No noir story will match
the ones told by Big Data. In the future, noir stories will emerge from Big Data
only it won’t be fiction. Authors of crime fiction, noir, hardboiled, or
otherwise, are like monks writing manuscripts before the printing press. Our end
will be as noir as their end. Here’s the story of how that will come
I’ve thought of writing as
a way to discover and explore vanishing points, light fading to the void of
total darkness. That is the point where we can no longer predict what will
happen next. It is a brick wall. A blank. We stop at the door to the future and
are resigned it will never open.
Data: A Revolution, the authors Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger and Kenneth Cukier
have opened that door a crack. But don’t buy this book. You don’t seriously want
to know what is inside our near future in the Data-Time-Space
Towards the end of this
provocative book, the authors sum up: “The ground beneath our feet is shifting.
Old certainties are being questioned. Big data requires a fresh discussion of
the nature of decision-making, destiny, justice.”
That is only the beginning
of the transformation that will happen in our life time. It is already
happening, it’s started to come into the open. The huge weight and force of Big
Data and the hunger of power to own it, share it, distribute it, and exploit it.
We are in the middle of that big data war. Government officials and big business
owners are in their bunkers figuring out what to do next. No one has explained
clearly what is at stake, the options, or the current state of play. Big
Data, A Revolution attempts to provide context and meaning in an era where
data is no longer scarce or expensive, but readily available and infinitely
valuable in making predictions about future outcomes.
attitudes, and mental states will be predicted with an advanced probability
software and hundreds of millions equations—and that raises a number of
It is happening now as you
read this essay. You are the composite of your data; your choices, likes,
purchases, friends, emotional connections, and routine have been datafied. This
data of your past can’t be erased, deleted or changed; it will follow you
wherever you go into the future. The days of starting over are finished.
You can never go missing or disappear completely as you pull behind
yourself a history that is your digital DNA.
Your mental thumbprint is
now in the system and attached to this blog. It stopped there. Who else who has
ever read this blog is an association? That data is stored in the system.
Websites, blogs are hovered for information, and this how Big Data continues to
grow four time faster than America’s G.N.P. There is a probability that
your digital presence here means that you may share certain habits, buying
traits, or be connected to some free thinking troublemakers who also visit this
You can no longer control,
handle, supervise or understands the scale and scope of your data or the Big
Data. But we have seen nothing yet. Big Data is set to grow exponentially. Some
of that will be extremely useful in understanding and dealing with important
problems like climate change, curing diseases, or advancing entire domains such
as physics, chemistry, and mathematics. The assumption is that our understanding
of the world, describing it, predicting it is a limitation on quantification of
To fully exploit the
potential of big data we need to appreciate the scale and scope of the power
that comes from collecting, storing, distributing, selling and analyzing the
range of correlations that emerge when N=All. We will also pay a substantial
price. Big Data is not ours without some long-standing beliefs, habits,
attitudes and customs being changed. The next stage of development are data.
They are being built from masses of data as you read this essay. Real economic,
social and political owner will reside inside them.
Since the thirteenth
century, we have searched for answers about the world and behavior that are
precise and exact, and we seek out causation between events, people, and things.
Our quest is to know if what we believe about the world is true or false, right
or wrong, good or bad—we bring our moral and emotional sense of being in the
world in the cross-hairs when we address the implications of Big
Big data works not off
exactness; it is premises that reality is messy and the data can provide a
probability of what will emerge in the future. Big data promises a set of
predicted outcomes according to a scale of probability based on what will likely
happen. In turn, we give up the mission to understand why something has happened
or may happen. The ‘why’ question is one that asks about causes to explain what
is the nature of the world. Big Data leaves causation to the side because it is
not helpful. The messiness of reality renders inquires about causation and
precision less reliable. These ideas spring from an the old way of thinking when
sense had to be made out of limited information and data. Causation and
precision are relics of data scarcity and can be largely ignored as correlation
is sufficient in the world of Big Data. Limited or Little Data required us to
formulate a theory about what we’d expect the Little Data to prove, and then we
used the Limited Data to test as to whether it had proved or disproved the
theory. Think of climate change and theory of CO2 concentrations as the cause.
That’s the old way of using Limited Data modeling.
Randomness in large big
data gives a probability analysis that is more useful and predictive than a
targeted, sample size of data. Sampling of data, the default measurement of the
world, has become or will very soon become obsolete. Those conducting the data
gathering in the past lacked the tools (processing speed, storage facilities,
etc) to collect big data and the tools (software and algorithms) to analyze such
vast quantities of data. They opted for precision, sampling, and theory testing.
This old paradigm goes out the window with big data in many cases. With the full
dataset offered by big data, researchers can explore many more angles and
perspectives whether it is predicting the next bird flu outbreak or match fixing
in sumo wrestling matches in Japan.
Big data has the capacity
to scale entire populations of a city, region or country. Now when all telephone
calls, emails, Internet searches, Twitter mentions and retweets, and Facebook
‘likes’ are captured and stored, this isn’t a sampling; it is the whole
enchilada. “[W]e can accept some messiness in return for scale. ‘Sometimes two
plus to two can equal 3.9, and that is good enough.’”
We already have an example
of the limits of our capacity when tested against advanced algorithms. There are
chess algorithms that are used once the computer has six or fewer pieces left on
the board and allows the computer to processes the probability for
every possible move (N=all). The Big Data authors conclude,
“No human will ever be able to outplay the system.”
We have created a big data
system that is much better at making predictions about outcomes than we can make
using our native brain power. We humans have dropped down in the league ranking
of the best, fastest brain processing capacity in the world. In coming up with a
translation program, Google didn’t test a billion words, they used a trillion.
Its services cover 60 languages and are more accurate than other systems. It
won’t be long until computer translations, like playing chess, will perform
vastly better than any human being.
demonstrates the transition in thinking between viewing the reality of the world
as not only messy but one in which predictions of what will happen rest on
correlations that emerge from big data. Amazon has recommendations for you. Each
time you visit Amazon they remember your digital history and present you will
the kind of books that from your prior purchases indicate you are a ‘reader of
interest’. One-third of Amazon’s business is from buyers like you who
click on and buy the recommended purchase. For Netflix the percentage of online
rentals that come from a recommendation is seventy-five percent of all the
Amazon and Netflix offer
two good examples of how using probability tools can increase the revenue of a
company. There is no certainty that you will buy the recommended book on Amazon
or rent the recommended film online from Netflix, but you can see the
probability makes the effort pay off in rich rewards for both
Big Data can’t tell Amazon
why you buy a particular title. Indeed it is not interested in the why
question; it is focused on what you are likely to buy given your past purchases
and searches through their catalogue of books. The data opens up links that are
also useful. A secondary use of the same big data may show that California
international crime fiction readers are more probable to book a ticket to
Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Bangkok, and targeting them with discounted fares
may increase sales. The big deal about Big Data is that it has the potential for
multi-uses, and many of those uses only become apparent much later. That’s one
reason why storing data for long periods is in the interest of business and
governments, and they will fight to keep this option; they want indefinite
storage as they can’t predict what future technical and social dynamics might
arise and they want all of the cards, old and new, on the table.
We were born into an
information poor world. Our beliefs, political and social structures, our
science and education were created out of a small sampling of the information
about the world. We’ve spent our life making decisions, forming opinions and
making judgments based on limited data giving us precise, exact answers as to
the state of the world and each other. We are wired to look for causation. In
the big data world we are told this is delusion. There is no math that can
easily show causal links; but correlations are easily translated into
Big Data, the
book, looks at the risk of big data as it presents a real “risk [of] falling
victim to a dictatorship of data.” While Amazon uses algorithms to recommend
books, lawn mowers, watches, and clothes to you, there is the potential for
repression if the gathering, storage, use and distribution is left to be carried
out in secret. We don’t know the limits that push back against the collection
and use of Big Data. In a generation, people will look back and see our time as
the tipping point when we lost privacy. The big data world will continue to
strip away the possibility of privacy. Privacy existed because of the messiness
of information, it’s limited nature and the expense and difficulty of collecting
information about the world. You once had the power to divulge personal
information. In the average day, you willingly and largely unknowingly disclose
pieces of data about yourself—your likes, dislikes, activities, friends,
purchases, health, schooling, and plans. We’ve uploaded our life onto the common
Big Data network, a small fragment at a time, and by doing so we are forfeiting
our own privacy. Privacy as we know it will vanish.
Crime and punishment will
change as will opinions about proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and presumption
of innocence. If big data can show a correlation between a person’s big
data/information file that he has, say, a 79% chance of committing rape or
murder within the next three years, will the state make a decision that a
‘probable perpetrator’ should be removed from society in order to protect
society? The state would hold this person not because he’s committed a crime but
the prediction is high that he will commit the rape or murder in the future.
Many people may feel that with a high probability that the state should
intervene and prevent the harm from happening.
The Big Data
authors find that “the very idea of penalizing based on propensities is
nauseating.” The future causes a sense of vertigo. It doesn’t share our values,
our thinking, or account for difference between potential actions and the real
thing. The authors fall back on the premise that it isn’t the problem of big
data but the way we will use the predictions. The irony is the book is a call to
loosen our fixation on causation and theories, and to learn to embrace messiness
and predictability. When push comes to shove on preventive detentions, the
authors retreat back into the world of causation and find decisions based on
predictions ‘nauseating’. My view is once we jettison causation in the big data
world, the use of predictions won’t be easily caged inside Amazon and Netflix’s
world of recommendations. The data will get bigger, the prediction more
accurate, and once that happens ‘assigning’ guilt based on a person’s
particular act will appear as another example of medieval thinking.
An important takeaway from
Big Data is, “In the era of big data, however, when much of data’s
value is in secondary uses that may have been unimagined when the data was
collected, such a mechanism to ensure privacy is no longer suitable.” The debate
we will soon have is what is the continuing role of human agency in deciding
individual responsibility for actions. Another part of that debate will be
whether the decisions of big data will ultimately be made by machines. Humans
will likely never fully understand or control the moves any more than an
international grand master of chess in a game against Big Blue. Time moves on as
does the debate; and the tools continue to improve, faster processors, larger
memory capacity, better algorithms, and we wake up one day to find that
“rational thought and free choice” are no longer part of a world that we
The data story doesn’t end
with Big Data. There is no endgame as has always been the case with new
technologies. Each innovation seems so incredible that we can’t imagine an
improvement Remember the Beta cassettes? Our current technologies for Big
Data will look like Beta cassettes in 5 to 10 years. Probably much sooner. As
the period of change has accelerated from centuries to decades to years and
looks ready to upend existing technologies in months. This period is a prelude
to a much bigger transition in humanity’s quest to understand the world, and our
place in it. We have gone “from compass and sextant to telescope and radar to
today’s GPS.” Compared to the promise of what lies in our immediate future, our
existing technologies to harness Big Data will be judged by future generations
as closer to finger painting a horse on a cave wall.
Buy Big Data and
give it to someone you want to give a freight load of sleepless nights. My
predictions about scale and scope of big data, what will replace it, and how we
will change our values and attitudes as a result, are beyond what we now know.
It seems that all bets are off that this transition will be easy or smooth.
Adjust to the fact that others will have infinitely greater information about
you than you can ever imagine. You have become datafied. You can’t shake free,
you can’t hide, you can’t go missing, and you can’t even hold your own
The founder of Amazon has
bought The Washington Post. Will the owner use the newspaper to suggest
recommendations to politicians and others as to what policies, regulations and
laws are the ones they should adopt? Will somewhere between one-third and
seventy-five percent of The Washington Post click on and download those
recommendations into their memory? The sale of the Washington Post is
not just another sale of a newspaper to someone who is very rich, it is the sale
of the newspaper to one of the founders of the new paradigm of gathering and
distributing information. It is as if the owner of printing press bought a
failing monastery and scribes writing manuscripts. You know that change is
You’d be a fool to bet
against the odds that one morning you we wake up to the fact that you live
inside a data panopticonand there is anyway out. Not heard of
panopticon? Get use to seeing more reference to that word. It is the prevailing
metaphor of our time.
Psychology, economic, law
and mathematics have interesting perspectives on the dynamics between two or
more people who must decide to co-operate or betray the other person to minimize
Here’s an example of how
the Prisoners Dilemma works. Two suspects, Larry and Carl are arrested after a
warehouse break in. The circumstantial evidence indicates they were the guilty
party. Circumstantial evidence may be insufficient convict, and if both of the
suspects co-operate and say nothing to the police, they will both walk free.
Experienced criminals know the, but not all suspects are experienced and they
are anxious and afraid and the good cop/bad cop can do wonders to convince one
to defect and incriminate the other person.
Larry is told that if he
co-operates by testifying against his partner, Carl, then Larry will walk out
free and Carl will get three years. They also tell Larry that Carl has been
offered the same deal, so don’t wait too long or it will be you serving the
three year stretch while Carl is out spending the proceeds of the warehouse
Does Larry trust Carl
enough for him to call the bluff? Or does Larry think that Carl is weak, selfish
and likely to crack, thinking that Larry will take the deal and screw
Both are better off
co-operating. Game Theory is based on the premise that you are better off
betraying your partner and escaping the penalty you’d receive if you let him
betray you first.
The Prisoner Dilemma is a
dilemma for a good reason—it demonstrates the relationship between the duality
of our mental processing. We are at once both rational and irrational actors. At
any given moment, the scale tips toward one or the other of these two
If both people are totally
rationale, they co-operate in that way they are both better off. As we know, the
irrational mind is filled with anxiety, fear or worry that the other person
won’t act in a rational way.
Some clever academics
(economists of course) decided to test the Prisoners’
Dilemma on real life prisoners. The payoffs were in coffee and
cigarettes to the prisoners. The women prisoners who participated in the
experiment were housed at Lower Saxony’s primary women’s prison. The results
were compared with a Prisoners’ Dilemma experiment with students.
The researchers thought
the prisoners would be more cynical, hardcore and less likely to co-operate. The
result surprised them. The results were in three categories: simultaneous game,
pair basis, and sequential game.
In the simultaneous game,
the women prisoners co-operated 56% of the time while the students came in
second at 37% in cooperation. In the pair basis category, the actual prisoners
had the best outcome and co-operated 30%, compared to just 13% among the
students. For sequential games, way more students co-operated (63%).
The telling test is the
simultaneous game, which is based on blind trust. The suspects have no precedent
to go by. The conclusion reached in the experiment is the actual behavior of
people fails to correspond with the prediction made by the Nash Equilibrium—that
says it is rational to defect, though it has been noted that Nash (The
Beautiful Mind was the film based on his life) was paranoid at the time he
came up with the Nash Equilibrium.
There are criticisms of
the experiment. First, the actual prisoners after the game ends must go back to
a prison environment and if they’ve betrayed another even in a game that might
offer nasty blow-back once the experiment was over and the prisoners returned to
the prison population. Also, those who come from a crime sub-culture have the
ethos of co-operating against the ‘system’ or the ‘cops’ and close ranks when
outsiders ask them to betray one of their own.
Another commentator has
suggested that the test subjects were women and that women are more likely to
co-operate with each other than men. Others have come to the opposite
conclusion—men are more co-operative with each other than women.
Other factors might be at
play. Cultural attitudes about co-operation are important in Asia. Could it be
the outcome of the Prisoners Dilemma turns, at least in part, on underlying
cultural attitudes? This expands the inquiry into the ethnicity, culture,
language, gender and class of the prisoners and of the interrogator. One should
not assume that all three parties will share the same set of cultural
Beyond culture is the
environment of the experiment. In other words, the setting of the interrogation
is another factor that has potential importance in the outcome. Suspects held at
a police station are in a different situation than suspects held inside military
prisons or safe houses where water-boarding, torture or other enhanced
interrogation methods are employed.
