Archive May 2009
|American Film and TV Star David Carradine found dead in Bangkok hotel
Dying under mysterious
circumstances in Thailand if you are a famous American actor is bound to attract
international coverage. I first saw the first coverage on Thursday night on the
BBC news around 10.00 p.m. News of Carradine’s death has been picked up in
virtually every major newspaper around the world. David Carradine’s death in a
Bangkok hotel on 4th June 2009 will shine a spotlight on Thailand,
the tourism industry and police investigations and methods used when a foreigner
is found dead.
The first order of business in an
unnatural death investigation is to find out what happened, when it happened,
who was at the scene, and what material evidence at the scene may support the
cause of death. But this is no ordinary death and that fact will no doubt have
significant implications in what happens next. This is true for any police
force. High profile deaths are one of the few circumstances where the general
public takes interest in the professionalism of police investigators.
The established facts are few. Mr.
Carradine was found dead in his room at the Nai Lert Park Hotel. He’d been in
Bangkok since 2nd June working on a film. His body has apparently
been removed to Chulalongkorn hospital and there will be an autopsy.
Some local press have called
Carradine’s death a suicide.
Others have been more cautious and
have left open the possibility of murder or misadventure in sexual game playing.
Reports have been contradictory, some saying the actor had hanged himself with a
rope, others saying it was a curtain cord, and others saying it was a shoe lace
with one end tied around his neck and the other around is penis suggesting a
sexual ritual gone wrong.
In a high profile case such as
this, senior officials wake up to the fact that the world is watching them. Such
attention can make people sweat. Giving out premature statements before the
facts have been established often happens but not when the international media
is watching. Then it becomes embarrassing.
The last 24-hours has only
increased speculation and rumors about the circumstances of Carradine’s death.
In other words there is confusion over what and how it happened but no end of
people who sure they know the answers nonetheless. Unless properly handled, it
has the makings of public relations disaster. The buck passing will kick into
high gear. The Press quotes the police who’ve had no time to launch an
investigation and analysis the evidence, the US embassy passes the buck to the
police, and the police can refer matters to the medical authorities.
We live in an age where everyone
wants instant answers. Like a CSI program, the answers should follow within one
hour. Right? Only in real life, the circumstances of unnatural deaths such as
Carradine’s are often murky, the evidence conflicting or inconclusive, and the
outside pressures to come to a conclusion intense.
If Colonel Pratt and Calvino were
on the case, they’d be checking the hotel CTV camera footage in the lobby and
entrance (and on the floor of the room – assuming such a camera system was
installed) for the time period prior to Carradine’s death, interviewing the
doormen, receptionists, bellboys, other guests in adjacent rooms, the last
person(s) who saw him, members of the film crew. That is a lot of work.
Also Colonel Pratt would likely
order a full toxicity test on the body to test for alcohol and drugs. He’d have
sealed off the room and photographed (among other things) and preserved the
footprint that apparently was found on the actor’s bed. He’d be looking for
fibers on the rope, cord, and shoestring, whatever it was found around the
actor’s neck. A room sealed off as a crime scene, allows the possibility for the
forensic team to find fingerprints, hair, skin, marks on the body,
fingernails, and DNA traces that might yield evidence as to whom else (if
anyone) was in the room at the time of the death.
|The Quantum State in Contemporary Crime Fiction
“The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that certain pairs of physical
properties, like position and momentum, cannot both be known to arbitrary
precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely
the other can be known. It is impossible to measure simultaneously both position
and velocity of a microscopic particle with any degree of accuracy or
On the quantum level Heisenberg’s
principle of uncertainty explains the weirdness of the state of a particle. The
act of observation will fix the state. What does this have to do with writing or
reading fiction? China Miéville makes a case drawing upon
Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty. And in my view, there are some problems
with making such analogy.
