The Criminal Mind of Anthony Bourdain

BourdainBelieve or not, Anthony Bourdain has a truly criminal mind.

Oh, sure, you might have gotten hints of his felonious character in the pages of his wildly entertaining memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, or on the small screen as the former chef travels the world eating strange things and getting into trouble on No Reservations and Parts Unknown.

But what even hardcore fans and casual foodies probably don’t know is that Bourdain not only has a serious jones for crime fiction but he’s one of the genre’s most gifted practitioners. They say to write what you know, and Bourdain does it to perfection by writing about the strange intersection of crime and cooking in three deft novels, two outlandish graphic novels, and one hard-to-categorize urban historical.

The One-Two Punch

Long before Kitchen Confidential was even a glimmer in the chef’s eye, Bourdain was already a well-established crime novelist. His debut novel, Bone in the Throat, was published in 1995. The book is about an up-and-coming chef, Tommy Pagano, and his misadventures working around the mob in Little Italy. While it’s clearly the work of a novice writer, it’s here that Bourdain starts to captures the sounds and smell and blistering heat of a working kitchen while also developing his own twisted sense of humor. This gets real obvious when Tommy has to explain how a hit man entered his kitchen but isn’t seen leaving.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t say anything,” Tommy tells his boss. “I mean, what am I gonna say, ‘Sorry chef, I had a couple of friends over last night and they sort of chopped a guy up with your knife and I think it’s maybe damaged a little bit’?”

Gone BambooThe author starts to stretch with his 1997 follow-up Gone Bamboo, which follows a CIA-trained assassin and his wife down to the Caribbean for semi-retirement until a mob boss in the witness protection program screws everything up. It’s a wackier setup more suited to readers who enjoy the late Elmore Leonard but Bourdain’s mouth-watering descriptions of island grills and five-star restaurants are sure to leave them hungry for more.

The Pièce de Résistance: Bobby Gold and Typhoid Mary

Bourdain has admitted plenty of times that fame and his work on television puts a dent in his writing. That may be why two of his best works came directly on the heels of Kitchen Confidential’s publication in 2000. In 2001, the chef published two new short works that demonstrate his writing at its peak.

Typhoid MaryThe first is a strange experiment that attempts to humanize a woman who has long since been demonized by history. In Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, Bourdain pays homage to Mary Mallon, the Irish cook who became an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, leading her to infect at least 50 people during her term as a cook. In a gentle remembrance, Bourdain describes traveling to Mallon’s grave in the Bronx to lay his first chef’s knife at her resting place.

Something a fellow cook would appreciate, I hoped – a once fine hunk of quality French steel – a magical fetish, a beloved piece of my personal history. And a sign of respect, I hoped, an indicator that somebody, somewhere, even long after her troubles and her dying, took her seriously, understood, if only a little bit, the difficulty of her life as a cook. It’s the king of gift I would like to receive, one that I would understand.

I looked around the graveyard, making sure that no one else was watching, leaned over and with my hands, pulled back the grass at the base of her stone. I slipped my knife down there, covered it up the way it had looked before and left it for her. It was the least I could do.

A gift. Cook to cook.

Bourdain followed up this delicate wonder with his finest work, a slender, vicious portrait of a New York bonebreaker, Bobby Gold. It’s an incredible book not because its prose is florid but because Bourdain has stripped the novel down just its elemental parts, like a chef breaking down a side of beef. It opens on Bobby in the seventies, already in trouble.

Bobby Gold at twenty-one, in a red-and-white Dead Boys T-shirt, blue jeans, high-top Nikes and handcuffs, bending over the hood of the State Police cruiser, arms behind his back, wished he was anywhere but here.

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A Little Good, A Little Bad…Bit of Both

Just popping in here to archive three very different new interviews that are up on Kirkus Reviews in recent days.

