I sometimes wonder if the emotionality of crime has changed over time. Do we
feel the same about crime as our fathers, grandfather, or ten, twenty
generations back, felt about crime, punishment, judges, police, hangings,
prisons, or torture? In other words, have our modern sensibilities given us a
different perspective when we think about crime? How often do we come across
something that evokes thoughts about conduct and relationships within the world
Another question that sprang to mind is whether the way we perceive criminal
justice system is changed by our cultural experience and how connected we are to
technology, which allows us to share the experience of other cultures.
Is there more aggression, violence and moral indifference than in the past? I
am not sure how we can answer that question. We can look at the violence in
films, TV, and YouTube and it looks as if we glorify aggression. That may be a
justifiable conclusion but it still doesn’t answer the question: are we wearing
different moral lens than the ones our ancestors wore?
I think that twenty generations ago my ancestors (and yours) would have had a
much harder life. The idea of safety net, social justice, protection and
security wouldn’t have meant much to them. We have become softer, more fearful,
and more insecure even though on any objective scale we are far more secure and
safe than our ancestors.
I have a theory—it is nothing more than that—for the reason we feel less
secure when we should feel the opposite. There is a sense in many places in the
world that the elite classes have turned their backs on ordinary people, and not
only that, they have rubbed ordinary people’s noses in the fact they can commit
acts of violence and escape punishment. So long as there is a class that is
cloaked inside an institution and that institution is semi-autonomous, not under
the rule of law or the main democratic infrastructure, those outside that
institution are vulnerable to violence that has no legal recourse.
In other words, we accept the idea of violence might hit anyone at any time.
What is difficult to accept is the fact that certain agents of violence are
above the law. A recent example occurred in Thailand. According to The Bangkok Post, a 34-year old Major, a doctor in the
military, was the victim of what appeared to be an intentional hit and run.
The driver is thought to be an influential military officer and may also have
an influential father who is also a high-ranking officer. The facts according to
news reports are: a young female major arrived at her house to find her driveway
blocked. She thought it might be a patron at the restaurant next door. The
doctor wrote a note with the registration number of the car and gave it to an
employee of the restaurant to ask the owner to move his car from her
Later, she came out of her house, saw a car parked across the way, it honked
its horn at her, drove straight at her, dragging her thirty meters. She’s in a
hospital in coma. There are indications in the press report that the police are
very slow to proceed in this case, and that the military was slow to return the
car involved in the hit and run. And, indeed, there are circumstances to
indicate a different car was returned.
The colonel allegedly involved in the incident “surrendered” to the police,
claiming that the woman was at fault and injured herself when she “ran into” his
car. Something along the same lines was circulated not long ago in Thailand in
connection with assigning responsibility for the April/May 2010 gunshot deaths
of protestors in Bangkok streets: they were said not to have been shot by the
military, but had “run into bullets.”
The Bangkok Postalso
said the colonel had tried to ring the emergency phone number 191 to request
that they intervene in the quarrel between him and the woman but couldn’t get a
connection. It is difficult to get the doctor’s side of the story as she’s in
Here is the YouTube video of the car striking the doctor taken from a CCTV
camera at the scene:
This incident occurred at a time when Thailand is going through a bitter
election campaign and questions of social justice, equality and fairness are at
the forefront. In the distant past, powerful elites no doubt did this kind of
thing to our ancestors. What is different now? The way and means of
communications have fundamentally changed. You can read this report and watch
the YouTube video anywhere in the world. You can judge yourself by watching the
video as to whether the doctor ran into the officer’s car.
It’s not just public record; it’s part of universal public record. People can
read, discuss and debate such a case from Berlin to Toronto to New York and
beyond. They can write about it. Tell their friends about it. What would have
been whispered about in candlelit coffee houses and homes now is caught in a
Add that to the aspirations of people for a more accountable government. By
that I mean, a government that removes the autonomy from autonomous
institutions, places which traditionally have shield their members against legal
recourse even though they’ve committed acts of violence.
Institutions are incredibly slow to change. They rarely change voluntarily.