In terms of fiction, the reader’s
brain may indeed process information at the quantum level. But assuming that is
the case, the reader’s feeling of satisfaction or disappointment in the book
does not rest on an application of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It is
more useful to think of readers and writers as linked by the common desire to
attribute patterns to a series of events, circumstances or happenings. As much
of life is a random drift of unconnected events and happenings, our minds are
constantly trying to make sense of these perceptions by reading patterns into
it. Often the patterns are read onto random events, so that our minds can
substitute meaning for randomness. That isn’t just a little game that we all
play; it is the major league game that we as a species are forced into playing.
Pattern recognition was an essential survival technique. It defines how we exist
in the world.
We seem unable to not make patterns
from randomness. It is how our brains function on a neural level. China Miéville singles out crime
fiction as a narrative that inevitably is incomplete and disappointing once the
end comes into site. The letdown isn’t confined to crime fiction but fiction in
all categories where ultimately the author must show his or her hand by pulling
those patterns of conduct and circumstances together and attributing agency to
the underlying patterns.
Fiction provides two thinking tools
we bring to our daily making sense of randomness project. Novels are a pattern
creating and recognition enterprise. The skill and craft demands words and
images that allow the reader to construct and walk through a trail of vivid,
original patterns. Like any mountain climb, some trails are easier to climb than
others, some more beautiful, inspiring, and challenging. In crime fiction, the
patterns are found in the behavior of the characters whose lives meet at a
juncture where criminal activity has occurred or is about to occur. The reader
opening a book is looking for a particular kind of mountain climb. If what is
promised is different from what is delivered, and then disappointment is bound
to follow. Do you wish to climb Everest or Pike’s Peak?
The second thing that fiction must
do is to attribute agency to the patterns of behavior that is plausible but not
necessarily obvious. Let’s take a conventional or traditional mystery. The
pattern of conduct surrounding the murder suggests that the killer is the
husband because of a previously stormy argument, which a neighbor overheard the
night of the murder. We attribute the anger of the husband as the reason for the
murder. The narrative can build a good case showing a recurring pattern of
conduct that leads the reader to believe the husband is guilty. This is where
probability theory comes into play. It seems probable from what we’ve read to
draw the conclusion that the husband committed the murder. The author also shows
the neighbor as a good husband and father and employer and we rely on his
impressions to reinforce our view that the pattern of the husband’s behavior
points to him being the murdered. Stable, normal, good neighbors aren’t normally
thought of as killers. Then the reader comes to the ending, which exonerates the
husband and shows that it was the neighbor who killed the wife, he’d had an
affair with her and she was blackmailing him and he used the domestic fight as
cover for the murder.
There is no quantum state involved
in this tale. What is involved is the pattern making of the author, which leads
readers to recognize the pattern and attribute internationality or agency behind
the pattern. We often make mistakes in this mental process. It’s called the
false positive, false negative problem. We believe the husband is the killer
based on the patterns we’ve seen in the story. But all the circumstances
pointing to the husband’s guilt turn out to be a false positive. He didn’t do
it. We don’t suspect the neighbor because we misread the patterns that point in
that direction. That gives us a false negative. It is the false negative that leaves us
with a slightly bitter, foolish feeling. We pride ourselves in our ability to
read patterns without drawing irrational or wrong conclusions. Our brain tricks
us into jumping the internationality gun. It is likely in our genes.
Superstition, astrology, religion, the paranormal provide a failsafe platform if
no apparent internationality can be attributed. In other words, our mind is
structured to look for causality in all patterns and we don’t rest until the
agent is identified.
It was better to hear the rustle in
the elephant grass in an open field and run for our lives thinking it is a lion.
But it was only a breeze rushing through the grass. That is a false positive. We
feel slightly stupid in that case. But the person who hears the rustle and
assumes that pattern of noise fits the wind blowing may be in for a rude shock
when a hungry lion appears. That is the false negative. We roam the planet today
because our ancestors were more prone to make the false positive rather than the
false negative decision.
China Miéville says, “Crime novels
never end well.” That may be true. But the larger point in fiction is that all
endings come down to some hard choices about causation and internationality.
