Dying under mysterious circumstances in Thailand if you are a famous American actor is bound to attract international coverage. I first saw the first coverage on Thursday night on the BBC news around 10.00 p.m. News of Carradine’s death has been picked up in virtually every major newspaper around the world. David Carradine’s death in a Bangkok hotel on 4th June 2009 will shine a spotlight on Thailand, the tourism industry and police investigations and methods used when a foreigner is found dead.
The first order of business in an unnatural death investigation is to find out what happened, when it happened, who was at the scene, and what material evidence at the scene may support the cause of death. But this is no ordinary death and that fact will no doubt have significant implications in what happens next. This is true for any police force. High profile deaths are one of the few circumstances where the general public takes interest in the professionalism of police investigators.
The established facts are few. Mr. Carradine was found dead in his room at the Nai Lert Park Hotel. He’d been in Bangkok since 2nd June working on a film. His body has apparently been removed to Chulalongkorn hospital and there will be an autopsy.
Some local press have called Carradine’s death a suicide.
Others have been more cautious and have left open the possibility of murder or misadventure in sexual game playing. Reports have been contradictory, some saying the actor had hanged himself with a rope, others saying it was a curtain cord, and others saying it was a shoe lace with one end tied around his neck and the other around is penis suggesting a sexual ritual gone wrong.
In a high profile case such as this, senior officials wake up to the fact that the world is watching them. Such attention can make people sweat. Giving out premature statements before the facts have been established often happens but not when the international media is watching. Then it becomes embarrassing.
The last 24-hours has only increased speculation and rumors about the circumstances of Carradine’s death. In other words there is confusion over what and how it happened but no end of people who sure they know the answers nonetheless. Unless properly handled, it has the makings of public relations disaster. The buck passing will kick into high gear. The Press quotes the police who’ve had no time to launch an investigation and analysis the evidence, the US embassy passes the buck to the police, and the police can refer matters to the medical authorities.
We live in an age where everyone wants instant answers. Like a CSI program, the answers should follow within one hour. Right? Only in real life, the circumstances of unnatural deaths such as Carradine’s are often murky, the evidence conflicting or inconclusive, and the outside pressures to come to a conclusion intense.
If Colonel Pratt and Calvino were on the case, they’d be checking the hotel CTV camera footage in the lobby and entrance (and on the floor of the room – assuming such a camera system was installed) for the time period prior to Carradine’s death, interviewing the doormen, receptionists, bellboys, other guests in adjacent rooms, the last person(s) who saw him, members of the film crew. That is a lot of work.
Also Colonel Pratt would likely order a full toxicity test on the body to test for alcohol and drugs. He’d have sealed off the room and photographed (among other things) and preserved the footprint that apparently was found on the actor’s bed. He’d be looking for fibers on the rope, cord, and shoestring, whatever it was found around the actor’s neck. A room sealed off as a crime scene, allows the possibility for the forensic team to find fingerprints, hair, skin, marks on the body, fingernails, and DNA traces that might yield evidence as to whom else (if anyone) was in the room at the time of the death.
Blog from: http://www.cgmoore.com
“The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that certain pairs of physical properties, like position and momentum, cannot both be known to arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known. It is impossible to measure simultaneously both position and velocity of a microscopic particle with any degree of accuracy or certainty.”
On the quantum level Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty explains the weirdness of the state of a particle. The act of observation will fix the state. What does this have to do with writing or reading fiction? China Miéville makes a case drawing upon Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty. And in my view, there are some problems with making such analogy.
In terms of fiction, the reader’s brain may indeed process information at the quantum level. But assuming that is the case, the reader’s feeling of satisfaction or disappointment in the book does not rest on an application of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It is more useful to think of readers and writers as linked by the common desire to attribute patterns to a series of events, circumstances or happenings. As much of life is a random drift of unconnected events and happenings, our minds are constantly trying to make sense of these perceptions by reading patterns into it. Often the patterns are read onto random events, so that our minds can substitute meaning for randomness. That isn’t just a little game that we all play; it is the major league game that we as a species are forced into playing. Pattern recognition was an essential survival technique. It defines how we exist in the world.
We seem unable to not make patterns from randomness. It is how our brains function on a neural level. China Miéville singles out crime fiction as a narrative that inevitably is incomplete and disappointing once the end comes into site. The letdown isn’t confined to crime fiction but fiction in all categories where ultimately the author must show his or her hand by pulling those patterns of conduct and circumstances together and attributing agency to the underlying patterns.