Their members feel entitled to their privileges, benefits and immunities. The
struggle of democracy is to bring all citizens under the same set of laws. That
struggle will be a long one. Our ancestors wouldn’t have thought it worth the
fight. They had a point as they could be easily isolated and picked off, one by
one, until that deafening silence would have sent a powerful message to leave
the powerful alone. Social networks have changed that. WikiLeaks created the
possibility for accountability for official misconduct. It is a start. People
don’t feel so alone in the face of social injustice. Our expectations about this
sort of thing are evolving beyond anything our ancestors thought possible.
The ordinary person on an iPhone or computer is equipped to fight back with
the most powerful weapon in the modern arsenal—an Internet connection to the
world, a pipeline that ensures the worst incidents of criminal violence
committed by members of the elite are photographed, documented, reported to a
larger audience. Once that image circulates, it sears deep into the memory, and
become one more piece of evidence that the privileged institutions of the past
are in for a bumpy ride as they try to justify their immunities to a world
tired, worried and insecure about a world where such things can happen. To
Three cases stand out this week in the world’s criminal justice system. One
was a police raid, helicopters, cars, reporters all descending on a rural
farmhouse outside Houston, Texas on a psychic’s claim of having a vision of a
mass grave on the premises. The second and third cases arose in China. In one, a
music student from a wealthy family was executed for stabbing a cyclist 8 times
after slightly injuring her in a driving accident. In the second Chinese case, a
truck driver ran over an ethnic Mongol herder, dragging him under his truck. The
driver given the death sentence; his passenger life imprisonment.
We tend to think of the West as having a criminal justice system that is
rational, logical and based on tangible evidence; and that the supernatural is
not part of the Western system. In the East, we have the image of soothsayers,
psychics, shamans and other mystics as embedded in all levels of society,
including the justice system.
How did the Houston police find themselves, based on a psychic’s prediction,
digging holes around someone’s house, searching for a mass grave? It seems there
were traces of blood and the smell of rotting meat. Only it turned out the
reality was far less exciting. The blood came from a drunk session where someone
cut their wrist, and the rotting meat from a broken down freezer.
Has any psychic ever having solved a single crime—using their psychic powers?
The answer is zero. The police have little choice but to follow up all reports
even though they may suspect the informant is a liar, stupid, mentally ill, or
The upside after the Houston case is police departments in Texas and
elsewhere—the Internet has spread the image of ‘egg-faced’ Houston cops across
the web—will likely mean that the next psychic who phones with reports of dead
bodies will have a hard time convincing the police to fire up the helicopters
and swoop in on the crime site.
It doesn’t take a psychic to predict that the rich and connected are dealt
with differently than members of the working class when they have a run in with
the law. A basic premise of criminal justice in any society is a central state
must contain the predatory class. A state that fails or refuses to do so quickly
loses legitimacy, citizens take to the streets, and unrest and violence rolls
out faster than tanks from third world barracks.
The problem is a conflict of interest. This occurs due to the fair amount of
overlap between the predatory class and the elites who are the politicians who
exert pressure on other institutions including the police and courts. No doubt
we all know individuals who are not predators by inclination but find that their
success aligns their interest with the predator class. Predators, as a class,
are rich, connected, powerful and influential. Predators are among the most
successful rent-seekers, monopolists, cartel members, and politicians orbit
around them like the earth revolves around the sun. And for much the same
reason: the pull of gravity. In the case of predators, the gravity is money.
Predators, as a class, wish to live above the law secluded in their private
Valhalla secure in the knowledge their wealth protects them and grants them
virtual immunity. When a son or daughter of a member of the predatory class
breaks the law, the central question is whether the state authorities will dish
out punishment or protect such a person.
When Chinese university music student Yao Jiaxin drove into Zhang Miao, who
was riding a bicycle, was slightly injured. Yao, described as the offspring from
“second-generation wealth,” believed that Zhang cause trouble over the issue of
compensation. Rather than facing the prospect of such a negotiation, he stabbed
her eight times. Even though he turned himself into the authorities, admitted
the crime, and his motive for killing the young woman, the People’s Court
sentenced him to death. The judge called Yao Jiaxin’s motive for the murder
This is a variation of the Thai proverb to kill the chicken to scare the
monkey. Rather than allow a child from the elite to murder a poor cyclist
because she might cause him trouble over compensation sends a loud and clear
message to the elites: Don’t think that your status, wealth and privilege grants
you an automatic entitlement to immunity. There are limits. Yao Jiaxin just
crossed on such limit. The vast bulk of the population in China will be
reassured with the execution of Yao Jiaxin, that the central state will not
tolerate law breaking by the elites.
