Friday, October 30, 2015

On writing crime fiction in Southeast Asia

The last time I took a break from crime fiction to read Fernand Braudel, the first Detectives Beyond Borders interview resulted. (I interviewed the late, great French historian's English translator, who also translates Fred Vargas.) This time I'm reading Braudel's A History of Civilizations and, while the crime connection is less direct, one section called to mind a number of crime writers I've discussed here:
"Since the development of Greek thought, however, the tendency of Western civilization has been towards rationalism and hence away from religious life. ... With very few exceptions ... no such marked turning away from religion is to be found in the history of the world outside the West. Almost all civilizations are pervaded or submerged by religion, by the supernatural, and by magic: they have always been steeped in it, and they draw from it the most powerful motives in their particular psychology."
Each of the crime writers this reminded me of is of European descent. Each has lived among and writes with respect about a non-European culture, sometimes about spiritual matters not normally accessible to persons of the mental framework Braudel discussed.

The writers are Colin Cotterill and his series about Dr. Siri Paiboun of Vientiane, Laos; Christopher G. Moore and his "cultural detective," Vincent Calvino of Bangkok; and Adrian Hyland and his half-Aboriginal, half-white, half-amateur sleuth Emily Tempest.

A passage in Cotterill's The Curse of the Pogo Stick, I wrote:
"nicely captures the simultaneous irreverence and respect with which Cotterill portrays the worlds of the supernatural and of those who believe in it. Dr. Siri is both a scientist – the chief and only coroner in post-Communist-revolution Laos – and a shaman, an unwilling conduit to the spirit world. Does he believe in the spirits with which he comes into contact and which sometimes help him solve mysteries? He has no choice."
Moore says Vincent Calvino "sifts through the evidence in a way that makes sense of the location and people living in Southeast Asia." Hyland said of his first novel, Diamond Dove (Moonlight Downs in the U.S.), that "I suspect one could do more for Aboriginal people by portraying them as a living, loveable people, rather than as a broken museum display which is going to have us all running for the confessional."

And Hyland's second novel, Gunshot Road, opens with a beautiful version of an Aboriginal initiation rite.

In each case the author is an outsider, not pretending to be anything else, keeping an open mind and an open eye. Do that well, and you give the readers one of the special joys of reading international crime fiction. What crime writers do it for you? Who does a good job portraying a culture other than his or her own?

(I'll start you off with an honorable mention for Timothy Hallinan, whose protagonist, Bangkok-based Poke Rafferty, is constantly amazed that his Thai girlfriend loves Nescafe.)

P.S. Here's Hallinan on Rafferty from my interview with the author in 2008:
"(H)e suddenly found himself in a culture to which he actually wanted to belong.

"But the important thing, from a writing standpoint, was that he didn't belong, and because he didn't belong, he didn't have to understand everything; he could make mistakes about the people and the lives they live. And he spoke only elementary Thai. Those things were very liberating for me. I'd been nervous about writing about Thailand because I knew there was so much I didn't understand. Suddenly, I didn't have to be the guy who could write the Wikipedia entry on Thailand. My character was just another clown trying to find his way in. He was going to get things wrong from time to time."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, October 26, 2015

Cambodia, crime, and history

Andrew Nette (right) with your humble blogkeeper
at Philadelphia's Noircon convention in 2014
I've been so immersed in such a welter of Cambodian history and crime fiction that I can't remember just which book is the basis for each of the following observations.

First, the books on which the observations are based:
1) Phnom Penh Noir, edited by Christopher G. Moore
2) A History of Cambodia, by David Chandler
3)  Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, by Philip Short
4) Ghost Money, by Andrew Nette
5) The Pol Pot Regime, by Ben Kiernan

For one, at least two of the stories appear to include allusions, conscious or otherwise, to Casablanca. This makes sense; Casablanca was a refuge or a last stop for dubious sorts with agendas of their own from all over the world. So was Phnom Penh after Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Among the dubious sorts in Phnom Penh, living high amid the local squalor, were workers from non-governmental aid organizations. This is the heart of the first story in Phnom Penh Noir, by Roland Joffé. who directed The Killing Fields.

Second, orientation by landmark is less frequent than I expected in the stories set in Cambodia and written by foreigners, but it is nonetheless present. Without descending into travelogism, the stories will situate places in the story by their relation to major landmarks in a way I suspect native writers would not.

Third, the mutual enmity of Cambodians and Vietnamese, whose best-known manifestation in recent decades is probably Vietnam's 1979 invasion, may have its roots in conflict of countries that fell under the sway of Asia's two great ancient civilizations of India (Cambodia) and China (Vietnam).