Would two Japanese
criminals be more likely co-operate if the interrogator was an English, Canadian
or American cop? Or if one of the criminals was Chinese and the other Thai, and
the Americans interrogated the two men about Golden Triangle activities, would
they co-operate or defect? Would it matter if the interrogator was a woman of
Norwegian ancestry and the suspects Asian men? If the suspects are a mother and
daughter, does this relationship make it more or less likely one will defect?
Generational difference between the suspects may be another factor that
influences the suspects’ decision.
The point is how we go
about how two prisoners placed in different rooms and under great stress reach a
consensus as to the best course of action is clouded by criminal mentality,
cultural norms, gender, prior relationship (and ongoing relationship) between
the parties (and their families).
How we calculate our
self-interest is rooted in what our culture teaches us about the self, the
individual, and the community.
The 2013 Thai Most Wanted
Hitmen list has 100 names. The 2011 list had only 75 names. That’s a 25%
productivity and employment increase in two years. If this were the economy,
people would be in the streets celebrating. This list is not Thai companies on
the stock exchange but a list of Thai hired killers who are in a bullish
Like the Booker Award, the
2013 list is a long one. We’ll get to the short list and the machinery to choose
the winner a bit later. No literary award I am aware of has ever announced a
long list with a name of 100 authors. In the real world, down those mean streets
walk not writers taking notes for a great crime novel but hired killers the
police would like to catch. And there are at least 100 of them, which works out
about 5 or 6 hitmen for each author on a typical crime fiction award
Authors must choose their
hitmen carefully. It seems there are difficulties in apprehending the Most
Wanted Hitmen—they are even more careful than most authors. After all they have
a lot more at stake, and more to lose.
Thailand law enforcement
challenges aren’t unique (though what country exists where the citizens in huge
numbers don’t believe this?). The police in every country face the same set of
problems—suppressing crime and capturing criminals who refuse to be suppressed.
Techniques of crime suppression and catching the bad guys are glimpses into the
culture of the legal justice system and the social system.
The Thai police have used
Most Wanted list and have made what translates as ‘criminal suspect calendars’, which feature a photo of the
bad guys (or bad women). Maybe the photographs were old, blurry, with bad
lightning and horrible angle—the usual things people say about my photos. In any
event these calendars (we’re not told where they were displayed) failed to bring
phone calls from the public with information that they just saw what looked like
#73 eating som tum at a food stall on Sukhumvit Road. The police phone
didn’t ring. Or if it did, the caller wasn’t reporting the location of a wanted
Faced with the bold
facts—can’t suppress them, can’t catch them—the police decided on a new campaign
to hunt down the gunmen for hire in Thailand. Social hierarchy is the lifeblood
of Thai society—and the building blocks are the Lego like tropes of family
names, titles, rank, private schools, and private clubs. A Thai can step back in
any social scene and immediately experience another person’s place on the
pyramid grid as though they had a sonar system that picks up frequencies that
foreigners simply don’t perceive.
Why not rank hitmen? That
seems like a logical extension to the normal way people perceive themselves and
others—they are either above or below you. This genius for ad hoc hierarchy
making as a blueprint for hitmen pyramid is far more impressive than anything
you’ll ever find in Egypt. If you are raised and educated in seeing social
relations as pyramids, why not adapt that idea to how you design your Most
Here’s how the new Most
Wanted Hitmen List will work—according to the Thai police.
Level one is for the top
gun. The Professional. A Level 1 hitman has proved himself capable, reliable,
with many successful assignments on his resume. The assassins on this list are
not limited to those wanted under an arrest warrant. Apparently just because
you’ve committed an assassination doesn’t automatically mean you will have an
arrest warrant issued. The example given by the authorities is the hitmen
who has just been released from prison having served time for his last job.
Apparently the concept of double jeopardy gives way to preventive action. Once
you’ve done your time for a hit, you are a Level 1 guy would is wanted by the
The Hired Gunman Pro who
is always wanted by the police, arrest warrant or not, is at the top of the
hierarchy. It is important to emphasize this point so no one is confused or
walks away from a citizen’s arrest of such a hitman who might argue there is no
outstanding warrant. Get the guy. Bring him in. If you’re working at Level 1,
the police want you even if there’s no paperwork other than the list. The
privilege of the top rank is to be always wanted.
There’s always some new
guy breaking into the game. Same as in sports. One day you are kicking in goals,
and the next day you’re on the bench because some new kid can kick the ball
better and farther than you. These are the semi-pros looking for the chance to
play in the PGA-level hitmen’s league. They are still building a resume showing
their wins. The police warrant these are the most dangerous players—young,
hungry, trigger-happy and as resume obsessed as a student trying to get accepted
for a Harvard MBA program. The police statement was silent as to the necessity
of any outstanding arrest warrant before such a person goes on at Level 2. It
might be that the arrest warrant exclusion is for only Level 1—give them a bit
of hierarchy pride. As it is unclear, no doubt it could lead to arguments, and,
no need to remind you, these people are heavily armed, that is never a good
thing in Thailand.
Level 1 and Level 2 are
your pro or semi-pro freelance, free agent players. They take assignments from
anyone with the cash and the desire to see someone dead. The Level 3 hitmen are
a different breed. They fit the mode of the in-house lawyers. They work for an
influential figure or the mafia. Yes, in Thailand there is apparently quite a
distinction between the two categories worth an essay on its own. The
third level players raise an interesting policing issue. Why not check with the
godfather, “Seen #43 recently?”
“No, he’s been on the sick
list,” godfather. “No, he’s been transferred to sales and is attending a seminar
“Well, if you see him,
give us a call.”
“You’ll be the first to
Level 3 is the place where
no one ever seems to find any evidence. It all disappears down that Alice in the
Wonderland rabbit hole without leaving a tiny, bitty trace. The gunman signs on
for the usual company benefits, and enters the workplace where whatever evidence
he leaves behind will magically disappear, and he draws a regular salary. The
police admit Level 3 is a toughest nut to crack.
We are at the bottom of
the pyramid on a dark night. In a sand storm. In the desert looking for whom?
These guys are not yet qualified to be hitmen. No, they’ve not earned their
stripes. The most you can say for them is they’ve murdered people in a conflict.
That’s not what professional killers do, who have no emotional connection with
the victim or conflict. The police want to put a lid on the possibility that
these hot-headed, hot-blooded killers who get into lethal fights and arguments,
don’t suddenly become cool under fire, chilled water running through their veins
and climb up to either Level 2 or 3. The greater fear is a lateral entry into a
Level 3 position with a godfather.
Supposedly 30% of the
Level 4 killers have contacts with the Level 3 players and bosses. This assumes
that bosses at Level 3 given a choice would take a level 2 or Level 4 guy.
In a pinch, a Level 4 guy might be given a chance to see if he can kill someone
he doesn’t hate without first punching him out. As a general rule, it’s horses
for courses in the play book for most godfathers.
The Thai police, despite
the limitations of the list, have an Ace up their sleeve. Thais are highly
sociable. They are hard to separate from their parents, friends and relatives.
The police have figured there is no level of assassin, which can sustain
isolation. The loneliness of being on the run is too much for the Thai hitman
who will sooner or later head to his parent’s house, his favorite mia
noi’s room, and the hangout where he drinks and sings karaoke with his
friends. The idea is the police will look for clues among the hitman’s relatives
and close associates.
No discussion of hitmen
can be separated from the price ticket for their services. The no frills, basic
level hit of an ordinary person starts at Baht 50,000 (or roughly US $1800).
Most of the hits at the low end of the market are the result of love affairs
that implode like a star that blows up. Only in this case, the black hole is
between the eyes. If the target is a ‘somebody’ in one of the other social
hierarchies, the price can shoot up.
How have the Thai police
been doing in catching the professional killer included on the 2013 Most Wanted
List? Six months into 2013 they’ve arrested four, and two have died. There is no
report on what level these 6 hitmen came from. The main takeaway is that your
chances of being arrested for being an assassin for hire is only slightly higher
than dying of old age. The next time someone mentions the word ‘noir’ in terms
of crime novels, you can ask them, “And what is your view on how the Most Wanted
Hitmen List for 2013 fits into the definition of noir?” To answer that question
would require a multi-volume series and given a dozen books, I’d only be
sweeping the sand from one side of the path leading to the base of the pyramid
only to watch it blow back the next day.
Most of the time we humans
are predictable in our reaction to the success of others. Anger, jealous, envy,
hatred and self-doubt spill out like pennies in a clay piggy bank hurled against
a brick wall. Another person’s success is felt like a punch in the
In the entertainment
business, the gag reflect is in full swing.
Our hackles rise reading
articles with openings like this:
Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr. claims
top earning spot with $75 million last year thanks to his role in “Iron
How many actors who are
waiting tables in New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris dreaming of their big
break would like to make one percent of that amount? The chances are they won’t
have commercial success. They will never experience a year or a career like
Robert Downey Jr. But that is hardly Robert Downey Jr.’s fault. Nothing in the
universe was set to make his rise to fame and fortune inevitable. It could have
been another actor. It could have been you.
Writers face the same
problem. A handful of authors make the lion share of money from writing. James
Patterson, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, John Gresham, Stephen King are some of the
familiar names guaranteed to deforest mountains in British Columbia, to sell
container loads of books, to dominating bestseller list, book review coverage,
and public perception of how to measure a writer’s success.
It is the .001% of authors
who are profiled in the major press, and the press never fails to mention the
money they earn, the number of rooms in their house, private planes, boats; how
they are cocooned inside a wall of well-paid staff. The 99.999% of writers
scramble with other jobs to cover the cost of their rent, food, and
transportation cost. Outside of a few lions, the rest of the animals roaming the
literary savannah survive on near starvation rations.
Like Robert Downey Jr.,
the James Pattersons and J.K. Rowlings hit the big time. They were in the right
place, at the right time, and not one of them, their agent or publisher would
ever have predicted the scale of such success.
The idea of scaling hasn’t
been discussed in the saga of Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. For those
who haven’t followed the disclosure of Rowling’s novel published under another
name, he’s a brief summary.
When J.K. Rowling sought
to go undercover and write a crime novel titled The Cuckoo’s
Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith she discovered what most
non-famous writer already know. It is tough finding a publisher, and having
found a publisher, it is even more difficult for a really good crime novel to
break out and acquired a Harry Potter-sized audience.
A couple of points worth
noting, from everything I’ve read about J.K. Rowling, she is a decent, kind,
sincere and genuine person. She doesn’t need to prove anything as J.K. Rowling.
She has a brand. She knows that and like any author she must have in the back of
her mind a doubt she’d like removed. That doubt is whether a novel written
without the brand attached would find a publisher. The Cuckoo’s Calling
had been rejected by a number of publishers. Rowling’s own publisher and editor
decided to publish it under the pen name.
They created a fictional
bio for Robert Galbraith and sent it out for review. Indeed the book received a
good reception among critics (The Cuckoo’s Calling had good reviews).
But the sales told a different story. Given the publishing world has something
called a returns right—meaning bookstores buy the books but have a right to
return unsold copies for a credit—the sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling
range from 500 to 1500 copies.
A don at Hertford College,
Oxford named Peter Millican created a software programe that could compare the
text of one book with the text of books by famous writers. Professor Millican
told the BBC, “I was testing
things like word length, sentence length, paragraph length, frequency of
particular words and the pattern of punctuation,” he explained. He concluded the
probability was high that Rowling was the author of The Cuckoo’s
A book that had small
sales under the name Robert Galbraith was now on the bestseller list. The
limited hardback edition of the Robert Galbraith books is now going for up to
two thousand pound sterling. The failed attempt to experiment with publishing
outside of the brand name J.K. Rowling, has given a good insight in the concept
When you aren’t famous and
you write a book, you are no different from any other person with a product or
service that is untested in the marketplace. Markets come in various shapes,
forms and sizes. The market for your novel might be for yourself, family and
friends. When that market is saturated, you’ve had your success. The problem is
that most of us think the market for what we write has a larger market. You
might be the star of your community theatre but your heart is set on Broadway
and Hollywood. The same for an author who has a community theatre-sized audience
for his or her book believes that he or she is one review away from a New York
How do you know if the
book you’ve written will ‘scale’ from an audience of a couple of hundred, or a
couple of thousand, to millions around the world? The answer is you don’t know.
No agent or publisher knows either. The same with films even with established
stars, no one is sure whether the movie will scale and capture a huge market or
flop like a fish in the bottom of a boat.
judge themselves by the standards of established authors. When their book
doesn’t have J.K. Rowling success, they feel like they are a failure. Status in
the entertainment world—film, painting, photography and books—is bestowed by
measuring commercial success. And commercial success is what we call a work of
art that scales much like the Big Bang from a pinpoint to an entire universe in
Most books are fragile in
the marketplace. They never ‘bang’; they whimper and die and are assigned to a
potter’s literary grave. In retrospect, we can say the book didn’t scale because
the subject was too narrow, the writing not artful enough, the characterization
weak, the story derivative and a hundred other reasons that support the decision
of the marketplace. None of this is to be taken seriously. Anymore than an
analysis as to why someone believes the stock market dropped 5% in one day, or
an earthquake hit China.
Those authors whose books
scale across the literary universe are not necessarily some rare literary
genius. There are hundreds of writers who have published books as good as or
better than the one people line up by the thousands at midnight to buy. J.K.
Rowling was on welfare, working out of coffee shops. She had no special
connection in the literary world. No doubt she can write, but with Harry Potter
she won the literary lottery, and most likely, like most lottery winners was as
bewildered and surprised as anyone else.
Authors without broad
brand recognition doom themselves by using the J.K. Rowling measure of success.
Her lesson with The Cuckoo’s Calling published under another name is
that the talent of a writer, any writer, is only one part of the complex network
of gears grinding below the surface of life. Once in awhile the great machine
produces a book that explodes, gathering millions of onlookers, both readers,
occasional readers and non-readers. The author’s life jumps from the book review
pages and lands on vastly larger stage of the news and social columns. The
author becomes newsworthy, her houses, cars, boats, her likes and dislikes, what
she eats for breakfast, her charities and hobbies, and her lectures and travels.
A celebrity is born and like any new star shines bright.
How or why this mysterious
event happens to anyone particular author is difficult to explain. But this has
happened before and will happen again. When the audience for a book scales on
the order of magnitude of the Big Bang, nothing can ever be the same again for
that author. Whatever he or she writes thereafter will enter the public
consciousness. Attempts to hide behind another name will likely fail. That new
star in the literary sky just doesn’t twinkle, it dominants the literary sky and
most of asteroids in the vicinity disappear from sight.
If you are a writer, you
won’t allow bitterness and regret to color your opinion of the success enjoyed
by authors such as J.K. Rowling. You will make a decision not to expend
emotional energy over what you can’t possibly control. You will also understand
that the essential feature of any author’s life isn’t whether the book scales to
reach the mountaintop of the richest, but whether the author has gone into the
world and climbed mountains. Be the writer who has put experience of life above
striving for status.