Whether this is a precedent, a one-shot (no pun intended) warning, or larger
political statement with ramifications in other spheres, remains to be seen. As
Francis Fukuyama’s The Origin of the Political Order suggests, the
Chinese have an underdeveloped rule of law based system. The execution of Yao
Jiaxin may be an indication the Chinese authorities wish to strength the rule of
The elites might also belong to the ethnic group with the power to oppress a
smaller ethnic group. A good example of the use of the rule of law to diffuse
bad feelings running hot between the dominant Han and Mongol minority also
occurred in China. Li Lindong was given the death sentence after a six-hour
trial at the Intermediate People’s Court in the region’s Xilingol League. His
passenger (another driver) Lu Xiangdong, who rode in the cab of Li’s truck when
he drove over the herder, found himself convicted of homicide and received a
The political circumstances surrounding the Mongol herder’s death seem to
have been a significant factor. The dead man had been involved in a protest at
the time he was hit and dragged 145 meters. His death along with another Mongol
killed in a confrontation between locals and Chinese coal miners resulted in
demonstrations in northern Mongol pastureland. Herders and students went into
the streets with demands for justice and cultural protection for their
traditions and lifestyle.
Neither the circumstances nor the severity of the sentences handed out to the
truck driver and his passenger are found in a normal criminal case. The
political dimension—ethnic conflict, cultural oppression, and demonstrations—is
significant, making it difficult to treat the prosecution and sentence handed
out in isolation. And here’s where the rule of law should come into play. This
looks like an outcome in a system where the rule of law yields to political
considerations. In such a politicized system, even the Predatory Class may not
receive protection, and arguably would be better off under a rule of law system
separate from the political decision-making. Using the criminal justice system
to advance a political agenda is incompatible with the Western notion of rule of
law. It is one thing to rein in the elites and their children as in the case of
university music student Yao Jiaxin. But it violates the rule of law to
prosecute and sentence individuals from the dominant ethnic group to relieve the
political pressure created by another competing minority ethnic group.
From Texas to China we can confirm our bias that criminal justice systems are
flawed. That is of course a given. All institutions have weaknesses, gaps, and
inconsistencies because they are made and run by us. When the wheels come off
the wagon is when officials in charge of the criminal justice look to the
supernatural or the prevailing political winds before making a judgment. Justice
without an underpinning of fairness, equality, impartiality, independence and
reliability becomes a punch line on Jon Steward’s Daily Show or a cause to take
to the streets in protest. The elites must be fenced in or they will eat
everything including what is on your plate. It is here the predators lurk.
At the same time, the political class must leave the criminal justice system
to work through the evidence without interference or favor. This is a tall
order. Many countries have a culture of political interference. We live in an
ideologically divided world, one where everyone wants justice, and many states
fail or refuse to administer justice in a manner that is judged as equal and
fair by a large segment of the population. Around the world the TV news brings
you eyewitness accounts of the consequences in places the justice system has
broken down. These accounts demonstrate that the predators understand the
collapse of a legitimate state means there is no longer anyone to stop
Part of the popularity of
crime fiction is the reader is invited to follow the clues to identify the
crime, criminal and the cat and mouse chase between the criminal and
authorities. There are many crime novels where the perpetrator of the crime is
clear from the start. In other books, the attraction is solving the mystery of
who committed the crime.
The premise of crime
fiction has changed little over time—a crime creates a sense of mystery and
tension because there are gaps, flaws, and deficiencies in our information. We
may be the last to live in an age where unreliability of information is a major
wedge issue for criminals. The essence of this incompleteness of information is
the reason that criminals have used to their advantage to avoid detection and to
game the criminal justice system.
I ran across this quote by
Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree of the Centre for Human Rights Studies at Mahidol
University who is quoted as having said, “We are stuck in a system of impunity.
We can’t break it without accountability.” I want to come back to this idea that
links impunity with accountability. It is indeed a truism and while necessary,
it is not sufficient.