Fiction provides two thinking tools we bring to our daily making sense of randomness project. Novels are a pattern creating and recognition enterprise. The skill and craft demands words and images that allow the reader to construct and walk through a trail of vivid, original patterns. Like any mountain climb, some trails are easier to climb than others, some more beautiful, inspiring, and challenging. In crime fiction, the patterns are found in the behavior of the characters whose lives meet at a juncture where criminal activity has occurred or is about to occur. The reader opening a book is looking for a particular kind of mountain climb. If what is promised is different from what is delivered, and then disappointment is bound to follow. Do you wish to climb Everest or Pike’s Peak?
The second thing that fiction must do is to attribute agency to the patterns of behavior that is plausible but not necessarily obvious. Let’s take a conventional or traditional mystery. The pattern of conduct surrounding the murder suggests that the killer is the husband because of a previously stormy argument, which a neighbor overheard the night of the murder. We attribute the anger of the husband as the reason for the murder. The narrative can build a good case showing a recurring pattern of conduct that leads the reader to believe the husband is guilty. This is where probability theory comes into play. It seems probable from what we’ve read to draw the conclusion that the husband committed the murder. The author also shows the neighbor as a good husband and father and employer and we rely on his impressions to reinforce our view that the pattern of the husband’s behavior points to him being the murdered. Stable, normal, good neighbors aren’t normally thought of as killers. Then the reader comes to the ending, which exonerates the husband and shows that it was the neighbor who killed the wife, he’d had an affair with her and she was blackmailing him and he used the domestic fight as cover for the murder.
There is no quantum state involved in this tale. What is involved is the pattern making of the author, which leads readers to recognize the pattern and attribute internationality or agency behind the pattern. We often make mistakes in this mental process. It’s called the false positive, false negative problem. We believe the husband is the killer based on the patterns we’ve seen in the story. But all the circumstances pointing to the husband’s guilt turn out to be a false positive. He didn’t do it. We don’t suspect the neighbor because we misread the patterns that point in that direction. That gives us a false negative. It is the false negative that leaves us with a slightly bitter, foolish feeling. We pride ourselves in our ability to read patterns without drawing irrational or wrong conclusions. Our brain tricks us into jumping the internationality gun. It is likely in our genes. Superstition, astrology, religion, the paranormal provide a failsafe platform if no apparent internationality can be attributed. In other words, our mind is structured to look for causality in all patterns and we don’t rest until the agent is identified.
It was better to hear the rustle in the elephant grass in an open field and run for our lives thinking it is a lion. But it was only a breeze rushing through the grass. That is a false positive. We feel slightly stupid in that case. But the person who hears the rustle and assumes that pattern of noise fits the wind blowing may be in for a rude shock when a hungry lion appears. That is the false negative. We roam the planet today because our ancestors were more prone to make the false positive rather than the false negative decision.
China Miéville says, “Crime novels never end well.” That may be true. But the larger point in fiction is that all endings come down to some hard choices about causation and internationality. Either it is the wind or a lion causing the deep grass to rustle. But no matter which one it is, some readers are going to be highly disappointed. In our minds, we want our attribution to the cause to be vindicated. But it is the author who makes the final call, and if she or he chooses an agency different from our expectations, we say the book didn’t end well. And it may be that no novel ever ends well for all readers because there is often no consensus on agency. We don’t want to finish a book and learn that the events had no meaning, but were a random dance in the universe. Your god may not work as a credible explanation for the agency behind events (e.g., the creation of the universe or our species). Your characters may fail for the same reason.
Tip of the hat to Sarah Weinman for blogging about China Miéville’s essay: http://www.sarahweinman.com/
Writers and boxers stand their ground and try their level best to win by a knock out. But it has always been easier to identify who wins a boxing match. With fiction, things aren’t so easy. Writers expose our inner most secrets. Readers stagger against the emotional ropes when realize what they believe as reality is little more than a tissue of selfishness, deception, hypocrisy, or irrationality.
Think of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four. The full power of the state is often complicit in the delusion manufacturing and distribution machinery that converts injustice and unfairness into its opposite. Thus books are banned, writers jailed, exiled or murdered. Schools become indoctrination centers. Teachers become the agents of official truth. A serious writer, like a boxer, must be able to take a punch, too. Most of the writers I know can.
But maybe many people don’t want to read that kind of book. Or that kind of writer doesn’t entertain and only disturbs them, making you question what they believe to be the proper ordering of your life and community. Upsetting a person’s myths about a nationality, religion, drugs, war, or the environment is lighting a short fuse.
