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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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.