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Blog Archive September 2012

Red Pill, Blue Pill, and White Pill

Books offer a choice about the color of the pill you are asked to swallow.

In the classic film circa 1999, The Matrix the color coded pill became a metaphor for a person’s desire to connect and dissociate with the reality of existence. Swallow the red pill guaranteed the consumer delivery into a frightening world of grim reality of life compared with the blue pill that offered an intoxicating illusion of normality, comfortable and vivid but ultimately false.

If you are a writer, you have to choose which pill you are offering to readers.

“Michael Chabon May Just Be the Perfect Writer for the Obama Age” is the title of Kathryn Schulz’s review of Michael Chabon’s novel Telegraph Avenue,

What he aimed for, Chabon says, was to combine regret and loss ‘with a slight sense of optimism: that there is going to be a next time, that we get these moments and they do recur.’

The intriguing part of Schulz’s review is about the cameo appearance of Obama giving one of his uplifting “Yes, we can” speeches in 2004. Obama was blue pill all the way until he reached he reached the White House where he swallowed a bottle of red pills after that first day in the Oval Office.  As a parable for being electable, it rings true. Promise the electorate the red pill and smear your opponent with rumors he has already taken the blue pill and is lying to you about what he’s found reality to be.

Books, like political candidates, make promises to the public. Choose me. That simple request is never as simple as it sounds. The red-pill literary adventure takes the reader on a dark, bumpy ride where seriously damaged people, institutions, and cultures are shown for what they are. Noir is the pathway of the red-pill world of crime fiction. If you want blue-pill crime fiction, don’t buy a noir novel as that is exactly the world you wish to escape.

That brings me to the main point. Blue-pill books and politicians offer escape from reality. They knock off the sharp edges, polish the glass until it sparkles, and promise hope and redemption. The red pill boots you headlong into a world where you won’t be safe or saved. It is a place of doubt, uncertainty, inequality, intolerance, and hatred. No one gets elected on a red pill platform. The possibility of redemption is a blue-pill experience.

The considerable power of hope and redemption in daily lives was once the exclusive reserve of religion or other sacred institutions. In contemporary times, there is the emergence of a third period: let’s call it the white pill. Religious fundamentalists who come from divergent religious backgrounds swallow the white pill, which turns non-believers into demons and infidels and believers into members of the purity and loyalty brigade.

The white pill suppresses tolerance, compromise and critical analysis, and substitutes overwhelming feelings of hatred and revulsion directed toward non-believers. Swallowing the white pill is entry into the world of black and white, where enemies are demons and are to be destroyed. Violence and death follow like night following day. A third-rate YouTube film or a cartoon throwing mud inside a sacred zone has the capacity to activate the rage center of white pill users and send them into the street with banners, guns and bombs.

The white-pill people are fact-hating fanatics who occupy in a twilight space between those who take the red and blue pills. They have their own books, leaders, and manufacture their illusions that remain resilient to evidence, argument, or persuasion.  White is good. Everything non-white is evil. Their world is a simple binary one where instead of ones and zeroes, it is good and evil. And a fanatic high on a white pill is highly sensitive to a slight to his or her idealization of sacredness. They will die before giving up their illusions.

As I write this essay, I think of the three red pills in the bottom of my literary cabinet—Phnom Penh Noir, The Orwell Brigade, and Missing in Rangoon. If Kathryn Schulz’s review of Telegraph Avenue is right, I have chosen to go against the age where the queue is long for the blue pill. And I would add even longer for the white pill. For red-pill writers, we are left to the margins, hawking our visions to people racing past, taking a sideways glance, before rushing ahead to find a pill that promises salvation and redemption.

Reading is hardly on the radar screen of most people. It’s called a leisure activity. A private pursuit for those with time and money for books, who are mainly seeking a way to entertain themselves or experience adventure or thrills, and occasionally a book might inform and instruct them about a feature of the world that attracts their interest and attention.

