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Like most writers, I receive emails from readers. Often they are comments about a particular book. Others write with suggestions and ideas for books. Still a few are people who seek advice about writing crime fiction.

I received an email from a reader who wrote:

“I’m working on a crime novel and recently completed my first draft. My dilemma is that I have no idea which city to set it in. The story’s current setting in Los Angeles, but I’m thinking of changing and starting over. Conventional wisdom and research into past bestseller lists suggests setting the story in either the U.S. or a European capital city and have it involve western characters and values. But the recent shift of power and money to Asia, particularly China, and the fast-growing sales of novels in countries like China and India, is changing everything. Not to mention the huge tourism numbers in places like Thailand and Malaysia nowadays.

So I’m thinking of doing the opposite of most and setting my novels in Asia and finding a niche market there like you do, Christopher. ‘The fishing is best where the fewest go’, as my grandfather used to say. For example, I’m thinking of the capitals of Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia or Malaysia as a setting as no other western author is writing crime fiction there, to the best of my knowledge.

What do you think? Does the rise of China and Asia mean that it’s better for new authors to write stories set in Asia? And which city in S.E Asia do you think would be a good place to write crime fiction?”

I have been thinking over the best way to reply. In the past, when I’ve spoken before various groups about the Vincent Calvino series, I tell the story of how almost twenty years ago when after Spirit House had been published that my literary agent at the time wrote (we didn’t have email then) about a US publisher who liked the novel and wondered if I could change the setting from Bangkok to Boston. I wrote her back, “Is it okay if I leave everything else the same?” Apparently the answer was ‘no’ as the publisher failed to press ahead.

If you examine the authors who write on this blog, you’ll find a common thread. We all have lived for many years or spent many years in the culture and place where we set our fiction. I think of Matt Rees’s Omar Yussef mysteries, Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri’s mysteries, Barbara Nadel’s Inspector Ikman’s mysteries, Quentin Bate’s Iceland mysteries, Margie Orford’s South African mysteries, and Conor Fitzgerald’s Commissioner Alec Blume series set in Italy—the common thread is each of these writers has been immersed in the culture, the history, the language and the psychology of the place where they’ve set their fiction.

It would be difficult to imagine substituting another city or country in books written by my colleagues on this blog. The reality is that their finely developed characters and actions of the police, courts and other parts of the criminal justice system wouldn’t connect with the underlying values, morals, sentiments, or experience of the people who live, work, and are the victims of crimes in another place.

My advice is not to write the novel first and then decide which city is ‘hot’ or ‘trendy’ and rewrite the book, setting it in that place. The book I’d recommend you read is David Hume’s An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. No, it’s not a crime novel. No, it’s not on The New York Times bestseller’s list. It is out of copyright. You can download it free from the Internet. I urge you to do so. What Hume teaches is the way to understanding is in experience and observation. The testimony of men and women, the reports of witnesses and spectators, and we apply our observations to the veracity of human testimony. It is one of the best guides to interpreting your world, and any new world you wish to move to.

After you finish with Hume, go to Peter Rozovsky’s Detectives Beyond Borders and work your way through the excellent archives, and discover first hand the crime writers who are setting novels in foreign cities. You will learn a lot about how these authors have successfully used a foreign country in a crime novel.

There are no shortcuts. No writing course, no how-to book, no mystery or crime convention that can deliver the material that you will require to set the second draft of your crime novel in a foreign culture.

There are a couple of things that may be helpful and that you might want to keep in mind. Without the experience of ‘place’ no matter how much you try to evolve the character and the crime, your efforts will likely fail. You will have wasted your time and your creative effort will have hit a brick wall. It’s not because you don’t have talent or can’t write; it will be because you aren’t able to deliver a meaningful sense of what it is to experience the place where your novel is set.

Our blog is written by crime writers who have done a reality check on their own work and the books written by others. Each of us (I am presuming to speak for the others and welcome them to jump in on the comments) writes from our personal experience of the place where we’ve placed our series. In my view, a writer who hasn’t spent a significant time in a place won’t be able to hide the ignorance and no amount of time on Google, YouTube, or GoogleMaps will substitute for your actual experience in the place where your book is set.

Our readers buy our books because they have faith that we can deliver a sense of ‘place’ that can’t be found elsewhere. Not in magazines, newspapers, blogs, articles by the bushel basket on the Internet. If there is a secret to why our books have a following, it is a combination of our experience of place, our passion for the culture, language and people, and our attention to the telling details that deliver a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are in a foreign city.

The authors of this blog aren’t tourists who’ve visited a place for a couple of weeks, made some notes, returned “home” and worked them into a second draft of a book that was written before we left. We speak the language of our respective cities. We dream in that language. That’s not to say, everyone who picks up a novel cares about whether the novel has any connection with the reality of a city, and peppering the story with second-hand information wouldn’t be enough to satisfy many readers. In that case, I’d ask if you’d be proud to have your name on the cover of such a passing off?

You might say, “I am not writing for people who know these cities well. I writing a great story and exotic locations will add an element to the atmosphere. And Asia is hot, and people like exotic cities.”

My reply would be, “There’s a place for all kinds of stories and ways of telling a story. One factor to keep in mind: an author’s credibility as a storyteller depends on whether the world he or she is creating is solely a product of imagination, or whether he or she is asking the reader to believe the ‘place’ is a real, authentic place. If it is the former, then write that second draft as science fiction or fantasy. If it is the latter, find a city where you have the passion for the food, people, weather, culture and history. Move there. Live there for a year or two. Learn the language. Experience the culture. Then take out that first draft and see how much of it makes sense when set in this new place that you live.”

By the way, best of luck on that “fishing trip.” You have a chance to catch a trophy fish once you learn from the locals who live in that Asian city the art of baiting the hook.

