Archive October 2012
|Crime Writing Master—John Burdett’s Vulture Peak
I have long avoided
reviewing books written by friends. It is hard to be objective when you know the
writer. As a general rule, it is a good one. Every now and again, an exception
comes along and like a good lawyer, you ask yourself whether to go with the
general rule or make an exception.
In the case of John
Peak, I’m going with the exception to the rule. Let me explain
When I open a crime novel
my wish is to plunge inside, a full headlong immersion into another world of
events, characters and drama that carry me on a white water raft of sheer joy,
wonder and adventure. Once the raft is pulled from the river and you think about
the experience, the rush of letting one’s self go and be carried away is the
Peak is that kind of literary white water rafting rush I
alluded to above. For those who seek the safe comfort of categories–genre and
literary–Burdett’s novel will cause you to rethink such a flat, arbitrary and
8arrived on the scene, Burdett’s Royal Thai Police
Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a luk krueng, has attracted a huge
international following. In Vulture Peak, Sonchai is assigned by his
boss to investigate an illegal organ trafficking operation.
Colonel Vikorn, Sonchai’s
boss, is an inspired creation—a character that possesses all of the qualities of
a sociopath—is running for election in Bangkok. The colonel is a control freak
who has “outmaneuvered, out cheated, outwitted, out sold, out bought and out
killed his enemies”—in other words, the usual uniformed official whose
graft-reaping skills have prepared him to run for political office in Thailand.
Those lurking in the shadows behind his campaign take the story to Yunnan
The colonel’s riff on the
mental mindset that justifies corruption is itself worth the price of the book.
Among the cast of characters are two beautiful and sinister Chinese sisters with
a luxury house in Hong Kong. Lilly and Polly, unlike Colonel Vikorn, who is
merely a sociopath, have inherited psychopath gene through their grandfather who
taught them the pleasure in killing, severing, and suffering of
Not surprisingly, Lilly
and Polly—two seductive, medically trained young upper class Chinese women—emit
the equivalent of Gama death ray. They are two dangerous women. Sonchai detects
the lethal warnings and is alert that once he enters their zone he’s at mortal
risk. In an act of self-preservation, he avoided bedding either or both of them.
It seems the twins had seduced their own father.
Sonchai is married to an
ex-hooker working on her Ph.D. Chanya’s role displays Burdett’s ability to dial
into the female frequency passing through the static between feminists who come
from different cultures. Murder, drugs, blackmail, ambition, and power gather
speed like a runaway train down the side of a mountain as these characters go
about the business of finding, harvesting and selling organs.
characters is difficult and rivals the creation of a sense of place, with the
culture, sweep of history, style, fashion and shifting alliances and power.
Burdett also excels at place. There is no one well-defined Bangkok. There are
sub-districts buried far away from the public eye, especially the roving eyes of
foreigners. But Burdett has burrowed inside the way of thinking of local cops,
students, and others. The demons are kept at bay. Just. From Bangkok, the story
moves to Dubai, Hong Kong, Phuket, and Pattaya. Sonchai travels on an American
Express Black Card (given to him by Colonel Vikorn), which is the ultimate
global passport that opens all doors.
What makes the scenes work
is the detailed knowledge of the author of each place. He has taken the pulse of
place, investigated the deeper layers of life that go on beneath the
surface. Sonchai’s search for the black market trade in transplants takes
him inside the lurid sexual world of Pattaya where the entertainment venues
offer something for everyone: heterosexuals, gays and
What drives Vulture
Peak forward is an awareness of crime, corrupt police and politicians, and
excess commercialism as it rolls through the traditional cultures of Asia.
Burdett has a handle on the gathering forces of change and has created a great
cast of character who stop at nothing to achieve wealth and power. International
crime fiction has come to maturity in the last few years. Burdett’s Sonchai
series is one of the best around. He has the courage to take risk in terms of
characters and settings, and never falls into the trap of recycling elements
that while they may appeal to loyal readers would keep him narrowly
tells a larger story of commercialization. Prostitution is commerce. Body parts
are commerce. Politics and policing dive into the deep end of the commercial
pool, and Burdett does a brilliant job in bringing the full weight of a money
culture on the morality of loyalty, dignity, and compassion. Burdett’s
Vulture Peak is a search for truth as the reader follows Sonchai who
does his best not to stray too far from the Buddhist path.
