In The Spotlight: John Burdett’s Bangkok 8

>In The Spotlight: Ross Macdonald's The Far Side of the DollarHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s a real appeal in reading a novel with a distinctive, exotic setting. It can also be engaging to experience that setting and context from an ‘insider’s’ point of view. That perspective allows the reader to go ‘behind the scenes’ in a place and see what the tourists never see. It also gives the reader a window into a culture and way of thinking. To show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight today on John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, the first of his Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels.

Sonchai and his partner Pichai Apiradee have been on surveillance, tailing a Mercedes, when their quarry briefly gets away from them. By the time they find the car, its occupant William Bradley is dead. A first look at the crime scene shows that Bradley was trapped in his car with poisonous snakes and most likely died from their bites. Pichai manages to open one of the car doors, but before he can get away, one of the snakes attacks him, leaving him with a fatal bite.

Sonchai is determined to avenge Pinchai’s death. Not only were they police partners, but they were ‘soul brothers’ as well. They’d known each other for years, and Sonchai looked up to and respected Pinchai. So he has very personal reasons for wanting to solve Bradley’s murder.

Sonchai is soon contacted by the American Embassy in the form of the FBI legal attaché and his assistant, Tod Rosen and Jack Nape, respectively. Bradley was a US Marine, so they have their own reasons for wanting to investigate his death. They’re especially concerned because they’ve already learned that Bradley was interested in jade and might have been involved in the illegal jade trade. If so, this matter will have to be handled delicately, since that sort of story would be embarrassing to the Marines and the US government.

Along with Rosen and Nape, FBI Special Agent Kimberly Jones is sent from Washington to Bangkok to investigate the Bradley murder. She and Sonchai work together to find out who killed the victim and why. As they begin to look into the case, they discover that there are several possibilities too.

For one thing, it’s soon obvious that Bradley had a real interest in jade. There are some dangerous people involved in that trade, and they might have had a reason to want to make an example of him. For another, Bradley had a personal life, too. He was seen in several places with a mysterious and exotic woman who could very well know an awful lot about this murder. So one of the tasks that Sonchai and Jones face is trying to find her. There’s also the fact of Bradley’s history. That too could have played a role in his death.

Sonchai uses his deep knowledge of Bangkok and its people to track down information, and Jones uses her expertise and FBI resources to piece together what might have happened. In the end, they find out exactly who killed Bradley and why. It turns out that this murder has a very different kind of motive to what you might think…

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the story takes place in and around Bangkok, so readers get a real sense of the city. It’s a very beautiful, vibrant, ancient, complex and sometimes squalid place. Bangkok isn’t the kind of place that can be properly captured in a ‘picture postcard’ description, and Burdett doesn’t attempt that.

Another important element in this story is the character of Sonchai. He is the son of a former bar girl who’s now embarking on a new career. He is also part farang (foreigner). He and his mother Nong have traveled, most particularly to Germany and France, with some of Nong’s romantic partners. So he’s also more cosmopolitan than you might expect ‘just a cop’ to be. At the same time, Sonchai loves Thailand and its people. His outlook is most particularly influenced though by his deep commitment to Buddhism. In fact, his Buddhist beliefs are the reason for which he became a police officer.

The Buddhist tradition plays a major role in many Thai people’s world views, and Burdett gives the reader a look at the way Buddhists view life and humans’ place in it, and a look at the Buddhist spiritual tradition. It’s really much more than just a set of rituals; for observant Buddhists it’s a way of life. And Sonchai is committed to that tradition, so understanding him means understanding at least some of what he believes.

Understanding the Buddhist/Thai way of thinking and looking at life also helps in understanding the way the story unfolds. Readers who are accustomed to ‘typical’ Western police procedurals will immediately notice that this story is different. It weaves back and forth between the present case and Sonchai’s past since from the Buddhist perspective, the past, the present and the future are all related. Burdett makes it clear when the various events happen, but readers who prefer a chronologically ordered story will notice this. The story also integrates a certain amount of spirituality and mysticism. Readers who prefer prosaic solutions to mysteries will be relieved to know that the case isn’t solved by visions, dreams or religious revelations. But Buddhist spirituality permeates both Sonchai’s world view and the novel. As he himself says:

 

‘You have to remember we’re Buddhist.’

 

That message is clear throughout the novel.

The story is told from Sonchai’s point of view, as if told to an ‘outsider,’ and there are some asides to the reader:

 

‘We do not look on death the way you do, farang. My closest colleagues grasp my arm and one or two embrace me. No one says sorry. Would you be sorry about a sunset?’