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Posted: 8/11/2011 7:15:12 PM 

 

Murders happen everywhere people live. No country is spared. For those left behind, a murder is a tragedy and one that remains in their memories for a lifetime. The reality is most murders are domestic affairs. They often occur in the country where the killer and victim were born, educated, worked, and played. The killer and victim often shared in a common culture and language. They likely watched the same TV shows and movies. They recognized the same celebrities who outside that culture moved anonymously among others who did not recognize them. In other words, they consider themselves as belonging to the same ‘tribe.’

When the murder victim dies violently in a foreign place and the killer or killers are natives to that foreign land, the killing ignites the interest of the media. Ever since Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice we have the suspicion that someone murdered in a foreign country is something we ought to pay special attention to the tribal affiliations of the victim and killer. Though, in Death in Venice the killer was cholera, and not someone with a knife or gun. The point is death on holiday attracts attention.

First, we all take or dream of taking holidays to foreign lands. The attraction of such a holiday is to sit on a pristine white sand beach with tall drink with one of those little umbrellas. This is a time to sit back and relax, enjoy the breeze off the sea. If someone just like you—a respectable, hardworking middle-class person—opens a newspaper and reads about someone who resembles the details of your own life who was found with a knife in his back, you take that death more personally. That could have been you on the beach in France, Italy, Greece, Thailand or India. The kind of places you may have been to or intend to visit.

Second, like Mann’s Death in Venice foretells, the police and government officials in countries, which promote the ‘tourist dream holiday’ may be less than forthcoming when a foreigner is violently assaulted or killed. Such governments have a conflict of interest. They wish to be seen as a country that administers a system of criminal justice that is worthy of respect internationally. No country’s police force or judicial system is happy to suddenly have an international spotlight placed on an investigation into the death or severe beating of a foreigner. The relevant embassy makes phone calls to important officials, the victim’s relatives and local MPs to make certain that the embassy follows up on request for information and evidence. Journalists from the victim’s country show up and ask questions. Internet social sites buzz with fear and loathing.

In May, tourists arrivals were up 66% compared with a year ago, and Thailand has the greatest gain in tourists of any country in Southeast Asia. John Koldowski, PATA’s managing director of strategic intelligence said, “In May, more than 1.3 million foreign tourists visited the kingdom, compared with 826,000 a year ago.”

It all threatens to go slightly out of control. Not to mention that the government of the place where the murder takes place has other worries. Their officials (like in Death in Venice) worry about a dip in the tourist numbers and the impact that would have on jobs, hotel vacancies, along with the general knock on effect as less revenue circulates in the holiday centers. Tourist centers are full of voters. The heat from abroad is hot but never so hot as the blast of heat that comes from disgruntled voters.

I raise the issue as resort centers such as Pattaya and Phuket have recently been in the news for locales where foreigners have been mugged, raped, assaulted or murdered. The foreign press doesn’t always distinguish between the case of the tourists and expats.  Perhaps they shouldn’t. Though a case can be made that an expat who lives in another country (as opposed to someone visiting on a short holiday) ought to have better information and more experience with local people, customs, and culture and are able to steer clear of trouble with greater ease. Anyone who has known a cross-section of expats will find a number who go out of their way to expose themselves to risk of assault or murder because of their own involvement in criminal activity. In such a case, the heat dies down as the murder victim tumbles from the innocent mirror image of you going on that holiday to Thailand to someone likely involved in criminal activity. Of course tourists get themselves into trouble, too.

A local newspaper in Phuket reported the death of a Russian with Swedish nationality whose throat had been cut in front of his luxury condo, provides a roundup of recent murders of foreigners:

“On March 15, Phuket and Phi Phi resident Italian Luciano Butti was allegedly murdered by Thais at the behest of his partner, Denis Cavatassi, who is now in Phuket Prison awaiting trial.

”On August 14 last year, Englishman Lee Aldhouse allegedly knifed to death American Dashawn Longfellow in southern Phuket. Aldhouse is currently being held in Britain, awaiting the outcome of an extradition hearing.

”A Thai man who killed German expat resident Wolf-Dieter Kesselheim outside a 7-Eleven store on January 27 last year was caught and tried and sentenced to 13 years and four months jail on December 16.

”The previous year, a Canadian property developer was shot dead outside his Phuket house and a Scotsman was battered to death in his Phuket City apartment in the same week.”

The pressure of bad publicity is deflected when the suspected killers are themselves foreigners.  There’s evidence that Swedish man killed in Phuket on Monday was murdered by two Swedish nationals who have been arrested by the authorities in connection with the killing, according to news accounts.

In other words, if someone is killed in an exotic land by someone from their own country, it has a different emotional impact on potential tourists considering their holiday plans It seems that the real fear isn’t just being murdered by being killed by a foreigner in a distant land. Being killed by your own citizen seems business as usual. Being killed by someone else’s nationals, well, that is bad for business. Especially if they are locals as these are the happy people in the travel brochure who convinced you that this holiday location was an ideal place to relax (as opposed to getting yourself killed). Why we mentally categories the killings on whether they are within the tribe or by someone outside the tribe is one of those evolutionary questions scientist may figure out one day. Until then, tourists continue to have a greater reaction and feel more fear when the killing of a foreigner, especially a tourist, in a foreign land by a local.

The tragedies that governments are more likely to avoid calling attention to often involve issues of lack of training, inattentiveness, shoddy maintenance, lax health standards, lack of control on how food or domestic animals are brought to market, and generally reckless behavior. These categories cover the ferryboats that sink, the planes that crash, the trains that derail, car crashes, epidemics, virus infections, extreme weather and pollution related diseases.