The world of color-coded pills is far more serious in the political realm where powerful interests use huge wealth to write the population of voters a prescription. Sometimes like Romney, they are caught telling an audience of the red-pill vision he really has of them. It is hard to recover once you’ve changed the prescription. That is true whether you are a politician or author.

As Obama found out after his election, showing the blue pill can get you elected. Once in power, switching to the red one will turn supporters bitter and resentful. ‘Why I Refuse to Vote for Obama’  in the Atlantic is the fall out by someone who feels Obama’s prescription in the last election was a swindle. The relationship between authors and readers is no different. A book also makes a promise to the reality that a reader can expect to find. Promise one thing and deliver another, and the reader will refuse to buy the next book.

Most people will vote in large numbers for candidates who promise them the white-pill program. They also want books that deliver the experience of the white pill. They demand the death of blasphemers wherever they can be found and destroyed. Next time you are thinking about buying a book or voting in an election, ask yourself—what color of pill is being promised. In many places, the red pill is illegal. Offer it you go to jail. Swallow the red pill and you are sent into exile.

The danger is a world where the blue and white unholy alliance comes to power and bans the red pill. Meanwhile, in many places, you still have a choice. Whatever you decide is your poisonous relationship with reality, will it be the world you were promised? Or will you be left with a hangover and as Chabon’s fiction suggests, you suck it in, try again, and again. Your head striking the wall until the wall gives in.

Posted: 9/27/2012 9:09:29 PM 

 

What Author Photograph Sells a Book?

I have some books coming out soon. Someone suggested I needed a new photograph for the place on the back cover where an author’s photo appears. I’d rather stick with photographs from an earlier day. But that is a mistake. We all age and the entertainment business (which books form a part) is biased toward youth. No one can get away from the fact that age doesn’t improve our appearance. Still, it is better to act your age and let others see the erosion of time in small doses than spring a new photograph, which has a gap of many years from the publication date of the book.

The question is what kind of image is appropriate in the age of Facebook where people (if my FB friends are anything to go by) update their photos weekly.  I have been doing some research, checking out other authors and their photographs, and thought I’d share my research findings.

Not that many years ago readers rarely saw an author’s photo except for the one on their dust jacket cover of his or her latest book. Most of these author photos came within the category that might be called passport or driver’s license images. Headshots of a face that would rather be someplace else and taken by an official whose job qualification most likely didn’t include a course on photography.

In the pre-Internet days, the not super famous author often had his or her photo taken by a spouse, a friend, or a neighbor. As writers gained fame, their photographs became more like a movie star. The idea was to create an image of the author that had a hint of glamour, mystery or intrigue.

Now there is a competition among authors to look friendly, mysterious, charming, dangerous, thuggish, or like a gangster, psycho ward patient, or sometimes like someone who might want to read what they’ve written. That is the trick. To draw enough attention so as a reader wants to buy your book.

An argument can be made that dust jacket photos are less important in the digital age. Enter your favourite author’s name in a Google web search and click on images. Hundreds if not thousands of photos pop up for well-known authors. Many of these photos are uploaded by well-meaning fans who attended a book launch or talk; rarely of the author nude sunbathing (which would certainly kill my sales). These non-professional photos often reveal more about the author’s character and physical appearance than the carefully posed official photo the publisher places on the dust jacket.

What interests me in this essay is the idea of the range of choices available in selecting an author’s photo for a book and for the publicity machine that goes into action to promote the book. The author is obviously involved as his or her agent, editor and marketing department.

The more I study the photos of other authors, the more confused I’ve become as to what works. In Thailand image and face are important concepts that guide daily life. It is a culture where it is claimed that most people don’t like to read. But they enjoy looking at photographs. That favors some authors, and leaves others on the shelf.

Here are a few rules that have worked for author photos in the past.

Rule #1: Use a pipe

A pipe is a good standby prop for an author–typically a male one. Giving an air of authority, the smoking pipe worked for Raymond Chandler.