Be the writer with an
inexhaustible curiosity, a hunger for knowledge, and a humility that goes hand
in hand with a wisdom that the world each day has something new to teach. Be the
writer who disconnects from the Internet, cell phones and TV, and goes out into
unfamiliar neighborhoods and observes the lives of people you wouldn’t otherwise
meet. Be the writer who is the student and not the professor. Be the writer who
is a child and not a parent. Be the writer who withholds making a quick
Be the writer who gets out
of the apartment or house and enters a courtroom, a classroom, a prison, or a
hospital and who watches the flow of people passing through these public places.
The people in these places have lives worth understanding, and they will share
their secrets, dreams, desire, disappointments and pain. Many of them are inside
these places which cause them stress, duress, and anxiety. Here you will find
courage, desperation, corruption, hatred, love, hope, depression, the elements
that define who we are and the nature of our troubled times.
If you want to embark on a
path as a writer, enter the flow of lives around you. Leave your comfort zone.
Be the writer who explores cultures, religions and languages to discover the
forces that shape our differences in perception, understanding, and emotional
After this exploration,
whether your book scales to the higher elevations of J.K. Rowling’s commercial
success, it won’t matter. You will have scaled to the top of your personal
intellectual and emotional mountaintop, planted your flag and looked out on life in a way that few ever will. That, my friend, is success.
On the 15th
July 2009 a small group of writers joined together to write weekly essays for
this blog—International Crime Authors Reality Check. We were and remain
novelists who write essays once a week. In those essays we test notions of
‘reality’ in the context of social and political issues of the day. In these
essays, we have patrolled the borderline between good and evil, right and wrong,
facts and opinion.
Crime fiction has helped
shape our world of ideas about social justice, the way actual legal systems
function in other countries, and the way modern technology continues to change
the nature of criminal investigations and indeed the nature of crime.
Non-fiction is usually thought to be about truth and mirror reality. But often
it is fiction that comes closer to the mark in describing truth and reality.
That irony isn’t lost on the bloggers who write for you every week.
I’ve logged 214 essays
since 15th July 2009, and my fellow bloggers have more than pulled
their share of the weight. It takes a special breed of crime writer to
consistently produce essays each week. We have a number of distinguished alumni
who have written for the blog. It is understandable that other commitments
require authors to bow out of the weekly essay routine. There are only so many
hours in the day.
Our bloggers who currently
write each week are: Barbara Nadel (Turkey), Quentin Bates (Iceland), Jarad
Henry (Australia), and myself (Thailand). My writing colleagues essays have
often been a detailed examinations of the writing game, politics, social and
cultural developments, and insights into the world of police
Other crime fiction
writers who made a significant contribution through their essays during the last
four years include: Colin Cotterill (Laos/Thailand), Matt Rees (Middle-East),
Margie Orford (South Africa), Jim Thompson (Finland), and John Lantigua (South
and Central America). I thank each of them for sharing their insight and
applying their talent to the difficult art of an essay.
All of us feel that our
essays allow us to give something back to the readers of our novels—a glimpse of
the intellectual concerns and interests that can be developed independent of
plot and character. We don’t write behind a pay wall. Our essays are our way of
giving back to readers what we hope will be of value.
If you have enjoyed our
essays, the best way of expressing your appreciation is to buy and read one of
our novels, or send it along as a gift to a family member, colleague or friend.
On the right hand side is a scroll with a cover of our most recent
To our readers, thank you
for your support and we hope to publish more essays from the world of crime
fiction writers your way for sometime into the future.
Author’s photographs fall
into several categories. The most common is the best face photograph; the ego
shining forth. I’ve had my share of those photographs over the years. There are
less common author’s photographs. Among those are ones that tell a visual story
about a storyteller writing a story in a setting, which has its own story to
This kind of photograph
reminds me of Russian dolls nested together, each a smaller version of the one
before it, until the doll is infinitely small and disappears with all of the
stories locked inside.
This week, I was at the
airport in Bangkok. Physically I was at the airport, but my mind was somewhere
else. It was engaged with the latest Calvino novel. Scraps of dialogue,
gestures, expressions, body language, and images buzzing around like fruit flies
hovering over an open jar of honey. I normally carry a notebook. I left it at
home. I knew from bitter experience that unless I wrote down the imaginary and
dialogue that it would be lost. There were too many ideas, too many scenes and
faces. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the flow of a scene and
having no way to pull from that river the treasures floating past.
I went to a counter and
asked for a piece of paper and found a place to write. Only later when looking
at the photograph could I see that the world around me as rich as an imagination
set free. An unattended airport cart filled with various packages. Who had left
it? What was inside the packages?
No one but a writer lost
to his imagination would miss the huge Mount Blanc advertisement, a brand, a
prestige item and a godlike face—all playing out a story about how our world of
commodities feeds our desires, focuses our motivations, and guides our deepest
hopes. The illuminated ad shone like a mini-shrine, a spirit house, a testament
to our wish to elevate our status and to receive the recognition of those around
Here I was a writer
holding a two-dollar pen, writing, head down, lost inside myself, ignoring our
culture’s message as to what is real and important. I wrote in the shadow of a
company that sells really expensive, flashy pens—that now also expensive perfume
for men to go along with the Mount Blanc pens. The smell, the look, that’s what
has pulled us into the dragnet of manufactured happiness. We are suckers who no
longer fight the dragnet as it sweeps us along with millions of other little
fish trying to swim like outsized, important fish, one that secretly aspires to
become a legend. Money is the shortcut to rise out of fishery. That’s how stuff
is sold to us. It is the reason we part our money after we have everything else.
Who doesn’t want to be a legend and immortal? And to smell so fragrant that the
gods weep as we pass, is a feeling that we can’t easily shake.
The escalator leading
international passengers to the immigration control, the airport workers with
their vests talking to each other, knowing they’d never take that escalator
upstairs to clear immigration. They are the fish, which swim in huge schools,
the fish, which will never buy the perfume or take the plane to Berlin or London
or New York. These local fish stay close to home shore.
I had been writing. I had
been paying attention to the flow inside my mind. Everything in the photograph
went unnoticed. Focus is the bullet that puts a slug in the heart of
distraction. They fall away dead and we don’t notice the bodies until we look at
a picture and identify them later.
What we pay attention to
and how we pay (or fail to pay) attention defines as much as a tattoo of a
dragon on our forehead. As a writer my books and essays form part of the
attention focusing business and they compete with all of the other products that
attention hawkers hit you with hundreds of times a day. Exhausting, isn’t it?
All this money and effort spent to get you to focus your attention on some
visual, oral, acoustical experience.
It doesn’t matter what
public space we enter, someone wants us to pay attention to what they have to
say. Retreating into a private space provides little protection. Legions of
companies, governments and other people want you to remember that you paid
attention to their message and for a reason. They want something from you. And
in return, they are offering you some reward in return for your
One reason to read is to
find a way out of the lamppost light bias. The parable goes like this. A cop on
foot patrol comes across a drunk on his knees circling around a
The officer asked the
drunk, “What are you doing on the ground”
And the drunk replied,
“I’ve lost my car keys.”
The cop took pity on the
drunk and helped him search for the lost keys. After fifteen minutes of a futile
search, the cop asked the drunk, “Where did you lose the keys?”
The drunk pointed to the
park in the dark beyond on the lamppost. “Over there,” said the
The cop shakes his head,
“For God’s sake,man, why are you looking here?”
And the drunk replied,
“Because that’s where the light is.”
The books l read take me
out beyond the light of the lamppost. They take me to the hidden world inside
the dark park. That’s where the keys were lost. Not to my car but to
understanding about the nature of the world. Truth is camouflaged, out of sight.
You won’t find it under a lamppost. That’s where everyone expects to find it.
But the right book, in the hands of a master, can light a single candle that
reveals what has been concealed. The things not sold on airport advertisements.
We have in our power to take that candle and set out on an exploration. Even if
truth isn’t at the end, the journey will have illuminated a pathway to worlds
that lay just beyond where the darkness begins.
I was in the airport in
Bangkok. It was a lamppost and I was inside its light. But my mind was inside
another the terrain, time and place, and whether or not I found anything of
value, I can’t be sure. But I was pleased to have found strangers who donated
paper and pen to take a chance that I might be writing my own ticket to escape
from the lamppost circle of light.
Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and John Paulos have written best
selling books subjecting religion to the rigors of science, testing, evidence
and logic. The belief in the sky god was never able to withstand such a
compelling analysis. The borders of faith have shrunk inside many people’s
lives. Those who describe themselves in surveys and polls as atheist continue to
remain a minority in most Western countries. It may be that many people
nominally remain under the cloak of religion. Strip away the cloak and the
reality is they have all but in name abandoned faith in the sky god. But the
rituals of faith continue like a steam locomotive. We love the experience of
ritual—the sight, the smell, and the ride with fellow passengers. We temporarily
close our eyes to the fact that other forms of transportation have long ago
What is the evidence for
this covert loss of faith in religion to supply satisfactory answers to the
large existential questions about death? It is found in the rise of government
as an alternative manager of fears. The second bow in the string religion
brought was the fear of being a sinner, doing wrong, angering the sky god. The
old violin has lost both strings. Our existential angst goes unanswered by faith
and no one worries much about being a sinner. Guilt, like sin, is a word no
longer functions to keep anti-social behavior in check.
The old hierarchy of fear
managers—monks, priests, rabbis, ministers—historically have claimed
jurisdiction over ministering to our existential fears for centuries. As
absolute faith in religious answers no longer is comforting to a growing mass of
people, who have switched allegiance to the scientific method, a gap has opened.
Our secularization has brought about a great leveraged buy-out of the fear
business. The private sector has co-ventured with the government in the
acquisition, data mining, storage, and analysis of big information
The new secular clergy are
organized around the language of mathematics as the church once used Latin for
their elite. Mathematicians are our new cardinals. Their algorithms communicate
the sacred and the secret. Outside the inner sanctum of Government, a large,
private group of lay novices are often ex-clergy who shuttle back and forth from
public to private, and vice versa.
In gaining control over
the fear business, governments and their private partners have found an
effective way to expand and consolidate power. The medieval role of the Church
found that fear of the sky god’s wrath was effective to control kings who ruled
under its grace in Europe. History teaches an important lesson about those who
claim the mantle of fear managers—power, whether religious or secular—takes our
fear of the ‘other’ and our fear of death to serve their own interests. Like the
church before our secular age, the population has been excluded from the modern
process of fear management. The new secular priesthood determines, in secret,
what actions work best in the war against fear. Fear needs a face. Fear needs an
enemy. In religious times, it was the devil; in secular times, it is the
terrorist, who have brought us to the edge of the apocalypse; it is these people
who haunt us and make us fearful.
Secular governments have
learnt what large religious institutions have known for centuries—the masses
will abandon claims to civil liberties and rights in return for guarantees that
the enemy, the non-believer, whether within or from the outside. They have no
issue with giving a free hand to officials and private contractors waging this
war against fear. Priesthoods rely on magical thinking. To defeat the enemies
who cause fear, all-out war is necessary. In this worldview, there is no choice
but to permit the authorities to collect metadata, mine it for threats, and
pursue those threats by all available means.
Institutions that work in
the fear business are not only good at data mining—math as the new Latin gives
them a huge edge—they are also adroit at understanding the psychology of the
faithful. The reality is that people are highly vulnerable when it comes to
fear. They want to be cleansed of fear. Churches no longer offer a sanctuary to
repress these destabilizing emotions. We are witness to a great shifting of the
guards as religious institutions are going the way of the manual typewriter. In
the digital age, the amount of fear has increased at the same rate of Moore’s
law for computer speed. Fear increased with our information about the dangers of
the world. The uneasy anxiety of the masses demands something to be done to
contain their fear.
In response to that
demand, we are witnessing the results—a huge, spawning intelligence gathering
empire, one justified and tailored to managing the globalization of fear.
Intelligence agencies in America gather, store and process metadata about
millions of ordinary people’s personal messages hovered from their email,
telephone, social networks who had not been accused of any crime. The majority
of those people have no problem with the government keeping information about
their lives. They feel they’ve done nothing wrong. It is only people who would
harm them or kill them that should be worried.
Don’t tie the hands of the
fear managers, let them mount their steads, draw their swords, and vanquish the
bad people from our existence. In the religious realm, heaven is on the side of
the righteous. For the modern, secular population, heaven requires mass storage
facilities, algorithms to mine the huge amounts of data. This new secular
church, and the vast network of lay novices, operates under the watchful eyes of
hundreds of thousands of the workers with the sacred task of monitoring those
who generate fear. They are our representatives of righteousness—the high
priests who have been granted top-secret clearance—the vanguards to guard us
against the fears once the preserve of sky god and his
Our secular masters have
become the new class of priests and new digital, technology installed as the sky
god who sees all, is everywhere, omnipotent, and watching.
We use our new technology
like prayers, believing that it will allow our secret clergy to acquire
patterns, knowledge about probable associations and outcomes, and prevent a
crime before it happens and identify the criminals before they commit a crime.
In the ancient days when religions played a central role in people’s lives, we
had to wait until a criminal acted, investigated for evidence to catch him, and
extracted a confession after having caught him. In our secular, technological
age that process from the steam locomotive age is no longer
We live in a new age, one
in which fear propels us to allocate resources to identify people who are, or
possess the potential, for violence, aggression, and brutality. We no longer
rest at night knowing the sky god keeps their primitive impulse in check. Just
as we have begun to have serious doubt that the sky god is waiting on the other
side of death. We are alone, troubled, insecure, short-lived creatures and
seeking shelter in a violent species on a rocky planet, trying to get by day by
This new secular regime
has crept up on us. We blinked. One moment it suddenly appeared. We are all part
of the congregation. Dismantling the new clergy, or effectively controlling
their actions, won’t happen easily. And for a reason—we yearn not for freedom or
liberty, but seek security from the terrible uncertainty of meaning to lives
without the sky god, and the oblivion we confront in our death. As with all
great religions, the day will arrive when one among them follows Martin Luther
by challenging the right and authority of the digital Leviathan over our lives.
We wait for that edict as it travels at the speed of light through cyberspace to
offer a secular order where the clergy cedes power to the congregation it
serves. Only then will there be any chance for a reformation.
Theatre since the time of
Greeks produced plays as a mirror to hold up to a society to see the reality of
their existence. We are accustomed to the division of drama into the two
different aspects of our lives—comedy and tragedy. We respond with laughter or
tears as the emotional chords are played on our heartstrings with the virtuosity
of the great dramatist. Not all cultures draw their dramatic heritage from the
Greeks or Romans, nor are all dramas the product of professional stage
producers, scriptwriters and directors.
In Thailand the police
have an exclusive on the right to stage the drama of a criminal reenactment. A
number of times a year it is show time in the Land of Smiles.
The police re-enactment of
crimes has been refined over many years in Thailand until it has reached the
level of an anticipated theatrical event. The reconstructions of actual crimes
might be thought to be closer to carnival or street theatre than Shakespearian
tightly scripted plays. The police having caught the criminal arrange for him or
her (most of the time it’s him) to appear in front of the media and show how the
suspect committed the crime. The police are casted in the role of heroes, the
villain (sometimes there are more than one) is the real-life suspect and
everyone plays their role before news reporters and TV cameras.
This is a different
concept than the TV show like Crime Stopper, where to catch a criminal, the
police reenact the crime in order to engage the public with a request for
information to assist in identifying and arresting the suspect.
In Thailand, the police
arrest the suspected criminal who has “confessed” to the crime. What follows the
confession is a media presentation where the suspect, actors, and the police
stage a reconstruction of the crime.
Reenactments can carry a
light note, a hint of comedy with a suspect who has the media spotlight. That
certainly proved to be the case with Carlo Konstantin
Kohl who escaped
from the airport by a German national where he’d been held in the transit lounge
on his journey from Australia to Germany.
