 3in Dale Furutani’sToyotomiBlades. The reader receives various information regarding words: everyday language, basic vocabulary and specific words about some particular field like sumowrestling. The word gei is explained to the reader as art, when the narrator talks about the craft of killing (see p.7 l.28). This contrasts the western point of view very much since we do not consider any kind of killing as an art. We are told that the language is called Kanji (see p.15 l.18). However it is not mentioned that Japanese write from top to bottom. We understand in Japanese slang a tough guy is someone who can hold his liquor ( see p.18 l.22). Japanese are generally said not to be able to consume a lot of alcohol. Furutani tells the reader the names of three different Japanese newspapers (see p.21 l. 14). The newspapers add to the intensified focus of speech. A Sansei is a third generation Japanese-American (see p.24 l.6).

The author describes the situation of women as desperate when he explains that the word Chan at the end of a name is a diminuative and only reserved for children and women (see p.41 l.34). Later on Furutani gives more details about the situation of women in Japan. Here he already indicates that Japanese society is chauvinistic. When Ken meets Gary the reader gets an introduction to sumo wrestling, Japan’s most famous sport. A sumo wrestler is called rikishi, his fighting name shikona, a grand champ Yokozuna and the minor league Juryo (see p.75 l.14). I, as a Gaijin, a foreigner, (see p.70 l.16) have heard some of those words and they give the novel more authenticity. Everyday words are dozo, please (see p.54 l.4), the numbers one to three and thank you (see p.59l.1,5). Ohayo is a greeting (see p.147 l.17), do itashimate means you are welcome (see p. 148 l.3) and sumina sem means excuse me (see p.174 l.7). The traditional dress for a woman is a kimono combined with an obi, a sash (see p.57 l.22). Moreover yama are mountains (p.90 l.14) and kori-mizu is ice water (p.107 l.19). A meishi is a business card (p.85 l.26), a baka a fool (p.92 l.29), and in the restaurant or a ryokan, a Japanese style inn, Ken gets a zabuton, cushion, to sit on (p.109 l.4). The code of honor is also mentionend when Ken talks about ongiri, which means to be in someone else’s debt because of what they have done for you (see p.168 l.5). The reader can easily imagine being in Japan because of all the detailed information about the different semantic fields.

3.2. Food and drinks inToyotomi Blades

In Japan life is more expensive than elsewhere. InToyotomi BladesKen pays for a normal breakfast about $35. However Japanese employees have proportionally a higher salary. When Ken goes out for dinner the specialty of the house and its preparation is well described (see p.66 l.13,31). Furtani uses the chef’s attitude to talk about the inability of Americans to stick to something and perfectionate something simple. After having drunk too much sake, Buzz, who on the one hand dresses like James Dean but on the other hand complains about Japan’s Westernization (see p.69 l.27), has an argument with Ken. Westernization is mostly a problem for non-western minorities living in a western country, however it also seems to be a probem in Japan.

3.3. Cultural differences inToyotomi Blades

Dale Furutami introduces his novel immediatey with ethnic background information. The narrator tells us about a Zen exercise (see p.1 l.30) and of the tale that a Ninja can not only become invisible when his heart is pure and his technique is perfect, but also can leap thirty-foot walls unaided or walk across water (see p.3 l.12). The author is playing here with stereotypes and these statements about ninjas and there “great” powers seem ironical. He takes the reader on a voyage to a mysterious oriental culture. Part of this culture is music (traditional music in Japan is called enka music). However this type of music is obviously archaic because four out of five top hits in Japan are rap songs (see p.14 l.1-3). This is mentioned by the speaker as a decline of values. The reader is informed about the existence of many love motels to provide couples with space and privacy which is scarce in Japan. In the same sentence our image of sterility in Japan is served when we get to know that in those love motels ”no humans interfere with anonymity and secrecy”(p.15 l.11). This expresses a little hyprocracy in the values of the Japanese. On Japanese tv frontal nudity is not allowed, a blue dot is used to cover the respective areas (see p.16 l.27). This statement is neutral because the laws in the U.S. are the same.

concerns Koreans for example whose parents were brought over during the 35 years of occupation after World War I. During this time it was not allowed to speak Korean in Korea and Korean women were forced to become prostitutes (see p.56 l.3). This is one of the times where Furutani approaches Japanese history critically. In the same paragraph he also mentions the U.S. camps for JapaneseAmericans during World War II.

Gender specific behavior is totally different in Japan. Ken watches a conversation between a man and a woman, interestingly not only do their demeanors change radically when they switch from English to Japanese but also their behaviors:

“he became very abrupt […] and Junko became very submissive, even bowing her head at the end of the conversation […] Japanese males think they can order any female around […] I nodded meekly and agreed with him. Now he’s going away happy and I can continue doing what I want to” (p.92 l.24, 37).