Unlike a murder, death from these non-murder type causes also make the headlines around the world and, if the scale is sufficient, will also disturb the tourism business. When the tsunami struck Thailand in 2005 thousands of people were killed. Thousands of foreign tourists were killed by that tsunami but the tourism business did not spend years in decline as a consequence.

The reason the tsunami, far more powerful and damaging, than an isolated murder, is less disruptive is simple. Foreigners don’t blame the locals for the death of their loved ones, especially if as a result of natural disasters. If anything, the foreigners felt admiration for the efforts launched by the Thai government to recover bodies, inform loved ones, and provide information and comfort to the survivors. But one murder is enough to cause a potential tourist to sit back and have that moment of doubt.

Should I change that trip to Thailand or Mexico or Sri Lanka because I read a tourist was shot and the police and government don’t seem all that keen on doing anything about it? What hardly matters is whether the police or local officials are working around the clock on the case, it is the perception that someone from their country has been murdered and the police haven’t arrested anyone.

Putting international pressure on local police in exotic location can also backfire. They pick out a scapegoat and pin the murder on him or her. The suspect is videoed re-enacting the crime. It all looks so real. But real or not, it will have the desired effect—it reassures the foreigners about the efficiency and diligence of the authorities to deal with such cases. That gives a feeling of deterrence, and that is enough to erase that tiny bit of doubt about your holiday plans. What is good for your psyche isn’t necessarily good for the poor cut out who is frog marched off to prison.

Next time you read about a tourist murdered in a remote, exotic place, ask yourself not whether I should cancel my holiday to that place but whether, on balance, I am genuinely at any greater risk of being murdered on holiday than I am in being killed in a car crash on the way to the airport. If you do the math, in most places the most dangerous part of your holiday will be on the road to and from your airport. Also, if you run the math on the relationship between murder victim and killer, in the majority of cases they know each other. They are members of the same tribe. On that next holiday, it would be wise to watch the road to the airport carefully, and when you check into that hotel in an exotic land, keep an eye on members of your fellow tribe. Because statistically that’s where your greatest danger of being murdered lies.

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Posted: 8/4/2011 10:21:29 PM 

 

According to the BBC,  a bottle of 1811 Chateau d’Yquem was bought for 75,000 pounds sterling by French collector Christian Vanneque. Depending on your point of view that kind of expenditure is either highly disturbing or makes you secretly envious, wishing you had that kind of money.

A few years ago, the Boston Globe ran a story about the average worldwide income which was pegged at $7,000 a year. It would take the average worker 17.6 years if he or she saved every last cent to buy that bottle.

This isn’t a rant against the rich and how they spend their money. It is an essay about how deep desire for status, recognition and approval. And how these desires are partly responsible for the economic reality of our time—1% of Americans own 40% of the wealth and 20% of the income. It also an essay about the efforts people go about in using money to gain status and recognition in the global community. Pay that kind of money for a bottle of wine and people around the world will read about you, they will know your name, the name of your restaurant. As a marketing ploy, it is quite brilliant. That bottle of wine also highlights how all that wealth which is supposed to go into creating new jobs, is just as likely to find new and novel ways to display status.

Criminals are a diverse lot with manifest motives and intentions. The criminal class includes the eleven year old who steals a loaf of bread because he’s hungry. Hunger doesn’t exclude him from being a criminal. In the 18th century, he might be transported to Australia. We tend to have sympathy for criminals driven by necessity.

The man driving his mother whose has had a stroke at high speed to a hospital, runs red lights, hits a couple of parked cars, but manages to get her to the hospital before she dies is also a law-breaker but we have a different feeling about the ‘culpability’ issue than say a teenager who gets drunk and does all the same things as the man going to the hospital. Yet we have no problem thinking the teenager should be punished and taught a lesson.

Necessity drives certain impulses that lead to criminal behavior. In an emotional rage, someone gets out of their car and stabs another motorist to death. Or someone kills their spouse, neighbor, friend over a remark, insult, or slight. That is, someone has questioned their ‘status’ and that activity is always dangerous. In a face culture like Thailand, where status is of paramount importance, slights to status invite retaliation.

We want status. Perhaps it is a need like food, water, shelter and sex. Status motives people. Give them a ribbon, decoration, trophy, or gold star and they will fight and die for you. Competition for status makes short cuts tempting. And short cuts are the slippery slope to criminal activity. When thinking what drives someone to commit a crime, examine the underlying impulse that was the motive for crime. Was the conduct done because the criminal is starving or his mother is dying, or will the result of the crime evaluate his or her status?

I steal a loaf of bread because I am hungry isn’t the same as I steal a Rolex not because I want to tell the time but because I want to impress my friends. Or I invite a government official to dinner and pop open a bottle of wine that cost 75,000 pounds sterling before asking them to grant me a telecom, mining, or shipping concession.

Criminal law fences off status acquiring activity as well as actions to acquire goods owned by others without paying for them. Prisons are filled with criminals who failed in their quest to gain status through illegal means. And they bunk with those whose illegally acquired goods, also mainly to achieve status, failed.

The large crimes needed to pull off big time; international status takes us into the realm of banking, finance and journalism. If you can elevate your status sufficiently high, you can influence the police, courts and government that your activity is socially useful and not criminal. You can support changes to laws and regulations that would block your ambitions to increase your status even more. Hedge fund managers, CEOs, bankers have leveraged their status by organizing politically and reducing any attempts to control their behavior or to tax their gains.

Of course, these status seekers know that others are unhappy with the lopsided way that status is assigned to them. They also know that by cooking the books, they can stay ‘legal’ while the vast majority of the population struggle for the scraps of status and may find their activity ‘criminalized’. The protected class, which has most of the status horde, is quite happy to imprison the status seekers below. It teaches them a lesson about life. Status seeking as a goal is limited to a tiny number of winners. Once they enter the winner’s circle, they are content to lock the door.

