Foreign Investigators: Crime Fiction in a Thai Setting
by Thomas Schmid, Bangkok
2 October 2009
But perhaps not all is yet lost. Last year, Christopher G. Moore sold a film option to his Vincent Calvino series to a joint venture that includes the production company of Hollywood A-list actor Keanu Reeves and Boston-based film financier Steve Samuels. “The idea is to do something along the lines of ‘The Bourne Identity’ franchise,” the author explained. Even John Burdett’s “Bangkok 8” has been optioned by yet another Hollywood company, Millennium Films, a couple of years ago. But IMDb (Internet Movie Database), the Internet’s most reliable and up-to-date resource for anything concerning motion pictures, still lists the project as “in development”. Meanwhile, the movie rights to Jake Needham’s “The Big Mango” have likewise been bought. Needham himself even related in an article published in the Bangkok Post a considerable time ago how he met up with actor James Gandolfini on the set of “The Sopranos”. Gandolfini had apparently expressed interest in taking on the lead role of Eddie Dare. Unfortunately, no further progress on the project has been reported and it must be in serious doubt that the script (let alone the movie) will ever get finished.
A Real-Life Vincent Calvino?
The exciting lives of foreigners pursuing careers as private detectives or lawyers in Thailand. How probable is it, actually, to be defended in court by a Thai-mumbling Bill Pullman or encounter a gun-wielding, real-life Vincent Calvino on a case in Bangkok’s redlight milieu? Not very, according to Joe Leeds of Chaninat & Leeds, a prominent law firm in the Thai capital. Thailand’s Foreign Business Act clearly stipulates that individuals must have Thai nationality if they intend to engage in these businesses, unless they have a special permit, of course. Obtaining that license is very difficult and invariably requires the foreigner to be sponsored by Thai partners in order to form a company in these fields. It would be categorically illegal for a single individual to operate without a proper company. So much for the lone foreign sleuth depicted in Thailand-based crime fiction.
This is not to say that such companies do not exist at all, as proven by Chaninat & Leeds, a Thailand law firm that handles litigation as well as employs Thailand investigators of all sorts. However, a foreigner actively arguing a case in a Thai court is an extremely unlikely scenario. “Foreign lawyers with the proper authorization from the Thai government are legally entitled to act as a liaison between foreign clients and Thai lawyers and advise Thai lawyers on implications concerning foreign law. If the foreign lawyers are authorized as law firm managers they can have an even broader scope of permitted work activities. They also may appear as expert witnesses and arbitrators concerning foreign law when so authorized,” elaborates Joe Leeds, the manager of Chaninat & Leeds.
That leaves the Calvinos and Sterlings, but Leeds, a licensed US attorney fluent in the Thai language, can provide an exhaustive answer there, too. “Normally investigations, whether conducted through foreign governments, foreign police agencies, or by private foreign individuals in Thailand, must be coordinated with participation by Thai police officials or other investigative bodies authorized to act under Thai law for both legal and practical reasons.” While Thailand boasts several private detective agencies operated by foreigners the possibility of them investigating a high-profile murder case on their own accord is unlikely. What these kind of “expat” agencies primarily engage in are lengthy stake-outs of bar girls whose money-contributing, foreign “boyfriends” have developed doubts as to whether their “girlfriends” are indeed as faithful to them as they claim to be. “There was one legendary foreign ‘investigator’,” muses Leeds, “who reportedly would charge boyfriends residing abroad $100 to go to the bar where their bargirl girlfriend was working and offer money for sex. It was a test of the girlfriend’s faithfulness. The ‘investigator’ would then report back. No refunds were given if sex was successfully obtained.”
However, more established investigative agencies using more sophisticated techniques and handling more high-level cases do exist however, according to Leeds. “We get a great many inquiries concerning locating missing persons, gathering evidence in support of lawsuits, and uncovering insurance fraud. Insurance companies often request that we investigate bogus death claims and disability claims. We had a 3 week stake-out in Pattaya of a foreign nationality claiming a serious back disability and receiving disability insurance benefits. We were able to obtain video of him lifting 20-kilo bags of potting soil and doing vigorous work in his garden, thereby satisfying the insurance company,” recalls Leeds. He also remembers another hilarious case: “We had one family concerned that their elderly, partially blind uncle, who had been depressed, had disappeared in Thailand. It turned out he was a closet gay person. He was actually having a wild time in a notorious gay hotel in Phuket drinking and carousing almost every night.” But most of the firm’s cases are quite serious; infidelity investigation and missing persons are the bread and butter work for most investigators.