Sometimes the ‘theatre’
moves from the realm of controlled drama produced and directed by the police, to
‘live’ drama, which shows just how badly things can go wrong with a staged
re-enactment of a crime.
In a recent criminal
case, a Vietnamese
national, a suspect in an abduction case was on his way to a crime scene
reenactment, escaped out of the back of a police van.
When a 17-year
reenacted the vicious stabbing of a maid in Phuket—she was stabbed 80 times and
her throat slit—relatives and neighbors tried to beat up the suspect and
the police had to intervene to protect him. As he was a minor his face was
covered by a balaclava.
case of a sexual
assault and robbery of two Russian women, the police had Thai actresses
play the role of the Russians in the reconstruction of the crime.
Obviously a ‘reconstructed’ crime doesn’t actually reproduce all the elements of
the crime. It is more like a power point presentation of how to fly an airplane
than actually getting in the cockpit and taking off.
reported the police rationale for reenactments of crime:
“A Metropolitan Police
specialist said a re-enactment is important for an investigation because each
criminal or each gang behaves differently in committing a crime. Details on how
criminals commit each crime help the police understand the pattern of a crime.
This can help them track down other criminals showing the same behaviour pattern
and help reduce the loss of life and property.”
Reenactments as a police
school teaching tool for crime investigators strikes me as an interesting,
though implausible, heuristic tool. I think the jury is out exactly how such
reenactments expand the range of knowledge about criminal behavior. Watching
Superman in Man of Steel might impart some knowledge about criminal
conduct as well. Crime re-enactments, in my view, touch on a much older idea
about communities gathering to witness a wrongdoer repent, confess his crime,
show his contrition by assisting the authorities in demonstrating what he did.
Reenactments are a ritual, like rituals surrounding birth, marriage and death.
Rituals of cleansing the wrongdoer—with the police as high-priests—are on hand
as representatives of the gods who punish those who do wrong, so that victim’s
family, friends and neighbors can watch the suspect admit his sin.
If the police explanation
is correct, the re-enactments ought to take place in an actual theatre or
classroom. From the photos below, you can see the Thai police staged a
re-enactment of the murder of a well-known and controversial businessman is
being witnessed by only two officers (with one having his interest engaged
Another point, which also
isn’t explained, is why the press is invited to record this piece of theatre,
the large number of police officers who attend such reenactments, or onlookers
who are allowed to watch the whole proceeding up close. Are they training
sessions or workshops? Or is this staged reconstruction more like theatre? May
be it is a ritualized repentance and request for forgiveness as I discussed
earlier. Or could it be an effective way of communicating with the public that
the police not only have solved the crime, protected them, and by locking this
man up they are keeping them safe? As we’ve learnt with recent events in the
intelligence community in America, the desire to feel safe is a license to do
whatever is necessary to accomplish that goal. Reenactments are hatched from a
primordial fear of danger from other people.
A member of the National
Human Rights Commission, Paiboon Warahapaitoon, requested that the police take
into account the human rights implications arising from staging a reenactment of
a crime. Even under Thai law, the accused can’t be convicted solely based on a
confession. A reenactment is no more than a dramatization of a confession that
cannot be used to convict, unless it is supported by independent evidence of
lawyers have come
out to argue that the Thai police reenactments would be illegal in most
Most of the Thai
reenactments are young Thais with little education and from poor families. These
are the faces one sees among the suspects reenacting crimes. The rich and
well-off are not actors in these dramas. They have their lawyers, day in court,
and are usually out on bail, denying the charges against them.
Last week a Thai diplomat
stationed in Cario was involved in an altercation in a luxury hotel. The facts
are yet to be finally established, but the preliminary reports having the young
Thai woman diplomat kicking, scratching and biting an Egyptian lawyer in front
of her husband and other witnesses after a round of insults at Egypt and
Egyptian people . The diplomat has claimed self-defence, but offered no
details as to what caused her to be threatened. The Thai Ministry of Foreign
Affairs has recalled her to Bangkok and said it will investigate the matter.
Whatever is found, one thing you can be assured won’t happen is a reenactment of
If you want to see how the
rich carry on, watch primetime Thai TV lakorn (soap operas) on free TV
channels. They are the next best thing to crime reenactments of assaults and
other crimes the privileged commit. Lakorn is wildly popular amongst a
large segment of the population. This shows there is a popular appetite for
reenactments of crimes, nasty and anti-social behavior which don’t quite rise to
crimes but nonetheless inflict a fair measure of emotional damage to the
For this reason I think it
is unlikely that the popularity of the Thai lakorn will wane any time
soon. And the same can be predicted for criminal reenactments starring members
of the underclasses. All societies need a way of staging drama. Each culture
evolves a set of expectations, roles, producers, directors and media stars. The
Thais give the starring roles to the poor in reality news entertainment in crime
re-enactments, and the rich get theirs in soapy primetime TV dramas. Thai
audiences are as entertained as any member of the old Globe Theatre in London. The show must go on.
And when the price of admission is free, and the villain at center stage
performs his role, for that moment, he achieves a moment of fame. And the police
reinforce their image as heroes, defenders, protectors against the ‘other’ who
are out ‘there’ waiting to kill, maim, rob, rape or assault.
Shakespeare in Richard II wrote: “As in a theatre, the eyes of men, after
a well-graced actor leaves the stage, are idly bent on him that enters next.”
And who enters next may well be someone caught on a video camera. Digital
video recorders in cell phones have the potential, over time, to replace the
police reenactment. The purpose of the reenactment is for the suspect to show
how he committed the crime. In this YouTube clip a Thai man confronts Russian
man with a handgun in Phuket. It is over a woman.
Videos like this eliminate the need for a reenactment.
Bangkok this week has
secured its reputation as the place (to borrow Maurice Sendak’s book title)
the Wild Things Are. Wild things like in wild, feral animals are a good place
to begin a Conrad-like journey into the heart of urban darkness.
Noah, according the myth,
collected a pair of each animal and loaded them onto an arc as he had advanced
warning that a flood would wipe out life on the planet. This week a modern
version of Noah was busted in Bangkok, although no arc was found on the
premises. But that is a minor detail, as no self-respecting face displaying
local would be caught dead shoving animals into a wooden Arc. The new Arc is an
imported luxury cars.
Before we move on to the
animal selection process for filling up an Arc, let’s start with the noise
animals make. Noah must have had neighbors, too. We never heard their side of
the story. Noah didn’t work in silence. He banged nails day and night to
construct the arc, while his animals caged up kicked up a chorus. Never heard
that part of the story? Right. That merely proves that some great background
stories never are told, or if told, are remembered and passed down from
generation to generation.
In Bangkok, after a
drinking session the music is usually turned up … and up … and at some point it
blares through of the neighbor’s walls. The racket Leeches through the floors
and ceiling and sucks you dry. Welcome to the neighbor from hell. The one with
the teenagers who has formed a rock band with his buddies but no one has ever
taken a music lesson. The wannabe rock stars bang away on electric guitars
and drums from midnight to four in the morning. You complain to the police. They
do nothing. As Thailand is a hub of the unconventional story about hellish
neighbors, at last there is a story where the police actually came, saw, held
their noses, and returned with very large trucks to remove the source of the
noise. Only in this case, it wasn’t loud music that caused the
one of the remote neighborhoods in Bangkok, Khun Lek bolted up in bed as he
tries to awake for a nightmare of roaring lions and a distant tingling of pigs
and peacocks. You are awake but the sound of jungle hasn’t disappeared. And then
he smelled something foul as if a hundred sewers have backed up and overflowed
in your bedroom.
The police discovered the
neighbor—a Mr. Montri runs a pet shop at the Weekend Market also known as
Jattujak or JJ Market. He’d previously been convicted of trading in wildlife and
had gone back to his old ways as officials found: 14 white lions, 4 otter
civets, 2 hornbills, 1 oris, 23 meerkats, 1,000 sugar gliders, 12 peacocks, 13
turtles, 6 minks, 4 miniature pigs, 17 marmosets, a number of birds, and some
stuffed animals. It seems the police got tired of counting after the exhaustion
of counting 17 marmosets (those little buggers race around like rats on speed
and all look alike making counting an ordeal) as quantities grow vague when it
comes to birds and stuffed animals. There it is. After the great flood, the
world starts over with this population of animals.
Mr. Montri told the police
that he had the paperwork to legally import the lions from South Africa.
Apparently a lion cost Baht 200,000 wholesale or about $6,700.00. There was a
slight problem with the papers. The import documentation showed 16 lions coming
into Bangkok, and there were only 14 in the cages on Mr. Montri’s land. The
paperwork hasn’t stopped the police from charging Mr. Montri with offenses that
could delay the sailing of the Mr. Montri’s Arc by up to 4 years.
Where were the missing 2
lions? That question is one Mr. Montri’s neighbors are seeking answers to as
they gingerly rush from their front doors, climb into their cars or on to the
seat of their motorcycles and get out while the getting is good.
The rich in Thailand
apparently have a strong desire to own unusual pets. There is also a dark side,
too, as the delicate bits from some of these animals are also made into
medicines usually to increase the vitality and virility of aging men.
The secret sex lives of
some old men include harvesting organs from rare, large African animals. Others
go for luxury sports cars.
This leads us back to the
on-going investigation by a large number of agencies into the smuggling of
luxury cars into Thailand. The 300% import taxes are staggeringly high for
someone using the normal import channels. That provides an opportunity for
someone who can figure out a short cut. Somehow 2,000 luxury cars were smuggled
into Laem Chabang port in Chon Buri and stored, making it one of the world’s
largest luxury car parking lots in the world. As one would expect, cars began
disappearing from the port as importers began selling them off at bargain
The Department of Special
Investigation (DSI) is looking into 600 luxury cars to see if they were legally
imported. DSI has impounded a 100 luxury cars so far this year.
News reports indicate 90%
of the luxury cars imported into Thailand came in illegally. That is more than
just a little leakage in the system. That’s the sound of Niagara Falls roaring
next to those missing lions. Like prohibition of alcohol, criminalization of
drugs, or 300% taxes on for a luxury item is guaranteed to fuel a grey and black
market, corrupt officials and create a wealthy criminal class of middlemen. In
the case of Thailand, the grey and black markets are the lion’s share of the
luxury car market. The grey market includes luxury cars used abroad by students
and imported into Thailand—just think about it. You come home from year of study
abroad with a half-million car that slides under the tax regulations. Or if you
have a luxury car assembled in Thailand, another free pass. Though the assembly
of such cars require technicians and facilities that rival NASA, and the local
‘assembly’ shops appear to have no more than the usual screwdriver and hammer.
And the luxury car has to be registered. Basically the luxury car market is a
legal mess with many fingers pointing and many more fingers in the
The owners of luxury cars
are a who’s who of Hi-So personalities, senior government officials and even an
abbot. Their sons and daughters also have a taste for the exotic import that
distinguishes them from the lower orders running around town in their government
subsidized locally assembled cars that cost less than the upholstery on a
You need vitality to drive
one of these babies. With a white lion in the passenger’s seat no one, I repeat
no one, is going to have a larger face than the man behind the wheel. Most
people are status obsessed and the Thais are no exception to the rule. Face is
important. What you drive, wear, and the animals you collect, if of the right
sort, can create a face the size of the moon. Capitalism in its full glory has
provided a mechanism to achieve the elevated heights undreamed up in Noah’s day
of mere arc builders.
If we stand aside from the
personalities and the distracting images, we can see more clearly what is at
stake. The lions and the luxury cars are really a story about our uneasy,
troubled relationship with nature and each other. Our problem has caused a
problem with nature once it became apparent that there is vastly more profit in
destruction than in maintenance of natural resources.
We are a species of
Deceptive Apes, Killer Apes, and we are a danger to ourselves and all other
species. Our ancestors passed laws and wrote constitutions to protect us against
ourselves. In the digital age we have found those in power have discovered new
and powerful ways of deception, means far beyond the imagination of prior
We deceive ourselves that
nature can absorb our rapacious behavior. We deceive ourselves that those who
collect information will never use it for their benefit rather than our
We deceive ourselves into
believing that the rule of law will continue to protect us like a dyke against
the rising tide of government intrusion. Apathy is the bedfellow of deception.
We are enablers of the worst excesses that should worry us but don’t. A majority
of Thais accept corruption as part of the system. A majority of Americans don’t
object if their government accesses, stores and analyzes their emails, Amazon
purchases, Google searches, Facebook likes and posts, and telephone
Collectively we’ve fallen
into a state of denial that a price is paid for deception, and we are the one’s
who pay it. Our minds fill with the soma of the media and the government
officials, and we miss the context and the larger issues. Like a great magician,
who knows how to distract his audience, we are easily fooled. We focus our
attention on the slightly amusing personal stories that limit the damage to a
couple of dodgy schemes that the authorities are investigating. Imported lions
and luxury vehicles are a good laugh. Until we realize that we are laughing when
we should be weeping.
We live in a time of great
loss—nature, privacy, freedom, honesty and fairness. One by one, these values
are dying. Like Old English words, one day no one will remember what such words
meant back in our day. The natural habitat of the Deceptive Ape is in
transition. What that new space will look like? Perhaps our descendants will
occupy a mental cage with as much space to roam as the cages that the Bangkok
resident white lions were housed.
We can only guess. Where
the Wild Things Are is just beginning to unfold.
Some weeks provide an
avalanche of events—enough to fill a book of essays. For example, a German
national who’d finished serving a prison sentence in Australia for theft and
drug law violations, escaped his private security guards at the Bangkok airport
and had a two-day holiday in Bangkok before the police caught up with him. Carlo
Konstantin Kohl, a German national, with an Australian accent aged 25 (a
contemporary of Mr. I Am Awesome, the 25-year-old Thai drug dealer
with five wives I wrote about a couple of weeks ago) was being extradited to
Germany. Here’s an account in the Australian:
Kohl’s escorts were two
private security personnel whose job was delayed at Suvarnabhumi Airport due to
bad weather. The security detail had decided to wait for the onward flight to
Germany in the transit lounge with Mr. Kohl. It was a long overnight wait and
the guards fell asleep according to the Bangkok
(although the Australians denied that). Mr. Kohl decided he wasn’t all that
anxious to return to Germany where he was wanted on parole violation charges.
According to local reports he wandered around the airport for hours.
Kohl on his way to a foot massage in Suvannabhumi Airport in Bangkok.
His escape from the
airport confirmed that it has more exit doors than Bangkok’s illegal
gambling casinos—300 doors—and is far less secure. Any one of the airport exit
door, apparently, is easily disabled by snipping an electric wire.
Rumours are unconfirmed
that Immigration—having discovered all of these doors may be in surplus for
emergency use—might convert a half dozen of these surplus exits into Fast Track
lanes for those willing to pay an extra fee. Of course, I made that up, but
anything your can conceive in your imagination just might have a counterpart in
reality in Thailand.
Thais love stories about
handsome young rogue farang giving the authorities in Australia and
Thailand a dual set of black eyes. He was bound to endear himself to a Thai
audience by stopping at the airport for a foot massage before high tailing it to
Soi Cowboy. The local press played the sanuk angle of the story as if Mr. Kohl’s
tour of Bangkok’s hot spots was a blend of Home Alone and Hangover
II. A handsome young rogue for a star, fumbling, sleeping Australians, and
a tour of the hot spots of Bangkok.