Criminal law is what we use to control the losers in the status race. The winners pay governments to write that laws to constrain the activities of the also-rans. The fundamental problem, as the current budget crisis in the United States suggests, is that unless governments control status seekers in the top 1% of the population, that class will own them, control them, and ensure that the prisons are filled by those who fail to play by the rules as defined by them.

We want our star football players, singers, actors and Nobel Prize winners. The problem are these winners are used as a beard by those with predator business talents that enrich without corresponding benefits to the larger community. Hedge fund managers, finance moguls and CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies (who make up the bulk of the .01%) of top income earners aren’t rock stars nor are they coming up with a cure for cancer. But they have the skill to skate close to the boundaries of the laws, rules and regulations that govern their activities, sometimes skating over the line; and if they can, fund a politician to extend the line.

This group redefines what is a crime in order to better pursue their personal interest.
When those outside of government achieve status above those elected to government, and those in government owe their position to the wealthiest citizens, the laws no longer reflect the majority of citizens. And the majority of citizens no longer understand that their view and opinions have been shaped and distributed by those who wish to use them for their own ends.

Redistribution of wealth is one way to combat status hoarding. But redistribution is a loaded, nasty taboo word. So let’s think of this concentration of wealth like the pollution that poisons the atmosphere and contributes to climate change; let’s not redistribute wealth or income. Let’s talk about “cap”. This is something we are familiar with. There’s a cap on the speed limit. You can’t go as fast as you want. There’s a cap on the chemical and toxics you can dump into rivers, lakes, canals and the ocean. There are caps on carbon emissions. The one common feature that caps have: is they don’t redistribute speed, chemicals or carbon, but they do place a limit on making a profit from driving at high speeds (truck drivers) or from polluting the air, rivers, forests and oceans. We have no problem saying the community-interest overrides the self-interest. Society already agrees to criminalize certain selfish behavior committed by individuals even though it may deprive them of more income or wealth.

Why not put a ‘cap’ on income and wealth? And for the same basic reason, that a concentration of a large percentage of the wealth in the upper one percent is detrimental to the rest of the community and damages them. Anyone who doesn’t believe that such damage doesn’t spread across a large range of other people’s interest haven’t been watching the James and Rupert Murdock show on the BBC. Or have already forgot about the financial crash of 2008. Say cap income at the current rates the rich pay on the first $12 million dollars a year. Most people could scrap past on a million a month. Then start progressive taxing the additional income until it hits $24 million a year and then let the tax be 90%. On wealth, the first $250 million, old rules apply, after that it goes back to the community. Even if the community doesn’t need it; the money should go back. There is a good policy reason: income and wealth concentrations at the current levels in the United States threat the fabric of representative democracy, and the policing and judicial system.

If we are honest, the arguments for unlimited wealth and income concentration are about keeping people moving ahead with incentives. The reality is what moves people to continue to excel and push the boundaries is they want recognition. More than want it; they crave recognition and to show a higher status. Our problem is “globalization is big money” has become universal status measuring stick. The consensus we once had that allowed for share meaning and structure has fractured into cult-like enclaves where debate, reason and dialogue no longer are welcome.

The Forbes list of the richest people is translated, read, studied and talked about in every language on the planet. If we could find new status measuring sticks then money would matter less. Those who hunger for our community (and more importantly their peer’s) recognition can have airports, squares, and parks named after them; give them awards, medals, citations, knighthoods, and gold bars to wear on their lapels. Revise the Forbes annual list to include the number of gold stars, red ribbons, or public declarations by MPs as to their worthy contributions.

We are at a crossroads politically, socially and economically in finding the political will to win this battle. Unless we dismantle the unregulated status consolidation at the top, the democratic system will collapse into warring cults and when that happens the scramble to maintain order will overwhelm even the best of legal systems. Let people strive for status. But let it be known that there are limits as to how much status any society can reasonably allow to fall into a few hands.

And let’s recognize that without caps on pollution and income the whole ecosystem is threatened. The rebalancing of community interest with self-interest has never been easy; and it is a kind of work that never is finished. All we can say looking around us is that self-interested income generation and wealth is no longer remotely in equilibrium with the larger community interest.

As for those who open that bottle 1811 Chateau d’Yquem and pass it around, they might want to think about how far we’ve come in the last 200 years. And ask themselves who will be buying a bottle of 2011 Chateau d’Yquem in 2211. And at what price and what will their world look like?

Give some thought to that nice gold star. Say one star for every $15 million in tax paid. Wouldn’t that invite envy from friends and colleagues, the attention of beautiful women, the admiration of civil society? I know what you are thinking. I can get one of those gold stars for a 100 baht on Khao San Road. Maybe. But it will still be difficult to pull off the counterfeit billionaire trick at the guesthouse.

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Posted: 7/28/2011 10:02:36 PM 

 

It is hard to defend a number of law enforcement practices in Thailand. I write a crime series. In the process of writing, I’ve researched the Thai police realm from investigation to laying charges. The feature of Thai policing largely—for better and worse—in each of the 12 Vincent Calvino novels. I also was a law professor for ten years.

My background gives me a perspective on Thomas Fuller’s NYT article titled Thailand’s Irresistible Attraction to Fugitives that leads with deadline Bangkok:

Bangkok: Give me your drug dealers, your money launderers, your felons on the lam yearning to breathe free. …

Thailand has never advertised itself as a beacon for fugitives, but the world’s wretched refuse—to tweak the noble words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty—seem to show up here in droves.