There are loads of pleasant diversions. The Internet has opened a new place to hang out, dragging us into a fog, and permanently distracting our attention so that we are no longer able to focus on the kind of issues that have concerned writers for the last 500 years. Maybe that time is coming not to an end. Have we entered a phase transition to another state of consciousness? Or have our concerns about the human condition been lost somewhere as we endlessly try to absorb bits and pieces from mountains of data, information, opinions, and rants. We may have become so distracted that we’ve reached a point where (1) we no longer pay attention to what is going on around us or (2) we are aware of what is happening but we’ve lost our capacity to care, feel empathy or (3) we retreat into a world of satire and irony.
There is another possibility. We know that we have been conned by a system that is now broken and rather than face that prospect we flee into the maze of images and words that scream hundreds of messages at one time through our computer screen. We feel powerless to do anything about it. In that case why invest the time in a book that promises us what we have come to believe is impossible. We keep guessing which of the three shells has the coin underneath even though we know the game is rigged.
Without the hope of social and political change the fall back position is to seek diversion from the contradictions, the messiness of life. One way to read around the larger issues is to indulge in the equivalent of playing literary solitaire.
In other words, lose oneself in ‘Diversionary’ fiction. This kind of book isn’t even sparing (forget about boxing). The purpose of this kind of fiction is to reassure the reader that his or her cherished delusions can be reconciled. Looking at the kind of fiction makes the bestseller list, there is little question what the marketplace verdict is when it comes to buying books. Only a small number of readers want to get into the ring with someone like Orwell. He will leave you bloodied.
Orwell’s characters struggle against much larger problems—where everyone gets dirty, no one walks away without injury, and the safe ground is always giving way. That’s the secret world uncovered in the best kind of fiction. It’s not a division between fantasy and realism (Pullman creates a fantasy world) but the author’s intention to tell secrets in that world undermine our ability to keep believing in the delusions in our own world. Diversionary Fiction dishes up comic strip characters who occupy secret worlds in a fantasy universe disconnected from our own reality..
“A writer should be judged by how honest and brutal he will be: by the quality of the secrets he tells, as well as by the panache with which he tells them. It’s what Czeslaw Milosz meant when he said, ‘When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.’”
In Britain, though, the courts through libel and defamation laws do their level best to take the hard punch out of books. Here’s a good explanation on how the British law on libel by shifting the burden of proof places any writer in the ring with the desire to back pedal, think hard before throwing a punch, and hope that somehow winning on points will be as highly regarded as a knockout.
“Critics of British defamation law say it chills free speech in several ways. Defendants have to prove that their published allegations were true, unlike in the United States, where plaintiffs must demonstrate that an author or publisher disseminated false information — and in cases brought by prominent figures, that this was done with serious doubts as to the truth of the reporting.”
The Americans are seeking to put an end to this nonsense by passing legislation barring the enforcement of such judgments against American publishers and writers.
Everything we read informs us that the public’s attention span has dropped like an anchor in shallow waters and the window for judging success has been squeezed down to microdot size.
Movies are judged by their opening week returns.
In the New York Times, Jeff Huber Google’s senior vice president of engineering (adopting the Nurse Rached philosophy) sets out how he wields the executioner’s sword brining it quickly brought down on projects that don’t quickly show financial results.
Perhaps this will be a direction for authors in the Brave New publishing world.
It wasn’t that long ago that writers like Ian Rankin had time to build an audience. Not that the axe didn’t hover over his neck, but his novel Blue gave him a reprieve.
Ian Rankin has been interviewed on the subject in Scruffy Dog: http://www.thescruffydogreview.com/Rankin.html
“There were a lot of years back then when I just wasn’t selling. The first six or seven books sold very poorly and then suddenly Black and Blue came along at a time when my publishers were getting ready to drop me. They felt they had done everything they could to try and break me into a bigger market, so they were getting ready to let another publisher take a shot. Everything just clicked. I’ve got diary entries from around Mortal Causes time saying how disastrous it all was; the books aren’t selling, they’re not getting well reviewed, and that was eight years of my writing career. I was panicking.”
Has Jeff Huber switched on the warning light in the tunnel where authors are working the coalface?
On Sunday 22nd February I will have breakfast with Timothy Hallinan and Steve Martini in Bangkok. Tim writes an exciting series staring a journalists/private investigator set in Bangkok. Tim’s latest novel The Fourth Watcher has received many rave reviews, and he has a third novel coming out this year.
Steve Martini’s latest novel is Shadow of Power.This is Steve’s ninth Paul Madriani legal thriller. A number of his novels have been on the New York Times bestseller’s list.