Funny GirlA little good: I first met Nick Hornby about fifteen years ago—I think he was touring behind How to Be Good, but I can’t be sure. No, come to think of it, it had to be earlier because I had a signed copy of his anthology Speaking With the Angel. That was an interesting copy. At one point, it had been signed by Nick as well as Dave Eggers, Roddy Doyle, and Helen Fielding and I’m sure I could have gotten a line on Irvine Welsh and Zadie Smith eventually. But then I went to England and it just became another one of my Lost Things.

That meeting happened not long before I became a writer myself, so it was cool to interview Nick about his terrific new novel, Funny Girl, for Kirkus Reviews. It’s a novel about a young beauty queen from Blackpool who comes to London to become a star, and does. I can testify that London always seemed that way—if you had good teeth and could knock two sentences together, it felt like you could have your own television show. I was surprised to learn that Sophie, the sparky comedienne who centers the novel, was inspired in part by Nick’s interactions with the lovely Rosamund Pike, who appears in An Education starring Carey Mulligan, with screenplay by Nick Hornby. But we also got around to talking about how An Education and Funny Girl, which are both historical set pieces set in the 1960s, naturally fell into one another, even as Hornby was writing about two very different kinds of girls.

“I suppose, both with An Education and Funny Girl, their lives are circumscribed to a certain extent by the times and expectations and barriers to where they want to be,” Hornby explained. “Young men don’t tend to have those barriers. Much of what stops them from becoming who they want to be is internal. I became interested in the perimeter fence, if you like. It’s kind of intrinsically dramatic. You definitely can’t have one without the other. I was reading a lot about the period when I was writing the movie, so that developed a real interest in the times for me. I had never written anything historical before I wrote An Education, and I really enjoyed it. In a way, it was slightly frustrating to have to stop in 1964, because I knew that the world was about to change. I wanted to find a way to write about that change from an angle. I guess the interesting thing about that kind of entertainment industry was that they weren’t as affected by the Beatles and everything else that came after.”

Coop_9780804140560_jkt_all_r1.inddA little bad: When Elmore Leonard passed away in 2013, I was bummed out for a while. Someone that influential—especially someone you met and spoke with a few times—at first you think, “Man, there aren’t going to be any more of those books now.” But then someone comes along and smacks you between the eyes with a killer tale and eventually you realize that Elmore Leonard was the Big Star of crime writers. (This observation is brought to you by the old joke that almost no one ever bought a Big Star record but every single person who did went out and started a band).

The kick-ass book that landed on my desk a while back that reminded me a lot of Elmore’s books was The Marauders by Tom Cooper. It’s a nasty little story about scumbags out in the bayou fighting over drugs and lost pirate treasure and it was really great. It reads like John D. McDonald and Elmore Leonard went out and had horrible little babies. It even got a blurb from Stephen King, who almost never comes out for this sort of thing anymore, but I think I prefer the words of fellow crime novelist Richard Lange (Sweet Nothing, 2015, etc.) who said, “It’s funny, sad, and wise, sometimes in the same sentence.”

Not that these things always go smooth. I got to track down Cooper at his lair down in NOLA, and you can read that interview in Kirkus as well. But we also got to talking about the absurdities of marketing and I got to the bottom of how a brutish crime story about one-armed treasure seekers, psychotic killers and off-the-rails drug dealers ultimately connected to…Harry Potter.

“It had a couple of crappy titles for a while,” Cooper told me. “It was called The Muck and the Mire for some time. It was only a few months later that I got a different perspective. It sounds like some kind of Fiona Apple album instead of this novel. It was also called Barataria for a while, and my editors very wisely pointed out that the title implied a familiarity with southern Louisiana that people just don’t have. They wouldn’t know what it means. It was actually a few of my ex-students who are now friends that suggested the Marauders, because of the Harry Potter connection. At first, I thought, I don’t want to make that kind of connection. Then I got to thinking about it, and I said, yeah, I would love to get connected to that thing. If I could sell some books, I would put a wizard on the cover if I could.”

