Sep 042012

Can a city like Mumbai be the setting for noir? Here’s my take:

In the 1980s, I lived on a street in Bombay that housed the Soviet cultural center. Western movies took years to make it to theaters — that is if they came at all. We listened to music that had been popular in the ‘60s. And there were two cars on Indian roads: the Premier Padmini and the Ambassador, an elephant-like giant modeled on the Morris Oxford. Nothing ever seemed to happen. But that placidity belied some tumultuous changes shaking the city. The biggest one was the shuttering of the textile mills, Bombay’s lifeblood for much of the past century. Along with those mills went thousands of livelihoods, people who’d been trained to do nothing else suddenly out of a job. And the unions that were supposed to protect them were being slowly coopted and destroyed.
Fast forward 20 years. The Soviet cultural center is now a car showroom. Hollywood movies are often released in Bombay before they are in the West, and music choices are as diverse as any other place. And there are cars; plenty of them, along with showrooms to sell Audis and Porsches and anything else you may want. But this dramatic change belies a constancy among those left behind: the old man pulling a wooden wheelbarrow laden with goods that weigh three times as much as he does; the half-naked beggar seeking pennies from the passenger who has shut the have-nots away; the migrant worker who comes to the city full of hope only to be told he doesn’t belong here. These stories aren’t unique to Bombay. A similar scenario has played out in countless other places. What they have in common is a city that’s at once welcoming and cruel, and residents at once despondent and full of hope.
That’s where noir comes in.
To me the genre has always been about characters: flawed, cynical characters, characters down on their luck, with a bleak worldview. The best place to find such people is a city.
Cities represent the best society has to offer: arts, culture, diversity, opportunity; a vital life force if you will that makes a nation hum. But they also represent the worst of humanity: crime, greed, apathy, poverty; those aspects that we’d prefer to conceal.
Both these attributes are apparent in a city like Bombay, and they are all the more apparent because of the dramatic increase in wealth — and the consequent increase in income disparity — India has seen over the past two decades. This is fertile ground for noir. Any story that focuses on such a city and its characters is bound to have elements of the genre. Indeed, Indian filmmakers have been among the first to successfully exploit this with a series of recent gripping crime dramas. Now, for a city the size of Mumbai, crime is surprisingly low. But what noir teaches us is that when you scratch below that veneer of cosmopolitanism, the world is much more interesting. That’s true whether you’re living in Mumbai, New York or Rio.

Jul 312012

At a gathering last week to mark the release of my book, Murder in Mumbai, there was one question I was asked more often than others: How did you get published?
It’s an odd sort of question because it can mean many things: What is the process of publishing? How does the publishing industry work? What steps do you take? Is it easy? But the answer I ended up giving was: “With a great deal of luck.”
I’d love to believe that my writing is so brilliant, my prose so sparkling, my insight so sharp that agents and publishers fought among themselves in order to sign me. But the David Foster Wallaces of this world are few, and I belong to a tribe whose adherents fall into one of three categories: those who want to write books, those who are writing books and those who have written books.
Of course, not all of them have been published. A former colleague of mine is one of the most incisive people I know, and I love his writing, but he’s had little luck in publishing his novels. That story extends to many others. So why me and why not them? I thought long and hard about this until I came across writer Michael Lewis’ commencement speech at Princeton this year.
Lewis, as he recounts in his book Liar’s Poker, was a student in London when he was serendipitously seated at dinner at Buckingham Palace next to the wife of a Salomon Brothers executive. That seating arrangement led to a job. That job led to more than one best-selling book, and hit movies, too. In his commencement speech, Lewis is clear about why he was successful:

“My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.”

The luck to which Lewis attributes his success is hard to define. But it’s one of those things you recognize when you see: It’s the child who can run across the street despite oncoming traffic with the absolute certainty of making it to the other side. It’s the climber who stretches for an impossible-to-reach hold in the knowledge she’ll make it. It’s the confidence I possessed as a student in Bombay that I’d catch any train I chased.
Of course, there are times luck deserts us, too. The former English cricketer Ed Smith, who’s now an accomplished author and columnist (his new book is called Luck), spoke of the vicissitudes of his own career. A crucial umpiring decision ended his England career; an ankle twisted during a county game ended his cricketing career.

“It sounds like I just had an awful lot of bad luck. In actual fact, they were just the prompts that made me think about luck in a much broader sense. I realised that if you define luck as that which is beyond your control, which is implicit in the definition you used, I have been massively lucky in a much bigger sense too. For example, the luck of where I was educated, where I first learned how to play cricket. You’re 20 times more likely to go on and play for England if you go to private school rather than state school. So I suppose I started thinking about luck in a much broader sense, in terms of the social luck of where you grow up and your genetic good fortune. We tend to gloss over genetic good fortune in sport because it’s all supposed to be about effort but I know from having been in a dressing room with all range of sportsmen that the luck of genes is a massive influence on sport.”

