… and crime travel

I didn’t have a passport until I was approaching my 23rd birthday. But that didn’t stop me from travelling far and wide.

Calcutta was a truly cosmopolitan city in those days; people from many cultures would pass through. While one generation of people, rooted in empire, left to find those roots, another, younger generation came for the first time, to “find themselves”. People like Allen Ginsberg. Like the Beatles and Eric Clapton. Like Steve Jobs.

This gentle exodus and influx of foreigners prevailed throughout my youth, and that was one way I left Indian shores, just by spending time with visitors. Some of those visitors stayed, and that’s part of what made Calcutta Calcutta.

I guess I lived trilingually, much like many of my friends and relatives. English was my lingua franca and the language I studied in, the language I conversed with foreigners in. Tamil was what I used to communicate with my mother and with my grandmother. And Bengali was for everything and everyone else.

[I suspect we made a point of not saying we spoke Hindi. The unwritten rule in those days was that every state with a coastline “refused” to speak Hindi and toyed with the idea of seceding from the coastless centre of India, where all the Hindi speakers hung out. At least that’s the way it seemed to me].

When it came to culture, however, the trilingualness faded, everyone accepted the opium of Hindi film music into their lives…. along with the local Baul and the deep-south Carnatic and the traditional classical. And particularly in the cities, even more particularly where English was the language of school, there was a deep English-language based cultural flow: music, literature, the arts in general.

These things represented a second method of travel for the passportless me. We studied other cultures. We listened to their music. We watched their films. We enacted their plays, read their poetry out aloud. [Many years ago, I wrote about the sheer breadth of the songs we used to sing at school, something I still marvel about today.]

Most of us didn’t have passports. Most of us travelled anyway. Vicariously. In many ways.

One of those ways was by being voracious readers. And one road that some of us travelled more often than others was that of detective fiction. [Over time, the genre has broadened to include “mystery” and “suspense” and “thriller”, but when I was doing the travelling at home in Calcutta it was really detective fiction].

We learnt about the 19th century via the America of Edgar Allan Poe and the Britain of Wilkie Collins. People like Chesterton and Philips Oppenheim and Baroness Orczy took us into 2oth century Europe, and then the Agatha Christies and Dorothy Sayers and John Creaseys carried on where they left off. We went into the 1930s New York brownstone of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe; the Paris of Simenon’s Maigret; the courtrooms of Erle Stanley Gardner; the Amsterdam of Freeling’s Van der Valk; the Po Valley through the eyes of Guareschi’s Don Camillo. We discovered a new America through the Ross Macdonalds, the Richard Starks, the Robert Parkers, the Ed McBains.

We travelled. Far and wide. While never leaving our seats.

That travel was place-travel. While we did travel back in time, the only reason we did that was because the books were written at that time, they were contemporaneous accounts of the culture.

I think Georgette Heyer was the first person to make me travel in space and time; I don’t speak here of her Regency romances but her detective fiction. She let me taste something I really liked, a hybrid genre: historical detective fiction.

That’s a big field now. I’ve read most of the players, and the standout author for me in the hybrid is Michael Pearce. If you haven’t been to the 19th century Egypt of the Mamur Zapt, you haven’t lived. If you really haven’t, and if you like detective fiction, then you have so much joy awaiting. Michael Pearce is amazing.

More recently, my historical-detective cup has runneth over a few times, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t selfishly hold on to my spoils.

Jason Goodwin was the first to make a real impact on me, with The Janissary Tree, featuring Yashim, a eunuch wandering around early 19th century Turkey. He’s put out four or five books over the last decade or so, and they’re all excellent.

More recently, I came across Miranda “MJ” Carter. Her Blake and Avery books are absolute must-reads for people like me. I found the Strangler Vine unputdownable. I think she’s not fair on me, since her books have much to do with historical Calcutta and historical London… the only two cities in the world I’ve really lived in. I’m reading The Devil’s Feast right now and it is brilliant.

And only a few weeks ago, I chanced upon Abir Mukherjee. Was introduced to Sam Wyndham in A Rising Man. And became hooked.

Michael Pearce and the Mamur Zapt made me yearn for something, something rare, something beautiful. Now, with Miranda Carter, Abir Mukherjee and Jason Goodwin, I have three people who let me really enjoy myself travelling in space and time while reading good detective fiction. My thanks to all four people for having enriched my life.



