Cultural Diversity in Mystery Novels


While it is possible to find mysteries, from fluffiest to darkest, that take place in the author’s version of never-never land, I prefer mysteries set in some semblance of the real world. There, diversity equals reality.

How do we incorporate the varied world around us – races, disabilities, sexual identities and so on – into our storytelling? And how do we do it accurately and naturally? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

Sisters in Crime, an international organization of mostly women crime writers and fans, produces an annual research report on some aspect of the book business. This year it was called “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Mystery Community.” They followed it up with a stellar workshop, which I attended, at Bouchercon, the major mystery convention.

Diversity starts the moment I step out the DOOR

Where I live in Brooklyn, every day diversity starts the moment I step out the door. The mail carriers on my block are mostly Chinese immigrants. Many of the bus drivers are African-American, as is the doctor who cared for a recent blood problem and the podiatrist who operated on my foot. The staff at my local branch of Rite-Aid is African-American and Middle Eastern. I buy fresh bread at a shop owned by a family of Lebanese immigrants, and my hair is cut at a salon staffed by former citizens of the former USSR. Except for the Nepali manicurist.

Further, in three wildly different workplace settings, I learned from co-workers that Jamaicans speak English with a lilt but also might speak a Caribbean patois, Italian-Americans might serve lasagna with the Thanksgiving turkey and Spam is an important ingredient in Filipino cooking. A Japanese-American colleague and a visitor from the Mumbai office could both be Catholic, Puerto Ricans don’t think much of Jamaican rum and a Chinese “tiger mom” could be a live-in grandpa who made sure the children practiced both karate and typing every day. My best boss, my worst colleague and the dearest friend I ever met at work were all gay. And my boss’s boss was an African-American who left to become vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve System.

Obviously, the question for me is not whether I observe and interact with many cultures, or whether I like it. I do. The question is how to portray it in writing without, on the one hand, tokenism that trivializes, or, on the other, assuming I know more than I actually do. That is an old, harmful tradition in American fiction. Think hard, ever read a novel that included contented  “darkies?” Or one, male authored, where none of the women rang true? That’s authors writing about lives they don’t genuinely understand.

Life on screen depicts life in real life

It’s easier on film. I’ve noticed BBC programs have been doing it pretty well. The guests at a wedding are from varied backgrounds, an important character is Nigerian-British, someone’s best friend is Indian. Life on the screen depicts life in real life. The point is made.

The great mystery writer Walter Mosley was the keynote speaker at the Sisters in Crime workshop and I had the chance to ask him for insight on how to do this naturally. His answer, obvious once you hear it, is to personalize it. Not “I saw the Chinese mailman” but “I said, ‘Hi, Mr. Wong. How are you today?” And I realized I was already doing just that.

I needed Erica Donato, the heroine in my mystery series, to encounter a friend at a public meeting. A newspaper reporter covering the meeting worked well. “There was my friend Lisa Chang. ‘Look at you! Finally sprung from the Chinatown beat?’” Done.

Cultural mosaic

And Erica has a friend who is an old grouch, a retired reporter, a man whose hard living and diabetes cost him a leg.  Type 1 diabetes runs in my family and cost my grandmother both legs. Because of that, I see another piece of the cultural mosaic without even trying.

Digging deeper by having a major character from a culture not mine or Erica’s is a more complex matter and would need another essay. For now, I am keeping the basic questions out there, on my desk and in my mind.  Does my writing reflect the world I see around me? And does it do so in a way that is accurately descriptive, open and natural?

Something to think about. Something to work on.