Foreign fugitives “in droves?” It makes Bangkok sound like there’s a foreign gangster on every corner. If that’s the case, they are well hidden. As far as I know there is no Index that ranks countries according to bolt-hole attractiveness for those on the lam. Fuller’s speculation is that Thailand would top that list. I doubt it. I seriously doubt that Thailand would make the top twenty in such an Index.  And I’d wager that the USA would have a higher ranking (more about that later). What’s the evidence for this influx of foreign fugitives? A WikiLeaks cable that came out of the US embassy in Bangkok. And some news reports of foreign murderers and child molesters arrested over the past couple of years.

A popular fall back rationale for all of these fugitives in Thailand is that the police and immigration officials are corrupt. No one could say with a straight face that that corruption doesn’t exist in the police force in Thailand. That’s separate issue. The question is whether corruption is a credible explanation for all of these fugitive criminals hiding out in Thailand? Even as a fiction crime writer, I would find it hard work to show how the cops would find where these criminals were hiding. Of course they could stop every dodgy looking farang on the street and run them through a series of questions about crimes they might have committed. Obviously that might be fun to contemplate, in reality it is a non-starter.

You might ask, why not catch these criminals as they try to sneak into the airport in Bangkok? The tourist presents her/his passport as an immigration officer examines the passport, then the tourist, before asking:

IM: Mr. Tourist, do you have any outstanding conviction against you?

Tourist: No.

IM: Do you have any suspicion of anyone about to lay charges against you?

Tourist: No.

IM: Sure?

Tourist: Well, come to think of it there was that murder in Chicago.

There’s a perfectly good reason this line of questioning—and with that ending—just won’t happen. First criminals would lie through their teeth. Second, about 20 million tourists are expected to visit Thailand this year. It would take a countless hours, and the additional recruitment of thousands of personnel, not to mention new software to process a due diligence investigation on each person. After six months of queuing at the airport, the annual holiday would be over for most people only to be told when it was their turn, they’d already overstayed their visa and were subject to deportation.

Let’s say that we profile people who look shady. Twenty million Tourists is still a pretty large number. What is the pay off for looking for people who have broken a law outside of Thailand?

Some facts. That Wikileak US Embassy cable indicated that over the period of 30 years, 135 people were extradited from Thailand to the States. That works out to 4.5 criminals a year who were returned to the States. This isn’t my definition of ‘droves’ foreign criminals or any other species. Try finding 4.5 of something in a vat of 20 million something and see how easy that is. When I lived in New York City in the mid-80s, 4.5 criminal acts per hour would have been closer to the mark. And most of them looked pretty foreigner, and I suspect they were all wanted back in their home countries for some felony or other. So now 4.5 American fugitives hiding in Thailand per year is new threshold for news from Thailand to get reported in The New York Times.

And talking about the American system, of course a foreigner getting a visa can be a problem, but the daily traffic of people sneaking in from Mexico and Canada into the States no doubt includes people running from the law. And I suspect those numbers are substantially in excess of 135 people over a 30-year period—people who have committed crimes, who have been convicted of crimes, and who are on the run. Of course we have no way of knowing for sure.

Mexico isn’t likely firing up a room of lawyers to request return of their bad guys. They’re probably glad to get rid of them. Let the Americans deal with them. That wouldn’t be a bad policy. Saves the cost of prison, courts, and prosecutors. There are laws against dumping of goods, but as far as I know there’s no law to prevent one country dumping their criminals into another one. Over 30 years, I suspect more than 135 Thai nationals have elected to hide out in the USA rather than return to Thailand.

Stories like the NYT article circulate for a while and die. A couple of years ago according to the BBC,  Brazil was the international haven for criminals on the lam. Some websites feature top ten lists of criminal hiding places. Anyone can play the game. Some seem to have a better grasp of how the world is organized than others. Here’s one with Canada in the number one slot and Wisconsin at number 10. Someone at the website must think that Canada is a state like Wisconsin is a state. And suspicious countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Cuba find their places somewhere on the list.

No doubt about it. The world is a shrinking place for international fugitives. Modern technology will wipe out the usual hiding places. Fugitives will have to disappear deep in to whatever jungle remains and live in caves. Where we can reach consensus (at least among our friends) are the people we’d personally like to put on a fugitive wanted list and who is hiding out and scratching mosquito bites and heat rash.

Make your list. Sleep on it. Then tomorrow send it to The New York Times. I am certain they’d be happy to print it.

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Posted: 7/21/2011 10:18:41 PM 

 

We had a power shortage at Eel Swamp. When that happens everything seems to shut down from computers to water pumps. People tumble out of their houses with a vaguely confused look, standing in the street, looking around as if the Power Gods might roll up in a van and reconnect them to their lives.

While the power was out, crime continued. A local man was shot in the field, on his motorbike, as he was on his way to tend to his horses. His sister reported hearing seven shots. In another news, a Pattaya police sting operation went sideways and two people were killed in the ensuing gunfight.

Daily life has this riptide of uncertainty and evil that pulls you out of your depth, disturbing you life and threatening to harm you. Sometimes these forces blow out your lights. Other times they extinguish, like blowing out a candle, a couple of human lives. Crime is one of those things that even a power shortage can’t stop. But the crimes that happened this Friday will never be reported outside of Thailand, and likely won’t receive much coverage here. The rough and tumble of life isn’t all that newsworthy.

What captures the attention of the press are crimes and big time crime bosses. Marlon Brando in the Godfather comes to mind. Al Capone with his trademark cigar. Big John Gotti in his expensively tailored suits.  Every culture has an equivalent set of figures who cross the stage of life and then fade into the past as memories of them, no longer fed by the press, dim and their replacements take center stage.

