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Where do Authors Come From? A Speech by Harlan Wolff

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Author Harlan Wolf At the Bangkok South Rotary ClubHarlan was recently asked to give a speech to the Bangkok South Rotary Club and today he fulfilled that request. I think his words show great insight into the mind of an author and just what we can expect in the future from this talented new author. T. Bull

“Distinguished Rotarians, Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for inviting me to speak at your lunch. It is an honour to be here. It took me by surprise though, as it is highly unusual for a private detective to be invited into the inner sanctum as it were. I can only imagine two possible reasons for this invitation. The first is that such a distinguished group has absolutely nothing to hide, and the other is that this was all a terrible mistake and I was in fact invited in my capacity as author of detective fiction. I’m going with the latter. So my speech today will be about writing detective fiction.

 

 

Where Do Authors Come From? Writing has often been described as a form of madness, so perhaps it comes from an emotional trauma or a blow to the head in childhood. It’s certainly a mental illness, but I believe it is a gentle kind of madness that manifests itself in the form of a compulsion. I don’t think the writer has much say in it at all. I believe he can’t help himself; he has to write.

Writers are notoriously prone to extreme vanity, alcoholism, self-indulgent bouts of depression, drug use, an addiction to eccentric clothing, lack of social skills, womanizing, divorce, and extreme financial irresponsibility. Unfortunately – there are also some negative things about being a writer. You don’t wake up one morning and say ‘I think I will become an author today.’  It’s more of a gradual progression towards the desk and the typewriter. There are words and sentences and stories flying around in your head and if you don’t write them down you know you will never find peace. Eventually you surrender to the realization that you don’t have a choice and you begin writing. This is fueled by the vanity that there are people out there that will be interested in what you have to say. In most cases this is not true. I have been lucky in this regard, but I had an advantage. I am very fortunate that people find detectives fascinating. An astonishing five out of the UK’s top ten bestsellers last year were whodunits. Writing a story about a private detective is a definite advantage.

I found myself with a limited choice as to my subject matter, because I strongly believe a writer should write about what he knows, so I created a fictional Bangkok private detective. It was the obvious choice because that’s exactly what I was. This process has often led me to wonder why the audience craves such characters and I have reached some conclusions.

The private detective in literature is not a new invention; it’s more a case of historical plagiarism. Raymond Chandler, although an American, had a formal British public school education. His character Philip Marlowe is no more than an errant knight from the books Chandler was given to read at school. Rumour has it that he originally intended to call his detective ‘Mallory’ after the author that wrote the medieval classic ‘The death of Arthur,’ about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. So my deduction is that the literary detective is actually a medieval knight complete with a holy grail, dragon, and at least one damsel in distress. Dashiell Hammett also understood this and he created the most famous private detective’s holy grail of all time, the Maltese Falcon. Hammett didn’t hide his intention and made his black bird an obvious metaphor for a holy grail by clearly stating it originated from the medieval Knights Templar.

My claim is that the modern private detective is the knight-errant of medieval fiction. A quixotic figure, spiritually lost at sea trying to make sense of the world through clever acts of deduction and an undying belief in chivalry. A search for the meaning of life accompanied by an audience of one. Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza, Sherlock Holmes had his Watson and Samuel Spade had his loyal, maternal, asexual secretary. There must always be an audience otherwise the hero would lack credibility. That fine line between genius and madness, and all that.

The fictional detective’s job is to make sense of the world we live in, to restore order. To comfort us with the reassurance that everything makes sense, because all that we have been lacking is the right person to guide us. This is the hardest part of writing fiction. Fiction is said to be harder to write than non-fiction. You see, the real difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to make sense. Take a knight-errant, stick him in the twenty-first century, then add a damsel in distress, a dragon, and a cleverly disguised holy grail; now make it totally believable. As you can see, it gets rather complicated.