George Simenon also used the pipe in his photos. As did some author photos of Hunter Thompson.

The pipe was good enough for Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner.

If you look at this link to Southern Writers all but one are smoking in their photograph.

 

Rule #2: Use a gun—controversy plants an image in the Readers Mind

Hunter Thompson figured this one out. He left the pipe to Chandler and Simenon and decided there was no better way to gather attention than switching to a handgun. When I lived in New York City I had a series of author photos for His Lordship’s Arsenal with me with a shoulder holster and .38 handgun. I could argue that it fit the title and story. Doesn’t matter. I did this. I let myself be photographed with a gun. I’ve tried to suppress that photo. But, yeah, I did that. I know I already said that. But it haunts me. I looked at a photographer, held a gun, let him snap away.


Hunter Thompson

Hemmingway was there before Thompson.


Ernest Hemmingway

William Burroughs was another writer who had a history with guns.


William Burroughs

Two out of three of these authors killed themselves with a gun; the third accidentally shot and killed his wife in Mexico. Guns with authors don’t have a good pedigree.

 

Rule #3: Using your fist—The Macho Man Look

Author photos showing the scribbler as a boxer, marital arts specialist, or sportsman conveys the message the prose are laced with large doses of testosterone.

Here’s Hemmingway striking a pose.


Ernest Hemmingway, Photograph: George Karger/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

 

Rule #4: Use your (or someone else’s) pet—Pose with an animal

I have also posed with animals. My current Facebook photo shows me with my golden lab Oscar. Why do we want to drag our pets and other animals into an author’s photograph? There must be a deep insecurity to need the company of an animal to sell a book. Again, I’ve done this. Poor Oscar. A dog can’t give an informed consent. If they could, they’d want a piece of the action from the book. Dogs should have agents instead of fleas. (Not to suggest that Oscar has fleas–he doesn’t.)


Peter James with a cool looking horse


John Connelly with a dog

 


Charles Bukowski with a cat

 

Rule #5: Use of Hats or other Head Covering

I am also guilty of having done the hat thing in publicity photographs. This is almost as shameful as the handgun, the dog, and baby photograph (to be revealed later in this essay).

But I am not alone. Some authors look better than others in hats. I am not one of them.


Bruce Desilva with a two for one: Hat and cigar

 


Jo Nesbø goes with the hoodie look

There are many images of David Foster Wallace in headgear.


David Foster Wallace

But no author does hats better than Kelli Stanley.


Kelli Stanley

 

Rule #6: Use Avatars or Computer Enhanced Images

All of us on this website have our faces rearranged by resident digital plastic surgeon Colin Cotterill who is celebrating his birthday in the southern jungles of Thailand, where he’s rumored to be creating -three-dimensional images of authors as various birds, lizards, and fish.

For examples of rule six, look to the right on this page. There’s a whole row of digitally fiddled images. There is absolutely no evidence that the enhancements have helped our book sales or brought people to this website. But we are sticking to the look.

 

Rule #7: Use an Iconic Spy-Author Image

A few authors manage to catch this brass ring of stories that come from covert operations. Those who came from that world and turned to writing gave us a series of photographs that are timeless. The authors’ images come from an age long passed. Their books and photos nonetheless have acquired a legend and are handed down from generation to generation. The problem is this only works if your bio includes a stretch of time spent as a spy.


Graham Greene had arrangements with MI6


John le Carréwith his 100-yard spy in the cold stare


Ian Fleming, another British secret agent, turned fiction writer

I was never a spy so the iconic photo is out.

 

Rule #8: Adopt the Please-Buy-My-Book Look

If you find a way to reach out to the reader with a plea—Please buy my book–then you are begging, shrilling, pimping or otherwise swimming against the  heavy current of commercial sales in the business of books. As most authors effectively ‘drown’ in the struggle to keep their head above water, some do a better job of pitching the book to readers.