It is a struggle to
remember of non-attachment with the Black American Express Card in his wallet,
but at the end of the day, Sonchai witnesses the enlightenment in the red light
district and on the way home with Chanya while discovering the dharma of
Now you know why Burdett’s
Vulture Peak is an exception to my general rule not to review a
friend’s book. Sometimes you need to read a friend’s books to understand why
someone became your friend in the first place.
It has become a cliché
that we are unable to resist telling each other stories. The building blocks of
a story are words and images. They transmit a message of how we see, interpret
and understand the patterns of everyday life. What we value, what we desire, and
what causes us happiness, grief and suffering. It is what makes us human—this
ability to transfer thoughts in the envelope of words and images and sail them
across space where they land inside someone else’s head. Often that hidden away
thing is alienation. The feeling of anger, emptiness, insignificance and fear
that things will end badly.
Rats make a powerful image
for the excluded. What is more vile, dirty, feared and hated that urban rats?
There have been periods of history where ethnic groups have been likened to rats
and we know that boxcars followed those words and people were pushed inside them
and sent to their deaths.
My images are metaphors.
My words are mostly found inside of books I’ve written. I often write about the
‘rats’ because they deserve a voice. And also I sympathize with their lives.
Some of my words leak out in spaces other than books but not that much. This
information tells you that what I have to say to you is funneled through
commercial channels. You buy one of my books. Or can come here and look at my
wall and see what I’ve written.
You don’t have to pay for
the words found on this blog. You don’t have to go to a store and ask a clerk if
they have my words in stock. Because part of what I do is share ideas and
connections because I think this creates a kind of wealth. Any time your words
or images make you deliberate about something you have always accepted and never
taken the time to think about, your wealth has increased.
You can print out these
words and give them to your mother, girlfriend or boyfriend or the neighbour
next door. I hope that you will consider doing that. Print it out and slip it
under the door. Because the ideas expressed on the paper might just increase
their wealth, and you as a wealth generator will have added something to
another’s life. Words and images are the outlier’s frequency for transmission
work, it becomes slightly more difficult for governments and corporations to
control the consumers of their words/images. That’s why censorship has and will
likely always remain popular in the official arsenal of weapons to win the daily
battle with who challenges the masters. A good essay is a survival kit. Food for
thought when you get really hungry for an idea and none is around.
Here are words and images
on a wall that is worth a library of noir fiction.
I’ve been thinking about
one of the little known wealth creators who uses words and images in public
places. His name is Banksy. My good friend Tito
Haggardt who together with Mervyn Gillham went to a great amount of trouble to
send me Banksy’ Wall and Piece.
I recommend you buy
Wall and Piece as a present for upcoming holidays. It may be one of the
best gifts you ever give to someone. They will thank you. Like I thank Tito and
Mervyn. I owe you. And I always pay my debts especially when someone gives me a
book that increases the kind of wealth that I value. This essay is about the
wealth I acquired, thanks to the efforts of these two friends. Wealth defined as
relieving pain and suffering is explored in a brilliant essay on Ribbonfarm
Who is Banksy? He’s a
blank slate. A famous English blank slate born in 1974. Since the 80s (he
started young), Banksy found a powerful tool in graffiti as a way to deliver
messages left in public places. You won’t find a picture of him. He chooses to
remain off the grid; he communicate only with his words and images left in
public places—London, Melbourne, Toronto, Los Angeles. Banksy gets around. Until
someone in ‘authority’ dispatches a minimum wage worker with a scraper and hose
and orders him to remove the words and images. ‘Graffiti’ is the tag society
puts on Banksy’s art and I am here to tell you, that is just wrong.
Banksy creates wealth. It
is free. He doesn’t ask for money. Though it seems in recent years he’s become
very rich through his acts of rebellion and subversion. It’s the way all systems
co-opt the Banksy’s of the world—make them one of the elite. From as far as I
can tell, Banksy has remained true to his ideals. It would be like Christopher
Hitchens making a dead bed conversion to Christianity for Banksy to appear on
the Daily Show wearing an Armani suit.