Living in Bangkok has many advantages and compensations but it is difficult to make the case that it is a “hub” of crime fiction or any genre of fiction. Writers living here normally need to travel to New York or London to meet other authors who are published by major publishers. Sunday should be a treat. Occasionally, despite all evidence that physics is against such an event, the mountain does manage to go to Muhammad.
Censorship on the Internet is growing. That is official, state sponsored censorship. Here is an article in The Chronicle Review by Professor Harry Lewis, Harvard University, that examines the players, what is at stake and the implications for the free flow of information.
“Bits are already filtered and monitored as they cross national borders. In China, if you want to visit http://www.freetibet.org (the Web site of a Tibetan independence group) or falundafa.org (the site of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong), you will temporarily lose your Internet connection. The OpenNet Initiative, a partnership of Internet research centers at Harvard University and the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Toronto, documents technology-enabled, fine-tuned censorship all over the world: no sex in Saudi Arabia, no Holocaust denials in Australia, no shocking images of war dead in Germany, no insults to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey. Some of those bans mimic pre-Internet censorship laws, but authorities install harsh new ones in response to internationally significant events, such as the monks’ protests in Myanmar in 2007.
“American publishers can be affected by the censorship practices of foreign governments. Australia’s highest court found the Web version of Barron’s, the financial newspaper, guilty of libel in a case brought by an Australian businessman, Joseph Gutnick, even though the article would not have been considered defamatory under U.S. laws in New Jersey, where the Web servers were located. Web publishers, cowed by threats of legal action, may adapt to the restrictions of their major markets abroad. Happily, Congress has responded by prohibiting American courts from enforcing libel judgments in nations lacking U.S. free-speech standards. But that won’t prevent journalists from being detained or publishers’ property from being seized abroad to settle such claims.”
This year has brought many things, good and bad. I had books published in New York and London, and a film option deal for a crime fiction series, and foreign rights deals. In November I was in New York City to attend the National Book Foundation Awards where my friend Barney Rossett received a lifetime achievement award. It was a time to reflect, look back at the publishing world that Barney and others like him created in the 1950s and think about what is left of that world in 2008. The transformation has been beyond what anyone would have imagined.
I also had a chance to meet my publisher, editor, head of publicity and foreign rights at Grove/Atlantic while in New York. As one of the last independent publishers in New York, Grove/Atlantic continues Barney Rossett’s tradition of giving voice to the outsider, of publishing books that are literary, books that are about the larger world. Next Autumn Grove/Atlantic will bring out Paying Back Jack.
As 2008 ends I am writing an article titled Literary Bangkok for Writers & Poets Magazine. I spent a few days at the Oriental Hotel researching the article. Looking into the archives of writers from the past who came to Bangkok: Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, George Orwell and others. Like the trip to New York, the time at the Oriental Hotel has stimulated my thinking about what we owe to the great authors and publishers of the past, and as we walk into the future, what part of their legacy do we take along with us and what parts are shed like the skin of snake.
2008 has also brought to Thailand and many other parts of the world equal measures of violence, uncertainty, and chaos. Political events in Thailand overshadowed the news for months. Demonstrations, occupations of the government house and closure of the airports, with new governments coming and going in rapid successions. The tourism business crashed. People were staying closer to home. Foreigners are less certain about the future, have less money, and with travel warnings, they put off that discretionary purchase—whether it is an air ticket to Thailand, a hardback book, or dinner at a posh restaurant. Stock markets crashed everywhere, entire industries dissolving before our eyes, a crisis in publishing. Newspapers dropping print editions, home delivery, going into bankruptcy.
Perhaps the world has always looked like it was unraveling. Economic collapse, the climate fundamentally changing, the balance of power in the world up for grabs, and the feeling that something we can’t quite imagine looms over the horizon. In better days, we assumed something good would be found over the horizon. Now people aren’t so sure. And that in a nutshell is our existential angst. We want to believe things will get better, but have largely given in to the feeling we are about to slip into a void and no one around us has the capability, the resources, or the intelligence to break the fall.
A tugboat of gloom is pulling the world through the dark waters of noir. There aren’t enough lifejackets for everyone. People are getting thrown over the side.
The challenge for us who write books is to chart that journey. If the world has become one vast criminal investigation scene, we will be spending much of 2009 sorting out the victims from the criminals, evaluating the evidence, considering the motives, reflecting on the special pleas of ignorance, negligence, or special circumstances. Some will go to jail, some will go mad, others to the streets, and others to gather weapons for revenge. The drama of who we are and what we want and how we mediate between our identity and what we possess will absorb our attention. Crime fiction will grow in this environment as authors are stretched to find context and voice to describe and explain a world where clues to the big crimes are traced to the delusions of those elected to protect.