Finally, to scramble the notions of native and foreigner, came "Broken Chains," a selection of rap poetry interspersed with biographical snippets in Phnom Penh Noir by Kosal Khiev, born in a Thai refugee camp, migrated to the United States as an infant, convicted of attempted murder, jailed for 14 years, then deported to Cambodia. Where does he belong?

While you ponder that question, here's Andrew Nette on Phnom Penh Noir and writing noir in Asia

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, October 23, 2015


I'm off to Cambodia in a few weeks, so first a shout-out to crime writers who live in Southeast Asia, set their novels there, or both: Christopher G. Moore, Tim Hallinan, John Burdett, Colin Cotterill, and others. Those are the writers I know; I hope to meet more when I take a short side trip to Bangkok.

My guidebook to Cambodia includes a list of suggested reading, and two of the fiction titles are or include crime stories. This raises once again that question of why authors find crime fiction a window through which to view a country other than their own.
And how is an author to approach a country that has known such terror as Cambodia so recently has? As soon as I booked my trip, I visited my native informant — a Cambodian-born, French-trained baker and pastry maker in South Philadelphia.  Yes, he talked about Khmer Rouge torture techniques, but he also offered acerbic comments on the technological backwardness that opened his native country to exploitation and on the superiority of the British to the French as colonizers. And there was an element of shocked humor to his discussion of Pol Pot, who spoke impeccable French, yet was responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of foreigners as head of the Khmer Rouge. (A Wikipedia article on Pol Pot says he was forced to return to Cambodia after failing his exams three years in a row. So yes, while hallucinogenic, nightmare horror is appropriate to the story of Cambodia after World War II. there's a place for grim comedy, too. How is a writer to handle this?)

And then there's the woman in the bakery — I'm unsure if she was a worker or a customer — who said matter-of-factly that she had lost three relatives to the Khmer Rouge, but also that she wanted to take her children to Cambodia one day so they could see their ancestral country.  How is an author to portray this complexity of attitudes and reactions?  I'll tell you next month.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Bouchercon, Part IV: My first panel

Laura Lippman
I moderated one panel and one special-event discussion at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, N.C.,  which seems long ago but from which I only returned on Tuesday. Here's the first part of what it was like.

Kevin Burton Smith
"Beyond Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, and Macdonald" was a reprise of last year's similarly titled panel in which authors, editors, and other crime fiction experts talked about their favorite lesser-known crime writers of the past.  This year's panelists included Laura Lippman (above right) on the YA author Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Kevin Burton "Thrilling Detective Web Site" Smith (left) on Norbert Davis, Sarah Weinman (below right) on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, and Jordan Foster, who scarpered before I could snap her picture, on Ted Lewis.

Sarah Weinman
All four panelists were eloquent, illuminating, and entertaining, and, more to the point, they chose their subjects well. Lippman taught the gratifyingly packed room that an author who wrote fantasy for children could fill her stories with hard-boiled and even noir tropes.   Smith opened audience eyes to an author who proved that superb writing and hard-boiled toughness are compatible with slapstick comedy.

Weinman talked about Holding, writer of superbly tuned domestic suspense (and, I would argue, noir), and one of the best of the mid-twentieth-century female crime writers Weinman is doing so much to bring back into circulation. And Foster? She spoke comprehensively about Lewis, known for the novel now called Get Carter, but author of at least two other crime fiction classics, and one of the toughest of all crime writers, who combined sharp observational humor with Jim Thompson-like nightmare intensity.

I like to think the panel expanded the audience's idea of what crime fiction can accomplish as much as it expanded mine, because that's exactly what I set out to do.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

A first look at The Second Girl by David Swinson

David Swinson
My first post-Bouchercon reading, David Swinson's The Second Girl, takes every cop-turned-P.I. trope you can think of and turns it on its head.

Swinson's protagonist is a former Washington, D.C., cop named Frank Marr, but Marr does not bristle with hatred for the FBI officers with whom he must work.  He drinks too much and indulges to excess in a range of drugs, but he does not not wallow in self-pity over this. He commits other crimes and misdeeds, but Swinson portrays these neither as adventures not as self-laceratng hell trips; they're just what Marr does.

Swinson doesn't get in the reader's face with his character's damaged quirkiness, either.  His revelations of plot and character are gradual until, not so many chapters in, the reader is apt to be hooked without knowing it.