Either it is the wind or a lion causing the deep grass to rustle. But no matter
which one it is, some readers are going to be highly disappointed. In our minds,
we want our attribution to the cause to be vindicated. But it is the author who
makes the final call, and if she or he chooses an agency different from our
expectations, we say the book didn’t end well. And it may be that no novel ever
ends well for all readers because there is often no consensus on agency. We
don’t want to finish a book and learn that the events had no meaning, but were a
random dance in the universe. Your god may not work as a credible explanation
for the agency behind events (e.g., the creation of the universe or our
species). Your characters may fail for the same reason.
Tip of the hat to
Sarah Weinman for blogging about China
Miéville’s essay: http://www.sarahweinman.com/
Writers and boxers stand their
ground and try their level best to win by a knock out. But it has always been
easier to identify who wins a boxing match. With fiction, things aren’t so easy.
Writers expose our inner most secrets. Readers stagger against the emotional
ropes when realize what they believe as reality is little more than a tissue of
selfishness, deception, hypocrisy, or irrationality.
Think of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible
Man or Harper Lee’s To Kill
a Mockingbird or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four. The full power of the state is
often complicit in the delusion manufacturing and distribution machinery that
converts injustice and unfairness into its opposite. Thus books are banned,
writers jailed, exiled or murdered. Schools become indoctrination centers.
Teachers become the agents of official truth. A serious writer, like a boxer,
must be able to take a punch, too. Most of the writers I know can.
But maybe many people don’t want to
read that kind of book. Or that kind of writer doesn’t entertain and only
disturbs them, making you question what they believe to be the proper ordering
of your life and community. Upsetting a person’s myths about a nationality,
religion, drugs, war, or the environment is lighting a short fuse.
There are loads of pleasant
diversions. The Internet has opened a new place to hang out, dragging us into a
fog, and permanently distracting our attention so that we are no longer able to
focus on the kind of issues that have concerned writers for the last 500 years.
Maybe that time is coming not to an end. Have we entered a phase transition to
another state of consciousness? Or have our concerns about the human condition
been lost somewhere as we endlessly try to absorb bits and pieces from mountains
of data, information, opinions, and rants. We may have become so distracted that
we’ve reached a point where (1) we no longer pay attention to what is going on
around us or (2) we are aware of what is happening but we’ve lost our capacity
to care, feel empathy or (3) we retreat into a world of satire and irony.
There is another possibility. We
know that we have been conned by a system that is now broken and rather than
face that prospect we flee into the maze of images and words that scream
hundreds of messages at one time through our computer screen. We feel powerless
to do anything about it. In that case why invest the time in a book that
promises us what we have come to believe is impossible. We keep guessing which
of the three shells has the coin underneath even though we know the game is
Without the hope of social and
political change the fall back position is to seek diversion from the
contradictions, the messiness of life. One way to read around the larger issues
is to indulge in the equivalent of playing literary solitaire.
In other words, lose oneself in
‘Diversionary’ fiction. This kind of book isn’t even sparing (forget about
boxing). The purpose of this kind of fiction is to reassure the reader that his
or her cherished delusions can be reconciled. Looking at the kind of fiction
makes the bestseller list, there is little question what the marketplace verdict
is when it comes to buying books. Only a small number of readers want to get
into the ring with someone like Orwell. He will leave you bloodied.
Orwell’s characters struggle
against much larger problems—where everyone gets dirty, no one walks away
without injury, and the safe ground is always giving way. That’s the secret
world uncovered in the best kind of fiction. It’s not a division between fantasy
and realism (Pullman creates a fantasy world) but the author’s intention to tell
secrets in that world undermine our ability to keep believing in the delusions
in our own world. Diversionary Fiction dishes up comic strip characters who
occupy secret worlds in a fantasy universe disconnected from our own reality..
A tip to Sarah Wienman for a
pointer to Rich Cohen article in the Los Angeles Times wrote:
“A writer should be judged by how
honest and brutal he will be: by the quality of the secrets he tells, as well as
by the panache with which he tells them. It's what Czeslaw Milosz meant when he
said, ‘When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.’”