Norman Mailer is praying you buy his book. And forgive him, too.

Alternatively, you can go with the I-am-going-to-teach-you-something-and-meanwhile-please-watch-my-back look. Salman Rushdie is likely praying but for different reasons. He strikes a pose as he speaks to you and if you want to hear he has to say, buy his book.


World Famous Author Salman Rushdie Visits ECU | 9 On Your Side

Sometimes the direct approach works. No need to beat around the bush.


J K Rowling

 

Rule #9: Use a Baby Photo


Christopher G. Moore

Yes, that is me. And yes, it was used on a book that one day someone will write (if they haven’t already) Heart Talk was his most ambitious, comprehensive and significant book—Heart Talk. If the author’s photo is anything to go by, I seem to be sending a message I wrote it when I was 18 months old. Some critics take the baby photo as an opportunity to suggest that I burnt out early.

I can report the book sells like sand to a nomad in the Sahara. The cute author’s picture might have worked for the first ten years. Now no one notices it. Like the book, it has been transferred into literary limbo until some new generation decides that learning Thai in this rather odd, eccentric way is in fashion and Heart Talk is rediscovered.

On balance, I wouldn’t recommend the baby photo. Unless you are writing about an obscure language and think a baby picture will bring you sympathy.

 

Rule #10: Use a Disturbing Photo

A police mug shot seals the deal that the writer has waltzed on the noir side of life. Below is Ezra Pound looking crazy and dangerous.


J Ezra Pound

Charles Bukowski made it a point write prose and poems intended to disturb readers. His photograph below could also appear under hats and other headgear. Bukowski looks like he just slipped out of a straight jacket.


Charles Bukowski

If an author really wants to draw attention, then a photograph of him (or her) in bed with another author guarantees a second look. Below Durrell and Miller are having a good laugh.


Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller

After an exhaustive search for the ‘right’ look I’ve still not decided what photograph will go out with the new books. The choices must be greater than a headshot, holding a book, loading a gun, headwear, or pipe. I suspect the baby photo works only once. Of course, there’s always Oscar. I am showing my availability bias here. The fear is that one day I will wake up and look exactly like my passport photograph. That will definitely kill sales. But that isn’t the point. This is, after all, the reality check website, and what better way to check reality than deal with that fine line between who you are and how you want others to see you.

There is something profoundly vain and narcissistic in writing a book. Author photos are the intersection in this enterprise where vanity and narcissism collide and you look for the equivalent of the literary Higgs-Boson particle that emerges. Having plans for the next round of publications this fall, I will have thirty books with an author’s photo on the cover. I can look from 1985 and see evolution truly works—what goes extinct, what mutates, and what adapts. Each photo traps the author into a tiny sliver of time, age and fashion. Like youth, those things pass, leaving the photo as evidence of what is gone. An author sees himself as he was and wonders why he chose that image. It is a mystery that can only be rationalized by hindsight bias. A reader sees the same photo on an old book and asks what is he or she really like behind that mask.

An author named Logan P. Smith once wrote: “Every author, however modest, keeps a most outrageous vanity chained like a madman in the padded cell of his breast.”

He left out there is a mirror on the wall of that padded cell.

One more idea before I go. Why not require a photo of every on line reviewer on Amazon, and the reviewer’s photo accompanies the actual review? Unless the photo is of a sock puppet, we can see what the person looks like, the one who had the level of interest to post a review. Would that make a difference in the review culture? In the new digital age I suspect as soon as you step over the line into the public realm, you will automatically have consented to show your face. Maybe our new digital overlords will allow all of us to show our best face. Not the one on our passport, but our idealized face, the one face that if properly read tells a 10,000-word story.