Three lies about social software

Lie 1: Social software causes groupthink and herd behaviour

I’ve never quite worked out why people think this is the case; for a long time I just assumed this was a misconception held by those who’d never really experienced or used social software in earnest.

Then I read Kathy Sierra’s post on One of Us is Smarter than All of Us, and suddenly everything fell into place. [By the way, I really like her Past Favourites section, it makes it really easy and convenient to find a prior post.

People who believe that social software foments groupthink are similar to people who believe that Wisdom-Of-Crowds is about herd instinct. Here’s a quote from Kathy’s post:

  • Where I had it wrong is that his book’s premise (wisdom of crowds) comes with qualifiers.
    The wisdom of crowds comes not from the consensus decision of the group, but from the aggregation of the ideas/thoughts/decisions of each individual in the group.
  • At its simplest form, it means that if you take a bunch of people and ask them (as individuals) to answer a question, the average of each of those individual answers will likely be better than if the group works together to come up with a single answer.

It’s really like scaling up Belbin-like team dynamics on a gigantic scale. The “team” represented by a given blog community is actually a collection of incredibly diverse people, with common interests rather than common views. Much of what I learn from comments on my blog is from the extensions, the qualifiers, the provisos, even the complete disagreements. This is not groupthink, it’s anything but.

Humanity is a collection of individuals. A very long tail. 19th century marketing really loved pigeonholing people, and pigeonholed people may well have acted like Gadarene swine. [Talking about Gadarene swine. Many years ago, when I commuted in to London on the A4, getting ready for another day on the treadmill, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the Good Morning Lemmings sgraffito on the motorway stanchions. Made me remember to get off the treadmill before I got to work. Incidentally, if you want to see what I saw, here’s a link to a Hilary Paynter sketch on the topic]

Lie 2: Social software is full of inaccuracies and downright lies

You only have to read things like the Pew Internet report to figure out what percentage of blogs and wikis and IM are to do with reportage. Most of this space is taken up by observation, comment and opinion, not “reported facts”. I guess you have to be pretty arrogant before you can dismiss someone’s opinion is wrong; you can disagree with the opinion or the comment, but that’s about all.

Even for the small part of this space that is about reportage, it’s hard to sustain the “inaccuracies and lies” position. There’s always a variant of Linus’s Law in operation: Given enough eyeballs, all information bugs are trivial. If anything, social software is more honest than MSM when it comes to factual errors. They get corrected. And the original error-prone version disappears.

With MSM on the other hand, the lie is printed and continues to be an archived lie. And while you may get a retraction or correction, it tends to appear on page 32 sandwiched between dog shampoo ads and undertaker recruitment campaigns.

Lie 3: Social software destroys privacy

There are many reasons why I believe that privacy, as the West knows it, is dead. Some of it is to do with the web. Some of it is to do with social software, I guess. Some of it is probably even due to cyber-crime. But I think we’re missing the point. People share information willingly. Now some of them may not realise quite how much information they are sharing, and how this information may be used against them, but that cannot be laid at the door of social software.

People who don’t want to share openly still use social software. There are passworded wikis, closed-loop IM systems, even things like Orkut Crush. Openness is primarily a choice and not a condition.

Aaron Tucker

I read voraciously. Maybe 10 books a week. Usually in parallel rather than in sequence, covering a variety of subjects. Management. Theory of the Firm. Information. Psychology. Christianity. India. Technology. New stuff. Old stuff.

And detective fiction.

Rex Stout is probably my number one author in this expansive genre. There are many others. KC Constantine. Michael Pearce. Ed McBain. Tony Hillerman. Jim Thompson. Robert Parker. Jerome Charyn. Kinky Friedman. GK Chesterton. And of course Conan Doyle. Christie did nothing for me.

Over the last thirty years I’ve probably moved gently to the edges of detective fiction, enjoying the classic hardboiled as well as the caper, particularly those that did not need gratuitous language or sex to sell their stories.

And Donald Westlake in all his guises has kept me happy and sated, from Dortmunder through to Parker.

There’s a new kid in town, and you must read him. Jeffrey Cohen and his Aaron Tucker series. Brilliant. Unputdownable. Outrageous.

Visit http://www.aarontucker.com/. And prepare to be delighted. If you like mystery and you like caper, and your taste buds run to literature rather than pap.

And he even reads his mail and replies. Thank you Jeffrey. I now have your first two books as well, and am looking forward to a great weekend.