Foreign Investigators: Crime Fiction in a Thai Setting
by Thomas Schmid, Bangkok
2 October 2009
Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle. These are just a few of the classical novelists who are immortalized in the pantheon of crime fiction. Even if one is not an enthusiastic reader of crime novels, at least the names of their most famous protagonists will ring a bell: Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. What strikes modern readers is that these sleuths rarely strayed far from home when they hunted down their villains. Marlowe and Spade solved their cases in the environment of the seedy underbellies of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes preferred to stick to the British Isles, or the grimy docks and dimly lit alleys of 19th century London. Even Belgian master detective Poirot mostly confined himself to Europe. Investigating a “Death on the Nile” was just about as exotic a locale as it would get. There was a commercial rationale to that geographical restriction. Just as today, crime novels had to earn money for their authors and publishers. Traveling the globe was a comparatively arduous, uncomfortable and expensive endeavor in those days and people seldom ventured beyond their own countries. In that context, they liked to follow their heroes around in a setting with which they were familiar and could identify. A pipe-smoking Holmes confronting his arch nemesis Moriarty in the Himalayan foothills? Unthinkable, and too far removed both geographically and metaphorically. The world has changed since. Traveling has become a breeze and can be afforded by most everyone. People have also got more open minded, and curious about the world. International crime fiction is now an established genre. Fictitious investigators nowadays are indeed almost expected to chase culprits across continents and, in the process, introduce the reader to strange cultures and exciting surroundings.
Investigators in Thailand
It has nevertheless been only some 20 years ago that Thailand began to be featured as the primary setting in a crime novel. In 1985, German bestselling author Will Berthold chose bustling Bangkok as backdrop for his aptly named book “City of Angels” (German title: “Die Stadt der Engel”). While not strictly a classical sleuth tale, the story follows investigative journalist Dany Callway to Bangkok to unravel the mystery surrounding a top CIA agent, Garella, whose funeral she had attended in the U.S. only days earlier. Garella eventually turns out to be a double agent who had faked his death to defect to – of course – the Soviets. Callway’s antics are complemented by a rather hilarious (but utterly needless, in this writer’s opinion) sub-plot that involves a merry bunch of Bavarian bowling buddies who dive into Bangkok’s steamy nightlife; with dire consequences. Although well researched, Berthold’s novel focused a bit too much on the goings-on in Bangkok’s redlight districts, thus neglecting a more thorough development of his main character, Callway, and her efforts in tracking down the elusive Garella. The book was a great success in Europe nevertheless, probably because of the exotic setting.
Luckily, with increasing numbers of foreigners visiting Thailand and many of them opting to settle down here, the country has in the meantime spawned its very own circle of crime fiction writers. More often than not, having been residents themselves for several years, they have developed a deep understanding of Thai culture, customs, mentality and – most importantly – the fundamental differences to the West. This greatly helps them not only to seamlessly weave their characters into a story set (to most readers) in a still very exotic environment, but also enables them to explain why some things in this tropical country happen the way they do.
Without doubt the most prolific and successful among this new breed of Thailand-based foreign crime novelists is Canadian Christopher G. Moore. The former law lecturer has lived in Thailand for more than two decades and it was here that his protagonist, Vincent Calvino, P.I., was born. Having sleuthed and slithered his way through ten books so far, Calvino’s latest appearance is in “Paying Back Jack”, which is scheduled to be launched by Groove Press in New York on 6 October 2009. The Calvino novels have been translated into 11 languages. Although Calvino has been portrayed by some critics as a kind of reincarnation in the spirit of Marlowe or Spade, he really is more of a tragic anti-hero. A successful lawyer in his native New York, he saved a friend from the clutches of the Chinese triads and subsequently had to flee to Thailand, where he set up shop as a private eye. His friend, now a colonel in the local police force, has become Calvino’s strongest supporter and protector without whom the sometimes rather clumsy and injury-prone detective could never survive while combing through Thailand’s criminal underbelly of depravity, deceit and corruption. “Vincent Calvino is… an average guy who has been forced to adapt to a foreign culture while managing to retain on the mean streets of Bangkok a fierce devotion to social justice and fairness. He is isolated from the center of power and influence, and in each case he finds himself challenged by hidden forces which value rank and status above else,” Moore summarizes Calvino. In this respect at least, Calvino epitomizes the complex, thus constantly troubled, private investigator of classic crime fiction, albeit replanted into the exotic, even surreal setting that is Thailand, which conjures up even more problems, to the reader’s delight.
John Burdett, yet another writer who has fallen in love with Thailand, followed a very different recipe in creating his sleuth character, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who so far has roamed through three books. The offspring of a Thai mother and a former U.S. military officer, Sonchai has the advantage of having been exposed to both cultures. As a fully-fledged Thai police detective, he also can investigate his cases unhindered. This differentiates him markedly from Vincent Calvino, who, as a foreigner in Thailand, not only has to frequently tackle incomprehensible cultural hurdles but additionally is compelled to keep a relatively low profile during his sojourns into the underworld. In other words: Sonchai has no need for a protective and supporting friend the way Calvino does. He is instead able to hurl himself full steam into his cases. And what cases they are! Burdett’s imagination created some of the most bizarre crimes carried out by some of the most unsavory perpetrators ever to have been described in fiction. They include the execution-style murder of a motorist by the release of a crate full of cobras into his car (Bangkok 8), the “theft” of valuable tattoos including the human skin they adorn (Bangkok Tattoo) and a homicide in connection with the production of a so-called snuff video (Bangkok Haunts). All this Burnett intersperses with Sonchai’s monologues and reflections on Buddhist values that provide the framework for his resolve and to explain to the reader a lot about Oriental values.