One can almost grasp the irony in this particular passage. But it also shows the traditional thinking of Japanese men. Japanese women cover their teeth when they laugh (see p.130 l.28). Women are not supposed to show their teeth whereas men can show their teeth when laughing at a joke. Ken is fascinated by the procedure of the waitress pulling up her sleeves. She takes a strip of white cloth at one end of her kimono between her teeth and then wraps the cloth around her shoulders and lets it go (p.112 l.10). The restaurant scene appears very authentic and very formal, the reader can easily imagine the setting. But when Ken does not ask for directions and takes the fish and bites its head off and we can almost hear the crunch of the fish, every formality is gone and everybody, including the reader, is roaring with laughter (see p.113 l.34, p. 114 l.30). This description is so alive and represents the funniest use of ethnicity in the book. Another funny cultural misunderstanding is the story of Ken’s friend who was invited by his in-laws to use the Japanese-style bath first and who pulled the plug after having used the bath (p.178 l.7). This example is not as funny as the restaurant misunderstanding but it shows how easily misunderstandings can occur. Leaving the water in the tub after having taken a bath would be considered as rude in the Western society. One has to know though that “is tremendously bad etiquette to enter a Japanese tub dirty” (p.178 l.30).

Sometimes when a Japanese man “marries into a family without a male heir, he will agree to take his wife’s name for his own in order to continue the wife’s family name.” (p.162 l.40). This custom appears alittle reversed from western culture, whereas at times people considered it an insult to the family honor if the groom took the bride’s name.

3.4. Intercultural Relations inToyotomi Blades

Dale Furutani writes that if you obviously are of Asian origin in the U.S. it is expected by some people that you cannot speak proper English (see p.42 l. 2). We learn about Nippon Tokkotai, a radical political group in Japan “that wants to restore what they consider Japanese virtues, or […] the Japanes spirit. They don’t like the West and want pure Japanese culture.” (p.79 l.33). Hirota fears that Japan will soon “be just a pale imitation of the United States.” (p.202 l.3). The decay of Japanese culture and the influencing part of Western culture is a theme that keeps coming up again and again.

4. Conclusion

Ethnicity is used in both novels to create an atmosphere that reflects societal

differences between tradition and modernization, while maintaining the essence of a culture or people. However Tony Hillerman uses ethnicity to show what life is

Houses are described as small and narrow, made of blue tin and with a tin sheet

(see p.28 l.36). The description insinuates that there is a problem of space in

Japan. Ken’s first encounter with a Japanese style bathroom is a good laugh,

readers become aware that Japanese do not have a toilet or urinal, just a hole in the floor (see p.31 l. 32). The different possibilities of how to use them are hilarious.

Traffic seems to be rather chaotic because there are five cars next to each other where three lines are painted and they are all on the left side (see p.31 l.18). This implies that Japanese cars must be very small and that Japanese are not as correct as commonly believed, and again the description has an undertone of irony. This is also supported by the description of how Ken tries to find his way through the city: “some streets don’t have names […] Japanese custom of assigning numbers based on the sequence […] buildings were built.” (p.50 l.30). This leads to the conclusion made by Ken that the Japanese are - despite their reputation as orderly and systematic - “as illogical and silly as the rest of us.” (p.50 l.38).

The fact is well known that Japanese like electronical technique, and is illustrated that the cameras which a tv station uses are the “size of a kid’s lunch box” (p.32 l. 28). This comment is used to show the great advantage Japan has towards the US in electronical technique since cameras in the U.S. are the size of a briefcase. But when Ken sees the personal computer of the tv station his illusions about Japan’s technological advantage are destroyed because the majority of the “personal computers sold for home in the States seem more advanced” than the one used by the tv station (p.36 l.10).

Japan uses blood heritage concerning its citizenship. It is not enough to be just born in Japan, you also have to have Japanese parents (see p.34 l.27). This like and has a serious approach which gives the reader a good deal of background information on spiritual traditions and ceremonies. He shows in great detail Native American everyday life. Stereotypes, of the trace reading Native American for example, are also mentioned. Hillerman criticizes the Western way of living only occassionally. In his novel he neither mentions history and the crimes Whites have commited to Native Americans nor does he talk much about the current problems in the reservoirs. He is much more interested in making us understand the Native American world with its spirituality.

Wherereas ethnicity is not presented as seriously inToyotomi Blades, sometimes it is even funny and shows us the humorous side of cultural differences. He plays with stereotypes and uses them to make the reader laugh. Intercultural problems are more important to him than to Hillerman, westernization is mentioned several times. He probably uses so many Japanese words because we do not know much about Japanese and, for example, the semantic field of sumowrestling. His emphasis lies mainly on cultural differences, which are presented in an sarcastic and very often anti-japanese tone.


1Merriam-Webster, Inc.:Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition, Springfield, MA,1999.

2Hillerman, Tony:Listening Woman, New York, 1978.

3 Furutani, Dale: Toyotmi Blades, New York, 1997.

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Ethnicity in Crime Fiction
University of Heidelberg
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Ethnicity, Crime, Fiction
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Marc Knittel (Author), 1999, Ethnicity in Crime Fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 3/15/2002

    Ethnicity in Crime Fiction.

    Nice essay, but:
    How come the numbers do not lead to any annotaions/biographical notes?

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