Posted: 9/20/2012 8:57:13 PM 

 

Private Eyes Riding the Time Machine

My German translator Peter Friedrich made a recent observation about the Vincent Calvino series that I’ve been thinking about. Peter said:

Did it ever occur to you the he might be the only literary character who really evolves along actual history? I mean, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe, Travis McGee to Dirk Pitt, and I know most of them, they all never really change and become dated as time goes by.

The Vincent Calvino series started in 1992 with Spirit House and the 13th novel in the series, Missing in Rangoon, comes out in January 2013. Over the last twenty years, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia have gone through tremendous political, social and economic change.  The world has changed from bulky cell phones, fax machines and clunky computers to smart phones, thin laptops and iPads.  Most people in the region who never had any landline telephone or cell phone in the 1990s now have Wi-Fi Internet or at least 3G.

For a moment in September 2012, you have an idea for a book, characters, setting, and story. Ask yourself what those characters will be doing, thinking and saying, and how the setting has altered in September 2033. The honest answer is no one has a real answer to what the world will look like in 2033 or how social interactions will be shaped by technological, political and economic events we can only made wild guesses about.

When I started work on Spirit House in 1989, I hadn’t any idea of these huge changes that lay just over the time horizon or that a private eye named Vincent Calvino would evolve as his environment shifted. Globalization wasn’t a term in circulation at the end of the 1980s when I started writing about Thailand. Hindsight bias makes looking back from 2012 to 1989 much easier, than predicting from 2012 what the world will look like in 2035.

I have had look at the wiki list which has the names of detective fiction authors. I searched through the names for a writer who has used a private eye to chronicle the social, technological and political changes in a culture by spreading the novels in the series out over a couple of decades. I haven’t read all the authors on the wiki list. Those of you who are better read than I am can correct me if I’ve missed a writer who has written such a detective series.

There may be several reasons. Crime fiction has traditionally focused on the underground world of crime, crooked politicians, brutal cops, and rich people calling the shots. There is a halo of timelessness hovering above such themes. The nature of a private eye series normally is aiming to do better than others in honouring the traditional tropes.

I haven’t stayed within the usual boundaries of crime fiction in a number of ways. When I started the Vincent Calvino series, there weren’t established series featuring a private eye set in foreign countries. Transporting an American private eye to Bangkok opened an opportunity for cultural exploration far greater than had Vincent Calvino stayed in New York. Not that I knew this at the time. Sometimes things turn out not through some great planning or foresight, it more often is chance, an accident, doing something a little different and finding that the adaptation works in usual ways.

It never occurred to me in 1989 that I’d be writing an essay in 2012 when the 13th novel in the series is off to the copy editor. And it never occurred to me that Vincent Calvino would evolve as Bangkok changed, as Thailand modernized, westernized, and connected with the outside world. I didn’t see that coming. What I did do was set Calvino to ride each wave as the latest tectonic movement sent tsunami waves through the region.

Most people have heard of Moore’s Law. Here’s the wiki take:

The capabilities of many digital electronic devices are strongly linked to Moore’s law: processing speed, memory capacity, sensors and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras.

I have mostly (though not always) used the 18-month Moore’s Law as a thumb rule as the amount of time between researching and writing novels in the Vincent Calvino series. Over twenty-one years I have averaged a Vincent Calvino every nineteen months. That has been enough time to witness change as they slowly work through the social, economic and political system. I suspect that may be another reason other authors aren’t as interested in the social changes, especially the ones generated by technological innovation. There is a huge pressure to write a novel a year in a popular series. That schedule is too short a turn around time to write the kind of novel in the Calvino series.

Here are a few examples of the great social and political waves Calvino has rode to shores outside of Thailand.

Zero Hour in Phnom (1994) Vincent Calvino and Colonel Pratt are in Cambodia at the time of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force (UNTAC) a time a major shift in the fortunes of Cambodia and with thousands of foreign troops on the ground. Comfort Zone (1995) Calvino had a case that took him to Saigon at the time the Americans lifted the embargo on Vietnam unleashing a rush of businessmen into the country seeking an opportunity. In Missing in Rangoon (2013) Calvino is searching for a missing person Rangoon as that country opened to the outside world and a new gold rush has begun.