Establishing the facts has
been illusive. Like objects in zero gravity, facts in Thailand have a habit of
floating free, bouncing off the shell of reality, untethered they remain fluid
and forever just out of reach. The Thais have a way of dealing with facts that
appear to incriminate someone important—those facts fall into the category of
insufficient evidence. In Kohl’s case no Thai officials of rank were
incriminated (that was news in itself). His romp through Bangkok was an
adventure, and besides everyone was quite happy to lay the blame the Australian
security detail—including the Australians. Falling asleep on the job? That could
never happen in Thailand. What about all of those doors Mr. Kohl rattled? Some
of the doors had been kept open for the convenience of airport staff. A bolt
hole might be useful when the time comes to sneak a cigarette, hide from the
boss, or to find a cozy spot for a quick nap.
Even the circumstances of
Kohl’s capture/surrender/ambush—take your pick—are unclear. He was arrested in
the vicinity of the German Embassy (the exact circumstances of his apprehension
like most other aspects of the story are vague). One press report said Kohl had
applied for a replacement passport two weeks earlier. That was the first clue
that he’d been enjoying himself in Bangkok for some while. And he’d been flying
under the radar.
Hadn’t anyone notified the
Germany Embassy in Bangkok to be on the outlook for him? Apparently not, but
facts like elementary particles in physics apparently only allow you to measure
location or velocity. I’d hazard a guess that Heisenberg’s head would have been
spinning to explain the facts in this case. Was Kohl on his way to the German
Embassy to pick up his replacement passport? Did he suddenly have a pang of
guilt and walked up and turned himself in to a Thai cop he saw on the way to the
embassy? We don’t know those facts. You can’t find them anywhere in the press
In one week, Carlo
Konstantin Kohl managed more front page coverage in the English language
newspapers than the Prime Minister or her brother—the one who was prime minister
when the airport with the 300 exit doors was opened, and the one through which
he exited some years ago. This was exactly the kind of story the local media
love—a Hollywood bankable rogue, keystone private cop foreigners, and no one of
importance had been accused of corruption, thuggish behavior, or displays of
gross arrogance. Allegations of negligence, well, to complain about that is to
complain about the oxygen we breath. Though the Thai press had a report that the
taxi driver that drove Kohl from the airport into Bangkok charged him Baht 3,000
for a ride that normally would cost under Baht 300. It’s not certain Kohl
was aware that he’d been grossly overcharged. I suspect his gave the driver a
hundred dollar bill. Unless after his foot massage Kohl made a trip to one of
the airport exchange booths.
With a bit of time to
reflect, the Bangkok Post ran editorial suggesting that if Kohl could use a coin
to open a security door at the airport, well-trained terrorists who’d been
trained with escape and evasion skills could easily have popped open all 300
doors at once.
Kohl, who was fined Baht
6,000 ($200) and given a two-year suspended sentence for illegal entry, later
conducted what appeared to be a workshop in front of about 50 officials who
watched Kohl show how he had used a coin to open a security door and how he cut
the wire. It was less a reenactment of the crime than the usual photo op the
local papers run of a foreign guest speaker, guru from abroad, holding one of
those seminars at a five-star hotel, lunch included, for the professional
development and the transfer of foreign know-how and technology.
Kohl’s fun holiday in
Bangkok overlooks one or two issues that I’ve not seen raised in the press
accounts. Shouldn’t someone be asking the question as to whether there are
protocols that require foreign police agencies, or private security firms used
by law enforcement to transport prisoners to other countries, to notify local
authorities that a criminal will be passing through as a transit passenger?
Wouldn’t the Thais like to know in advance of arrival of someone like Mr. Kohl
at their airport? Would they have rules to be observed such as don’t fall asleep
in the transit lounge while escorting a prisoner? Can any serial killer show up
in the custody of a couple of sleep deprived private security guards, take a
power nap in the transit lounge, and let their charge take a tour of the city?
What other people or things are going on in transit lounges that Thai officials
might be interested in as a matter of public security and safety?
Or is this the
international transport of prisoners one of those black boxes, like the
renditions the Americans ran out of Thailand for some years, where flights come
and go out of shadowy world with a wink and a nod? Do other countries have
procedures that set out what notices and process must be complied with in flying
prisoners in and out of their country?
The problem with such
questions is they take the fun out of Kohl’s story. Better to keep a lid on the
broader implications of what happened by limiting attention to the official
response which is to send a crew around to rattle the 300 security doors at the
airport. The questions are also embarrassing to both the Australians and the
Thais. By asking why the Thai authorities didn’t receive advance notice of Mr.
Kohl’s arrival raises the uncomfortable possibility that the Australians were
under no obligation to give the Thais any such notice.
Credit must go to Mr. Kohl
was exposing the security problem at the airport. Additional credit is due for
establishing the abiding metaphor whenever an influential person is facing a
‘fact’ that causes a major loss of face and serious criminal charge—he will find
300 exit doors, and one of those door will allow him to escape. Call it the
‘insufficient evidence’ door.
The more interesting story
this week was the explosion and fire that destroyed a carrier lorry loaded with
luxury cars that
somehow had entered the country and avoided import duties, and the parties have
links to major politicians and government officials.
The six luxury
cars have caused a
turf battle between the police, customs, revenue department, and the
anti-corruption agency—that no doubt other agencies will seek to have the cars
and jurisdiction under their authority. Doors. 300 doors, and the question is
which doors will open and close before the mystery of who owned and imported the
six luxury cars. Next week, reading the local press will be an exercise in
observing multiple doors opening and slamming shut like a nineteenth century
prison cell. Could the Australians take the fall for those luxury cars? Did
someone fall asleep again? Somewhere, official wheels are turning, door knobs to
One of George Orwell’s most enduring essays is titled
Shooting an Elephant. In the 1930s George Orwell served as a colonial
official in Burma. He was a sub-divisional police officer. Young Orwell’s hatred
of the idea of empire was only matched by his brutal contempt felt toward the
unfortunate souls who were the subject of the imperial occupation of their
His iconic essay about an
elephant goes to the heart of imperialism—the linkage of the despot with the
expectations of those they exploited. The story begins when the narrator
received a phone call about an elephant on the rampage into a bazaar. He takes
out his old .44 Winchester, knowing it is too small a weapon to down an
elephant, but as a means to frighten the beast. The elephant is in musth and the
mahout has taken the wrong turn ending up twelve hours away.
All the weapons in the
empire are with the authorities. The locals were without weapons and as a result
‘were quite helpless’ against the raging elephant. They could only stand to the
side and observe destruction of a hut, fruit-stalls, the eating of produce,
overturning a van, and killing a black Dravidian coolie who’d been stomped to
death in the mud. And wait for the British colonial officials to handle the
problem. The locals were victims. They were passive. Their alternative was to
wait for those with guns to arrive and save the day.
Having laid eyes on the
dead man, the narrator sent a servant to a friend’s house to borrow an elephant
gun. Once he had the elephant gun, the mood of the crowd changed from
indifference to an expectation of harvesting the elephant’s meat once it had
been shot. A small army of locals followed on the heels of the official to the
paddy field where elephant as found quietly eating bunches of grass.
The danger had gone out of
the situation. The elephant was calmly feeding itself and no more dangerous than
a cow. The official had no desire to kill the elephant. And saw no compelling
reason to do so until he saw the crowd of 2,000 Burmese watching and waiting. It
was not idle interest that drew them to the field. He represented authority. He
had an elephant gun. They had only their hands. “A sahib has to act like a
sahib…” He had no choice but to act out his role; it was impossible not to kill
the elephant not because the elephant was a danger but because an armed man
without resolution was no longer to be feared. He must never show fear to the
natives. A fearful man without resolve no longer projected that he was the
legitimate master of their destiny. He might be despised but he would be feared
and that was the framework on which empire rested.
The killing of the
elephant was a messy affair with multiple shots and great suffering by the
beast, taking a good half an hour to die. Afterwards, opinion was divided as to
whether the official had done the right thing by killing the elephant. What made
him happy was that the coolie had been killed. It had been his death that gave
justification to the death of an elephant that was no longer a danger to anyone.
The shooting had been more of an execution of a murderer. No one could deny that
murder had happened. While an elephant couldn’t form the intention to kill as a
human being could nonetheless having stomped to death the coolie, no one could
say that the shooting had been wrong.
Orwell’s parable about an
elephant can’t be disconnected from the context of empire. A modern version of
the story happened last week in Thailand. A Thai nurse and her husband visited
Lae Paniad Elephant Kraal in Ayutthaya. The nurse had offered an elephant named
Plai Big some food. The elephant grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him,
stomping on her with his foot. Her husband rushed to help his wife. Plai Big
gored him. The nurse died from massive injuries to her internal organs. The
husband was seriously injured.
Like Orwell’s Shooting
an Elephant, an elephant, a 27-year-old 3 tonne male, had killed a local.
In this case, the dead woman was a nurse. She was hardly a member of the coolie
class that featured in Orwell’s story. No one ran to the authorities and asked
that a police official be dispatched to shoot the elephant. The Thai resolution
had a different outcome. A ritual was performed at the elephant kraal. The ends
of the elephant’s tusks were sawed off by 20 centimeters. The purpose of the
ceremony was to free the elephant of the spirit of the dead woman. It was
reported that Plai Big would never work with the public again. . Plai Big fate
will be to spend the rest of his days in solitary confinement.
In Orwell’s story there
was a tragedy. In the contemporary Thai story there was a similar tragedy. When
foreigners occupy another land, the need to maintain fear and authority ruled
out any other option. It was never about the elephant; it had always been about
monopoly to use violence as the means to show resolve. Nothing short of pulling
the trigger to kill could establish such resolve was beyond question. To
maintain order was to show that resolve even though it wasn’t necessary. And
maybe that is the point of Orwell’s story. Indecisiveness in the exercise of
force would have been a sign of weakness. One man in a crowd of 2,000, if weak,
would not survive. He would be laughed at. And the last thing a man with a gun
can allow is laughter at his expense.
In Thailand, the dynamic
was different. By not shooting an elephant, no official would not expose to
belittling laughter. The elephant didn’t have to die to maintain authority
and the right to use force. Rather than violence as a response, a ritual as held
to free the elephant from the spirit of the dead woman. A metaphysical
resolution rather than physical violence ruled the day. Also in the Thai story,
the elephant had a name, an age, and an identity. In the Orwell story, the
elephant, like the locals and the dead coolie were nameless as was the
The tragedy of elephants
isn’t that they sometimes kill people but the aftermath of the survivors, what
they expect to happen and who is in charge of the weapons. The elephant in both
cases acted out of hormonal heat, a moment of rage. Compare that with the choice
given the very human foreign armed policeman who when pressed by size of the
crowd around him killed the elephant in cold blood. It is the premeditation, the
thought process, the politics that are disturbing and haunting. The elephants
shame us by showing how we calculate in our killings, and the rituals of healing
is only available once a community draws upon its own traditions without
interference from the outside.
From Syria to the West
Bank to Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, the expectation that killing the
elephant is required has not changed from Orwell’s Burmese Days. The
lesson is clear occupiers use terror and fear to maintain control over local
populations. It is also clear that the lesson hasn’t been learned as the forces
of imperialism are tested just as they were Orwell time, and those who are
occupied welcome the raging elephant because he provides thousands to judge for
the first signs of weakness to embolden themselves to take up weapons against
the elephant killer who are not one of their own.
In Bangkok and New York,
Barney Rosset told me many stories about Henry Miller. He’d published
Miller and knew the author personally. My views about Henry Miller have been
shaped by Barney’s recollections over the years. Richard Seavers also had a long
history with Barney. A friend gave me a copy of a memoir written by Henry
Miller’s Paris friend and contemporary, a photographer named Brassaï.
Henry Miller The Paris
Years was published in 1995 by Arcade Publishing, a press run by
Richard Seaver. I’d met Richard Seaver in New York at Barney’s loft in the East
Village and again at Barney’s table at the National Book Foundation award
ceremony in 2008 when Barney was given a lifetime achievement.
With those connections, I
was the right audience for Henry Miller: the Paris Years, having know a couple
of the people who were close to Miller for years. You can be close to someone
without knowing the interior layers that go deep, where stuff is hidden,
forgotten, fractured into a prism like mystery. Even when you know them
well, years later when you seek to recall what was said and done, the memory can
play illusive games.
I am weary of memoirs
written by the friends of famous people. It is natural that they will put
themselves in the center of the famous friend’s life. That is a danger. I
wondered if Brassaï fell into that trap.
Brassaï was one of Henry
Miller’s friends. The one result of fame is that an author’s friends have their
memories and correspondence ready for a memoir about the author, his life,
habits, attitudes, weaknesses, ticks, and philosophy.
The book titled Henry
Miller The Paris Years ends with, “Henry left France without tears, without
regret, and without looking back, as if the ten years he’d lived there had
simply vanished.” I wish that Barney were still around to ask if that was his
take on Miller’s years in France. His time in France had made Henry
Miller’s reputation; it has established him as a writer, a genius, and a
literary tiger. I have been around expats a large portion of my life—it is very
rare to find someone who has lived in a culture as Henry Miller did in France
would discard the place like an old sweater.
Henry Miller’s Tropic
of Cancer, and his other major works, were written out of experience that
was processed through a hyperactive imagination. His reality was the result of
this creative process. The boundaries of fiction, make-believe, became the raw
ingredients of life in Paris and cooking up an exotic confection. His books were
not just exotic, they were—according to the Americans—obscene. The Tropic of
Capricorn was banned. But for the efforts of Barney Rosset who spent a
personal fortune on court battles (only stopping at the Supreme Court of the
United States) started in the 1960s. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn
had established himself as a writer that upset officials who decided what could
be read in the United States.
Miller’s Paris experience sheds light on his views on relationships, sexuality,
identity, memory and imagination. Pornography is largely the legal conclusion
from the conservative elites that the combination of those elements must stay
within strict boundaries of propriety.
Henry Miller, according to
Brassaï, a person was lucky or unlucky on whom they met. For a writer, who
needed the constant input of new experiences, Paris brought him much luck in
companions. If experience was fuel, the high-octane stuff came from two
women. Anaïs Nin, born in Paris, American by nationality, a Spanish father, and
Franco-Danish mother—the original globalized woman before anyone used the term
globalization. She kept a diary that by the time Miller met her ran to 48
notebooks—but she dismissed them as ‘bloody ejaculations.” It was a relationship
of conflicting attitudes toward literature, a writer’s role, and the nature of
reality. Anaïs Nin believed that a writer should stay bound into the moment of
truth, not to filter it through imagination, which changed the reality to
something no longer true. Henry Miller was at the opposite pole—where reality
until processed and transformed by imagination would never become ‘real’ and
fiction and myth were the techniques of this transformation.
Anaïs Nin was Miller’s
intellectual muse. Brassaï writes that during the two-year period that the
Tropic of Cancer was put on ice by a publisher in Paris anxious about
possible legal problems, Anaïs Nin guided Miller through multiple rewrites. It
wouldn’t have been the book that made his reputation without her tireless,
patient pushing him to make changes.
Another woman, June, was
Miller’s sensual muse. She walked on the wild side. A woman filled with a huge
amount of energy, men were attracted to her, and she exchanged sexual favors for
money. As June’s husband, Henry Miller didn’t ask where the source of her money
was coming from. It was no surprise to learn that Henry Miller admired the pimps
who gathered at Chez Paul near the offices of the Chicago Herald Tribune, 5 Rue
Lamartine, in the heart of Paris’ red light district. He admired their power of
women, their lack of shame, their sales banter and their disdain for ordinary
work. They had a life style that Henry Miller idealized as one route to take in
the rebellion against culture and those in authority.