You can’t throw any old damsel in there either; she needs to be part of the problem. Whereas, the detective although cynical, is quite naive and dysfunctional in matters of everyday life, she clearly isn’t. She is Machiavellian and extremely knowledgeable in the ways of the world. The formula has been described as, ‘a woman with a past and a man with no future.’ Our dysfunctional detective is supposed to retrieve the grail and save the damsel from the dragon whilst wearing a crumpled suit that he must also sleep in. Clearly our hero does not require a large wardrobe.

Murder is another essential part of the formula. The murderer is the monster or dragon that the knight must overcome using his great courage and street-wise cunning. We find ourselves fascinated by murderers and the more despicable they are the better. We don’t want our heroes too clean and wholesome either. Grumpy and misogamist complete with some very bad habits is best. Booze, gambling, fast cars, obsessive compulsive disorder, generally rude and antisocial, drug addiction, attracted to women who are short on virtue, a fanatical commitment to the collection of model soldiers even. Private detectives have to be slightly crazy or they wouldn’t last very long on those mean streets out there.

The genius of Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon was that it turns out there wasn’t really a holy grail and the damsel in distress was also the monster and so obviously beyond saving. We could see all that, and yet investigator Sam Spade is still tasked with guiding us through the maze and making sense of it all, which he does brilliantly. Sam Spade is the classic diamond in the rough that gets the job done no matter what the personal price. Dashiell Hammett’s book is allegorical and not to be underestimated.

Are real life private detectives brave and noble knights trying to save the world? Unfortunately not! I have never met one that fits that bill and no longer expect to. Private detectives are a rather motley crew in my experience. I find they are best avoided whenever possible. That is why we all prefer the fictional ones. The real world is just as grimy and complex, but the solutions are typically far from perfect. The real life private detective does not have the luxury of a well laid out plot and the support of the author’s pen. To quote John Le Carre, ‘Questions are not dangerous, only the answers.’

I came to Bangkok in 1977. Too late for the coup but I got here just in time for martial law and the curfew. I didn’t intend to stay for thirty-nine years. I certainly didn’t intend to become a private detective. These things happen in Thailand though. It’s that kind of place. To say it has been interesting would be a huge understatement. A roller-coaster ride with failing brakes, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I prefer to see the last few decades as an essential and excellent apprenticeship for the aspiring novelist in me.

One interesting thing I have discovered is that people in Thailand see the world of crime differently to us, and their heroes are far more likely to be the criminals and not the detectives. This was brought home to me one day when a beautiful and well-educated woman asked me what being a private detective entailed. I was in boastful mood and told her about a couple of my most exciting cases, “I dealt with a murder for an Asian royal family and I handled Bangkok’s most high profile expatriate kidnapping,” I told her proudly. Her eyes got bigger and she looked at me with a newly acquired respect and asked, “But isn’t that dangerous? Weren’t you worried that you might get caught?”

The master criminal was obviously much more her cup of tea than a humble private detective that charged by the day, plus expenses. I imagine her today, in a penthouse, shacked up with a white-collar criminal who goes to the gym three times a day and has no self-doubt whatsoever. She sleeps late and drinks Champagne for breakfast. I picture her sitting up in bed in a chiffon nightdress; Champagne flute held seductively in her left hand, one breast slightly exposed reflecting the morning sun. He waves at her from the bedroom door as he leaves for his nefarious day’s work in a shiny silk Brioni hand-stitched suit from Italy. I bet he doesn’t have to walk into dark alleyways in the middle of the night or sleep upright in an armchair in yesterday’s crumpled suit. The lucky bastard.

Apart from private detectives the other characters that are close to my heart are spies and journalists. My imagination took shape in the grey world of John Le Carre’s Cold War heroes and Graham Greene’s fallen journalists. Unfortunately spies and journalists have recently lost their lustre and it seems we need some new fictional ones more than ever. The size and scope of the recent dramatic events involving Edward Snowden are of interest to me, a rather ordinary looking man, but history, I believe, will be far more interested in the Internet phenomenon that he became a part of and not so much about him as a person. What has made him public enemy number one and different to all the other whistle-blowers out there is how widely his news and online posts have been read. He is not a spy, even though that is what we are told he is. Absolutely not! Spies are something else entirely.