From Cambodia to Vietnam to Burma, Vincent Calvino has been in the back alleyways as a political system in the region made a major pivot, turning in a new direction. His case in those three novels was set against the backdrop of the sudden social and political changes happening inside the country. With all bets off, life in a place of enormous transition has always brought out the very best and worst in people. That is the stuff which makes for story telling.

The other ten novels in the Vincent Calvino series are set in Thailand. The changes were brought by online chat rooms, email, avatars and expansion of the sex trade through the new technology featured in The Big Weird (1996). In The Risk of Infidelity Index (2006), Vincent Calvino accepted a case on behalf of expat housewives who worry about their cheating husbands and the investigation took place on the eve of the 2006 military overthrow of the elected government.  In the Corruptionist (2009), Vincent Calvino’s case took him into the heart of the political divide in Thai society as he slipped inside government house, which was occupied by protestors.

There is another feature with the series and it has to do with the subsidiary characters. There is a standard relationship between private eye and sidekick and secretary in detective fiction. The Hawk and Spencer template is commonly found in this genre. Calvino isn’t a lone individual hero in the Chandler tradition of fiercely honest and tough Philip Marlowe. Calvino’s personal friendship with Colonel Pratt makes the cases collaborative efforts. By relying on Pratt, Calvino showcases aspects of how people rely on each other in Thai society, and how that reliance is culturally based.

Calvino couldn’t last a week without Colonel Pratt or his secretary, Ratana. The relationship of the private eye to those in his life explores the cultural adaptations required of the ‘hero’ as his survivor depends not only on his skill, cleverness and luck, but on others who protect and advise him in a strange social landscape.

With Vincent Calvino, I have been interested in culture, technological change on the culture, the way society has changed over the years. I have been lucky to live in Southeast Asia at a time when change exploded. Nothing is quite the way it was in 1992 when Spirit House was published, and my New York agent at the time wrote a letter (yes, we still had those then) asking if I could change Bangkok to Boston as there was a publisher who was interested and he thought Boston would sell better.

That didn’t happen. Vincent Calvino stayed in Bangkok, venturing out to neighboring countries in only three books. What will this world look like in 2033? I am the wrong author to ask. In 1992 I had no idea that things would look the way they do in 2012. I can leave you with this thought—Vincent Calvino will continue to change along with Thailand and Southeast Asia. Every eighteen months, you can check in and find out for yourself whether the characters and story set against that change capture the zeitgeist.

Posted: 9/13/2012 8:51:26 PM 

 

Hit ‘N Run

At five in the morning of Tuesday, September the 4th, a 27-year-old Red Bull heir Vorayuth Yoovidhya drove his million-dollar Ferrari on the road in a fashionable area of Bangkok where he hit a policeman on a motorcycle on patrol. The driver failed to stop after the impact. From the look at the damaged Ferrari it appears it had been driven fast.

The Ferrari after the accident (Bangkok Post)

How fast was the Ferrari going before the accident? Did the policeman suddenly cut in front of the Ferrari as claimed by the Ferrari driver? Did the accident happen while the driver was sober as his family lawyer claimed?  The press reports from the English language papers add new details daily and contradict earlier reports. The basic  facts are reported in The Nation. The Ferrari was estimated to be traveling at 200 kph when the accident happened. As with many crime and accident scenes, the press leaked information. Whether this information is accurate is another question. What we know from the press is: “Impact traces show that the Ferrari crashed straight into the rear of the motorbike, leaving an imprint of the bike’s exhaust pipe on the car’s front.”

The body of the policeman appeared to have been stuck on the bonnet; his motorbike was dragged 200 meters before the Ferrari finally drove clear of the wreckage. Before that the policeman’s body fell from the car onto the street, whereupon he was assumed to die, with a broken neck and multiple broken bones.