June had, in Brassaï’s
view, a superabundance of life; she was one of those people with ten times the
intensity and energy of ordinary mortals. If one is writing out of experience,
hooking one’s star to such a woman as June propelled Henry Miller into dramas
that most writers would never dream possible. Her betrayals and lies
created a stormy relationship. At the same time, passive women bored him. Such a
woman was an open book. Miller didn’t want that kind of woman.
Brassaï writes that Miller
married June without knowing the basic like place of birth, name or family
background He wanted mystery, someone who was unpredictable, unreachable, whose
life and background remained vague and unknown. June was not just a siren, she
was a cypher—one that Miller tried with his imagination to break the code. He
failed in that goal, but his failure to decode June nonetheless set him on a
journey that inspired him to write two brilliant books: Tropic of
Cancer and Tropics of Capricorn. June felt committed to Miller;
though he was a genius, and for her, he was the one true love of her life. For
Miller, June was part of his expression of open rebellion against his Brooklyn
upbringing. They were both displaced spirits seeking to escape old lives
and create new ones.
One detail of Miller’s
writing habit concerned his daily routine of walking the streets of Paris. He
was a great observer. He could only think on his feet. And that meant walking
around examining buildings, people, activities until some thought—the
Voice—would come into his head and he’d rush back to his room and sit in front
of his typewriter as the cascading images, ideas, and expressions tumbled out of
his mind and onto paper. He was less interested in the truth—thus his arguments
with Anaïs Nin—then in stories he drew from observations. For Brassaï Miller’s
casual relationship with the truth was ‘bewildering’. In Tropic of
Capricorn, June emerged as a character filtered through imagination to the
point she was no longer recognizable from the flesh and blood woman he had
In the end the well of
Henry Miller’s experience drifted away. He left Paris without a backward glance.
Anaïs Nin drifted away. He slipped away from June. Having lost the city and two
women who had inspired him, brought him the Voice that defined him, there is a
lesson to be learnt for an author. If your work is dredging experience arises
from the lucky strike of a gold mine of life, like all resources, sooner or
later the gold runs out. The mine is an empty shell, a hole in the ground, and a
hole in the heart. Only a few writers are lucky enough to find the perfect match
of time, place, and companions that put him in touch with that Voice—the one
that moves and touches not just the author but readers for
In a book titled
Chairs, I wrote about Barney Rosset’s Henry Miller connection in a
story called Star of Love. I had asked Barney if Henry Miller had discovered
Bangkok would it have changed his life. Barney replied, “Totally. Absolutely.
How could it have not influenced him?” In the end, Barney said that Henry Miller
holed up on top of a mountain in the Big Sur. He had a security guard at the
bottom where there was a dirt road. The guard’s job was to stop anyone going up
to bother Henry.
This was the author who
roamed the streets of Paris searching for the Voice. The oyster had closed its
shell. No more pearls would emerge. Brassaï set out how he saw Henry Miller’s
reality. Too bad there’s no chance to ask Anaïs Nin if Henry Miller The
Paris Years was filtered through the imagination factory—part illusion,
part hallucination. Or does the author give the reader the unfiltered,
unmediated truth. But the person I’d really like to ask is June. What would she
have thought of this version of the truth? All these people are dead. Whatever
the truth of their reality will continue to slip into the recycle bin of their
reimagined lives once created for succeeding generations. A literary life that
has the capacity for self-generating truths by those who knew the author is
rare. We are reminded that truth rung through the active imagination of
writers like Brassaï is part of what keeps Henry Miller alive in the minds of
readers today. Oblivion is the alternative.
After finishing Brassia’s
memoir, and thinking about the big picture, the reader could say that Henry
Miller was a lucky man.Luck has a great role in a writer’s life. As I put the
book aside, I felt I had been lucky to have discovered Bangkok when it was the
Paris of the 1930s, a place where Barney Rosset, Henry Miller’s friend,
discovered my existence, making me a small piece in the chain of people who have
written about Henry Miller.
Miller had Paris, while I
had Bangkok pretty much to myself for the early years, and it was a place where
I walked, explored, learnt a language and culture and the place where I found my
Voice. Unlike Miller, I couldn’t imagine leaving Bangkok for the isolation of a
mountain top or, at the very least, not without stopping and looking back one
last time to say a final goodbye to all of that.
Your mother, Susan, who is
a long-time reader of my books, asked me to suggest a reading list for your
16th birthday. What books would I recommend for a 16-year-old? Every
author and reader would suggest a different list of authors and titles. Choices
such as these will be contentious. No list is ever complete. What I’ve
recommended are a dozen authors as your son’s first steps of the long-term
journey into the world of creativity and imagination.
Some authors combine ideas
or thoughts with creativity to create works of pure imagination. Other authors
draw upon their experiences processed through a vivid, compelling imagination to
create art. Others still like Orwell found political ideology and expatriate
life the source for his imagination to take hold.
I’ve included a number of
expatriate authors who have found that life inside another culture has given
them a creative space for their imaginations to take flight. I pass along a list
of recommended authors and titles with a warning: any attempt to create
categories is a risky and dangerous business. The dangers have much in common
with the idea of considering books according to genre. In that ghetto, books are
confined to categories, for example, literary, crime, science fiction or
In reality, works of
genius transcend literary categories. As you can see from my recommended list,
Orwell and Miller are found under more than one category—illustrating my point
that genius refuses to be pigeonholed.
My categories, in other
words, are broad guidelines, and aren’t to be taken too seriously. They are
rough signposts and signal my own personal taste and development as a writer.
When I was 16 years old, I would have liked a nudge as what to read during my
teens. You will no doubt find your own favorite authors and books along the way.
Read them, too. Avoid, if you can, the latest fashion or trend. Books come and
go. Only a few have the staying power to be read by another
The works below have such
staying power. The list isn’t meant to be definitive. The list is a start; not
the end. It is also eccentric and personal reflecting to my own biases,
interests, values, and experience. Given that limitation, over the next year of
your life, you might set aside time for reading each of them. Each of the works,
deserves to be read at 16-years-old, and again at 26-years-old. Read them and
reread them as you grow older and through this process, you may discover ideas,
images, thoughts and visions that you missed in the earlier readings. And you
will discover new things about yourself that life has bestowed.
If I had read them in the
sweathouse of my youth, I can only wonder what impact that might have had on my
life. As a birthday present, I send this list with the hope that your life long
pursuit of books will benefit from this early start.
Jorge Luis Borges: The circle of Ruins, The
Immortals, and The Library of Babel
Jose Saramago: Blindness, The Year of the Death
of Ricardo Reis
Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Series
Louis-Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of
Henry Miller: Tropic of
George Orwell: Down and Out in
Alice Munro: Runaway
George Orwell: 1984, Animal Farm, The Hanging,
Homage to Catalonia
Margaret Atwood: the Handmaid’s Tale
Henry Miller: Tropic of
Graham Greene: The Quiet
Lawrence Durrell: The Alexander
Somerset Maugham: The Moon and Six Pence, Razor’s
journalists in Southeast Asia is like the person walking point into a jungle
filled with booby-traps, snipers and ambushes. It takes a very special person to
volunteer for walking point.
Bopha Porn is such a
She is a reporter for the
Cambodian Daily. She is also a very brave journalist. Recognition of that
bravery came this week with the announcement by the International Women’s Media
Foundation of 2013 Courage in
Journalism Awards. Three awards were given for
courage to three women from around the world. Bopha Porn was one of the three.
She is the first woman in Cambodia to receive this award.
The citation that comes
with the award reads:
“In [April] 2012, Phorn
narrowly escaped with her life when the vehicle in which she was traveling came
under heavy fire. Phorn was investigating claims of illegal logging in a
protected area of the Cambodian jungle with another journalist and an
environmental activist when gunmen with AK-47s sprayed the car with shots. The
activist, Chut Wutty, was killed. Phorn’s reporting on land and environmental
issues, as well as her stories about criminal activity and human rights abuses,
have made her the target of other life-threatening attacks.”
I had an appointment with
Bopha in Phnom Penh in April 2012. I arrived a day after Chut Wutty had been
killed. I didn’t know at that time the circumstances of his death or that Bopha
had been next to him Chut Wutty when he was killed. We were meeting to go over
final edits of her short story, Dark Truths, for the anthology
Phnom Penh Noir.
When I rang her, Bopha
said she couldn’t make the meeting. She said she wasn’t in Phnom Penh. She asked
if I could meet her where she was staying. I asked where she was, and she
replied, “Near the Vietnamese border.” Then she told me the entire story and how
she was concerned that returning to Phnom Penh might be risky as she’d witnessed
the killing of Chut Wutty, who was attempting to expose illegal logging.
Twenty-four hours later, she was back in Phnom Penh. She couldn’t stay away from
her job at the Cambodian Daily. Hiding out wasn’t in her nature. We had lunch
and she told me her story.
In this part of the world,
where illegal logging is often linked to government officials, witnesses to the
murder of environmentalists, human rights activists, and others seeking to
expose official wrongdoing are danger. She was absolutely right to find a
temporary shelter away from officials who might seek to clean up the loose
We talked several times
that day and Bopha decided to return to Phnom Penh. The news of Chut Wutty’s
murder had gone out on the wires. It wasinternational
Following an extrajudicial
killing, officials in this part of the world don’t normally issue an order to
kill a journalist who witnessed the murder once the eyes of an international
audience are watching. If that possibility isn’t open, other options present
According to Asian
the Cambodian legal system found that “Rattana was accidentally shot by a former
employee of Timbergreen. The employee was sentenced to two years in jail on
October 22, 2012 with 18 months of that sentence suspended. He walked free less than two weeks
local NGOs called it a “mockery of justice”.”
Bopha Porn has continued
her investigative reporting from her base at the Cambodian Daily in Phnom Penh.
Her courage makes her a role model for journalists throughout Southeast Asia.
Reporters find themselves in situations where powerful vested interest with
impunity from the law intimidate, bribe, or threaten the most brave of them. No
one is ever paid enough money as a journalist to take a bullet for justice,
freedom and fairness.
For someone like Bopha
Porn, it has never been about the money. It has been about exposing those who
have accumulated wealth at the expense of their nation, murdered others to
increase that wealth, and destroy the natural resources along the way. Asia
needs heroes in this struggle.
Some criminals start out
young as they embark on a life of crime. Many reasons can be found to explain
why someone turned ‘bad’ and adopted the life of an outlaw. One of those reasons
is financial. The criminal wants a certain life style that takes money. He has a
choice—find a job, save up for the car, the condo, the holidays, to support his
partner and dependents. Or if his plans are grand, then no regular job will
finance the structure of a life that only the wealthy are able to
Occasionally, there is a
criminal who has a broad vision of his future. His life plan could only be
financed by winning a super lottery or by crime.
the photograph and story by ace reporter Sunthon Pongpao about the arrest of
Saichol (in Thailand
people are referred to by their first name) was cornered in Wang Noi district,
Ayutthaya by the police in a drug sting. The suspect opened up with his .357
hand gun at a number of police officers. The spent shells indicated he fired 5
times (keep that number in mind, we will come back to it).
The report said that the
police were unharmed as they wore bulletproof vests. But there was no mention as
to whether the fired shots by Saichol struck anywhere near the vicinity of the
arresting officers. If they’d bounced off the bulletproof vests, I have a
feeling the vest with the holes would have been displayed for the
Saichol’s shooting skills
are a valid subject of inquiry, as one of the 5 rounds (remember the number 5,
we are getting there) resulted in a self-inflicted wound to his left
In other words, the
suspect shot himself in the left leg resisting arrest by a small army of
That degree of accuracy
doesn’t suggest he was a trained marksman or professional gunman. In the
photograph accompanying the article (you’ll have to go to the earlier Bangkok
Post link to see it, as it is copyrighted, and we wouldn’t want to breach a
copyright), Saichol is seated at a table, a crew of non-smiling Thai police
officers standing behind him and at his side, the .357 handgun on the table and
box of shells spread out so everyone can see exactly what a .357 round looks
Saichol was photographed
wearing a T-shirt with the words—I Am Awesome. That may seem
like a young man’s bravado. It would have been quite wrong had the T-Shirt
said—I Am a Crack Shot. Awesomeness is something few people can
rightly claim at any age, while anyone can learn to shoot a gun.
What did the police
discover in their investigation of the suspect’s background?
First, he’s quite young–25
years old. I know I said that before. How much living did you have behind you at
25? I’d wager a bet it doesn’t come close to Saichol.
Second, he’d done 5 years
in prison for attempted murder, as well as drug dealing and theft (as also
reported by Thai-language newspapers). Matichon reported that Saichol confessed
that he had been to jail 5 times. The fact he’s a lousy shot may
explain the prior attempted murder conviction.
Third, his ability as a
drug dealer rivals his shooting ability. He sold yaba (‘crazy drug’),
the Thai phrase for methamphetaimes pills.
Fourth, and here comes
that most auspicious number 5 in Saichol’s young life, he has 5 wives. The wives
live in 5 different households. 5 houses. 5 rice cookers, 5 TV sets, 5
dental/medical bills, 5 motorcycles/cars, 5 wardrobes. That takes some serious
cash. Economies of scale aren’t in his favor. Note to Ministry of
Education—mathematical courses ought to teach scaling, power laws, and how to
buy food and other stuff in bulk.
Fifth, there is no mention
as to which one of the five shots hit his leg. Was it the first shot? That may
explain why he squeezed off 4 more shots without hitting any of the cops. Was he
trying some kind of fast draw and pulled the trigger before removing the .357
from his holster? Or was it the 5th shot, and that ended his shooting
Odds makers in Saichol’s
hometown are offering higher odds for the self-inflicted shot coming from rounds
2, 3 or 4. Was he left handed or right handed? If the cops are standing in front
of you, how do you shoot yourself in the left leg? It’s these kind of questions
you’d think someone would put to the suspect. Perhaps they were but answers are
never reported. Why is that? Maybe the sequence of the round will come out in
evidence at his trial. Though he will likely cop a plea and there will be no
trial and the mystery of the number of the round that hit his leg will
Let’s summarize what we
know so far: Saichol is a high testosterone 25 years old, who is a bad shot.
His left leg suffered a self-inflicted .357 hole from one of 5 rounds he
fired. He was nabbed red-handed with 1,000 yaba pills.
On his earlier conviction
Saichol spent 5 years in the monkey house. He supported 5 Thai wives in 5
different households. He’s been in jail 5 times.
Karma and the number 5 are
finely woven into Saichol’s life.
One would have to
begrudgingly concede that Saichol has earned the right to wear his T-shirt in
his meet the press with the police glowering in the background.
Rumor has it that all of
the underground lottery tickets in Ayutthayawith 555 were quickly snapped up
after the news of his most recent arrest broke. There has been no word on how
his 5 wives will support themselves as their common husband returns to prison.
Note to the Press: Visitation rights should be an interesting story to follow
up. Will the gang of 5 wives have to draw straws or can they visit as a group?
The BBC, CNN and others would follow like a pack of hungry wolves should they
appear together wearing T-shirts—He’s Awesome.
The question is whether
Saichol will again get another 5-years stretch in the big house, and at age 30
emerge a changed man. Can he go straight? Will he have learned his lesson? Which
of the 5 wives will be waiting to greet him upon his release? Can this be turned
into a Reality Show?
As for that
T-shirt—I Am Awesome—it might be the one shirt that he doesn’t
want to wear inside the big house. He might think about a tattoo.