The Monty Hall problem
involves choosing a door with a prize as opposed to a lion that will leap out
and eat you. When a crime has been committed, The Monty Hall problem provides
two doors to choose from: one gives the victim revenge against the perpetrator,
the other door requires the victim and perpetrator to reconcile.
What’s it going to be?
Will it be a knife or a wai (or handshake)?
One of the pre-election
promises of the opposition Thai political party is to grant amnesty for those
charged with crimes after the coup in September 2006. The premise is, if
elected, those on both sides of the political divide and their supporters who
face criminal charges will be granted a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Though the
details as to what conduct and what individuals is vague. Wiggle room is a Siam
twin with most amnesty proposals. Finding the Goldilocks just right spot is not
an easy task.
It is the election season
in Thailand and a former MP for Samut Prakan. (the Parliament was dissolved two
days ago) who is from the opposition party has been shot. The Bangkok
has run the story as No. 1 lead two days running. Everyone has a say about the
botched hit. The police are quoted as having increased “security and
surveillance for cash, contract gunmen, and firearms.”
That raises an interesting
question as to why the police don’t look for hitmen and firearms in the
non-election season. The more you read from police, military, political
officials, the more that catches your eye and imagination. There can be no other
place where fiction authors face such fierce competition from those employed by
Authors who write
crime novels keep an eye peeled on the crime news. Living in Thailand the best
crime reports are found in the Thai language press often accompanied by gruesome
photographs and more often by smiling uniformed police officers standing behind
suspects with that defeated, I am on my way to jail look.
Neither The Nation nor the Bangkok
Post cover the local crime beat. Unless there is a high-profile foreign
connection, the local crime news flows down the canal through Thai consciousness
without ever causing a ripple on tranquil lives of foreigners.
In the Vincent Calvino series the
private eye has a number of people watching his back: a Royal Thai police
colonel, his secretary and a friend or two. The idea of watching each other’s
back isn’t confined to crime fiction. It is the staple of most novels
everywhere. And there is a reason for the pervasiveness of protecting each
other, providing security and support to others. We can tell a great deal about
a man or woman by knowing something about the people who watch their
We can also tell a lot about a
novelist in the way he or she writes about human collaboration. Other species
collaborate but no species other than ours has refined collaboration and scaled
it beyond a handful of others. It is likely that the reason there are nearly 7
billions of us is a testament to our skill at collaboration on an epic
I grew up in a world where it was
expected that judges and juries would be neutral. That neutrality was an
essential mechanism to resolve conflicts. Countries were also neutral. Places
like Sweden and Switzerland had a long history of not taking sides, by staying
on the sidelines, as other European countries took off their gloves and brawled
in the streets.
I don’t recognize neutrality in the
modern world. I’ve been searching everywhere for the retreating remnants of that
defeated army called neutrality. People are not just expected but required to
take sides. “Either you’re with us or against us,” said that great American
philosopher George W. Bush. If there was ever a phrase that marked the end of an
era, it came the date that phrase was uttered.
What drives the current interest in
noir fiction is that the stories validate our worst fear. There are no longer
any heroes who will ride to the rescue, put things right between those in
conflict. What has happened to the heroes who rose above the crowd to serve the
large community interest? Or did those people always live deep in mythology and
not the real world?
I write a crime series about a
private eye, Vincent Calvino, who works inside a system of vanished heroes. Many
of the Calvino readers like the realism of the novels and critics have commented
on their authentic insight into Thai culture.
Crime authors are accustomed to
killing off characters in their novels. In this fictional world, a man’s life
might not be worth more than a dime on longshoreman’s payday. We have no problem
dispatching the evil, malignant, cruel, and selfish megalomaniac. In fact our
readers often like those scenes when the bad guys expiry date is reached. If we
reflect on this ‘liking’ for a moment, one has to admit there is a shared bond
between author and reader over the necessity of killing the bad and protecting
the good. We are natural born killers.
There are three intersecting worlds
of killers and victims. There is the individual killer. He or she might be a hit
man, a crazed ideological or religion-inspired zealot, an emotional hothead, a
cold-blooded gang leader looking to keep his control and authority. We search
out, arrest and punish these people. Then there are the corporate killers.