I honestly can’t argue with any of the things either Lewis or Smith say. I’m a product of my background. I grew up reading books. I make my living through journalism. I was fortunate to write a book set in an “exotic” foreign location at the same time my publisher was looking for something different. Of course, that I went from wanting to write a book to writing one helped, but many others have done that. As Lewis said in his commencement speech:

“Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”

Jul 172012

the book’s out today (you can buy it on amazon, apple and b&n).

criticism ranges from “special” to “lackluster” (ok, there were only two reviews). i hope there will be better ones (i know there will be worse ones, too). being a published writer is an odd feeling. somewhere in the writing process there is a sort of megalomania that allows you to send your work into the world, but there’s also deep insecurity about what that world will say.

still, it’s a great feeling. if you haven’t bought it already, please do. it’s only $3.99, and as an old friend on Facebook put it, at that price “I figured even you would have a good story to tell.”

 Posted by at 9:52 am
Jun 282012

What would Holmes be without Moriarty, Batman without the Joker and Jai and Veeru without Gabbar?
You can probably see where I’m going with this. How memorable can a character be if he doesn’t have a foil? The thought sprung from a recent remembrance by the retired American spy Milton Bearden in Foreign Policy magazine’s website.

The piece is an appreciation of his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Shebarshin, who killed himself in March. Bearden writes:

His death marks the end of an era, the passing of one of the most thoughtful, cultured, and effective leaders of the redoubtable Cold War KGB. He was a master spy, a central figure in the tumultuous half-century contest between the CIA and the KGB, and a true believer in the Soviet dream until the very end. He never wavered; he never apologized.

For much of the last decade of my CIA career, Shebarshin was the closest thing I had to a main adversary in the Soviet spy apparatus. (For you John le Carré fans out there, he was my Karla.) I met him only after we had retired, when our respective organizations were still trying to sort out all the body blows of treachery and betrayal we had taken in those last desperate years of Cold War rivalry.

In other words, could the CIA been what it was had it not been for the KGB goading it, pushing it, prodding in a decades-long game of chess across the sixty-four black and white squares on the map of the world. This has certainly been a theme in fiction, and an obvious parallel is the one Bearden himself mentions: Smiley and Karla.

The two men’s destinies are so interlinked that Karla keeps Smiley’s lighter given to him during their first meeting in New Delhi. And, when Smiley becomes chief, he keeps a photograph of his rival on the wall. Each man knows — in the case of Smiley discovers later — what his rival’s weakness is (one’s wife, another’s daughter), and seeks to exploit it for a triumph. But each also possesses a degree of respect that’s evident in the three main novels where they play off each other.

This respect and mutual antagonism is also evident in the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.

In the story the Final Problem, which Arthur Conan Doyle wrote ostensibly to kill off his hero, Holmes calls Moriarty “the Napoleon of Crime” (a title he shares with Macavity), and tells Watson:

You know my powers, my dear Watson, and yet at the end of three months I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal.

And while Moriarty appears in few Holmes stories and may have been created with the express intention of killing of the detective, his appearance in subsequent movies and pop culture make them an inseparable pairing. I would go as far as to say that while Watson serves as Holmes’ sounding board, the professor is what makes Holmes think.

So, in the best cases, the hero and the villain, at least a good, complex villain, are intellectual equals. That’s more than can be said about a detective’s relationship with his sidekick or any one of his romantic partners.

As the Joker tells Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight (and as any fictional hero or villain may tell his rival), “You complete me.”

Jun 192012

I wrote last week about crime statistics and crime fiction and how the relative absence of one from a particular society needn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t produce the other.
I revisited that thought last night as I read a blog post by the brilliant David Simon.

If you’ve known me for any length of time you’ve probably heard me rave about Simon’s The Wire. It’s my favorite TV show, not just because of its brilliant plot, performances and writing, but because it tells the story of a society in decline. Now, we often tend to gloss over the less appealing aspects of our cities, but The Wire not only stares those defects in the face, it forces us, the audience, to confront all that is wrong.
Continue reading »

Jun 152012

There’s a paradox in crime fiction that’s set in a particular place: One the one hand, you need crime, preferably murder, and on the other, you risk making your location, usually a place you know and love, appear crime-ridden and desperate.
I certainly faced this dilemma while writing my first novel, Murder in Mumbai, which focuses on the investigation surrounding the killing of an American executive in India’s largest city. But as I’ve said in the book and to anyone who’ll care to listen, there are comparitively few homicides in Mumbai. But the more emphatically I said that, the more I wondered, is it really true?
With that question in mind, I visited the Mumbai police website to look for actual crime data from the past few years.
Here’s what I found: There were 202 homicides in the city in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. That’s a drop from the 227 homicides the previous year. (India’s overall homicide rate is among the lowest in the world).
Now, one might argue that even one murder is a killing too many, but let’s look at the facts: That’s 202 homicides in a city of 14 million people. In comparison, Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million people, had 324 homicides the same year, the highest rate among large U.S. cities.
But crime statistics are only one part of a writer’s armory. If they were the only thing that writers relied on, there would be no Scandinavian crime fiction, no Sherlock Holmes and certainly no mysteries based in large English castles.
So what does one consider — besides fact — when writing about crime in a city? Mood, for one. This is easy when a city has its own personality, as Bombay does. It helps that the city isn’t a planned one; its growth has been organic, its focus commerce. And because the city exists for one purpose — to make money — it attracts a certain type of population: the striver. The belief is that your background doesn’t matter in Mumbai, all you need to succeed is determination. This environment is perfect for crime fiction. True, homicide rates may not be high, but the type of crime to be found — con jobs to make a quick buck, examination scams to get ahead and the unholy nexus of crime, politics and business — make it a fertile ground for the genre.
I’ve never visited Scandinavia, but the crime novels set there are among my favorite. Many of them focus on serial killers and sex crimes. Do such crimes happen? I’m sure they do. Do they happen at the rate the books suggest? Certainly not. But that doesn’t detract from the writing or the genre.
As someone once said, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