Spirit Houses are a common
sight in Thailand. They appear in front of factories, rice fields, houses,
condominiums, restaurants, bars, schools, government offices, high-rises—just
about anywhere you venture, the likelihood is you’ll find a spirit house. Like
the tuk-tuk and muay Thai, it is part of Thai identity to believe there
are spirits who reside on the land require appeasement with offerings and the
gesture of a wai.
A problem arises when a
spirit house is erected on land outside of Thailand.
In Burma, Violet Cho
authored a piece for The
Voice disclosing a
conflict between Italian-Thai Development Company, one of Thailand’s leaders in
the construction business, and local people in Burma.
The Burmese have their own
set of spirits that they pay homage to; they are called ‘Nats’ which have been described as
supernatural Burmese elves.
There are 37 Nats in the Burmese belief system. Among them are Thon
Ban Hla, The Lady of Three Times Beauty, Maung Po Tu, Shan Tea Merchant,
Mahagiri, Lord of the Great Mountain, and Yun Bayin, King of Chiengmai. It
appears some of the Nats have jobs. Others are royalty, and I am not certain if
the Thais are generally aware that one of the Burmese Nats is King of Chiang
In Missing in
Rangoon I explore the supernatural world. Each time I’ve been to
Burma, some new and different aspect of spirituality emerges for
examination. Indeed it would be difficult to write a novel about Burma
without touching upon this belief system as it is and remains central to the
identity of the Burmese.
The clash between the
Thais and Burmese over the Thai spirit house is a collision between different
supernatural belief systems that lie at the core of national identity. The world
news offers up a constant, daily stream of the aftermath of such conflicts.
Often it leads to violence, the full program—pogroms, burnings, looting, maiming
According to Violet Cho’s
account, the problem arose over villager in Nabule who claimed a holy Buddha
footprint had a sacred claim on the mountain, and that erecting a Thai spirit
house was an affront to this object as well as to various ancient pagodas on the
mountain named Mayingyi Paya.
The Nabule villagers
claimed the Thai company had not consulted them before installing more than one
spirit house on the mountain. There are spirit houses in front of the
company office, and other spirit houses at various project sites. The article
makes it sound a bit like a spirit house invasion and occupation. The locals
noticed the appearance of these structures to ‘foreign’ spirits. And foreigners,
in spiritual form or otherwise, aren’t always that welcome especially if it
looks like they have moved into the neighborhood, plan to stay, and drive out
the local Nats.
It is unclear whether the
local villagers mounted protest, demonstrations, letters sent or other
means—perhaps spiritual—of expressing discontent, before locals destroyed one of
the spirit houses.
As Nabule is scheduled for
development in a project involving the Thai and Myanmar governments, it is
difficult to know whether the motives might be more than bruised feelings over
the local spirits being occupied and displaced by Thai spirits. In this part of
the world, when something murky happens, the question usually asked is who might
be the ‘third hand’—who is really behind the incitement and what does that
person(s) want. And usually it is money, says that little cynic that perches on
the shoulder of people who’ve lived in Southeast for too long.
Violet Cho quotes a senior
leader at Ba Wah Village justifying the spirit house destruction by the locals.
“We can accept it if the project does not destroy our environment but if it is
threatening our people, culture and religion then we will surely have to be
against it,” said U Hla Shain.
This being Southeast Asia,
it is no surprise that U Hla Win, the vice chairperson of NLD for Dawei district
would call for negotiations. U Hla Win pointed out the conflict was spiritual.
What he didn’t point out is that the rest of the world since recorded history
has been trying to figure out how people with different supernatural beliefs can
live in peace and harmony in line of site of other believers who erect their own
shrines and perform their own set of rituals that pay respect to alien
On both sides of the
border, both the Burmese and Thais suffer their fair share of cognitive
dissonance between animist and Buddhist beliefs. The incongruity is never quite
resulted as both sides claim they are Buddhist and animist. The Burmese won’t
negotiate away their rituals involving the Nats anymore than the Thais will
cease to erect spirit houses containing a wide range of deities from various
spiritual and religious origins, from local and ancestral ghosts to assortments
of Hindu gods.
As an example of the
straddling of spiritual balance beam, this analysis pretty much sums up why
negotiations between locals who support their local team of Nats and the
visiting team with their imported team of spirits—or even more alarming, the
spirit house are awakening the local spirits who have been oppressed by the
“We do believe and worship the
village’s nat but now seeing Thai spirit houses in the area, it is like a guest
is taking forced residence in our house. We do not want spirit houses in a
religious Buddhist area like this. There is a possibility for cultural mixing
and I am concerned about our culture being threatened by another culture,” said
U Aung Ba, member of the Nabule Spiritual Group.
We will keep an eye on the
2,000 households and 10,000 Buddhists of Nabule as they learn that the opening
up of globalization has a cost. Consumers are given new choices. Foreign
businesses bring in their own culture and belief systems. What locals are never
told until it is too late is the idea of choice means locals are given an
expanded menu of spirits to worship, and the new businesses bringing in their
expertise, technology are not leaving their local gods at home.
Local gods need
accommodations. Spirit houses, like drones, are a metaphor for what it means to
have invisible forces watching you; the locals lose their historical isolation
and the remoteness of the mountain life vanishes. Village life begins to change
as new ways, ideas, and beliefs appear with people from neighboring
This is only the beginning
for the villagers of Nabule. Starbucks, McDonalds, and 7-Eleven are not far
behind the spirit house invasion. The Nats will have new immigrants from the
spirit world as neighbors. The locals will resist these intruders. Yet
what can they do? Globalization, like the Borg, has one motto that fits all:
Resistance is futile. Development means the bargain you make is to yield up your
old belief system. The deal with the devil of development is the new spiritual
dimension brings prosperity and happiness. The true enemy of the local
supernatural belief in Nats isn’t the Thai spirit houses, it is shift to
reinvention of identity.
Nabule has had its welcome
to the big game played out in thousands of villages. The Thai company with the
installation of spirit house has merely softened them up for the final assault
on their mountain. It is only a matter of time before the big artillery open up,
blasting them into the modern, secular age, which has no place for local gods.
Only then will the villagers of Nabule feel nostalgic for the time when all they
had to worry about was the conflict over their belief in Nats against the Thai
spirit houses. The dignity of local deities is in for a rough ride.
There’s a reason that the
military, police and professional criminals use a 24 hour clock to co-ordinate
ambush, surveillance, or other operations with a team of people who must act in
unison if they want to be successful and accomplish their goal.
The 24 hour clock is
perfect for making certain everyone shows up at the same time to knock over a
gold shop or surprise a group of insurgents planning an attack.
Catching an international
flight is another example of exact timing co-ordination. You need to know when
the flight departs so you can be at the airport in time to board the
The least ambiguous
measure of time is the military 24 hour clock. 24.00 (twenty-four hundred) hours
is midnight, and 12.00 (twelve hundred hours) is noon. Unlike the decimal
system, time has a number of different ways of being expressed depending on
language and culture.
What made me examine the
issue of cultural timing was a call I received from a good Thai friend. I was in
the middle of dinner.
“Khun Chris, are you
“Never too busy for your
call Khun Chai.”
“My travel agent is making
“My flight to Berlin
leaves at 12.30 a.m. and he is trying to tell me that is a night flight. I keep
telling him a.m. means it is an afternoon flight. I mean, I’ve been on that
flight before. It leaves in the afternoon. How can he say it is night
“When the sun is high in
the sky and it is noon, is that a.m. or p.m.?
He paused as if I’d asked
a trick question.
“I told him a 12.30 a.m.
flight is a day time flight.”
“So noon is
“That flight leaves during
“And midnight? Is that
a.m. or p.m.?”
“But he’s wrong, isn’t he?
I knew you that you’d know.”
In the Thai language this
confusion doesn’t exist. Noon is tien. And Midnight is tien kuun. The kuun part
means ‘night’ eliminating any argument. But near a.m. or p.m. have any reference
to day or night. The problem is when we see only 12.00 a.m. or 12.00 p.m.—this
twilight moment which seems—well, confusing.
This confusion comes from
the Latin. A.M. is an abbreviation for before noon or midday, while P.M. is
It is the 12.30 a.m. and
12.30 p.m. designations that confuse people who show up at the airport twelve
hours early or twelve hours late for their flight. If you concentrate on
12.30 a.m. you can remember this is the beginning of the new day which in this
case is Monday 1st April.
So 12.30 a.m. on
1st April is what we’d think of as night even though a new day is
born. It is, in other words, not Sunday 31st March any longer. But it
feels like an extension of Sunday night of 31st March to our senses
(especially if we’ve been drinking). We are fooled by our senses which tells us
that it is still some time on Sunday before the sun rises on Monday which was
already born at 12.01 a.m. 1st April.
And 11.59 p.m. is the
ending of a day—in our case a Sunday ends.
One problem we have is
when we fix out mind on a certain formula we cling to the idea our understanding
of the formula is correct. When someone gets the time wrong, you can gently
explain by saying your watch is slow or fast. Over the phone people don’t time
check in the same way. They can read each other’s facial expression. If Khun
Chai could have read mine, he would have know that I had tried to explain that
magical moment 23.59 hours when the 31st of March becomes the
1st April at 00.01 and counting. When someone makes up his or her
mind in Thailand, it is hard to change it without a loss of face. When it comes
to knowing what time it is—Thailand has been in many ways having this debate,
and many are as confused about the current as Khun Chai is as to the departure
of his flight.
There is one big
difference, on the issue of a.m. and p.m., I suggested that Khun Chai ‘google’
the question and see if what he finds supports his belief that 12.30 a.m. is
thirty-minutes after noon or thirty minutes after midnight. Knowing the
time has a political dimension. In this case, it isn’t whether it is morning and
evening, but what century we are telling time in. If you need to check which
century you are living in you might discover that your Google search has
been blocked by the authorities, who have already decreed you are living at the
dawn of a new age.
What controls Extremistan
authors, what keeps them off the grid is an effective system of censorship
backed by punitive laws. Unless you’ve lived outside of North America or Western
Europe, you won’t have experienced the ‘eye’ of authorities (and their true
believers or paid for shills) monitoring all communications, including books for
possible breaches of national security or other equally vague, open-ended
phrases designed to preserve an image. The broader the better for purposes of
chilling the kind of expressions that question, criticize or challenge
authority, institutions, dogma or beliefs.
The mere presence of a
censorship regime induces self-censorship. Authors are never certain where the
authorities will draw the line. Monday it is one place, Tuesday it has moved
somewhere else and the week is only two days old. This makes sense as the
authorities in charge of enforcement rarely speak with one voice as to where the
boundaries of permissible and impermissible meet. To be on the careful side
means authors error by staying as far away from the border as possible. As a
result with speech stifled, the creativity writers in such regimes are given a
couple of choices—either write hagiography, historical epics of glory or
Alternatively, they can
circulate their poems, stories, novels and memoirs under a pen name with
photocopied handouts or, if they have access to a secure Internet line (that is
difficult in most cases), have access to a computer, have the technical skills
to use word processing programs, they can ‘publish’ their work on the Internet.
We have seen the Internet being used to upload video footage from protests,
repressive actions by military and police, and the aftermath of bombings and
It is time to recognize
that ‘crime fiction’ and the reality of life upon which fiction emerges are no
longer separate. The idea of ‘crime fiction’ as contained in a book needs
broadening as well. Uploaded images from Extremistan communicate graphic, brutal
noir stories as powerful and haunting as found in a crime novel by Hammett or
For centuries censorship
has largely been local. Each culture identifies the ‘sacred cows’ that can’t be
touched. There hasn’t been agreement on a universal sacred cow and it is
unlikely to be one any time soon. Going through the unmapped parts of
Extremistan the ‘sacred cows’ are often quite different beast. What is common is
that the guardians have used censorship to protect and defend the local herd
(there are often a number of sacred cows as it turns out). The chief herdsmen
use whatever force may be necessary to keep the herd in a stable state of
unquestioned worship, respect, and awe.
Authors in Extremistan—at
least the risk-taking ones—like to slip through the thought net cast by the
authorities and raise questions about the grazing rights of sacred cows. That
often ends in unpleasantness of the extreme kind.
Censorship is not going to
stay confined to remote areas of Extremistan. Authorities are developing
technology that will make censorship of the past as quaint, remote and
inefficient as the quill and ink. In even the most impressive regimes, it has
been possible for courageous men and women to challenge authority through books
circulated underground. The old regimes are basically inefficient clap-trap
machines that used flaw intelligence to repress free speech. That is about to
Here is what I see one
possible future for authors living inside Extremistan.
First, the authorities in
the West are developing the capability to monitor in detail large areas. Every
person, vehicle, dog, bird to within a 6” radius can be clearly observed within
a fifteen square mile corridor. Have a look at this chilling segment from the
Second, the authorities
are on the brim of creating powerful identification software that will allow
them to identify every person on the ground, given name, age,
nationality, associations, ID numbers, date of birth, known associates, medical
health record, list of ‘likes on Facebook, articles read, books bought, consumer
items purchased, school and university records. The ID system will run on
fine-tuned algorithms as the amount of big data would vastly exceed an army of
people filtering for signals. Authorities are end users of targeted
information—they know who is where and when they are were in a place, and who
are their friends and associates. Such information is incredibly
Third, the authorities are
developing a new generation of drones. The censors’ goal is to cull the dissent
within and without. A carrot is good. But a big stick is better. Why not adapt
the existing drone technology? One limitation is controversial—drones fire
rockets that blow up innocent children and women and old people leaves the
authorities a bad reputation. Authorities seek ways to burnish their reputation
and to reduce information that tarnishes it. That’s difficult to explain away
when killing insurgents but quite another to explain for an enemy who is using
only a pen. Technology continues to improve, and some projections as to what
might be in store may increase the censors’ arsenal.
The chances are high that
advanced drone technology systems will be created to eliminate the stigma of
collateral damage. This requires surgical isolation of damage to a single
target. With the new technology outlined above, finding that target will become
infinitely easier. Moving targets will be not present a challenge. And it will
be infinitely easier to persuade most would be dissenters that yielding to
silence is the only alternative.
Let’s call the new drone
Aerial Reconnaissance Sniper or ARS—which is also Hebrew slang for a
low-class male. It turns out that in Arabic ars also is a term
cuckold, a man whose wife is unfaithful to
• A man
who pimps his wife
wicked or contemptible person, a “bad guy”
bastard, an illegitimate child
If there is any agreement
in the Middle East, it is that ars is a term used for someone no one is
going to mourn once he’s dead. Before ARS we called them terrorists. Language
like technology evolves; in this case, in tandem.
The innovation of the new
generation of ARS arms the drone at 17,000 feet to deliver with absolute
precision a bullet to the, well, let’s be honest, what the authorities have
concluded are a low-class male, a bad guy, who has through his conduct
sacrificed his right to live. This “bullet” will be a tiny guided missile the
size of a 50Cal round with video camera. The bullet guidance system locks on and
tracks the target. You can run but you can’t hide. One less Ars the new reports
will say. The video footage will confirm the kill. Call this elimination program
an example of national security interest gone global.
The authorities in
Extremistan will trade resources for those controlling ARS technology to take
care of their local ‘bad guys’ who just so happen to be writing books that
ridicule or challenge the role of sacred cows or put them in an unfavourable
We are the last of the
free men and the last of the free women. Those who follow after us, if they read
our books will marvel at how much freedom we had. Or maybe they won’t. In all
those vast stretches of Extremistan where authors seek to put a message of hope
in a bottle casting it into the sea of the future, and trusting it will wash up
on some beach, will likely find the beach empty. People will no longer walk
along such beaches. They no longer find such bottles and the messages hidden
inside. The sacred cows roam will be left unmolested by writers. Words and
images will extol the virtue of the authorities.
