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Blog Archive June 2008


Alcoholics write books, too.

Sometimes they write crime fiction. Sometimes they write literary works. No matter what form the novel takes, the real dark star is the bottle.

Think of Dr. Strangelove riding the bomb out of the bomb hatch and into oblivion. Substitute a bottle for a bomb and you find a metaphor that unites a number of books in this genre: The drunken hero/anti-hero. Drinking is not just a life style; it form, shapes, distorts the human condition. Like a moth to flame, we can’t take our eyes off the flutter of wings as they close in on the fire. What is not terribly surprising about these books is their semi-autographical nature. Where the drinking takes place the strip joints, bars, nightclubs, and back alleys also transports the reader into the environment where the drinking takes place. Not every writer who creates a drunk for a hero is an alcoholic. Though looking at the record, it would seem that such a writer is rare.

During the late 17th century during the Gin Craze about a third of the population of London was drunk. Some would say that those numbers have once again repeated themselves in English cities and towns. Drink was associated with "the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people."

In literature, the hero is rarely a working-class drunk. More often than not he’s a professional: the heir of a rich father (Crumley), a diplomat (Lowry), or a lawyer (Philips). Though Bukowski and O’Brien have working class types at the center of their drunken hero.

I’ve been reading James Crumley’s Dancing Bear. His private investigator, Milodragovitch or Milo, moves between a snort of coke and gulping down shots of schnapps. He battles his addiction to booze and drugs as he solves crimes. Sometimes a case of drugs falls into his lap and he struggles between the desire to consume the whole lot and selling the cache. Milo also uses the magic dust with women in the books. Crumley captures the utter despair, loneliness and ennui of a private investigator. As one Amazon reviewer put it, this series is beyond noir, and enters a new level where the darkness of the void emits no light. His turf is the Pacific Northwest. Think Montana and Washington States, the back roads, the small towns, petty jealous over women and money.

Milo also appears in Crumley’s The Wrong Case. From what I’ve read (I haven’t started this book yet) it is the best of Milo novels. I look forward to reading and reporting on it.

I wonder if Crumley’s book were an inspiration behind the drunken, crooked lawyer in Scott Philips’ The Ice Harvest Charlie Arglist, a small town lawyer, spends Christmas Eve hitting the bottle and making the rounds of bars and family to say goodbye before leaving town.

John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas features the ultimate drunk. A self-destructive hero in a complicated relationship resorts to the bottle rather than pills or a handgun to destroy himself. Ben, who has found booze as a way to keep him planted in the eternal “now”, teams with a hooker escaping from her pimp. It is often a moving relationship but what they share will save neither person. They settle in for the long, inevitable ride to the bottom. I remember O’Brien’s father who, in an interview, sat that Leaving Las Vegas was a long suicide note left by his son. No question that the book documents one man’s mission to use booze as his exit plan from life.

Charles Bukowski’s Barfly is another book where the central character goes on a three-day drinking binge. A first edition of the 1984 hardback will set you back $360.00.

The classic novel of despair with a central character whose life revolves around the bottle is Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.

Lowry’s masterpiece, which takes place on one day in Mexico. It is not any day. We are introduced to the central character, drink in hand, watching a parade of villagers in Quauhnahuac on All Soul’s Day. The day of the dead is a perfect introduction to Geoffrey Firmin, a former British diplomat. He is rumbling around a foreign country trying to make sense of his failed marriage. A year after the divorce, his ex-wife returns in attempt to rescue the consul. But the booze has cast a power over him that she can’t break; it is the crutch for all that has gone wrong in his marriage and life. Unlike the other novels discussed this one is literary in every sense of the word from symbolism, myths and allusions. It is about the inner workings of the mind of alcoholic. Like O’Brien, Lowry was also a drunk, and died in British Columbia in what was likely a suicide (booze and pills).

Hollywood is fascinated by the drunk, whether it is comedy or despair, it is not difficult to find films with the self-destructive drunk in a final tango with death.. Both Ice Harvest (John Cusack) and Leaving Las Vegas (Nick Cage) were made into major feature films. Under the Volcano was also made into a film. Albert Finney starred in the film version of Under the Volcano. And there is Mickey Rourke in Barfly. But so far they’ve not discovered James Crumley’s Milo.

Posted: 6/25/2008 1:38:17 AM 



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 .

“George is an Anglophile crime writer from California; Thomas Lynley, her detective hero, is an English aristocrat with posh friends and a titled wife whom the author killed off in the 13th book to cries of anguish and outrage from her readers. Her stories are all set in regionally distinctive bits of Britain such as Yorkshire or Cornwall…”

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 is a genuine product of his 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.

Posted: 6/18/2008 6:34:54 AM 



Writers differ on their approach to creating fictional characters. In crime fiction, the background and relationship of the characters fuels motivation, colors narrative, and propels the story forward. In order to make the novel realistic, the characters must think, act, believe and circulate in ways that are credible to the culture where the story is set. Before I start a novel, I write a brief history for each characters, including age, education, marital status, family background, employment history, and his/her emotional range: what makes him/her feel fear, hatred, passion, anger, etc. All of this proves useful when it comes time for writing the novel. I feel that I have a reasonable understanding of what the characters are capable of doing, believing, plotting or planning. My characters range across nationalities: Americans, English, Spanish, Italian Thais, Chinese, Burmese, and Khmer. On the surface they often share many superficial attributes; but underneath, where the cultural wiring is laid down, they are often surprisingly different in expectation, values, and customs.

Before you set crime fiction in another culture, there are issues that need to be addressed as you go about defining the personality and options available. One of the first questions to ask: When fiction is set in another culture what impact does the culture, language and history play inside a contemporary story?