Was the driver drunk at the time his car rammed into the back of the police motorcycle?

According to the Bangkok Post, Vorayuth’s alcohol level exceeded the legal limit. As the test was taken hours after the accident it might be assumed at the time of the accident it was higher. Why the delay in testing for alcohol in a hit and run case involving the death of a police officer? Because the police were refused access to enter the Red Bull family compound where the driver was hiding after the accident. The family driver falsely claimed that he had been driving the Ferrari.

Influential, wealthy people don’t like inconvenient facts or evidence. One of the hugely important aspects of great wealth and power is to control information. To make certain that information channels pitch your story in the best possible light and ignore facts or evidence that might discredit that story.

We have a story to tell of the driver, the grandson of a wealthy family, who drove his heavily damaged million dollar car, leaving behind like bread crumbs a trail of engine oil from the accident scene right to the family house and underground garage. He parked the car and went into the house.

Shortly after 5.00 a.m., at the moment of impact everything changed for the two men involved. One was a cop who died. The other was a rich kid doing what rich kids do—seeking refuge in the family mansion. Vorayuth could have stopped his Ferrari and went to the aid of the police officer he had struck. It is impossible to know whether the initial impact or the subsequent dragging of the officer resulted in his death. However small the chance, it might have made a difference. At least to the driver’s humanity.

What happened next is revealing on a number of cultural, social and political levels. Let’s be honest. People panic. People make mistakes. People exercise poor judgment in a crisis, and, at this crucial time, the cultural training of a lifetime comes into play as they go into automatic pilot. This is the moment when what people are taught by their parents, schools, and others in their lives can be understood more clearly.

If you live in a place where the default is to game the system, you couldn’t ask for a better case study.

The initial contact at the family mansion was by the local police who showed up at the door and were denied entry—by a maid. The door was shut. The police walked away. Yes, an officer has been killed, and the servant at the wealthy person’s door said they could not enter. Wealth and influence induce fear and the police rather than pressing ahead, did what one comes to expect. Find a ‘middle way’—meaning a way to fix the problem. A senior police officer from the local district police station (the one where the dead officer was assigned) apparently made a deal with a servant of the family to let someone else in the household (another servant of course) to take the fall for Vorayuth. They went in the side door.

This was a hard switch to make plausible. It wasn’t as if the driver had taken the second hand pickup out for a run. Maids, gardeners, and drivers normally aren’t given the keys to million dollar sport’s cars to have a little fun early spin around the neighborhood. The set up smacked of desperation or arrogance; probably a bit of both.

I want to pause for a moment and ask you to consider how culture comes into play in such a tragedy. Privilege, entitlement, influence, connections are words we all know. They are abstract concept but with real consequences. The default action of the family and the police was to game the system.

That’s how immense power works everywhere, and it is why the rule of law is the only mechanism we have to restrain those with such power from running us over and pushing a servant forward as the ‘cut out’ or ‘fall guy’ so that the heir to the family fortune can have the Ferrari repaired and ready to drive another day.

After hours negotiation between the police and the family and their lawyer, the 27-year-old heir was taken to police station and promptly released on a USD16,000 bail.

One of the saddest aspects of the case is the likelihood that money will talk and punishment will be reduced to compensation for the victim’s family. It has happened before. After enough incidents of this kind it is difficult to not to conclude that this is how the system works. It’s not a freakish outcome; it’s a normal one where officials and someone in a rich family work out a corrupt solution to ‘fix’ the problem. If the servant of the Red Bull heir had taken the place of the driver, an innocent man would have been sent to prison to serve the time for the wrongful death. This is the heart of corruption, of the system gamers, the flaw of the patronage system—all of it played out on Sukhumvit Road, inside a mansion, the parties locked in the embrace of cover up and corruption.