The Long and Faraway GoneFinally, here’s a bit of both. Every now and then you hit a novel where once you talk to the writer you quickly find out that he has no idea at all how really gripping his book is—my guess is that once you get that close to a piece of work, you inhabit its world so fully that you can’t see it with fresh eyes anymore. That was the case with The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney. I don’t usually take “work books” with me on vacation but I happened to grab this one by accident when I took it with me to San Francisco, and it really grabbed me. Now, I knew Lou had written two solid and funny crime novels, Whiplash River and Gutshot Straight, about a retired wheelman named “Shake” Bouchon, but this new one hit me in a very different place. When I wasn’t navigating Chinatown and the Embarcadero, Berney had me wrapped up in Oklahoma City in the mid 1980s—part of it is because I’m the right age to remember what it was like growing up in rural America before the Internet and smart phones, but I can tell you that Berney captures the mood perfectly.

The book concerns a private eye named Wyatt who is forced by circumstances to return to Oklahoma City where he grew up. When he was just a kid working in a movie theater as a teenager, Wyatt was the only survivor of an armed robbery that killed six of his co-workers in cold blood. Wyatt’s counterpart in this murky story is Julianna, whose beautiful sister Genevieve disappeared from the state fair in 1986, the same summer as the theater shooting. It’s eerie stuff, drawing influences seamlessly from all sorts of noir traditions and literary styles. This thing even came out in trade paperback first, so I highly recommend picking it up when you get chance. As it happens, I did manage to interview Lou a few weeks later and we talked about some of the things that influenced The Long and Faraway Gone.

“One of my favorite novelists is Tana French, the Irish writer,” Berney told me. “I love In The Woods, which I didn’t read until I started this novel, but it has the same kind of central issue where something happens to the main character long ago and there are no easy answers. What I took from her book is that as long as you answer the main mysteries, you can leave other things unsaid, which feels real. I like the idea that Wyatt is never going to know why he was left alive. You can’t leave him on the hook. It’s too easy. You have to make sure you cover all the other bases or I feel you’re cheating as a writer.”

I also did what I find myself doing with most crime writers lately, which is to delve into the perceived differences between crime writers and so-called “literary fiction” writers. You know where I stand—I think people like Tana French and Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane are doing some of the finest writing of the 21st century and will happily put any of their work up against something like Cloud Atlas or Haruki Murakami any day of the week. But I can’t seem to stop myself from asking these guys where they see themselves in the big picture, and Berney had thoughtful things to say.

“I am playing around in the pool but I have deep and abiding respect for the work that is being done and has been done,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of great writers like Ross Thomas who didn’t get their due, so it’s nice to see people in the genre getting their due now. I think there’s just so much opportunity to stretch in crime. It’s not limiting. You can be Dennis Lehane or you can be Donald Westlake or you can be Laura Lippman or Sara Paretsky. It’s such a big tent and there’s so much opportunity to write exactly what you want to write. I’ve been able to write these two fast, fun crime novels in the vein of Elmore Leonard but I’m also able to write this new book, and my publisher is thrilled about all of it. It’s not a narrow genre so I never feel like I’m trapped in a cage. That’s incredibly liberating, to be able to do anything you want in a crime book.”

That seems as good a place to stop as any: do anything that you want to. Seems like fair advice for clean living, right?

Pigeonholed

I think about genre a lot. I don’t mean in the sense that I’m trying to come to some kind of deeper understanding of a swath of literature, but in the sense that I still don’t understand it after all this time. I think it came from one of my first interviews with the Scottish novelist Ian Rankin. I don’t think it made the original feature, but he talked about discovering crime fiction in the first place.

