by Gary Phillips
I suspect the reason strongmen and dictators don’t ask mystery writers to their parties is they’re worried these writers might not only read something from one of their books bumming out the gathered with passages about desperate characters taking desperate measures – and thus a not-so-subtle rallying cry to the downtrodden in their land – but one of these writers might make some extemporaneous comment about those hungry kids with their noses pressed to the windows of the castle.
Because generally speaking, writers of various political persuasion and stripes, Ayn Rand being an exception, tend to stand up for the put upon, and have a sense of fair play and justice that comes through in their work. Some of them are compelled by what they write to other walks of life. Clare Booth Luce wrote the insightful The Woman among other Broadway plays and became a congresswoman, and another playwright and novel writer, Václav Havel, was part of the dissident movement to free his country from the Soviet Bloc and became the last president of Czechoslovakia. While as a teenager Chris Abani was jailed and tortured in his native Nigeria for publishing a near future novel and went on to edit the anthology Lagos Noir in this country.
I’m not looking to get jailed and tortured or even run for office (another form of torture), I just want a little luv and recognition this far in the writer’s game. If it can’t be topping the bestseller lists or getting on Lady Gaga’s best books tweet, how about some cushy speaking engagements? Isn’t that what all the book pr people say you should do? You’ve written a book about gardening and murder, get on the gardening circuit as these folks might not be mystery readers, but may dig (ha) your book for the gardening angle.
Mind you I’ve had a few gigs where a college or an organization has actually paid me to come speak as well as sold my books — and there’s only a few things sweeter than this let me tell you. But nothing like recently when Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a human rights violator, invited actors Hilary Swank and Jean Claude Van Damme (JCVD to his buddies), along with singer Seal and Vanessa-Mae, who I had to google to find out she’s a techno violinist, to his birthday bash. I gather none of these performers had a previous relationship with the president or are of Chechen ancestry. The four were paid to pay tribute to their number one fan in the Northern Caucuses. Now I’m not down with Kadyrov, but it’s not like Russia has a sterling human rights record in regards to Chechnya either. Still, Kadyrov knew better than invite a writer.
But in my heart of hearts, I want to be tempted like those aforementioned chuckleheads were by money or power or sex – okay, not sex, my wife would kill me. But like schlub Walter Huff in Double Indemnity or Kid Collins in After Dark, My Sweet, wouldn’t it be heady to have the temptation dangled in front of you? To see if you would bite? This is why I write crime and mystery stories. They’re cathartic. I get to live in the skin of my main character for awhile but don’t have to suffer their fate. Okay, I’ve died a thousand times with my characters to bastardize the title of the ‘50s remake of High Sierra, but only psychically.
Like William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic, I want room service, dammit! I want the club sandwich sans crust, the cold Mexican beer and my shirts laundered and pressed just so. I want to be on the dictators paid performers’ list so I can turn him down. Or if I went, it would be for the research.
Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Gary Phillips has a short story in TPAC’s upcoming Dead of Winter e-anthology, and his action-adventure novel, The Perpetrators, is available as an e-book from Down & Out Books.