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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

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