'You aren't young very long,' thinks Vincent Calvino, counting his years in Chris Moore's best novel yet. 'The paint is barely dry before you're dead.'
AS THE LATEST Christopher G Moore novel “Jumpers” begins, private eye Vincent Calvino, a hero to thousands of crime-story fans around the world, is making som tam for a visitor. “The difference between two and three chili peppers, he knew from personal experience, was the difference between a .22 cal and .45 cal round.”
This is Chris Moore loading his weapon. The food, a whimsical, casual opening allusion to the locale, is deceptive foreshadowing. The threat is very real. If the clacking of mortar against pestle makes mouths water for those who hear it, fans of the Calvino mysteries (we’re up to No 16 in the series) will already be salivating too.
“Jumpers” is a heavy read, and with it Moore bulks up his status as a heavyweight author. With the Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” providing the recurring pulse beat, this is a story that looks deeply and darkly into the reasons people take their own lives, its sequence of discoveries wound around the seemingly impenetrable mystery of the six degrees of possible movement. And there’s not a gasp out of place in the entire yarn.
For Calvino connoisseurs there are enough of the conventions, beginning with the bottle of Johnny Walker Black in the private eye’s desk drawer. Moore has brought back favourite regulars – Calvino’s mentor Pratt, a retired police general, and the intuitive secretary Ratana and often-comical assistant Ed McPhail. New “Calvino’s Laws” are rattled off as the situation requires, duelling with Pratt’s pithy Shakespearean couplets.
But, in place of the caustic language and car-chase haste so often found in crime fiction, there is nobility to the writing that makes this book a loftier pleasure to read, a dignity arising from contemplation and lingering appreciative gazes at the aesthetics of each setting. Here the suspense doesn’t so much build as gather like a fog, almost unnoticeably, once evidence of nefarious intent begins to mount. Then, like a tightening of the belly, it’s as palpable as a threat.
An astonishing amount of thought has gone into this tale. It’s not a particularly easy read. The case itself is straightforward enough, if intricate, but the heady philosophising about multiple weighty matters forces the reader to adapt or be lost.
“Jumpers” is in large part a meditation on life and death and the tenuousness of affection among family and friends. It studies art and the artistry of the hoax and also winces at the inescapable grip of post-coup oppression. How’s this for a summation of present-day Thailand? “In a land of angels with their wings clipped, it was a struggle to get off the ground, and those trips to paradise required cash.”
Mood is what matters most in this prolific author’s corner of the noirscape, and he lets it envelop the reader gradually. If the resulting sensation isn’t as sudden as the flash of a knife or the crack of a revolver, it’s every bit as unsettling. For a book with death and dismay as its subject matter, there’s a great deal of heart and heartfelt writing, and confidence that the human spirit will always prevail.
In its refinement and pensiveness, and with its masterful fly-on-the-wall dialogue, the novel owes more to Joseph Conrad than the likes of Mickey Spillane or Dashiell Hammett.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to imagine Conrad mentioning that “the crease in his tailored trousers was sharp enough to cut a cobra in half”, or Lord Jim thinking, “At five feet one inch tall ... she might be mistaken as having been grown from a futuristic bonsai starter kit.” Yes, there’s plenty of Jazz Age writing to keep spirits high.
In the beginning there’s a thunderstorm, of course, the day “gloomy and confining like a coffin with the lid nailed shut”. In Southeast Asian noir literature where Moore holds an overlord’s rank, the rainy season never stops. “Jumpers” proceeds to asphyxiate the reader slowly in a cloying downpour.
When the mystery begins to unreel in a tautly controlled stream of revelations, there’s a brief euphoria in the freedom from dark ruminations. Then Calvino realises how deep he’s in and there’s no further relief from a turgid despair evocative of Polanski’s “Chinatown”, from the “heavy load of resignation that wisdom leaves”.
In French-Canadian painter Raphael Pascal, Moore has found one of his most engaging characters to date, a fascinating creature seen from any angle. Tracked down by Calvin as a missing person who wasn’t trying to be missing, he turns the tables on the detective and has him pose for a portrait, thus “finding him”, in a sense. It turns out to be the final painting in a series collectively titled “The Six Degrees of Freedom” that’s been sold to a wealthy Chinese collector.
Then, abruptly, Raphael is dead, an apparent suicide by poison – though he lives on vividly as we learn a great deal more about him. He leaves a note making Calvino his executor and bequeathing all six artworks to him. It further transpires that the subjects of the other five paintings have also met premature ends. Calvino might be in danger too, and meanwhile the cops, scenting murder instead, are eyeing him as the prime suspect.
Any further attempt to summarise the plot would be an even worse injustice. But in the distance left to cover we have ladies of high class and low, lethal gangsters in opulent lounges, a funeral awash in tears and the misery of mistrust, a family dismantled by misplaced dreams, and a suicide hotline that can’t keep up with people coming down.
Visits are paid to Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia, Spanish painter Caravaggio, and Soi Cowboy, where McPhail comments that watching the goings-on “is like watching a waterfall”, a line Calvino finishes: “With no possibility of a rainbow.”
References to local places and current events abound. “You’ve been set up as the fall guy,” Pratt warns Calvino. “I’m not even Burmese,” he replies. On Sukhumvit Soi 3, “A heavy traffic of people around them flowed like a retreat out of Aleppo.”
In the end Calvino is fleeing the scene, at least temporarily, but first he asks Pratt if he should stay or go.
“Nothing is ever settled, is it?” the wise ex-cop says. If that’s a sly hint at a sequel, it’s a most welcome idea.
By Christopher G Moore
Published by Heaven Lake Press, 2016
Available at Amazon.com,
US$8 (Bt282, Kindle edition)