In Britain, though, the courts
through libel and defamation laws do their level best to take the hard punch out
of books. Here’s a good explanation on how the British law on libel by shifting
the burden of proof places any writer in the ring with the desire to back pedal,
think hard before throwing a punch, and hope that somehow winning on points will
be as highly regarded as a knockout.
“Critics of British defamation law
say it chills free speech in several ways. Defendants have to prove that their
published allegations were true, unlike in the United States, where plaintiffs
must demonstrate that an author or publisher disseminated false information —
and in cases brought by prominent figures, that this was done with serious
doubts as to the truth of the reporting.”
The Americans are seeking to
put an end to this nonsense by passing legislation barring the enforcement of
such judgments against American publishers and writers.
|Trolling the deep waters in war zones
Two writers who set mysteries in
foreign settings that you should read: James Church and Matt Beynon
Sarah Weinman is one of the most
thoughtful and insightful crime fiction critics, and if you’re not reading her
Confessions of an
Idiosyncratic Mind you are missing a gem of a
website. Recently Sarah interviewed James Church who writes a series set in
North Korea with features police inspector O. I’ve read A Corpse in the Koryo and highly recommend it. Only someone with first hand
information about North Korea could hope to produce a book with such splendid
details about the functioning of the bureaucracy and working relationship among
the North Koreans living in a totalitarian state. Church is direct about what he sees as
the keys involved in understanding the country: “North Korea is a bureaucracy,
it is Asian, and it is a totalitarian state inhabited by human
Church, who was prior to his retirement in the intelligence
game (James Church isn’t his real name) said in an interview with Sarah Weinman,
“Not to mince words, Western media treatment of North Korea has generally been
pathetic. “Lazy” and “intellectually bankrupt” also come to mind. Too many
reporters and editors love to fall back on “it was a dark and stormy night”
journalism when it comes to writing about the country. If one cannot figure out
what to say, spill some ink talking about how the North is a mysterious place, a
black hole of absurd behavior, a Stalinist Disneyland.”
I recommend that you read Sarah’s
interview with James Church: http://www.sarahweinman.com/
Matt Beynon Rees is another author
who knows the territory, the people, and the nature of the personal conflicts
that separate them. Matt’s turf is Palestine, and his novels are brim with
people caught in the vice of poverty, tribal and clan conflict, and facing the
constant possibility of violence. He brings Palestine to life. And that is no
Matt Rees writes one of my favourite mystery series starring,
Omar Yussef, a 57-year-old history teacher, who lives and works in Palestine.
The best fiction demystifies the political and social turmoil of a region in
One of Matt’s Omar Yussef mysteries
does more to take a person into the day-to-day reality of the lives of people in
Gaza than a library of newspaper and magazine analysis of Middle East politics.
Ultimately understanding countries like the Palestine and North Korea are tied
to their history, language, enemies, and traditions. The reality of such a
country becomes understandable through emotional lens of the people who live
there. Matt channels the
sensibility of Graham Greene in this series, building a picture of a time and
place that stays with you long after you finish the book.
|CRIME FICTION WRITERS BANGKOK
Recently Colin Cotterill and Timothy Hallinan were in
Tim as a thriller set in Bangkok
that will be published in New York in August 2009. Breathing Water is getting a lot of advance rave
reviews. Tim’s earlier two novels
set in Bangkok have received a great amount of attention; deservedly so as his
Bangkok series shows how a master can take menace to a new level. Colin’s
publisher Soho Crime is also releasing in August The Merry Misogynist. Dr. Siri Paiboun, the aged and antic national coroner of
mid-1970s Laos, continues this internationally prize winning series to bring in
thousands of around the world.
Here’s a photo of the three of us
at Pan Pan’s restaurant on Soi 33, Sukhumvit Road.
Timothy Hallinan, Christopher G. Moore, and Colin