“I started reading crime fiction the final year of my studies instead of reading about Muriel Spark,” he said. “I was reading Chandler and Hammett and Ruth Rendell and P.D. James.  Immediately, I liked the strong sense of place that you get in crime fiction, the strong central character, the traditional storytelling with that strong sense of a beginning, a middle and an end.  I like the games that you can play in a crime novel.  I found that everything I want to say about the world I can say quite nicely in the crime genre, so why do anything else? They were also the kinds of books that my Dad read.  I thought, do I want to spend seven years at university writing books that are only read by people at university, like James Joyce’s Ulysses or do I want to write the kind of books my Dad would read?  It was a pretty simple answer.”

The next few features are a good example of the width and depth of a specific genre. Painted in broad strokes, all of these novels can comfortably be pitched into the mystery section or an airport bookstore and do quite well, but they’re all so very different that it’s easy to see how badly “genre” can be characterized sometimes.

The AccidentI suppose the most recent feature I’ve published is this interview with novelist Chris Pavone about his new novel The Accident. Pavone, of course, is the former cookbook editor who hit it big with The Ex-Pats, his chronicle of expatriate life that accidentally turned into a huge thriller. The Accident is another stand-alone novel set in the interconnected world of Pavone’s novels, with curious cameos from players from The Ex-Pats. As it often goes, I was surprised to learn that Pavone didn’t even know that he was writing a thriller when he set about writing his first novel. For having such a clear, propulsive voice, the author has very little knowledge or expertise in crime fiction.

“Because I don’t immerse myself in crime novels, I wasn’t following any particular formula, ” he explained. “The Ex-Pats is more influenced by good, caper-y movies than it is by crime novels. There’s something about the sort of set piece of a tight cast of characters who are all lying to one another about almost everything that felt to me a little more like a play or a movie than a book. Very often, books have far wider-ranging action and characters than the Ex-Pats did. I did have in mind – it was very cinematic to me. I was always trying to establish a visual for each sequence and have the action be very dialogue-driven without focusing on chases or violence, but just people lying to each other. I don’t read a lot of books about that kind of duplicity.”

More on guns, dames and the disappeared after the jump. Continue reading

Altered States

I am returned from a well-deserved vacation in the wilds of Florida, so I suppose it’s probably time for me to do the round-up of stories from the past couple of months.

DrewSpeaking of Florida, I was happy to start the year by speaking with promising young novelist Drew Perry about his comedic novel Kids These Days. I really enjoyed his first novel, This Is Just Exactly Like You, about a man trying to keep his family together and a rather poignant portrayal of the challenges of raising an autistic child. In “A Life Gone Sideways,” at Kirkus Reviews, we talked about the bizarre garishness of the Sunshine State (which I found very much intact during my own travels), not to mention the bizarre nature of being a parent. Not having any myself, I was surprised to find that Drew was not in fact an evangelist for parenthood.

“I might even be the opposite,” he admitted.”We don’t talk so much about how hard it is to have kids. I think there is this ‘Have Kids! The Musical!’ vibe out there sometimes. I think we should be more open about what a disaster it can be. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t also admit that I can be one of those a-hole dads standing around the grill saying it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” We also found that we can definitely relate around a general feeling of nervousness, not to mention that enduring sense of humor about the world’s weirdness.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as anxiety proper, but I’m definitely made nervous by a world in which so much hard can befall us with absolutely no warning,” he explained. “But if I didn’t find the strangeness of the world funny, I’d be doomed. I think ‘coping mechanism’ is too easy a way to describe it but I delight in the strangeness of things. I have a buddy who calls up and leaves messages like, ‘Hey, I just wanted to call and let you know that I passed a guy out on Battleground Avenue beating a stop sign with a chain and I thought that would be the sort of thing you would like.’ It’s those little things that I hold onto in order to stitch the world back together.”

“It was the sort of day that didn’t give a damn.”

ImageI was absolutely thrilled to interview Martin Cruz Smith. I lost track of him a little bit in the past few years but he was hugely influential on my own writing and certainly helped to spark the interest in crime fiction and espionage novels that drove me to write a crime column for a full five years over at Bookslut and keeps me immersed in the subject to this day.