Spying was known as The Great Game. This was first used to describe the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British and Russian empires for the control of Central Asia. The term Great Game has been claimed to have been invented by an intelligence officer from the British East India Company in the nineteenth century. It was made known to the general public in 1901 by Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim. I suppose it can be said that Rudyard Kipling was the first person to post classified information that went viral.

I believe it was called The Great Game because that is what it has always been, a game. Even a superficial search into the recent history of spying will inform you that since World War Two spying became such a game that the British Secret Service, the CIA, and the KGB all knew what was going on in each other’s offices. Moles, corrupt civil servants, military officers looking for a new home, they were all at it. In Vienna at the height of the Cold War all the spies drank in the same hotel bar – the bar off the lobby of the Hotel De France. They must have had some interesting drunken conversations. Nobody cared and the game went on regardless, it still does.

Perhaps these clandestine organizations enjoyed their game so much that they did whatever it took to keep it alive. Their respective government’s solution to the Cold War arms race was called MAD. It really was! It stood for ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ and it was the high altar of the Cold War zealots. I like to believe that the spies worked together to prevent the world going completely MAD. Why wouldn’t they? They all knew each other and they certainly wouldn’t want to hear the final whistle and find themselves out of a job. The game was obviously far too much fun to let that happen. So spies may have served a useful purpose after all.

I don’t think governments are scared of spies. I think what gives them the sleepless nights are journalists. Journalists, it seems, are the enemies of the modern state. They are the purveyors of the secrets, not the spies. When Edward Snowden’s declarations went viral he became a de facto journalist. That’s what journalists are supposed to do, speak truth to the masses. Not many do nowadays. It’s far too dangerous. Real journalists already knew that. Edward Snowden didn’t know that. I think he does now!

I have a few detective stories to write first but I have an itch to reinvent the spy novel as detective fiction. A modern spy operating under journalistic cover, written in the tradition of The Maltese Falcon and Don Quixote, with a little bit of James Bond thrown in for laughs. A man whose mission, should he choose to accept it, is simply to speak the truth without fear of consequence. A hero that is always ready to enter a bar-fight or jump across rooftops in a crumpled suit to achieve this. I could make him a rugged man with a Borsalino hat who doesn’t crack under questioning, and I can put a blonde in his bed that won’t press charges. We need such a hero today more than ever, and I don’t see one out there. Perhaps it is my job to invent one.”

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About Harlan Wolff

Harlan Wolff is from London. He has lived in Thailand since 1977 and is a successful Private Investigator and troubleshooter specializing in major crime and serious corporate issues. He began writing after his 50th birthday claiming he had at last acquired sufficient ammunition for his pen. The first book in the series 'Bangkok Rules' is a gritty and real account of a Bangkok based PI's milieu. Harlan is presently working on the second book which will be published early 2014.

8 comments

  1. “Writers are notoriously prone to extreme vanity, alcoholism, self-indulgent bouts of depression, drug use, an addiction to eccentric clothing, lack of social skills, womanizing, divorce, and extreme financial irresponsibility. Unfortunately – there are also some negative things.”

    Perfect!!

  2. I need to reread with a pen and paper. I’m not normally drawn to the detective novel, but you’re making me feel I ought to experiment a little.

  3. This is such an intelligently written piece that it immediately had me hooked from paragraph #1. I think you just gained another fan. Impeccable.

  4. Today more than ever…indeed. Can’t wait for your invention. Love your writing Harlan. Thank you!

  5. “A gentle kind of madness” indeed. I love that phrase. I also enjoyed your knight, damsel & dragon comparison. I hadn’t thought of the private detective novel in that way, but it makes so much sense. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Harlan Wolff is a notorious pro-military coup, pro-military dictatorship Expat in Thailand who is aligned with the AgitProp blogger Michael Pirsch who pens many rightwing and royalist rants under various monikers, Tony Cartalucci, LandDestroyer, AltThaiNews, etc.

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