 

The story is told mostly in the present tense, although Burdett uses the past tense to distinguish the current storyline from other events. Readers who prefer the use of the past tense will notice this.

The mystery itself is in a sense ‘impossible but not really impossible.’ How did the snakes get into the car without Bradley noticing them? And why didn’t they attack him when he first got into the car? More to the point, why did they attack so viciously, when most snakes would as soon avoid humans?

Bangkok 8 is a distinctly Bangkok story told by a uniquely Bangkok/Thai police officer. It features an unusual sort of mystery and a storytelling technique that fits the setting and context. It also has what in my opinion (so feel free to disagree) is a very well-written and compelling first line:
 

‘The African American Marine in the grey Mercedes will soon die of bites from Naja siamensis, but we don’t know that yet, Pichai and I (the future is impenetrable, says the Buddha).’
 
But what’s your view? Have you read Bangkok 8? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 29 September/Tuesday 30 September – Murder at Honeychurch Hall – Hannah Dennison

Monday 6 October/Tuesday 7 October – Ice Run – Steve Hamilton

Monday 13 October/Tuesday 14 October – Bitter River – Julia Keller

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Filed under Bangkok 8, John Burdett

Tough Kids, What Can I Do?*

Juvenile CrimeOne of the hardest challenges for law enforcement, social service and other professionals to face is working with young suspects and young people who are actually guilty of crimes. On the one hand, a crime is a crime regardless of the age of the culprit. On the other, there are real psychological and other differences between younger people and adults. What’s more, there are many people who argue that if you don’t give juvenile criminals genuine opportunities to make lives for themselves (as opposed, let’s say, to putting them in prison, especially with adults), you create repeat offenders who will probably be criminals for the rest of their lives.

There are no easy answers to these questions, and I don’t claim to have the solution. But young people’s involvement in crime is an important social reality, and so naturally, it comes up in crime fiction too. Space permits me only a few examples, but hopefully they’ll suffice.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall takes a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. With her are her husband Captain Kenneth Marshall and her stepdaughter Linda. Shortly after they arrive, Arlena begins a not-very-well-hidden affair with a fellow guest Patrick Redfern. One day she’s strangled and her body is discovered on the beach at Pixy’s Cove, not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel and works with the police to find out who the murderer is. One of the people they interview is sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She disliked her stepmother intensely and as it turns out, doesn’t have a real alibi for the time. So she is a very real suspect for this crime. It’s interesting to note how the police (and Poirot) view her in light of her age. Saying a lot more would give away spoilers, but it’s an interesting treatment of a young suspect.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we meet Trevor Sharp, an Eastvale, Yorkshire teenager who’s having trouble fitting in at school and getting along. To his father’s dismay, he takes up with Mick Webster, who’s been in and out of trouble for a very long time. Although Trevor’s father warns him to stay away from Mick, Trevor doesn’t listen. He and Mick start getting involved in several ‘adventures’ that get them into real trouble. DCI Alan Banks encounters them in the course of a few cases he’s investigating: a voyeur who’s making the lives of the local women miserable; a series of home invasions; and a murder. As Banks and his team slowly follow the threads of these cases, we see how what starts as an adventure, a rebellious act, or an ‘I want to make my mark’ act can spiral out of control.

Kate Morgenroth’s Jude tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy’s who’s been living with his drug-dealer father. Jude is a witness when one day, someone shoots his father. So he’s taken away for his own safety. Later he goes to live with his mother, who’s the local District Attorney. Jude is placed in an exclusive private school. He remains under suspicion for his father’s murder, but the police don’t have enough evidence to arrest him. He knows more than he’s telling, too, but his life depends on his not saying anything. Then one day his new friend Nick dies of a heroin overdose and Jude is implicated. He’s not guilty, but he’s persuaded to plead guilty so as to shore up his mother’s campaign for re-election on an anti-drugs platform. Jude is promised that as soon as the election is over, his name will be cleared. Instead, he’s tried as an adult and convicted. Then, a school friend David Marshall, who’s now a reporter, gets wind of the story. Together he and Jude work to find out the truth about Nick’s death – and about Jude’s own past.