I was far less thrilled this morning to find that the author revealed today to the New York Times that he has been living with Parkinson’s Disease since 1995, but I thought he handled the revelation in an incredibly graceful way. My personal experience speaking with him was terrific, as he offered sharp insights about his beloved and much put-upon anti-hero, Arkady Renko. I really appreciated his sense of humor and his candor, and wish him only the best as he continues working on his new book.

This feature survived mostly intact, but did require a few nips and tucks here and there. Here’s a little bonus for the couple of you that have found your way here—a humorous thought from the author about the bullet fragment still lodged in Arkady Renko’s brain. It’s the “ticking time bomb” that suddenly takes on a lot more meaning in the wake of today’s news.

It certainly wouldn’t be an Arkady Renko novel without a significant amount of mayhem, usually directed at the Inspector Detective himself. In addition to the lurking ghost of that bullet in his head, within pages Smith has his favorite character beaten to a pulp.

Image

Martin Cruz Smith in the Lenin Suite at the National Hotel circa 1990.

“I’m surprised that Arkady puts up with how I treat him, honestly,” Smith laughs.. “What drives me crazy—and I can’t read these kinds of books—are those stories where the lead characters are invulnerable. They get out of bed the next day and knife wounds have turned into mosquito bites. He’s stuck, of course, with a writer whose idea is to bring in a brain surgeon to warn him not to put himself in any more danger, and I immediately throw him back in the pit.”

ImageIf you read any of the breaking news about Smith’s new novel Tatiana, you’ll quickly figure out that his title character is based on the heroic journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down outside her Moscow apartment seven years ago now. I would greatly encourage anybody who finds this story compelling to seek out her work. If you would like to get a sense of her, you can start with “Chronicle of Repression,” my review of her last released work, A Russian Diary, from the Rocky Mountain News.

Life of Crime

Author’s Note: An abridged version of this essay appeared at Kirkus Reviews.

“Ah, hell.”

This, said aloud as my wife and I returned from the gym this morning. She knew immediately that someone had died, because it’s what I always say when I skim the news in the morning and stumble across something sad. It’s the exact same thing I said when Hunter Thompson committed suicide in 2005, and when Don Westlake skipped out on us on a Mexican vacation in 2008.

“Who is it,” she asked.

“Elmore Leonard passed away,” I said. She knew, as I did, that Leonard had a stroke a few weeks ago, but not much else.Elmore Leonard

“Is he the cranky one?”

“Which cranky one,” I asked.

“The one who was really mean.”

“No,” I said, wondering which one of the half-a-dozen mean-spirited crime novelists I had interviewed, to my delight. In her head, James Ellroy is the one in the pink sweater vest, Richard Price is the guy who wrote that Tom Cruise movie, and… now I think I know which one she thinks is the mean one, but we’ll leave that for another day.

“No,” I said. “He was really very gentle. Well-spoken. He was nice.”

I didn’t know Elmore Leonard, not well enough to comfortably call him “Dutch,” but I liked him a hell of a lot. I don’t even think he was the most gifted crime novelist in the trade, but I think he had as much influence on pop culture as nearly anyone in the genre in the past fifty years.

I first met him in 2000, long before I started writing book reviews and interviewing authors. He had come to the Tattered Cover in Denver to promote one of my favorite novels of his, Pagan Babies. It was the pinnacle of that incredible decade when Leonard managed to produce Rum Punch, Out of Sight, the novels that inspired Justified, not to mention Get Shorty and Be Cool. I don’t remember too much about the encounter except that the great author laughed out loud when I called Out of Sight a romance novel. He thought that novel had been misinterpreted, and that it was indeed a love story. I think he was happy when Steven Soderburgh got it right with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.

I finally got to interview him in 2007 for the historical novel Up In Honey’s Room. That was quite a day. I was working on the Mystery Special for Kirkus Reviews and had to squeeze in Elmore Leonard between Donald Westlake and Walter Mosley just before Christmas.

