We had a power shortage at Eel Swamp. When that happens everything seems to shut down from computers to water pumps. People tumble out of their houses with a vaguely confused look, standing in the street, looking around as if the Power Gods might roll up in a van and reconnect them to their lives.
While the power was out, crime continued. A local man was shot in the field, on his motorbike, as he was on his way to tend to his horses. His sister reported hearing seven shots. In another news, a Pattaya police sting operation went sideways and two people were killed in the ensuing gunfight.
Daily life has this riptide of uncertainty and evil that pulls you out of your depth, disturbing you life and threatening to harm you. Sometimes these forces blow out your lights. Other times they extinguish, like blowing out a candle, a couple of human lives. Crime is one of those things that even a power shortage can’t stop. But the crimes that happened this Friday will never be reported outside of Thailand, and likely won’t receive much coverage here. The rough and tumble of life isn’t all that newsworthy.
What captures the attention of the press are crimes and big time crime bosses. Marlon Brando in the Godfather comes to mind. Al Capone with his trademark cigar. Big John Gotti in his expensively tailored suits. Every culture has an equivalent set of figures who cross the stage of life and then fade into the past as memories of them, no longer fed by the press, dim and their replacements take center stage.
This has been the natural cycle of crime and the bosses who head the organized criminal activities. It has also cycled through countless books, movies and TV series. My feeling is that times have changed and along with that change has come a revision of who are the crime bosses. We have moved beyond the iconic Godfather. The public reconfiguration of the identity of crime bosses is one plausible explanation for the popularity of crime fiction around the world. Who are they? What role do the new digital media play in exposing them and their activities?
The new crime bosses are investment bankers, hedge fund managers, corporate CEOs, and politicians of one type or another. They have advanced university degrees. These men and women know how to rob a bank without a gun. They appear in posh magazines, at film openings, and support the arts. But unlike the old days, not everyone is fooled. The International Criminal Court has been busy trying some of these big time criminals. And in the future they will likely get a shot at a new crop of political leaders.
The public, if not the courts and prosecutors, have been criminalizing economic and social conduct for as long as we’ve lived in villages and cities. The major change is that with the Internet we have internationalized criminal bosses. They are no longer just locally recognized faces; the modern new crop of criminal bosses are on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. They are known to billions.
They represent a different breed of crime boss, and belong to a different category of criminal conduct. In the past we have been content to allow the authorities the power to define crime and the criminals who commit them. Now people are waking up and talking about how this game ‘we define the crime’ has been largely rigged from the start in favor of the elites.
The idea is spreading that around the world we’ve all been sleep walking. That self-delusion about modern economic and political criminal networks has allowed masses of people to become victims without a remedy. The people who died in my neighborhood today will sadly leave behind grieving relatives and friends. But beyond that circle of sadness and despair, the ripples won’t wash to your shore. Government officials who use torture, disappearance, extra-judicial killings create the kind of ripples that wash over your head. Sooner or later, as the sanction of the State launders the crime, exonerates the actors, and is sold as protecting the public.
Crime fiction authors have moved into this field of gray. A place haunted by forces larger than any old-fashioned crime boss. The best crime novels reveal a noir-like world where even the most law-abiding citizen may find himself mugged not by a drug addict but by a hedge fund manager that invested his life savings in mortgages. Everywhere I go on the Internet, I find a growing anger and resentment, as people are no longer willing to adjust to spending their lives inside extended crime families that would have made Capone and Gotti green with envy. The Arab Spring as an example of people seeking to replace the old crime syndicates that pretended to be governments.
The future holds a rich store of experience for the crime author. And the best ones are coming around to the view that readers are interested in novels where the conflict in crime reflects this new breed of criminals who don’t look like criminals and are treated like celebrities. It doesn’t take much digging to find examples of public indignation when one of the new bosses is trapped, cornered and exposed.
It’s a time for self-examination and reflection. As the passions run high, we’d do well to consider this quote from Noam Chomsky:
“I’ve reviewed a lot of the literature on this, and it’s close to universal. We just cannot adopt toward ourselves the same attitudes that we adopt easily and in fact, reflexively, when others commit crimes. No matter how strong the evidence.”