There’s also William Landay’s Defending Jacob. In that novel, fourteen-year-old Ben Rifkin is stabbed to death. Before long, his schoolmate Jacob Barber is suspected and in fact arrested. At first, his father, Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber, doesn’t believe his son had anything to do with the crime. But little by little, pieces of evidence begin to suggest that things are not what they seem. Is Jacob guilty of the crime? If so, what led to it? If not, who’s trying to frame him and why? This novel takes a look at juvenile crime from the legal and the personal perspective.

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is in prison for a horrific crime. One night, thirteen members of her family were poisoned, and some stabbed as well. Then the house was set on fire. Only Durga survived, and the evidence suggests she may have been a victim as well, as she was tied up and possibly raped. But the police can’t get very far on the case because Durga hasn’t spoken about that night. The Inspector General for the State of Punjab knows that this is an extremely delicate case. Durga is not an adult, so she can’t really be treated as one. And yet, she obviously knows more than she is saying. So he asks an old friend, social worker Simran Singh, to come to the village of Jullundur to interview Durga, work with her and perhaps get her to open up. Simran agrees and makes the trip from Delhi, where she lives. As Simran slowly gets to know Durga, we see that applying the ‘usual rules’ to certain juvenile cases can do more harm than good. We also see that this is definitely not a case of a teenager who ‘just snapped.’

In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him goes probationer Lucy Howard, who’s hoping to get some experience. Tragically, White is stabbed to death at the scene of the crime. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of the juvenile justice system for a long time. Since one of their own has been killed, the police are determined to catch the killer. But they know that to do that, they’ll have to ‘play by the rules’ no matter how much they’d rather not. It complicates matters too that Rowley is part Aboriginal, so the media will be very alert to any perceived discrimination. In this novel, there are some really interesting discussions of the protection provided by the juvenile justice system. There are also interesting questions raised about what kinds of crime young people commit, and at what point one considers them adults.

It’s challenging enough to decide what the best way is to deal with criminals. It’s even harder when alleged or actual criminals are (at least legally) children. I honestly don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know if there is just one answer. But it is a very real issue in real life, and it’s raised in crime fiction too. Which novels that deal with this issue have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pete Townhend’s Rough Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kate Morgenroth, Kishwar Desai, Peter Robinson, William Landay, Y.A. Erskine

She’s Dead Serious About Her Family History*

Family SagasAn interesting book review at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about family sagas. Now, before I go any further, you’ll want to pay a visit to that fine blog. You’ll find all sorts of excellent, thoughtful reviews of crime fiction as well as some books from other genres too. It’s well worth a place on a bibliophile’s blog roll.

Right. Family sagas. Just about all families have their share of stories and ‘skeletons in the closet,’ and some of those stories have an effect for a very long time. Family sagas can be very effective contexts for crime fiction too, since some of those stories and ‘skeletons’ involve crime. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles concerns the ‘blueblood’ Baskerville family, which has had a home on Dartmoor for many generations. It’s said that the Baskerville family has been cursed since the 1600s, when Sir Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. According to this tale, the family is haunted by a demon in the shape of a hound. In fact recently, the current head of the family, Sir Charles Baskerville, was found dead on the grounds of the Manor of Baskerville. Many people say the family curse was responsible, and now family friend Dr. James Mortimer is afraid for the new heir Sir Henry Baskerville. Sir Henry is due to come in from Canada soon, and Dr. Mortimer wants the matter settled before his arrival. Holmes is unable to leave London at the moment so he sends Dr. Watson in his stead. Between them they find that a curse had nothing to do with Sir Charles’ death…

Agatha Christie weaves in elements of the family saga in several of her novels. In Sad Cypress, for instance, Elinor Carlisle receives an anonymous note warning her that she could lose the inheritance she expects from her wealthy Aunt Laura Welman. Apparently someone’s been playing up to the elderly lady and the note hints that there’s an ulterior motive behind it all. Elinor isn’t particularly greedy, but she and her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy Welman travel to the family home at Hunterbury. There they renew their acquaintance with Mary Gerrard, daughter of Hunterbury’s lodgekeeper. They soon find out that Aunt Laura has become very much attached to Mary, and insists on altering her will to make a good provision for her; however, Aunt Laura dies before the will can be changed. Much to Elinor’s shock and dismay, Roddy becomes infatuated with Mary. In fact, Elinor breaks off her engagement with him. Then, not long afterwards, Mary dies of what turns out to be poison. Elinor is the most obvious suspect, and not just because of Roddy. There’s a fortune at stake as well. Hercule Poirot investigates and finds that Mary’s death has everything to do with a family saga. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow, Five Little Pigs and Crooked House

In A Dark-Adapted Eye, her first novel as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shares the story of the Longley family. The Longleys have always been a very respectable family – not a hint of grist for the ‘gossip mill.’ But in this case, appearances are, as the saying goes, deceiving. Many years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was hanged for murder. No-one discusses the matter, but it’s haunted the family ever since. Then, journalist Daniel Stewart digs up the story and decides to write a book about the family and the hanging. He approaches Faith Longley Severn to help him with the work, since she’s a family member. She agrees and together they look into what really was behind the murder for which Vera Hilliard was executed. This novel is about the crime, but it’s also about the family, its history and its relationships.