If you study his images
and words you will become richer. This is the place where I want to talk about
rich and wealth not in the conventional sense of the money in your bank account
the worth of your house or car. It is liberating to understand that adding
wealth can be done without an exchange of money. Your vault filled with the
words and images you’ve collected over a life time will need to be reshuffled,
refilled, updated, rearranged, and some of the stuff you’ve been holding
onto—well just throw it away. Because there’s stuff you base your ideas about
life that are based on bullshit—commercialized words are the worst manure
because they don’t smell and we are taught the messages are wholesome, good,
beautiful and uplifting. That’s how bullshit works. You didn’t know that as you
clutched onto them, but trust me all of us need to periodically house clean the
word and image horde we believe represents a coherent view of the
This weekend when you go
outside your house, apartment, room, tent or trailer rig, stop for a moment and
look around at the buildings, walls, bridges, and billboards. Take a look at the
assault of words and images trying to get inside your head. You hardly notice
them. They are part of the landscape. Look closely and you’ll find all of the
spaces are covered with words from officials or businesses—lots of large
corporations have pasted your landscape with logos, brands, words, and images.
These don’t create your wealth in terms of knowing more about the world. These
images are a way to extract wealth from you. They call on you to pay money for
something. The words and images are intended to be ‘sticky’ to rattle around
inside your unconscious thoughts until you turn into a shop, and find yourself
putting a product in your shopping cart and you not sure why that is
What Banksy does is claim
the space, which has owners who rent it to people selling you bullshit. These
people don’t like the Banksy’s of this world. They are outliers, who stencil
non-paying words and images on spaces that mock the bullshit, the lies, the
deception and hypocrisy of modern consumer driven life and the political class
owned by the corporate class. Or maybe they are one in the same and not two
separate things. That is a separate debate.
The authorities and
business interest hate it when someone like Banksy creates wealth at their
expense. This is the ultimate threat to the entire superstructure of capitalism.
How does Banksy create wealth? By making the words and images of our overlords
who deliver in all spaces we inhibit one Big Message after another, something
quite different; those Big Messages suddenly are small, empty and
While a case can be made
that artist are by the intrinsic nature of their work are engaged in a form of
rebellion. Criminal are almost always not rebels but those who find that money
is the quickest path to power, and words and images aren’t anything more than
the slogans and brands they can’t wait to possess with their stolen
proceeds. Crime fiction—especially the noir crime novels—track the
dysfunctional social and political and economic system—showing that putting
lipstick on a pig is bound to come to grief once the audience sobers up and pays
attention. Banksy’s audience—those who have no voice, no future, no hope or
dreams—look to someone to notice there are people like that in the world, to
understand that is most people.
BangkokEyes is a great website for many
reasons. One of those reasons is the websites extensive collection of hundreds
of graffiti images/words found on walls, sidings, buildings and bridges
scattered around Bangkok. As a method of expression by the excluded class of
people living on the margins, this is the place where the true pulse of ordinary
lives can be found. Not on TV, newspapers, the Internet, or in most books. The
raw, vibrant, colourful in your face images of and from people who are ignored
and want their stories to be told.
That vast audience for the
walls painted with unpaid for words and unrented images and make them look at
the paid for stuff in a different way. If the mass audience taught to be
consumption machines, could switch off that motor, look around, listen to the
silence and then write or paint, they’d write a noir crime fiction or they’d
find a blank wall and put a story in images to make us think how most people
really see their lives if you shut down the noisy motor that destroys all
signals except the paid for ones. Tune in to another frequency. Next time you go
out the door. Look for what the forces that shape your view of reality want you
We have only the illusion
of the buyers of wall space to go on. When the caveman carries the tray of fast
food and stares at the audience, he’s saying, “WTF are you staring
The answer for those who
live margined lives confined to the outside, the message is obvious:
Banksy just held up a mirror. For a second time, the same question screams at
your from the screen—WFT are you looking at?
That’s you. That me. Can I
supersize your day?
|Self-Deception and Self-Forgetting
Watching the presidential
debate Wednesday morning (17th October) Bangkok time was a reminder
that what people saw, judged, and talked about was the ‘self’ on display by both
Governor Romney and President Obama. The projection of ‘self’ is as important as
the substance of their respective policies.
Such a debate is a medium
in which the presence of ‘self’ becomes the central message. Projection of that
‘self’ is intended to convince the watchers of ‘self’ that the person on display
is trustworthy, reliable, honest, quick witted, capable and knowledgeable.
The color of the necktie, the American flag pin on the lapel, the smiles, smirks
and frowns, the standing and pacing and circling, the position of the head and
eyes all give clues as to the ‘self’ seeking to convince others of his
leadership qualities. Each of these selves deliver packets of memories—of
events, incidents, meetings, and those memories are paraded and defended as if
they are universal in validity. Viewers are asked to ally their memories with
the person addressing them. It happened this way or that way, or this is what I
said, or what someone else said.