Profit motive leads to killing to meet the next quarter’s results or the share
price falls. Jay Gould, a famous American 19th century oligarch said, “I can
hire one half the working-class to kill the other half.” That profit at any cost
attitude hasn’t changed much in many parts of the world. And last, the killing
machine of last resort, the one we agree has the right to kill in our
name: the Nation-State.
As a special report to you, though, I wanted
to be the first to break the latest news. New legislation has been drafted and is ready to be sent to
Parliament concerning ‘face.’
The proposed legislation to
abolish the notion of ‘face’ will be announced before dissolution of the House
and fresh elections. Penalties for anyone asserting, claiming, or suing for loss
of face include five years imprisonment, confiscation of property, and fines up
to Baht 10,000.00 (per offence).
Khun Chaiwong, chairman of the Face
sub-committee has reported, that by
removing ‘face’ from the social, economic, and political sphere, all of the
problems of the past five years will be resolved. He says the deep
division in Thai society all goes back to the concept of face. His face, your
face, her face and on and on until someone’s face is smashed, lost, damaged,
dented, makeup smeared and the like.
“It can get very ugly,” said Khun
Chaiwong, glancing at his Rolex. The government whips have been reporting
tentative support, though amendments to exclude elected MPs (government MPs that
is) have been rumored.
"No face will ever be lost again"—the
campaign slogan you will hear everywhere come May. The opposition is expected to
reply with "the government that has stolen your children’s face doesn’t deserve
There is a struggle between
our sense of beauty and function. The way we draw judgments, make decisions, and
assign value correlates to how we balance the relative importance of the inside
of ‘something’ whether a building, a car, a book, a person, an animal and so on.
Criminals also make an evaluation based on the outside and
The amateur criminal who breaks into houses chooses the
target from the ‘outside’ or the appearance. On the assumption that a house that
looks rich on the outside is bound to have goods worth stealing on the inside.
The professional thief seeks to find out what is inside the house first. The
professional is inside orientated. He’s not stealing the beauty exterior; he’s
stealing something of value inside a structure that may or may not be a marvel
Last Thursday 17th March, we
launched an anthology titled: Bangkok Noir. Six of the twelve
authors were able to attend the launch at the Foreign Correspondents Club of
Thailand. We had a full house to an enthusiastic audience of expats and Thais.
As the editor of Bangkok Noir, I had some comments about the ‘noir’ movement
On Thursday 17th March Bangkok Noir
was launched at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand to a full house. Six
authors attended and spoke about the nature of noir and their experience of
writing in Bangkok. The writers attending were: John Burdett, General Vasit
Dejkunjorn, Tew Bunnag, Christopher G. Moore, Collin Piprell and Dean Barrett.
Colin Cotterill sent along a 'clone' who was exposed early on in the
The photo is courtesy of Voicu Mihnea Simandan, a writer who
lives in Bangkok.
Anyone who has been to law school
knows the dirty little secret of what is on offer. Three years of studying
thousands of short-stories, hardboiled domestic dramas, murders, corporate
fraud, corrupt cops and politicians, greedy heirs, disloyal partners, wives,
siblings, beatings, traps, smacks alongside the head, crashes and smashup and
that is just the first year.
Mindfulness and Murder is
a novel in the Father Ananda Mystery series. In the same series you can find
The Garden of Hell and Killer Karma. This is a great series and deserves a wider readership. If
you haven’t discovered Nick’s books, you are in for a pleasant surprise and good
On Tuesday 15 March Colin
Cotterill and Eric Stone came to the offices of Heaven
Lake Press to sign copies of Bangkok Noir.
After an emergency hospital visit for writer's cramp, the two authors were put
on IVs with a Singha drip attached. Though Colin demanded only water. Eric
returns to Los Angeles on Thursday so can't attend the launch at the FCCT at
8.00 p.m. And Colin is off to China to speak before an audience of millions who
have gathered to learn more about his Dr. Siri character.
Like most economic activities in
life the opportunity available is often linked with class. This is true in legal
transactions. The acquisition and merger deals aren’t being conducted by people
living in walkup projects in the Bronx or those living in the middle-class
‘burbs. Big deals are reserved for the big boys.
Good news on the film front.
On 8th March, Variety ran an article about FilmNation and the newly appointed
COO who has given full support to the production of Spirit House as a
feature film. Things are looking positive for the film going