May 282012

i’m in the final stages of the editing process for my debut novella, murder in mumbai. it is surreal, awkward, even. the words are mine, i know, as is the story. but there’s a distance, an awkward distance. it feels a little like meeting a long-unseen close childhood friend. there is a shared past; happy memories. but something incredibly tentative.
let me explain.
i began writing the story one summer after it came to me during a walk with my wife in berkeley. and when i say the story came to me, i mean the rudimentary elements of a plot about a murdered american in bombay. nothing more.
i set myself a task of writing about a thousand words a day. and in these thousand words, the story took shape, characters were born (some discarded), plots conjured, twists contorted. i was shaping the plot every day, and on days i didn’t write, i thought of ways to propel it forward.
eventually, after months of exhilaration and frustration, i finished. or at least i thought i did. i eagerly sent out the manuscript to agents, and the man i signed with, josh getzler, had suggestions — plenty of them, and they were good ones. so the book that had gone from being my creation, tweaked with inputs from my wife, was now being reshaped by additional, and very important, suggestions from josh. not all the changes were easy.
remember, i was close to this story, and i saw it in a way that no one else could. but being an editor in my other life helped. i took a step back and brought out the hacksaw (i jest, but you get the picture).
once the book found a home, the editors at dutton had their own suggestions. back i went to the book, reading and rereading, shaping and reshaping. to be honest, by the end of it — though the story hews very closely to the one i wrote — i’d be lying if i said i could read “murder in mumbai” the way a reader would. in my opinion, this is my greatest challenge as a writer — being able to read my own work the way i would the works of others. i know every line. and each time i read it, i face the awkward questions: is this any good? can this be improved?
of course, as an editor i know everything can be improved — all the time; forever. but i also know it’s time to let go.
and how am i doing with that? it’s a work in progress.

May 222012

It was in reading the work of Edgar P. Jacobs that I rediscovered the genius of Georges Remi, or Herge, whose birthday falls today (May 22).
Let me explain.
I began reading Herge’s best-known work, Tintin, when I was around 4 years old. (I use the term “reading” loosely because I have fond memories of scribbling inside Tintin in Tibet).


The Tintin albums had everything a young reader wanted: action, adventure, friendship, humor, even a dog. But there is a clear line between works that appeal to you when you’re a child and ones that appeal to you as an adult. Rare is the work that crosses that barrier. Tintin is prime among them.
Although the work is still anchored by action, adventure and all those characteristics I mentioned earlier, it is rooted in great storytelling, narrative, pacing and character development. Anyone who has attempted to write fiction can attest to how difficult those are (I certainly do, and the revisions to my upcoming first novel are a testament to that). But to do it repeatedly over the course of a many-decade-long career requires a rare form of genius. There were missteps, of course. There always are. Anyone who has read Tintin in Congo or Tintin in the Land of the Soviets can attest to that (not to mention Herge’s wartime actions). And a childhood favorite of mine, Flight 714, alas does not translate at adulthood (but that could merely be me). Still, it is this ability to remain meaningful in adulthood that makes Tintin special.
Which brings me to Edgar P. Jacobs.


Jabobs, a collaborator of Herge’s, had his own series of comics, Blake and Mortimer (published in English by Cinebook). They feature the adventures of a spy, Blake, and his friend Mortimer, a scientist. Much like Tintin and Haddock, they traipse across the world, chasing bad guys and their nemesis, Col. Olrik. The art is clean, as you’d expect with the ligne claire school, the characters fun and the narrative … well, the narrative ain’t Tintin. Don’t get me wrong, Blake and Mortimer are an excellent read and a great addition to the shelves of any comics fan, but Herge’s work is in a different league.
And if you don’t believe me, just pick up The Castafiore Emerald, a book seemingly about nothing, but, as Mary Poppins might say, practically perfect in every way.
Herge is, of course, undergoing a bit of a rediscovery in the U.S. thanks to the Spielberg-Jackson film. There’s a new edition of his work, unfortunately not the large-format albums much of the world knows and loves. All this is nearly 30 years after his death. Had he been alive, he’d be 105, no doubt trying to take Tintin to as-yet undiscovered realms.