This has been the natural cycle of crime and the bosses who head the organized criminal activities. It has also cycled through countless books, movies and TV series. My feeling is that times have changed and along with that change has come a revision of who are the crime bosses. We have moved beyond the iconic Godfather. The public reconfiguration of the identity of crime bosses is one plausible explanation for the popularity of crime fiction around the world. Who are they? What role do the new digital media play in exposing them and their activities?

The new crime bosses are investment bankers, hedge fund managers, corporate CEOs, and politicians of one type or another. They have advanced university degrees. These men and women know how to rob a bank without a gun. They appear in posh magazines, at film openings, and support the arts. But unlike the old days, not everyone is fooled. The International Criminal Court has been busy trying some of these big time criminals. And in the future they will likely get a shot at a new crop of political leaders.

The public, if not the courts and prosecutors, have been criminalizing economic and social conduct for as long as we’ve lived in villages and cities. The major change is that with the Internet we have internationalized criminal bosses. They are no longer just locally recognized faces; the modern new crop of criminal bosses are on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. They are known to billions.

They represent a different breed of crime boss, and belong to a different category of criminal conduct. In the past we have been content to allow the authorities the power to define crime and the criminals who commit them. Now people are waking up and talking about how this game ‘we define the crime’ has been largely rigged from the start in favor of the elites.

The idea is spreading that around the world we’ve all been sleep walking. That self-delusion about modern economic and political criminal networks has allowed masses of people to become victims without a remedy. The people who died in my neighborhood today will sadly leave behind grieving relatives and friends. But beyond that circle of sadness and despair, the ripples won’t wash to your shore. Government officials who use torture, disappearance, extra-judicial killings create the kind of ripples that wash over your head. Sooner or later, as the sanction of the State launders the crime, exonerates the actors, and is sold as protecting the public.

Crime fiction authors have moved into this field of gray. A place haunted by forces larger than any old-fashioned crime boss. The best crime novels reveal a noir-like world where even the most law-abiding citizen may find himself mugged not by a drug addict but by a hedge fund manager that invested his life savings in mortgages. Everywhere I go on the Internet, I find a growing anger and resentment, as people are no longer willing to adjust to spending their lives inside extended crime families that would have made Capone and Gotti green with envy. The Arab Spring as an example of people seeking to replace the old crime syndicates that pretended to be governments.

The future holds a rich store of experience for the crime author. And the best ones are coming around to the view that readers are interested in novels where the conflict in crime reflects this new breed of criminals who don’t look like criminals and are treated like celebrities. It doesn’t take much digging to find examples of public indignation when one of the new bosses is trapped, cornered and exposed.

It’s a time for self-examination and reflection. As the passions run high, we’d do well to consider this quote from Noam Chomsky:

“I’ve reviewed a lot of the literature on this, and it’s close to universal. We just cannot adopt toward ourselves the same attitudes that we adopt easily and in fact, reflexively, when others commit crimes. No matter how strong the evidence.”

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Posted: 7/14/2011 8:22:55 PM 

 

Last week rather than criminal activity I wrote about metaphysical disturbances. This week I return to crime. Criminal behavior is conduct or activity that a consensus of people within a culture chooses to sanction. Murder is universally criminalized. No society that we have evidence of has allowed members of the community to freely murder each other. The state always intervenes. We also use the criminal law to rope off the perimeter of what is an acceptable family unit. Bigamy is the legal hammer.

Most countries forbid a man to have more than one wife, or a woman from having more than one husband (which is technically called polyandry). That is two plus one, at the same time is a big no, no. You might argue that in the West, with easy divorce, sequential marrying has become an overpriced, but degraded form of bigamy. But in places like Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Nigeria (west Africa) and most Muslim countries, in practice, there is no law against bigamy. The numbers (there is a limit) don’t bother them the way it bothers a lot of people.

Thailand is an example of a country where officially a man can have only one ‘legal’ (meaning registered) wife. But in practice a large number of Thai men have unofficial ‘minor wives’. Polygyny is another concept. It is usually defined as a family unit with one man and multiple wives. It is another one of those impossible-to-remember-how- to spell terms best left to dusty sociology books.

If you live in California, here are the steps to report bigamists There isn’t information whether there is a reward in California for dropping the dime on a bigamists.

General (Ret.) Sonthi Boonyaratglin, former Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army and former head of the Council for National Security, the military junta that ruled the kingdom, according to Wikipedia has two wives. He is also a Muslim and has made no attempt to conceal his matrimonial status. And as far as can be known, no one has sought to arrest him on charges of bigamy. Indeed there appears to be an unofficial policy of allowing Muslims to have more than one wife. Indeed, it seems the unofficial practice is not to prosecute bigamists in Thailand.

In India, with both Hindu and Muslim populations, the former prohibiting bigamy and the latter allowing it, there has been the occasional conversion to Islam in order to marry a second wife without divorcing the first. It didn’t work well for a politician who tried it.

It might be useful to seek out legal advice before taking on that second, third or fourth wife. Though, as a former lawyer, I can tell you the advice will be that marrying a second woman without divorcing the first is a breach of Thai law. But will you go to prison? Bigamy isn’t exactly murder. The answer a lawyer would give is: it depends on a number of factors, including: your religion, nationality, social status, and attitude of the family of those involved. Or he/she might say—your chances of getting away with the crime are pretty good. Just get on with it and see what happens. Then stick the client with a bill for a grand. Anyone thinking about bigamy usually has got a high pain threshold and an apparently high capacity for spending money on a whim. The potential bigamist is one of the best clients a lawyer could have.

Now, after the lawyer rant, back to Thai law. Marriage registration in Thailand is done on a provincial basis. Given there are seventy-seven provinces, and the lack of computerized systems in some of the more remote provinces has opened up possibilities for the man wishing to register more than one wife.