It plays a hugely important role is the simple answer.

Philip Carl Salzman’s Culture and Conflict in the Middle East is a brilliant case study of how culture defines and shapes the concept of “friends” and “enemies.” Those two categories are at the heart of much crime fiction. Take for example, the Western point of view that when harm is done to another, the authorities immediately become engaged in bringing the individual who caused the harm to justice. But in the Middle East, there is a history of “self-help” and this means the right to act isn’t limited to agencies of government but that all people and all parties are equally responsible to act.

As a novelist, if you read one book this year, read this one.

In many crime fiction novels, the chase is on for the authorities to find and arrest a killer. Characters involved in the chase include the usual suspects: police officers, private eyes, judges, court officials, prosecutors, and lawyers. The infrastructure of justice is fairly predictable and uniform in this fashion in the West. A murder happens and we know the kind of people who will emerge to work on the crime scene. But these rules, concepts and perceptions come from and are about the Western point of view. Culture is the best guide to what is a crime, who is a victim, and how injury is redressed. The way these issues are viewed and resolved are far from universal.

Salzman’s shows that in the Middle East: “The most basic principle was to side with the genealogically closer against the genealogically more distant.” In other words, when Joe shoots Sam, the question is not whether Joe had cause (self-defense for example) or Sam provoked Joe (sleeping with his wife for example). The basic question is Joe’s clan and Sam’s clan, and which of those two clans you are closer. If they are members of the same clan, then loyalty is further refined to subgroups: e.g., a sub-clan, band, or to a family. Once the genealogy between the contestants is sorted out, then everyone is required to act as one collective to avenge the wrong against their member. Salzman also tells us that these collectivities, “from small to large, (are) defined by descent through the male line.”

The overriding moral principle in a clan-based society is “all for one and one for all.” Every member has a moral obligation, which defines his sense of honor, by taking vengeance on the party who caused the harm or injury to a member of his group. You might think that means one group takes revenge by hunting down the person who committed the wrong. That is possible. But it is also permissible to take revenge by going after any member of the wrong doers group, even though that person individually is innocent of any wrongdoing. It is a culture of one group against another group. Loyalty and honor take meaning from the support of one group against an opposition group. And members of the group aren’t held together by ideas of rule of law, justice, respect for courts and the like; they are held together by claims of lineage.

Such a system pretty much guarantees a state of perpetual warfare. And of course the loyalties are contingent and are liable to shift dramatically over time. As an outside threats an area, two groups at each other’s throats, come together (as their lineage is closer) to repel the invader, and after that is accomplished may well go back to slaughtering each other.

Salzman concludes, “The reason that modern Middle Eastern societies have been uniformly unproductive, oppressive, and full of conflict is due in large part to their particularist cultural orientation. The contrast in productivity and human rights with Euro-American and Asian societies with universalist orientations is very marked indeed.

I would disagree with his last statement. It is overly broad and doesn’t match the historical record. For example, John Keegan’s A History of Warfare, writes how the clan system on Easter Island, where the founding chief’s descendants divided into two clans. The original settlement dated from 1000 AD and reached 7,000 people. By the time the Dutch landed on Easter Island in 1772 only 111 people were left, living in caves, exhausted from perpetual warfare, having lost their traditions and culture, lived a brutish, diseased ridden life. This descend into cultural hell was a result, at least in large part, from a political/legal system based on a clan structure.

Much of Salzman’s observations about importance of lineage as a means to define clan membership, the definitions of loyalty and honor, indeed would apply to many places in Asia. Lineage does matter greatly. It may be through the male line, or through being class mates at a university or academy, where group loyalty is carefully cultivated for the future benefit of the members of the group.

In writing crime fiction set in Asia, these difference are important in the way a story unfolds, the way the local characters view a crime, and to the ultimate resolution (and to those who do the resolving). When a novelist is parachuted into a region where he or she does not have a grasp of the underlying social infrastructure, mistakes are often made. If the novel is published in the West, and read by people in the West, then it is quite possible that such distortions are overlooked. But when people in the East read such a book, they immediately see the flaws and the credibility of the story and writer are destroyed. The story, from an Eastern point of view, becomes unbelievable as the characters, as portrayed are acting without honor and loyalty.

Fareed Zakaria, who is Editor of Newsweek International, has written an essay, The Future of American Power: How America Can Survive the Rise of the Rest, which was adapted from his book The Post-American World *appears in Foreign Affairs that is relevant to the discussion:

"Being on top for so long has its downsides. The U.S. market has been so large that Americans have assumed that the rest of the world would take the trouble to understand it and them. They have not had to reciprocate by learning foreign languages, cultures, or markets. Now, that could leave the United States at a competitive disadvantage. Take the spread of English worldwide as a metaphor. Americans have delighted in this process because it makes it so much easier for them to travel and do business abroad. But it also gives the locals an understanding of and access to two markets and cultures. They can speak English but also Mandarin or Hindi or Portuguese. They can penetrate the U.S. market but also the internal Chinese, Indian, or Brazilian one. Americans, by contrast, have never developed the ability to move into other people's worlds."

The question Fareed Zakaria raises is a challenge for writers. If you are writing about another culture, do you have an understanding of the culture and can you translate that understanding to a Western audience? No one expects Indiana Jones to bring any cultural understanding to the screen, but readers of serious crime fiction do have an expectation that the world they are being presented is ordered largely along the lines that track reality. Next time you pick up a novel set in Asia or the Middle East, ask yourself how faithful has the author been in creating a story that takes into account the culture of the characters and how that culture defines their attitude, dreams, and actions.

Posted: 6/2/2008 1:34:30 AM 



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