One of the more famous family sagas is the story of the Vanger family, whom we meet in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just lost an expensive libel lawsuit against well-insulated and powerful Swedish industrial magnate Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his publication Millennium in danger of folding, he’s open to an offer from Henrik Vanger. Forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet disappeared. Everyone thought she drowned, but Vanger has a good reason not to think so. He’s been receiving anonymous birthday gifts of dried flowers, just as Harriet gave him all those years earlier. Vanger offers to support Millennium financially, and give Blomkvist the information he needs to bring down Wennerström if Blomkvist will find out what really happened to Harriet. Blomkvist agrees and he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander start exploring the Vanger family’s history and finances. And it turns out that this is quite a family saga…

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn has been working to support the political life of her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s got a very bright future in the party, and everyone’s looking forward to an important speech he’s scheduled to make. To everyone’s shock, he collapses during the speech and dies of what turns out to be poison. Kilbourn is grief-stricken at the loss of her friend, and decides to deal with that grief by writing a biography of Boychuk. As she does so, she begins to get closer and closer to the truth about why and by whom he was killed. She also learns quite a lot about the Boychuk family’s history and how it affected him.

Martin Edwards deals with family sagas and stories in several of his Lake District mysteries. For example, in The Hanging Wood, DCI Hannah Scarlett gets a call from Orla Payne, who wants to find out what happened to her brother. Twenty years earlier, Callum Payne went missing and no-one has ever found a trace of him – not even a body. Orla wants Scarlett and her team to look into the case, but unfortunately, she’s mentally fragile and is drunk when she calls, so Scarlett doesn’t make much of the matter. Then, Orla dies of what looks like suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not taking that call more seriously, and begins to look into both Orla’s death and the the disappearance of her brother. That investigation turns up quite a lot of family history and a family saga that’s been going on for several generations.

When it comes to crime fiction, family sagas have to be handled deftly. Otherwise, the history of the family can take away from the story of the crime(s) that’s supposed to be at the heart of the novel. But when they’re well-written, family sagas can add a lot to a crime novel. And they can provide all sorts of useful and realistic motivations for murder. I’ve only mentioned some examples here. Your turn.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Lucksmiths’ English Murder Mystery. OK, this is really a fun song if you’re a crime fiction fan. :-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Ruth Rendell, Stieg Larsson

Do You Speak ‘Crime Writer?’

speaking crime writingSo you’ve made friends with a crime writer. Or perhaps you work with one. You may even have chosen a crime writer as your partner. Well, I think that’s wonderful. Crime writers need social circles too, after all. How else are we supposed to be inspired for our next – ahem – adventure? ;-)

The thing is, though, that crime writers speak a unique kind of language. If you don’t understand that language, it can be difficult to know what a crime writer really means and respond appropriately. So, ever civic-minded, I’m here to help you. Here is your very own handy

Guide to Speaking ‘Crime Writer’

 

‘Crime Writer’ Language

Translation

‘I’ll be right there.’

‘I’ll be there as soon as I finish this scene. And check out those sites on poisons. And…..’

‘I really ought to do some shopping.’

‘We’re out of chocolate?! How can we be out of chocolate? What?! And coffee too?’

[substitute your snack and beverage of choice]

‘Thanks for telling me that.’

[After someone tells you
how much better s/he'd have
done at writing your book]

‘You will be the victim in my next story. It will not be pretty.’

‘Don’t worry. I’ll make dinner.’

‘Where’s the menu for that Chinese place that delivers?’

‘I write crime fiction.’

‘Please ask about my books. Better yet, buy them.’

‘Oh, let’s stop and check this out.’

‘Oh, this is the perfect place to dump a body!’

‘Sure! It sounds like fun.’

‘There’ll be at least a few people there who would make great suspects.’

‘Wow! That building is cool!’