I was always impressed how easy it was to talk about his work. “I have a good time writing books, and I don’t want it to be work, ever,” he said, which may have been a clue to why it was so easy for him. This, despite being the guy who wrote his “Ten Rules of Writing” for The New York Times partially as a solution to the “Where do you get your ideas?” question that grates on writers of his caliber. He also spoke about his predilection for writing about criminals rather than law enforcement.

“I like to write about the criminals because most of them are either dumb, or it’s a guy who’s made a mistake,” he said. “While he might be trying to go straight, you never know what he’s going to do next because he has the ability to break the law. I kind of like these guys. I really have affection for them, even the bad guys. The poor guys are just dumb. I could never do, for example, a serial killer, because I could never find any affection for somebody who just wants to kill people.”

I also liked—and continue to like in current pulp writers—the fact that there is never any pretension in people like Elmore Leonard about why they write in “The Genre.” (Bear in mind, this is a guy who lived to see 3:10 to Yuma, The Big Bounce and 52-Pick-Up made into movies. Twice. Each.)

“It was always the market,” he told me. “With westerns, all the pulp magazines were done by the end of the 1950’s. Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post were paying the most for westerns, but they were even done. That was my goal, just to hit the slick magazines with my westerns. But my agents at the time said my stories were a little too relentless.”

“These stores always appeal because there are obvious good guys and bad guys,” he continued. “There is also always an ending to the story, unlike literary fiction, where you’re not always sure what the point is. Ed McBain and I were on Good Morning America once and we were asked to what we attributed the renewed interest in crime fiction. We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘We thought they were always popular.’”

Crime, yes. Mysteries, not so much. “I have never considered my books mysteries,” he said. “There’s no mystery to it. The reader always knows what’s going on. But there is always a crime. There’s always a crime. There’s always a gun.”

I caught up with him the following year to talk about Road Dogs, the novel that brought back Jack Foley from Out of Sight, as well as Cundo Rey from La Brava and Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap. It was a good conversation—a lot of talk of prison culture and Jack Foley’s nature—“He just can’t stop,” Leonard said. “He’s robbed too many now. In my mind, he will rob another bank. The cops are waiting when he comes out, but that’s a mistake; he’s just opening an account. But I want the reader to always wonder if he’s going to rob a bank again. There’s always a chance.”

Then something happened that still makes me smile to remember him. Leonard was on page eight of the novel that would become Djibouti, his second-to-last novel to be published to date, including last year’s Raylan. He gave me the rundown of the plot as he understood it at the time—he never knew the ending when he began a book—and then says, “Hang on, and I’ll read you what I have so far.” And then he proceeded to read me the beginning of Djibouti right from his typewriter.

There will be lots of tributes coming down now, already starting with The New York Times and other news outlets, all of which will cover Leonard’s extraordinary career in detail. I’ll be interested to see what his fellow writers have to say myself. For now, I’m just really glad to have met him, and spoken with him about a lifetime’s worth of great stories. I will always remember him as a guy in a Detroit suburb, happily banging away on a typewriter.

I’ll leave you with a nice moment that Leonard shared with me at the end of one of our conversations.

“I threw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game,” he said. “It wasn’t a special occasion, but I did get to throw out the first pitch. I practiced for it that morning. I went out in the backyard and measured out sixty feet and I kept throwing at a wire fence to make sure I could throw it in a straight line. When, when you get to the ballpark, they don’t want you messing up the mound, so you’re only 50 feet from home plate.”

elinuniform“It was a lot of fun,” he remembered. “The first time I ever got on the (Detroit Tigers) field, I was with Mike Lupica. He took me down on the field and introduced me to Ernie Harwell and the guys. I told them, for fifty years, I been wanting to come down here. Ernie Harwell says, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’”

Home run, Dutch. Rest easy.