He does something similar with the narrative. The second girl of the title is a young woman whose parents hire Marr after their daughter falls in with drug-dealing lowlifes. There's also a first girl, Marr's recovery of whom is a bracingly rapid surprise that kicks the larger narrative into gear.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Bouchercon, Part III: Guilty white liberals

John Farrow
I learned at Bouchercon 2015 that Canada has identity-mongering guilty white liberals, just as the United States does. Saturday's panel on Canadian crime writing at Bouchercon 2015, included a complaint from Trevor Ferguson, a.k..a, John Farrow, about people who say that he, a white man, should not write about members of ethnic groups other than his own.

He grew up in Montreal's Park Extension neighborhood, he said, in the only non-immigrant family on the street, so "Who else am I going to write about?" if not members of other cultures.

And I neglected to include in Tuesday's post on Bouchercon bar conversations a number 7: Stuart Neville on crime fiction festivals and the possibility thereof in Northern Ireland.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bouchercon, Part II

I ate five meals here.
I'll organize this year's Bouchercon 2015 posts thematically, beginning with out-of-panel conversations, mostly from the bars at the Marriott and Sheraton hotels. The interlocutors and their subjects included:
Megan Abbott, Lawrence Block
Megan Abbott
Michael Sears, one half
of the team that writes
as Michael Stanley
1) Hillary Davidson on digestive syndromes and international travel
2) Her husband, Dan, on New York bagels and where to find them
3) My second-generation homie Alexandra Sokoloff on Jewish migration from everywhere
4) Sam Wiebe on books and authors, though I can't remember which ones
5) Wallace Stroby on Dashiell Hammett
6) Suzanne Solomon on Israel and writers named Roth 
And thanks to Eryk Pruitt for staging an entertaining and atmospheric Noir at the Bar in Raleigh and for posting the following. And yes, I know that probably should be "bill" rather than "beak," but I don't edit the past:
Noir at the Bar MC
Tracey Coppedge

Eryk Pruitt
Eryk Pruitt:@reverenderyk 14m 14 minutes ago Many great quotes at ‪#Bcon2015. Among them: "Daffy Duck is like David Goodis, but with a beak."--@DBeyondBorders (Peter Rozovsky)

Bill Crider
John McFetridge
Eryk is a good sort, and he was gracious enough to give me a shout-out for inventing Noir at the Bar and staging the first ones. So Detectives Beyond Borders likes him.
Annamaria Alfieri, Terrence McCauley, Rita Ramirez McCauley, Dana King 
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Bouchercon 2015 in a few pictures

Christa Faust and your humble blogkeeper

Kenneth Wishnia, Robert LoPresti, Jason Starr

Lawrence Block

Bill Crider, Karin Slaughter, Megan Abbott, Lawrence Block

Richard Layman and Julie
Rivett after appearing on my
Dashiell Hammett panel

Christa Faust

Allan Guthrie, Caro Ramsay

Stuart Neville

Your humble blogkeeper with Sarah Byrne

Ali Karim, J. Kingston Pierce

Tracey Coppedge

Laura Lippman turned a
bunch of people on to YA
 author Zilpha Keatley
Snyder on the "Beyond
Hammett, Chandler,
Macdonald, and Spillane"
  panel, a highlight of my
career as a moderator.

Kevin Burton Smith discussed
 Norbert Davis as a member
 of "Beyond Hammett,
 Chandler, Spillane, and

Sarah Weinman talked
about Elisabeth Sanxay
Holding during the same

Angel Colón, Johnny Shaw, Jay Stringer, Eryk Pruitt
The Bottles' Flabby Road at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, N.C. From left, me, Dennis Pozzessere, J. Kingston Pierce, Kevin Burton Smith. Photo by Ali Karim
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, October 05, 2015

I shoot and read at Noir at the Bar

Sarah Weinman
Nothing like a Noir at the Bar to get ready for Bouchercon. This Noir at the Bar happened in Washington at the Wonderland Ballroom, and no Noir at the Bar has ever taken place at a venue with a more evocative name. Here are photos of all the readers except me, because I was taking the pictures.
David Swinson
Art Taylor

Nik Korpon

Austin S. Camacho
Ed Aymar

Dana King

Jen Conley

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, October 02, 2015

Mr. Beyond Borders goes to Washington for a Noir at the Bar this Saturday

Joaquin permitting, I'll read Saturday evening at Washington, D.C.'s second Noir at Bar.  The fun happens starting 7 p.m. at the wonderfully named Wonderland Ballroom, 1101 Kenyon St., NW.

Ed Aymar hosts a program that also includes Austin Camacho, Jen Conley, Dana King, Nik Korpon, David Swinson, Art Taylor, and Sarah Weinman, warming up for her stint on a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, N.C., later in the week.

So let's hope Joaquin amounts to no more than a few flooded basements and a flurry of hyperventilating news stories. See you Saturday.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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