It’s not necessarily that Thais don’t have a sense of justice but they have seen too many examples of impunity enjoyed by the rich and powerful when they break the law. This Red Bull heir case came just a few weeks after a ‘hi-so’ teen driver, daughter of a high ranking official, was given two-year suspended sentence after having been found guilty of reckless driving causing 9 deaths. She was just 16 and driving without license when the fatal accident happened on an express way two years ago. Besides the suspended sentence, the punishment included 48 hours of community service and banned driving until 25.

Thais are asking: Will the Red Bull heir join a long list of Thailand’s privileged youths who have killed ordinary people with their cars and have served no time? Actors, singers, celebrities, and children from well-connected families with influential surnames and ranks, are often given a ‘Get out of Jail’ card. Here is a small sample made by a Thai in 2010.

In this case, the wealthy family lost control of the information. The evidence was overwhelming and obvious who was the driver and who was lying to protect him. The senior police officer involved in the failed coverup was soon transferred to what is called in English an ‘inactive’ post. Unless you’ve lived in Thailand you might not be familiar with inactive posts. Think of an inactive post as a secular purgatory where cops, bureaucrats, and other public servants are sent. It is a temporary limbo existence for those who have been caught taking bribes, fiddling the books, planting evidence, abusing their authority or otherwise breaking the law as punishment.

The official in the inactive post continues to draw his salary and stays at home or catches up on his golf game, waiting until the scandal blows over. At the point—weeks or months—the official is quietly eased back into service. People forget about it. There is no memory. No follow up in the press. It is as if it never happened. The inactive post is what passes for ‘punishment” and justices in cases such as this one.

In other legal systems, a cop conspiring to subvert justice would have committed a serious crime. His action would be seen as undermining the rule of law and he would be arrested and charged of a crime and if found guilty sentence to prison. An ‘inactive’ post is a telltale sign that the rule of law is not a justice system that applies equally to all citizens. In this Orwellian world of fixers, the money card trumps the justice aspiration. What happened in the Ferrari hit–and-run case is not unique. If you live abroad, you know about this case because the weight of Red Bull fortune puts the family on the radar screen of the richest people on the planet. People take great interest in the lives of the rich and famous especially when they run afoul of the law. They want to know how that person will be treated, knowing the outcome will speak volumes about the strength of the legal system against the weight of money and influence.

At this writing, to settle the public outrage, the Red Bull heir may face a manslaughter charge and drunk a driving charge.  And a senior police official is at risk of being sacked.

The Bangkok city police general took control over the investigation saying that he would see the driver in the dock or he would resign. In reality criminal cases like this one often drag on for a long time. It is not uncommon for years to pass before there is a verdict. Most Thais are skeptical. Reuters published a piece on impunity for the rich and famous following this case.

“Jail is only for the poor. The rich never get punished. Find a scapegoat,” said one of a stream of comments posted on the popular Thai website, Panthip.com.

Another on news site Manager.co.th read: “He’ll probably just get a suspended sentence. What’s the cost of a life?”

Suspended jail terms do seem to be the norm for politically powerful or well-connected Thais.

There is a chance the family driver might go to jail for his willingness to take the fall for the family. The senior cop who had conspired to help the family might also suffer more than the usual punishment of a couple of month in an inactive post. They are the little people in this drama. What will happen to the driver? The Reuters report gives a hint of what most Thais believe to be the outcome.

The rule of law protects the ordinary man or woman, but inside a system of titans who are viewed as being blessed by their good karma—blood money exchanges hands. Such big people are to be respected and deferred to and never challenged. When you live in a position above the law you and your family can commit crimes knowing, that at the end of the day, you can’t be touched personally so long as you open your wallet. The amounts paid in such cases by Western standards are very small. And that’s the way things are. In a few weeks, other news will overtake this story. It will be buried. Like the dead police officer, the Red Bull Ferrari story will rest in a forgotten grave that only a few people will visit.

Posted: 9/6/2012 8:41:04 PM 

 

 

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