In 2005, a Bangkok Senator named Wallop was quoted by The Nation as saying, “officials at the Provincial Administration Department of the Interior Ministry had confirmed that married men often registered double or even triple marriages by taking new brides at remote locations where official computer systems were not available to check their marital status. A few polygamous souls married even four times without a single divorce, Wallop added.”

Thai wives had complained to the government and they ‘looked into it’ and with most things the government looks into, they just looked.

Thai law is clear on this status issue, providing, “Applicants must not be currently married.” Conditions of Eligibility for Marriage, Thai Civil Law, B.E. 2529. But Thai law is clear on a large number of matters and that doesn’t necessarily mean the implementation and enforcement of the law is consistent or reliable.

Thailand isn’t unique in the non-enforcement of the bigamy law. Canada also prohibits polygyny by law although there hasn’t been a prosecution for violating that law for sixty years.

The media loves a good bigamy story (as obviously do bloggers). A twenty-four year old Thai man called Mr. Wichai, a native of Samut Songkram province, who by all accounts was a pretty ordinary fellow. He earned his livelihood hawking second-hand goods. But he must have had something quite special going for him as he married, (according to Thai Rath) gorgeous twins named Ms. Sirintara and Ms. Thipawan, aged twenty-two. The bridegroom professed “his sincerest ‘equal love’ for both of them.” Apparently both sets of parents were very happy for the newly wedded threesome. Mr. Wichai sweetened the pie by contributing a dowry of “eight baht of gold and 80,000 baht” for each of his new brides. There was no mention of how a second-handed goods sales guy got his hands on that kind of wealth. In fairness, that is an omission from many local stories involving politicians, police, soldiers, or ordinary second-hand merchandise vendors.

Every man would like to have had Mr. Wichai’s mother as their own. Somehow I can’t imagine my mother preparing two rooms in the family house for her son and his two brides. But Mr. Wichai’s mother did. The question lurking in the back of everyone’s lurid mind was what were the sleeping arrangements? Mr. Wichai was prepared, and quoted as saying, “’Absolutely no problems! For the first three nights of the week, I will sleep with Ms. Thipawan and the next three will be spent with Ms Sirintara. As for every Saturday, the three of us will sleep together’.” Right out of the Ten Minute Manager for Bigamists: Guide of How to Manage Your Time Effectively.

From time to time, it would be good if the press filed follow up reports to see how the schedule has worked out, whether any police have been around with warrants, and whether he claims tax deduction for both wives. At the end of the day, in the case of the crime of bigamy, at least in Thailand and Canada, there’s no ground swell to charge and imprisonment the miscreants.

There is a downside (isn’t there always?) in turning a blind eye to the Mr. Wichais of the Asian world. Given a preference for male babies there is a fairly significant imbalance between males and females. Allowing the alpha males with tough and status to take two or three or more women out of the marriage market leaves that many more males without the hope of finding a woman to marry. History has a lesson that when too many young men fighting over too few women often leads to violence and war. While Mr. Wichai has a rather tight schedule. The idle, single young men who won’t be finding a wife, have time on their hands and anger in their hearts. There are other more serious crimes that such men ultimately commit without the presence of a good woman to keep their impulses in check. The tragedy of life is there is no free lunch.

My feeling is that over time Mr. Wichai case might provide evidence of a theory I have as to why neither Thailand nor Canada actively goes after bigamists. It is this. Bigamy is one of the few crimes where the perpetrator is most likely to become the victim. If he is indeed married to several women at the same time, with until death do us part, that sound pretty similar to a series of consecutive life sentence without the possibility of parole. He’s joined the serial killer who also fall into the throw away the key sentencing category.

If after the romantic interlude, things don’t turn out—those extra partners increase the probability of conflict—well, you get the picture. He’s gonna suffer big time. That lawyer’s fee cited above, there was a reason for talking about a grand fee to warn the guy to have second thoughts before those additional weddings. Because when he comes back through the door after one of the wives goes after him legally, that one grand is just a nice warm up to the total damage lawyers and courts will be inflicted on him. And rather than going back to a lonely apartment to drink a nice whiskey, he goes back to a couple of other women waiting for him. I don’t think they’re gonna be in a great mood. He’s gonna wish for solitary confinement in a maximum security prison is my guess.

As that Asian philosopher Vincent Calvino once said: “One wife is never enough, and two are one too many.”

Having been married for ten years to one intelligent, caring, insightful and kind wife, I can say that Calvino is wrong on this one. With the right woman, one wife can indeed be just right. May be its time for Vincent Calvino to get married. And as a writer, I have to stop blowing up, stabbing and shooting all the potential women he falls in love with.

Note to self: Find Vinny a wife pretty much like your own.

Note from agent: Are you f***king crazy? Happiness would kill any noir crime series.

Note to Calvino: Nothing personal. Just remember once you get too involved, it is inevitable. She’s gonna get whacked. Sorry, but it’s the nature of the writing game.

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Posted: 7/7/2011 10:02:18 PM 

 

I intended to write about crime this week. I promise that is true. This past week, Asia as is usually the case, was chock a block with crime stories. Sometimes the amount of crime, the scope and depth of the criminal classes overwhelms a blogger. Choosing one crime story over another becomes next to impossible.

In such dire straits, I have fallen back on the alternative to a crime story, and that is, of course, telling a good ghost story. You might well say, that ghost stories, at least in Thailand, are also a dime a dozen. I wouldn’t say that you’d be entirely wrong. But there is a ghost story that needs to be told this Friday 1st July (which just happens to be Canada Day).

Ghosts and crime stories aren’t usually lumped together as there is one big difference between the two. In Thailand, ghost stories are infinitely more believable, receive more balanced media coverage, and have far more consensus amongst the Thais than most of the crime or political stories. Those stories made them foot stomping mad. I am sticking with ghosts. This is the little known place where all Thais appear to be united. Few political differences exist between the Thais when it comes to ghosts.

