Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Crime fiction and culture, east and west

I can't find the citation, but I think it was Colin Watson who suggested that the police procedural was late in establishing itself in England for class reasons: Police came from the working classes, and social barriers would simply not have allowed such figures to pry into noblemen's affairs or let noblemen take such probing seriously.

I thought of this when I read a passage in Christopher G. Moore's 2007 novel The Risk of Infidelity Index. A lawyer has been found dead during Bangkok's annual Oxford-Cambridge dinner, a gathering of some of Thailand's most powerful people, and one of his junior colleagues was the last person to see him alive (though he had nothing to do with the death). This puts the young lawyer in an exceedingly difficult position, the firm's head tells him, since the idea that the dinner's truly powerful guests could face police scrutiny is absurd:
"What better place to kill someone? With two hundred of the top movers and shakers of Thai society nearby. If you wanted to kill someone, wouldn't that be a perfect place? Where would the police start? Questioning people from influential families, people with titles, people who work at the highest levels of government, banking and commerce? Where would you start?"
Moore has written elsewhere about Thailand's deference culture, arguing that Thailand has traditionally been characterized by unearned deference for descendants of the right families. Sounds British, doesn't it?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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21 Comments:

Anonymous adrian said...

I went to one of those Oxford-Cambridge dinners once in New York and I wanted to kill everyone in the room. The wanker level was off the bloody scale.

September 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In Thailand, you'd have been expected to defer to the wankers, perhaps even to wai them.

September 07, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Now, Peter, why do you assume they wouldn't have had to wai him?

I don't actually remember waiing anybody in Thailand, but I do remember how we had to stop cold in the middle of the train station while a whole depot full of people stood there revering the national anthem. It was sort of impressive in a creepy kind of way.

September 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, he'd get a few of the condescending, who-the-hell-are-you? wais, but in the presence of such exalted company, he'd be the one raising his hands to nose level, and maybe bowing from the waist -- unless one the assembled politicans, executives or generals was up on his crime fiction, in which case Adrian might do better waiswise.

Creepy, all right ... did the anthem blare from a loudspeaker? That always adds to the creepiness.

September 07, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, a loudspeaker. And apparently it happens twice a day. We were stirring or saying something and some people around us helped us, in a very polite way, to realize we were making an extreme faux pas.

September 07, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Bangkok is engraved in my mind as a city of motorbikes, drunken Brits, German pederasts and a frightened put upon populace.

September 07, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Nice temples, though.

September 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: Thailand, apparently, is not
a culture of complaining. Your gentle hosts were no doubt trying to let you and your fellow farang know this.

A loudspeaker used to blast something or other into a park in Istanbul in a way I found mildly disconcerting. And my hotel room there was precisely at loudspeaker level across the street from the minaret of a mosque whose muezzin issued the prayer call by loudspeaker. This jolted me from bed at 5 a.m. the first morning, but I was used to local ways by the third and slept like a native, albeit an unbelieving one.

September 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, novels by your man Timothy Hallinan and by Christopher G. Moore might reinforce part of that impression. One of Moore's things, and he's lived in Bangkok for twenty years or more, is that people are starting to get more angry (and perhaps a bit less frightened).

September 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I would like to tramp around that part of the world looking at temples and statues and to offer a wai or two.

September 07, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

A nice older book about an American stepping into that culture is Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind. I read it before I went and it helped me understand a bit.

It was written by a woman who went over with her husband who was doing some sort of teaching or governmental work. No doubt he was some sort of CIA operative, but that wouldn't matter to the book either way.

September 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I would bet anything that Moore knows that book. He calls his protagonist a "cultural detective," and there is much in his novels about negotiating cultural differences. He's also written non-fiction on the subject, I think.

September 07, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Here's the Amazon link. It's worth looking at for the customer review.

September 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. And you might like Moore’s contributions to a group blog called International Crime Authors Reality Check.

September 08, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Tim and I share an agent so I do get some of the backstory from his Bangkok stuff - I know he also speaks about the tremendous beauty of the place and the elegance of the people, but still I'm not hurrying back any time soon.

September 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So you'll know that a German child pornographer figured in one of Hallinan's books. Moore writes often of Bangkok's traffic jams. I would try to find a way to avoid these.

September 08, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

take a boat.

and you can visit the

"wonderful" floating market which is right up there with the "beautifu" Gong Li.

oh, and Happy New Year

September 08, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

beautiful

I meant to say. And yes she is beautiful but why do they need to mention it every time?

September 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Don't worry; I did not think your dropping of the L was a jab at Chinese pronunciation of English.

Certain epithets attach themselves to their bearers like barnacles to the hull of a ship (or like bar yings to a rich farang, to judge from Christopher G. Moore's writing).

For instance Muqtada al-Sadr's first name is "Radical anti-American cleric."

Thanks for the kind wishes. May you, too, be inscribed in the e-book of life.

September 08, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I keep forgetting to ask--if the police procedural was late in establishing itself in England, where in the world was it early adapted?


Good v word: sinflo

September 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Although there were early British examples, the police procedural as a distinct subgenre of the detective story is largely an American phenomenon, I think, dating to the 1940s and '50s. You'll find remarks on the subject here and here.

I like sinflo. It sounds like the name of an energy firm targeted by terrorists in a suspense novel.

September 08, 2010  

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