Archive June 2008
|THE BOTTLE INSIDE THE BOOK
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.
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.
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…”
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
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.
|INSIDE CRIME FICTION CHARACTERS, AND INSIDE THEIR CULTURE AND SOCIETY
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
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
It plays a hugely important role is the simple
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
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
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
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
"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
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,