Let me prove my point with a ghost story that has a political spin, and by nature, hints at crime. In many countries, the political leader lives in an official residence while in office. It is a wonderful perk that goes with the job. Taxpayers foot the bill for cleaning the drapes, repairing the air conditioners, cutting the grass, shoveling the snow (where applicable) and polishing the silver. The White House and Number 10 Downing Street are among the best known official residential addresses. But there are dozens of palaces, houses, mansions that dot the planet that also function as official residence for elected leaders. Indeed in Canada, the leader of the opposition has an official residence. But even our provincial leaders have official residences. This is far better than the proceeds of crime. Free mansions, staff, grub, car, driver, and security detail means they get to live like investment bankers.

Thailand also has an official residence for the prime minister called Baan Phitsanulok (ºéÒ¹¾ÔɳØâÅ¡). The house was built during the reign of King Vajiravudh. In 1979 it became the official residence of the Thai Prime Minister. But it has been rarely used in the same way that the White House or Number 10 Downing Street is used. While a prime minister might schedule a meeting at Baan Phitsanulok, they don’t normally spend much time there or sleep there. Or keep their families there. Baan Phitsanulok isn’t a place where prime ministers want to spend the night. Let me make it abundantly clear: the Thai Prime Minister has an official residence but they apparently refuse to move in and live there.

I was thinking of the official residence recently as I drove passed the family compound of the current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Soi 31, Sukhumvit Road. For many years, I lived around the corner from Abhisit’s family compound. In those days, there was nothing distinguished about the compound from the outside. You’d drive past and never think twice what was behind the walls.

Recently I drove passed Khun Abhisit’s Soi 31 family compound and this was a different experience. Soldiers with M16s patrolled the perimeter. Barbwire is strung around the top of the wall making it look like a maximum-security prison in the interior of Columbia. At the intersection just before the Prime Minister Abhisit’s family compound are police booths, military positions, and many men in uniform.

Not only does the presence of all these heavily armed, uniformed men cause traffic jams, the overall impression is to convert this little oasis on Sukhumvit into an unofficial Green Zone like a compound in Baghdad. This part of Soi 31 doesn’t feel like Bangkok. Obviously the compound was never intended to be an official residence for a prime minister. This raises the question as to why the Prime Minister doesn’t live in the official residence? Why isn’t he sleeping at Baan Phistanulok?

The answer is ghosts. Baan Phistanulok is said to be haunted.

Yes, that’s right, as Thailand prepares for a highly contested, bitter election on Sunday 3rd July, no candidate for prime minister has promised the voters that, if elected, he will exorcise the Baan Phisasnulok ghost (or ghosts as the head count is open to question) and take up residence. And not only that, once in office, he (or more likely it will be a ‘she’) will make an all-out effort in the first ninety days in office to rid the Kingdom of all other evil spirits, ghosts and demons.

While the social and politically classes are divided over many political and social issues, including about who should govern and how they should govern the country, the Thai people seem to be united in their belief that nothing can be done to deal with the ghost problem at the official residence of the prime minister.

I have interviewed Thais in preparing this essay and none have said the ghost issue at Baan Phitsaulok will influence how they intend to vote on Sunday. Nonetheless, I have collected invaluable information.

Those supporting the re-election of the current government led by Prime Minister Abhisit, contend that the ghost at Baan Phitsanulok is on the payroll of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and that they have considerable evidence to support offshore, illegal payments by bad people have been funneled into the ghosts account. This evidence will be divulged soon.

The opposition political party led by Khun Yingluck Shinawatra, former Prime Minister Thaksin’s sister, says that her party has several policies that deal with the ghosts, including an amnesty and a newly created Ministry of Ghost Amnesty. Her amnesty would cover all ghosts going back two hundred years. All criminal charges and allegations will be dropped. All ghosts’ old rank, status and privileges will be restored.

She also denies any payments have been made to the Baan Phitsanulok ghost or to any other ghosts. That it has all been a misunderstanding as the ghost had always been willing to negotiate but no prime minister ever stuck around long enough to talk and get to know her (yes, the ghost is a she) Apparently the opposition’s fortuneteller has confirmed not only the gender of the Baan Phitsaulok ghost, but has received assurances that as of 4th July the ghost will decamp and take up residence at Soi 31, Sukhumvit Road until her pardon comes through.

The Prime Minister’s office did not return phone calls about his policies on appeasing the ghost.

Much is riding on the 3rd July election in Thailand. Even the ghosts, who may or may not be voting, have an apparent stake in the outcome.

 
With much thanks to Tito Haggardt for sending me this video.

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Posted: 6/30/2011 10:07:15 PM 

 

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 of crime?

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 driveway.

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 Post also 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 coma.

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 spotlight.

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 anyone.

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Posted: 6/23/2011 10:09:44 PM 

 

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 delusional.

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 despicable.

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 law.

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 life sentence.

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 them.

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Posted: 6/9/2011 10:01:16 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 6/2/2011 10:27:28 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 5/26/2011 11:30:37 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 5/19/2011 11:04:28 PM 

 

Adventures in Wonderland Thai Style

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 Post 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 the state.

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Posted: 5/12/2011 10:03:18 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 5/5/2011 11:29:55 PM 

 

In Search of Demons

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 back.

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 scale.

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Posted: 4/28/2011 10:42:23 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 4/21/2011 10:10:48 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 4/14/2011 9:26:47 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 4/7/2011 10:51:19 PM 

 

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 your vote."*


*Happy April Fool's Day.

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Posted: 3/31/2011 10:51:49 PM 

 

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 inside.
 
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 of design.

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Posted: 3/31/2011 10:20:09 PM 

 

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