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Foreign Investigators: Crime Fiction in a Thai Setting

by Thomas Schmid, Bangkok

2 October 2009

American author Timothy Hallinan, meanwhile, is under the wings of a major New York publisher. His private eye is an investigative journalist by the name of Philip ‘Poke Rafferty and has featured in a series of novels. Hallinan’s books “A Nail Through the Heart”, “The Fourth Watcher” and “Breathing Water” have all received warm reviews in the United States and gained him a solid following among crime fiction aficionados. The author spends some 6 months each year in Southeast Asia and thus knows the ins and outs well, which is reflected in his meticulously researched novels.

American expat Jake Needham has shelled out four contemporary crime novels since the year 2000, but only two of them feature a recurring protagonist in the form of financial lawyer-turned-hobby detective Jack Sheperd. In “The Laundry Man” (originally published under the title “Tea Money”), Sheperd is sucked into a thrilling money scam that involves an Asian bank whose identity remains obscure throughout the pages. During the course of the story, Sheperd is approached by an old “colleague” who not only wants him to locate the missing funds but actually steal them back. Sheperd surfaces once again in “Killing Plato”. Mostly set in Phuket for a change, the narrative follows Sheperd in his wild pursuit of the world’s most wanted fugitive; not Thaksin Shinawatra, but a bloke called Plato Karsarkis (if I may be permitted this little tongue-in-cheek remark). The author’s very first bestselling novel, “The Big Mango”, had another fictitious ex-lawyer, Eddie Dare, embark on a mission that starts off in New York and via San Francisco concludes in Bangkok in an attempt to recover a stash of $400 million that decades earlier were slipped out of the Bank of Vietnam by the CIA. In “The Ambassador’s Wife” Thailand does not feature prominently except for a few chapters. The main action takes place in Singapore where Inspector Tay, a man of many boring habits and with an uninspired life, tries to solve the horrid murder of, well, the title character. Needham’s mastery of writing particularly shines in this volume as he is able to captivate his readers from the first page to the last despite the fact that Inspector Tay is anything but a daredevil.

Skytrain to Murder” by another Bangkok Old Hand, Dean Barrett, introduced insatiable crime fiction addicts to Scott Sterling, an ex-CIA agent who lives in a small apartment above a seedy bar and – when he doesn’t give scuba diving lessons – moonlights as a private investigator. He suspects little when he meets a young woman in the joint downstairs; certainly not that he would be soon investigating her murder, with his own girlfriend being the prime suspect! Barrett’s in-depth knowledge of local culture clearly shows as he sends his character on the chase. Barrett is honest (or conscious?) enough to highlight the beautiful as well as the ugly sides of Thailand, offering his readers a lot of insight. Sterling, meanwhile, truly is a sleuth of the old school. He relies on nobody but himself, and through a combination of logical thinking and traditional information-gathering methods unravels the mysterious homicide little step by little step.

Let’s wrap-up our selection of Thailandphile writers with Tibor Timothy Vajda, a Hungary-born Australian citizen whose very own life story could indeed provide the yarn for a different kind of book. After having been rounded up by the Nazis and sent to a forced labor camp, he escaped in 1944 and joined the anti-fascist underground. In 1956, he emigrated with his family to Australia and became a dental surgeon in 1962. Vajda eventually took to writing, but has only managed a couple of books, among them the somewhat awkwardly titled “Inspector Bourke in Sydney, Bangkok and Moscow”. His protagonist, Sydney Detective Inspector Frank ‘Ironman’ Bourke is on the tail of an international gem smuggling-in-exchange-for-heroin case that spans the three locations of the title. Alas, he introduces so many other characters in an overly complex story with such a myriad of twists and turns that ‘Ironman’ practically drowns. Although the Bangkok chapters are carefully researched, Vajda obviously lacks the understanding of local culture in which his Thailand-based fellow authors so comfortably excel.  

Thailand in Hollywood Movies

But what about the motion picture front? With Thailand being featured so prominently in literature these days, one might assume that also to be the case in movies. Not so. Yes, we have been enchanted by that colorful yet historically entirely inaccurate MGM musical, “The King and I” starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr in the leading roles. Perhaps we have enjoyed watching its remake featuring Jodie Foster and Chow Hyun Fat. We were probably appalled by the inconsequential and utterly pointless book adaptation of milkbeard Leonardo DiCaprio frolicking on “The Beach”. “Bangkok Dangerous” may have been exciting and brought us scruffy-looking hitman Nicolas Cage on the prowl in the gritty streets of Bangkok. But all these flicks don’t fall into the scope covered in this article. Worth mentioning with reservations is the 1973 “The Man with the Golden Arm”, in which super-heroic secret agent James Bond (Roger Moore) blatantly steals a car from a show room without having to fear any criminal charges to be laid against him. He subsequently roars his illegally acquired vehicle down Bangkok’s practically deserted Rama IV Road (fat chance, even in the 70s!) before performing a salto mortale with it across a broken khlong bridge, one of the most amazing stunts ever captured on celluloid. In the end, the movie doesn’t count, though.

Virtually the lone silver screen spectacle that truly fits our topic is “Brokedown Palace”, which was released in 1999 and starred Bill Pullman, Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale. Unfortunately, the storyline was as far fetched as it was implausible. School friends Danes and Beckinsale decide to spend their summer vacation in ‘The Big Mango’; of course on a shoestring budget that would embarrass even the most frugal backpacker. Under circumstances that are best described as “pulled by the hair” they soon make the acquaintance of a young, charming Australian. The rather predictable script eventually puts our two exceptionally naïve travelers at the airport where they are promptly caught with a package concealed in their rucksack. It contains heroin. The only way for them to avoid a life-long prison sentence is to hire the dubious services of a disheveled American Lawyer (Pullman) who is obviously more interested in cashing in on his clients’ predicament than in really helping them. When we hear Pullman arguing the case in court in horribly garbled Thai that even the most local language-impaired expat would easily recognize as nothing short of unintelligible, we are not surprised at all that the two girls are found guilty. Pullman admits his inadequacy as a defense lawyer and waives his payment, but now the girls’ only hope lies in a royal pardon. In a final, perplexing twist, Danes insists on shouldering two consecutive life sentences if only Beckinsale would be set free, a trade to which the king’s representative agrees for a reason that eludes the audience. Fade out.

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