As we soon depart from the world of 2008 and enter the new world of 2009, the question for writers around the world is: how much truth will the people and authorities tolerate? Are modern times less tolerant than before, or have we always lived side by side with the forces of intolerance circling thinkers and writers, banishing writs and decrees, threatening punishments, exile and disappearance from words that speak of things that are decreed to be unspeakable.
Its occupant has one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech. The living man is not really without this privilege — strictly speaking — but as he possesses it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences. Murder is forbidden both in form and in fact; free speech is granted in form but forbidden in fact. By the common estimate both are crimes, and are held in deep odium by civilized peoples.
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Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take to the pen and pour them out on paper to keep them from setting me afire inside; then all that ink and labor are waste, because I can’t print the result…. It does my weather-beaten soul good to read it, and admire the trouble it would make for my family.
Mark Twain would fully understand that free speech in many parts of the world during our times has not advanced beyond the speech restriction he lived with inside his own world. Indeed an argument might be advanced that Mark Twain’s pre-technological world, had more tolerance for dissenting views than our own. But an argument can be made that with the Internet the floodgates to carry expression of all sorts have opened and to contain the roaring rage of words swirling around the earth can no longer be successfully tamed. But for every technological tool that increases the reach of speech, there are new tools to restrict, control, monitor and censor. It is unclear how the tension between the freedom to discuss and dissent and the urge to restrict the scope of discussion and stifle dissent will play out. Like any cat and mouse scenario, we will likely find that the mice continue to take more than their share of causalities.
Many of you who follow this blog will have also followed the upheaval in Thai politics that started with the military coup in 19th September 2006. One side of the political equation has been referred to as including a segment of Thai businessmen (mostly Thai-Chinese ), joining the traditional old elites and a smattering of new “liberal” democrats. These groups are united in their nearly universal aversion to the former prime minister (and the individuals who succeeded him in rapid succession).
What has received less attention is the underlying dynamic of origin and nature of the economic and political interest and how they’ve remained fairly consistent in Thailand for many decades despite the fact that governments and constitutions have regularly changed. This partnership of convenience has an enduring quality.
The perception that Thaksin policies threatened to upset this partnership with its existing players, caused a sense of panic, followed by determination to do what was necessary to eliminate the threat.
To understand the working relationship between the business community (overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese) and the other big political players such as the bureaucrats, the “old-money” class and men in uniforms, you would do well to read Joe Studwell’s Asian Godfathers.
Studwell does an excellent job of revealing how the Godfathers succeeded in Southeast Asia, including the Thai godfathers contingent. In any Southeast Asia patronage system where concessions, licenses, cartels and other monopoly practices have had a long history, the Chinese were skillful in cultivating the right political connections and exploited them to create a herd of rich cash cows. Whether it was ports, banks, telecommunications, mining, rubber, or timber, having an exclusive right to a monopoly coupled with the guarantee to exclude competition was a surefire way to rake in a large amount of money. The other factor that Studwell identifies as significant to the rise of billionaire Asian Godfathers was access to easy and cheap credit. This allowed them to expand their business interests.
As the global financial recession continues accelerate, it will likely eliminate the easy and cheap credit that Asian godfathers have grown accustomed to tapping. How many of the Asian Godfathers have been over-leveraged? As this is a secretive group, probably no one really knows the answer to this question. The same is true of another question— whether the cash flow from the Asian godfathers’ traditional concessions and licenses will see them through this financial crisis.
Local economies in Southeast Asia are contracting as well. Less of everything is selling. Having a monopoly over resources or services will be a cushion but will it prevent injury when the fall this time is from such a great height? No one, again, can predict how much of a haircut the Asian Godfathers will be in for this time. The likelihood is, once the dust settles, and the accounts are reconciled, we will discover some heads that have been shaved clean.
- Creativity and the hive mind
- American Film and TV Star David Carradine found dead in Bangkok hotel
- The Quantum State in Contemporary Crime Fiction
- The Brutality of Truth
- The Long Haul in Publishing
- Sunday Writers Breakfast in Bangkok
- George Orwell’s 1984 reborn in the Digital World
- Wrapping up 2008 in Bangkok
- Mark Twain: Talking and Writing from the Heart
- Asian Godfathers
- 112 Reasons to read Crime Fiction
- Bangkok Noir – Fear and Loathing