‘I wonder how hard it’d be to push someone off it.’

‘Mind if I have a look?’

‘This would make such a great weapon!!’

‘No thanks, just browsing.’

‘That guy over there! That’s my killer!’

 

And no worries if that writer in your life is a romance, sci-fi or other writer. These translations can be easily adjusted.

So there you have it. The perfect way to learn how to communicate effectively with the crime writer in your life. I sincerely hope this is helpful. We crime writers really are nice people. All it takes is a little understanding.

Fellow crime writers, got any additions?

Happy Weekend!

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But Try at Least to Pick a Selling Title*

BookTitlesWhen it comes to getting readers’ attention, a well-chosen book title can be at least as important as the cover is. So I thought it might be interesting to take a bit of a closer look at the titles of crime novels. After all, when we read a review and put a book on the TBR or wish list, it’s the title and/or author we try to remember.

Most authors know that a good title has something to do with the the story, and sometimes that’s done very cleverly. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s title The Adventure of the Dancing Men is attention-getting on the surface. It also has everything to do with the story. This adventure is about a woman Elsie Cubitt, who starts to get mysterious cryptic messages in the form of stick figures posed in various positions, as though they were dancing. The messages clearly frighten her, but she won’t tell her husband Hilton what they mean or why they’re being sent. So Cubitt asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. The solution involves decrypting the messages, so the title turns out to be very much related to the story.

Sometimes titles are a little (or even very) unusual. For instance, Christopher Brookmyre’s title Quite Ugly One Morning isn’t your typical title. It has to do with an investigative journalist Jack Parlabane, who returns from Los Angeles to his native Edinburgh. He locks himself out of his flat one morning and ends up stumbling onto a brutal crime scene. That gets him drawn into the crime’s investigation and deeper into a web of greed and coverup than he imagined. What’s interesting is that although the title is unusual, it’s also closely related to the story itself. Admittedly, there are titles that are a lot more unusual than that one, but it should serve to show you what I mean.

Some authors ‘brand’ their series (or their publishers do) through the titles. I’m thinking for instance of Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series’ and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, which uses a different colour in each title. There there’s ‘Nicci French’s’ series in which each title includes a day of the week. I’m sure you know of other examples of this sort of ‘branding.’ That can make it easy for a reader to look for the next title in a series, and keep track of a longer series.

Authors are often advised to keep their titles short and fairly easy to remember, and that’s logical when you think about it.
Shorter titles can often look much neater and less ‘cluttered’ on a cover, and it’s easier for readers to keep them in mind. For a similar reason, authors are usually advised not to use subtitles, although of course, they’re out there.

As I thought about that, I wondered how long titles of crime novels actually are. So I decided to look more closely at that question. I looked at the titles of 215 crime novels – books that I’ve used for my ‘spotlight’ feature. So as you read on, do keep in mind that this is a limited data set. The total population of crime novels might show something different. I divided the books into three categories: books with two or fewer words in the title; books with three to five words in the title; and books with titles longer than five words. Here’s what I found.

 

Length of Book Title
 

As you can see, the great majority (131, or 69%) have titles of between three and five words. That includes words such as at, of, and the. And 70 (32.5%) have one- or two-word titles. Of my data set, only 14 (6.5%) had titles longer than five words. It makes sense to have short, crisp titles, so that finding didn’t particularly surprise me.

Crime novels of course deal with, well, crime, at least most of the time. And very often that crime is murder. So you’d think that most of the titles in the genre would reflect that, and that there’d be a lot of titles with crime-related words in them. So I decided to look into that question. I looked at the titles of 215 books that I’ve used for my ‘Spotlight’ feature to see what kinds, if any, of ‘murder-related’ words there were in the title. Here’s what I found.

 
Words in Titles

 

You can see clearly that most of the titles actually don’t mention murder, killing, bodies or weapons. In fact, 79% of them (169 books) don’t say anything about crime. Some of the titles (19/9%) do mention death, die, dying or another variant of that word. But as you’ll notice, comparatively few mention crime-related words such as blood, murder, knife, and so on. I wonder if that’s so that crime writers and readers can be a bit less obvious about our interest in these devious doings… ;-)

What’s your view about titles? Do you find yourself attracted to very unusual titles? Do you notice when a title is really short or long? Does that affect your interest? If you’re a writer, how do you decide what title you’ll choose for your work?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Concretes’ Fiction.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Brookmyre, John D. MacDonald, Nicci French, Sue Grafton