Memories are transient,
fallible, and often distorted or false. It should be obvious that people
remember different things, emphasize some details over others, overlook or fail
to see something. In reality, people cling to their memories like a dog to a
soup bone. That memory is provisional, often unreliable, or incomplete is a hard
concept to accept for many. Western culture is built on an idea of ‘self’ that
depends on the reliability and trustworthiness of memory. No one hears in a
presidential debate a call to humility when it comes to memory. No one ever
finds an admission that the other person’s memory, though different, may prove
to be correct. Presidential debates are verbal wars between competing self’s
(the attempt to call them ‘visions’ or ‘points of view’ are disingenuous), the
compulsion to win the debate means defeating the other self, and along the way
the casualty count includes ignoring the role of fallibility, gray zones of
doubt, or cognitive biases.
Debates are in the same
category as writing an essay, an opinion piece, or non-fictional account of an
event or personality. The ‘I’ of the writer is front and center. He or she is
uncoiling judgments, opinions, speculations, marshalling arguments and facts—the
techniques featured in most non-fiction writing. The author of the essay like
the debater doesn’t disappear and open a realm occupied by ‘characters’ with
their ‘dialogue’ and their fears, uncertainties and doubts locked inside their
private interior, the emotional realms where, in fact, most people spend a great
deal of their time.
Debates and writing are
influenced by the values and social norms. The starting point is to ask whether
the debate you watch or the book you read is influenced by a culture based on a
religion that promotes self-preservation or one that advocates
The three major abrahamic
religions—Christianity, Judaism, and
Islam—share a similar belief—‘self’ preservation in the afterworld. It goes by
the name of a ‘soul’ but that is religion speak for the you; the self, the one
you know and love—will exist for eternity in heaven or hell. That gives a
presidential debate a mythic, biblical quality as two selves—two self-identified
angels—battle for supremacy. One will prevail just as the other will
What is missing in an
essay or a debate is the absence of self. In Buddhism the ultimate goal in life
is to have extinguished the ‘self’. This is what I find the essential difference
between what I am writing in this piece and when I am writing a novel. At every
turn, I am aware of myself in writing these words. They are mine. The thoughts
behind them belong to me. I have called them out of my memory and present them
as if they have no bias, are true, and that you should believe what I say. In
other words, my ‘self’ is on display.
Fiction is quite different
(in theory). In fiction the author who can never get over himself or herself
will have a limited career. It is a forgetting of self. Letting go of self is a
precondition for empathy. James
Wood in a
recent essay about the novelist Tom Wolfe examined how Wolfe had failed book
after book to rid himself of ‘self’ and the result was every character sounded
like a megaphone for Wolfe’s own self that never managed to leave even on
dialogue line uninfected with his personality.
An author who in the act
of writing sheds her ‘self’ is Hilary Mantel. Sophie Elmhirst’s essay in the
New Statesmen is a revealing portrait of an
author’s past and how it shaped her ability to forget herself and slip inside
her character’s lives. Mantel disappears into her fiction; Wolfe shouts, screams
and dances from a platform hand-waving to the audience as if he’s in a
presidential debate. Mantel would make a good Buddhist and probably a good
president. Wolfe’s literary ‘self’, on the other hand, I hope finds eternal
In the absence of a highly
evolved sense of empathy it is difficult for a fiction writer to enter into the
dreams, thoughts, insecurities, doubts that people experience in their daily
life. A fiction writer often talks about losing themselves in the characters and
story. That is what they mean. Their self has vanished. They occupy a realm
where the characters channel through the writer’s mind and reveal their most
private secrets; the place where evil lurks, where the shadow of doubts trail
self like a mugger, where the skin is stripped from the body of good intention
and left out to dry.
Rather than hearing the
two candidates debate about the middle class and working class they wish others
to believe they care about so much, I’d ask them to write a novel. I want to see
what comes from such men when they suspend their sense of self and enter into
the emotional lives of ordinary men, women and children. That would be the kind
of ‘information’ I’d like to know. Ultimately it is the empathy connection that
is the thread that ensures fiction won’t die. It should be part of the sewing
kit that goes into the mix of an election. We can’t trust the self presented in
a debate or an essay if that is all we have to go on.
We should be asking
leaders to not pepper their debates with references to having met this person or
that who had a problem as a nod to empathy, a way for them to identify a
sympathetic self. That won’t tell us much about their capacity for empathy.