The fields and pastures
belong to them and from 17,000 feet trespassers will find themselves in the
cross-hair of ARS. There will be nowhere to hide. Freedom will be transformed in
Arsdoom. And there will be no one left standing who is able to question the
herdsmen as to why, how, and when that new global state came into being. In the
future, our successors in the writing life will write and live in a version of
What is the limit of our
knowledge about the library of crime fiction novels written, published and read
each year inside Extremistan? There are no shortage of people claiming knowledge
about a library that may not be Borges’ infinite library, but a library with
shelves filled with books that are inaccessible to most readers.
The point is we are having
a debate where there is a vast body of work that is unavailable for analysis.
When what is essential to an argument is largely unknown or missing, it is a
caution that we must exercise humility in making grand statements about the
direction or trend of crime fiction. I can draw inference from what I know about
Southeast Asia but event those are flawed, as I can’t read the work in the
Whenever the debate of
crime fiction occurs, the question of who are the best crime fiction authors
arises. And usual names appear. Here’s Gunter Blank’s list:
James Ellroy: LA
Confidential, Dashiel Hammett: Glass Key, Jim Thompson: Pop
1280, Raymond Chandler: The Lady in the Lake and Farewell, My
Lovely, George V Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Richard
Stark: The Hunter (Point Blank), Charles Willeford: Miami
Blues, Elmore, Leonard: Freaky Deaky, Marcel Montecino: The
Crosskiller, Edward Bunker: No Beast so Fierce, Chester Himes:
Blind Man With a Pistol, Ted Lewis: GBH”
As list go, I’d agree with
many of these selections. I know this neighborhood and have lived in it, been a
part of it as a writer and reader. But I’m also aware that by the very act of
preparing such a list I am placing my own cultural and availability bias on
display. Would someone from Latin America, Africa or Southeast Asia believe this
list is relevant to his or her experience? Such lists appear to be delivered
from a Western cloister, insular, confined, and narrowly clustered. There is a
much larger world excluded and that should be the one we ought to be seeking to
understand. They are the missing names from the headliner list.
Who has gone missing? The
answer is a lot of crime, detective, and mystery authors are hidden under the
veil of inaccessible languages.
Here’s a list of African crime fiction
writers who are likely not familiar to even the most well-read English, German
or Swedish language crime fiction reader. In Latin
translations from Spanish are hit and miss. For every Roberto Bolaño there are
many Ramon Diaz Eterovic and Santiago Gamboa whose novels haven’t been
translated into English.
The Japanese had the first
crime books (though they were non-fiction accounts of court proceedings) before
authors in England and the USA came along. Saikaku Ihara’s 1689 title Trials
Under the Shade of a Cherry Tree pre-dates Edgar Allan Poe 1841 Murders
in the Rue Morgue and Wilkie Collins’s 1868 Moonstone. The
Writers Club of Japan has 600 members, and I’d bet
a first edition of the bible that only a fraction of them have been translated
into English. Every year in Bangkok the Southeast Asia Writers
since 1979 has announced the winning author from each country of the ten
countries in Southeast Asia. Scroll down the long list of authors and ask
yourself how many of the names you recognize.
Richard Nash’s What Is the
Business of Literature is worth reading. A point that
emerges from Nash’s article is that we fall into the trap of equating the value
of literature with the commercial success of a book. If the crime fiction novel
is a best seller, and you are a reader of crime fiction, the chances are you are
aware of the book. You’ve heard about it from friends in the analogue or digital
communities where you spend time.
The publishing industry in
North America and Europe has had a freedom to publish quite unlike most other
places. Hundreds of thousands of English language books enter the marketplace
Books are part of the
entertainment-corporate-profit centered industry in these places. They cater to
the taste of consumers who have many other entertainment choices. There is
little risk of imprisonment, exile, or torture from the authorities from authors
who challenge beliefs inside the Western publishing industry. The risk is the
book will be failure and the author’s next book won’t be published. In
neighborhoods in the unmapped neighborhoods, a different fate other than
commercial failure needs to be understood. Authors who are successful in
revealing a truth about a country’s institutions or challenges an established
dogma risks a prison term. It doesn’t stop at prison. Authors in the unmapped
neighborhoods face extrajudicial remedies as kidnapping, disappearance, torture
or death. In English speaking neighborhoods, a nasty review may be felt like a
bullet to the chest. But in non-English unmapped neighborhoods writers know that
the critics use real bullets.
One of the major
differences between the Western publishing industry and other places is the
sheer number of books pumped into the system. Nash quotes Clay Shirky who writes
that “abundance breaks more thanks than scarcity.”
My first novel His
Lordship’s Arsenal was published in New York in September 1985. That year
the number of USA titles published by traditional print publishers numbered
80,000. By 2010 the number of published titles had mushroomed to 328,259 titles
in one year. In this world of abundance, the moderately gifted author
writes a book with little prospect of financial reward. Writing inside such a
publishing system, where commercial success means value, these writers are
discarded not so much as worthless but as offering an economic justification to
read them and take them seriously.
Authors are writing and
trying to survive inside a business empire where profit not only matters; it is
basically all that matters. Competition in the publishing industry, like other
areas of the entertainment industry, is often presented as another business
story with the emphasis on the size of an advance, the best seller ranking, the
volume of sales, and movie deals. Reviews have withered in most places in the
print media. Discussions revolve around money, which has become the primary
benchmark, the ruler that measures success. Thumbs up or thumbs down is an
accounting decision. No one is put against a wall and shot.
Books written for money in
a society where money is the measurement of value has created an impoverished
class of authors who like idealistic slaves believe that a lotto-like win will
allow them to escape their fate and joint the ranks for Dan Brown and J.K.
Rowling. Much of our English language crime fiction library is money
Outside of the world of
money, there is another Extremistan. It isn’t created from account ledgers. In
this Extremistan, the crime fiction author chronicles the systemic changes in
class, politics, and social relationship through the lens of criminal law
enforcement. To stay alive and out of prison is a measure of success. To have a
voice and influence in the debate of how to modernize and allow a society to
change without falling apart is a measure of success. The fiction writer as part
of the political process, using the vehicle of crime fiction to deliver a
challenge to authority invites a level of danger and uncertainty. It is, in
other words, not about the money.
Thomas Wörtche is one of
the very rare editors (and I can’t think of another one) who had the vision of
searching for and publishing such writers. His imprint called Metro,
Unionsverlag was the publishing house, was known throughout Europe. I admired
his determination to dig deep and find authors either ignored or little known by
the mainstream publishing industry in the West. Metro published writers as:
Jean-Claude Izzo, Nury Vittachi, Garry Disher, Leonardo Padura, Celil Oker,
Pablo De Santis, Bill Moody, Jorge Franco, Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz, José Luis
Correa. (Disclosure: I was also an author on Thomas Wörtche list.) Metro was a
window into Extremistan.
Unionsverlag, there has been no editor like Thomas with the experience and
knowledge of crime fiction to explore Extremistan for the new generation of
writers who remain largely lost to international readers. That is regrettable.
The crime space inside Extremistan has receded from international readers and
has become as inaccessible as the dark side of the moon. We know that it is
there every night but what it looks like and what goes on out of sight is left
to our imagination. The purest form of noir is absolute
Writers like Ali
live in regions such as Iraq where the blast from the violence like jackhammers
pound their days and nights, are cut off from the rest of us. Yanick
who writes of Haiti. These are two of many voices who require a cultural
detective to find. For each one Ali Bader and Yanick Lahens, how many are lost
to us? We are less rich in the depth of our understanding without their
clarifying commentary from their crime space frontlines.
The controversy started
with an exchange at the South African blog Crime
with crime fiction reviewer Gunter Blank who views crime fiction in the USA,
Sweden, Germany as having gone into a recycling phase where nothing but
repetitive motifs and themes are appearing. What is emerging, in his view, are
political thrillers or chronicles from “[T]urbulent or haunted societies,
societies that are trying to find out who they are – there are still hundreds
and thousands of lives and experiences to tell.”
The debate was picked up
by my friend and blogger Peter Rozovsky at his not to be missed website:
Beyond Borders. Peter’s readers have added their
views in comments.
Nash sums up the
fate of contemporary authors in America and Europe and other places,
“Books, like most
entertainment media, live in what Nassim Nicolas
Extremistan, a place with vast amounts of commercial failure and spectacularly
high and extremely infrequent success.”
As I have a horse (or a
dog if you like) in this race, I’d like to give my perspective on the
metamorphosis of crime fiction inside Extremistan, examining the borders and how
the territory has been traveled, mapped, and reported. While Nassim Nicolas
Taleb coined the phrase Extremistan to talk about the huge disparity of failure
compared to success in the book industry, I am expanding the concept to use
Extremistan to talk about the huge disparity between the awareness of crime
fiction in English and all other languages.
Taleb uses the ratio of
.05% (authors who receive 99.95% of the money and are commercially successful)
to 99.95% (who divide the few crumbs of the .05% revenues leftover). Something
like this ration, I believe, also applies as a rule of thumb across the range of
languages with English language crime fiction authors receiving 99.95% of the
critical review attention, money, status and opportunity, and non-English crime
fiction authors living hand to mouth.
Extremistan is a monetary
idea and it is also a geographical, cultural and political one. My Extremistan
is a kind of map of worldwide crime fiction. On that map we know with confidence
where English language crime fiction exist. But 99.95% of the map is uncharted
areas. Crime fiction is written in these unknown parts but as they aren’t
mapped, they are outside of awareness. As a result, we largely ignore their
A good definition for
these purposes of metamorphosis comes from wikipedia, which defines it as “a biological
process by which an animal physically develops after birth or hatching, involving a
conspicuous and relatively abrupt change in the animal’s body structure through cell growth and differentiation.”
Over the last two decades
there has been a growth in what is described as crime fiction in many different
countries and cultures. The idea of crime fiction is a cultural lens borrowed
from English and American authors including Hammett and Chandler. Under the
surface, the cultural aspects have brought a change in texture and form. While
the external appearance may (unlike true metamorphosis) remain to the untrained
eye the same, underneath the impulses, imperatives, and purposes are filtered
through a different set of beliefs, histories, languages, traditions, rituals
and customs—and these elements matter when it comes to the kind of story that
can be published.
This cultural lens has
been fitted to new glasses in other cultures in the remote parts of Extremistan.
Many of these places are off the usual map of crime fiction neighborhoods. Crime
fiction is illegible in these places. Our speculation about what goes on inside
the hidden world doesn’t make them more legible.
And that leads me to ask
what goes inside these missing areas on the crime fiction map, and can we act
like good detectives to find out what goes on inside beyond our normal
What is left unexamined in
the debate started by Gunter Blank are the forces causing the turbulence or the
haunting in societies outside of Sweden, Germany and the USA. In countries like
Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma—the turbulence of globalization and the
Internet has kicked up a firestorm in fairly rigid, traditional, and highly
controlled societies. This has happened not just in Southeast Asia but also in
Latin America and the Arab world. Crime fiction has become a window into the
chaos that disruptive change has brought, threatening institutions, vested
interest, and authority structures.
A murder investigation, on
the surface, is similar in many places around the world. But a murder
investigation in a turbulent society, which is in the metamorphosis stage,
brings in to focus the tensions, competing interest, and repressive forces that
give a political dimension to the case. To understand the behavior, reactions,
and emotions requires a cultural map. The best crime fiction operates like a GPS
system guiding you through the winding byways, local alleys, and little known
hills. Think of them as “belief, taboo, faith” landmarks. What governments and
people believe to be true and how they process their reality is central to
reading crime fiction from these neighborhoods.
You might say that the
USA, Germany and Sweden are also societies in transition as they respond to
similar pressures from the new world of telecommunications and global trade.
That is to miss the paradigm change caused by the Age of Reason and
Enlightenment in having over a period of 500 years eroding traditional authority
and belief structures from the church to the aristocracy. Our neighborhood was
torn down in many places and rebuilt. In the new Western places on the map, we
live in a version of the future. As William Gibson famously said, “The future is
already here but it is unevenly distributed.”
In many parts of the world
outside of Europe and North America, the Age of Reason and Enlightenment have
existed outside the great wall of authority patrolled by a combination of
censorship, repression, custom and tradition. This system worked for many
centuries, preserving the neighborhood and the attitudes about what is a crime
and who is a criminal. But most of these old, traditional neighborhoods are also
doomed. Like the Berlin Wall, these traditional regimes all looked so solid and
impenetrable until the moment it is pulled down.
Crime fiction written in
these parts of the world track investigations into crime as the walls are
collapsing around the authorities, exposing them, implicating them, leaving them
in the spotlight mostly reserved for criminals. This is what international crime
fiction brings to the reader—society in the midst of transition, access to a
part of the fictional map that isn’t widely known or understood.
It is this irony, this
strange juxtaposition—the blurring of criminality—that makes crime fiction from
the emerging world compelling to the readers in those places. We are watching
the future pass into societies as if the walls no longer exist, and we have a
frontline seat to the forces pushing back, trying to build new walls, put the
screws in, enacting repressive laws to create fear in order to silence those who
see that the walls are falling.
Most of storytellers
inside these old regimes that exist off the English reader’s grid aren’t given
attention. It is as if these unmapped areas don’t exist except as a ‘bad news’
story about an earthquake, flood, revolution, assassination, starvation, refugee
camps, and genocidal authorities. The storytellers in these places are unlikely
to be on your top 13 authors’ list. But that doesn’t mean their voices are
unread or unheard inside their cultures. It more likely there absence is
evidence of our availability bias. We make our decision on the evidence that is
available to us. We don’t ask what is missing.
As Daniel Kahneman has
noted in Thinking,
Fast and Slow we are prone toward believing what we see is all that
While the USA, Germany,
and Sweden and similar cultures may be suffering from redundancy; crime fiction
authors in other cultures suffer from obscurity and isolation. These novelists
write in languages that aren’t easily accessible for readers of English. Thai
writers are a good example. Thailand has its share of talented authors who write
in Thai but who haven’t been translated into English. You will never read them
unless you learn Thai. The same applies to other cultures where the language
issue traps the authors inside their own locked room without an exit door. In
reality very few novels are translated into other languages. As a result they
are marooned on the desert island of obscure languages forever lost to those
Using what we know about
the universe is a convenient analogy for our map of crime fiction. The universe
is comprised of a bit less than 5% atomic matter, and the rest is dark matter or
dark energy. When you read about crime fiction publishing in English I suggests
that you are inside a reading space that vastly less than 5% of the total space.
It may be Taleb is right. This is the realm of a .05% world of crime fiction
that is mapped. The rest is dark matter and energy in the crime fiction
We need to be cautious
about making broad statements about the best crime fiction novelists, the trends
in crime fiction, or the role crime fiction plays in literature, culture and
political life. The reality is we only have a vague idea of this unmapped
landscape, the writers who live there, and the role crime fiction plays in
chronicling the dynamics of fundamental change to political and social
Next week in Part 2, I
discuss the evidence from my detective work to find out more about who are the
crime fiction writers in African, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. The idea is
to start crime fiction readers on an exploration of crime fiction in the
unmapped neighborhoods where the word ‘noir’ isn’t quite dark enough to describe
the lives of authors and readers.