‘Self’ is the main character in presidential debates. We need to know, and
deserve to know, what leaders pay to attention to when they look at other lives.
If they can never escape the ‘self’ you can’t ever be sure as their term spools
out before your eyes whether they really have the ability to tell a story
through the lives of other selves in the full glory of lives haunted by doubts,
racked with suffering, and disappointments. Paying attention to how ordinary
people cope with their lives shouldn’t be limited to fiction.
I’d like to read Obama’s
novel and Romney’s novel. I want to know how their minds work when it isn’t
focused on self. I want to understand how empathy works for them through the
words and acts of characters who make stupid decisions, crazy choices, people
who fail, those who give up, those who get up and struggle to keep going. Or a
painting in the style of Francis Bacon self-portrait might also be
If I had that sense of
these men in the act of forgetting themselves—that is the nature of the best of
fiction—I might know something important, more important than a vague policy or
intention to do this or that. I’d have a sense of someone who walked a mile in
someone else’s shoes and was able to communicate what that experience was like
and could make that experience real enough for me to believe he understood
something genuine about the human condition. Both profess belief that the ‘self’
is preserved. They have a lot at stake. We will likely never know if their novel
would have been written in the tradition of Wolfe or Mantel. I’d like to think
one day that might matter, and how someone forgets ‘self’ and embraces empathy
is better indication of leadership ability.
|Fashion and Crime Fiction
As social creatures, in
strict accordance with a primate nature, we can’t help but measure our rank and
status. Writers are no different. The chatter about foreign rights, film
options, foreign rights, audio rights, large print editions, paperback deals,
best seller lists, sales figures, advances are just some of the many ways that
writers seeks to show their perch on the literary ladder. I call them “perch
Now Amazon has come up
with an author’s ranking. Like the ranking of books or the DOW, the status of a
writer can follow a bull or bear trajectory, and writers can waste yet more
valuable time checking to see if they are up or down. It won’t be long before
there is some exotic derivative that arbitrages writer’s ranking.
Now for something new (or
at least new to me) has rolled out of the digital world and opened on my screen.
It has to do with Vincent Calvino, the private eye, who appears in thirteen
novels (counting Missing in Rangoon January 2013).
Let me set the
Halloween is on its way.
That night of All Souls when children dressed up as ghosts, rock stars, demons,
and celebrities requires a costume. Going door to door seeking handouts is
sanctioned once year so long as you are suitably dressed.
The world of commerce
cashes in on Halloween. It’s nothing like Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day
and probably a half a dozen other lesser holidays but it is not overlooked by
the world of commerce. And the fashion industry notices Halloween as a chance to
sell for the evening outings.
A fan brought a website to
my attention that is selling a costume collection in honour of Vincent Calvino. I am not certain if Vinny
is the first private eye to be so recognized, but one thing is for
certain–fashion and commerce have found a new way to scare people on the mean
streets of Bangkok.
I love the idea of Vincent
Calvino fashion. A writer if he or she keeps at it long enough will accumulate
one or more Perch Placement Event. But getting a fashion collection in honour of
a fictional character is not something you frequently see in a Wikipedia entry.
But..but…and there are always a ‘but’ lurking in the dark shadows of your
personal alley, waiting to jump you and knock you off your perch. I am talking
about the downside.
As with most gifts from
the blue, this one comes with a certain limitation. The fashion isn’t for a man;
it’s for a woman. As the author of Vincent Calvino I can assure you that he’s
not into cross-dressing. Thought I leave that option open for future novels in
the series in case I get stuck for a novel idea. If you want to dress your wife,
girlfriend, secretary or other woman you feel fits the noir black fashion in the
Calvino collection, take out your credit card and order the whole
This fashion collection
all comes at the wrong time in my career. My agent was in the midst of a steamy
negotiation for a bondage apparel deal as this classic Vincent Calvino
collection has gone viral (in certain sections of Sukhumvit Road).
If there is a catwalk show
featuring the clothes, I’ll get back to you. Assuming I am not too absorbed in
checking my hourly ranking as a mystery author. I am waiting for Amazon to come
up with algorithms that factor in a clothing line based on a series character. I
should do quite well. And Amazon’s gnomes will no doubt figure out a way to
package a Calvino book, shirt, and shoes with a free shipping offer. Before
long, I suspect Amazon will have suggestions for Calvino inspired lawn mowers,
nail clippers, and cameras. Those are all potential Perch Placement Events that
will keep me writing and hopeful for a better future.