Romance, rival cops and a revival of Cold War intrigue reach the boil in the second gripping yarn from former drug-squad investigator Frank Hurst
The blurb on the front cover says “old-school thriller”, and even though it actually refers to an earlier book by the same author, there’s no point trying to top that capsule description of Frank Hurst’s writing – now again on view in his latest novel “The Chiang Mai Assignment”.
The action is set at the dawn of the 1990s – for some interesting reasons, as it turns out – but in certain ways, this could easily be the 1950s or ’60s, deep in the Cold War. This is a tale of British policing, and while MI6 is relegated to a caper on the side lines, and Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise is centre stage in the sleuthing, there’s very much a spy-versus-spy tingle to the plot.
It comes naturally to Hurst, a former drugs-intelligence agent whose own exotic travels and 35 years of experience with Customs, Scotland Yard and the Foreign Office ensure a level of authenticity that armchair detective writers can’t hope to match.
Hurst was part of the globe-spanning operation that put the late Howard “Mr Nice” Marks behind bars. Having only started writing when he retired in 2011, he’s on the hunt again.
Mike Rawlin is Hurst’s alter ego and his Bond, but at the outset, Rawlin has been frozen out of the Cold War, recalled from the field after letting his emotions get the better of him and fumbling his previous assignment.
Back in London (more precisely Coventry, figuratively speaking), he’s pushing paper clips and lunching alone at a pub none of his colleagues frequent, the better to avoid their derision. Rawlin has all but given up hope of ever returning to Thailand, or being given any other plum mission, for that matter.
But then the Customs boys get word that Bart Vanderpool – the Dutch drugs kingpin Rawlin was tracking in Phuket when the case went pear-shaped two years earlier – has resurfaced in the far Thai North and might be shipping a massive quantity of heroin to Europe.
Rawlin hasn’t lost all of his friends and support in the service, he knows Thailand intimately and he has an established network of contacts there, so the chiefs set aside their doubts, pluck him from his desk and put him on a plane.
“The Chiang Mai Assignment” is the second novel in a planned Golden Triangle Trilogy that began with “The Postmistress of Nong Khai”, which was set even earlier, in the early 1980s.
Nong Khai is briefly revisited here, as is Phuket, but only as stopovers on the way to the Golden Triangle. There’s an encounter at the Eastern & Oriental in Penang, and Bangkok gets a look in, with a few trips to Don Meuang Airport (no Suvarnabhumi back then) and to Klong Prem Prison to pump an old adversary for information.
Rawlin has trusted help on the Royal Thai Police and Australian Federal Police, but none at the US Drug Enforcement Agency. The latchkey to the book is the ebb and flow of trust, not only among the competing nationalities, but also within Britain’s own law-enforcement network. “Things aren’t what they seem,” as the promotional materials sardonically put it.
MI6, for its part, aims to assist – or does it? – through the mock theft of a Vermeer painting from a London gallery, intended as a lure for the art-loving drug smuggler.
As was the case in “Postmistress”, the romance angle here swoons chiefly around Lek, a beautiful former Thai Airways stewardess, now a travel agent, who was once on Vanderpool’s arm until Rawlin turned her into an informant.
Setting the yarn in the early 1990s puts it squarely on the far shore, all but forgotten now, of the cell-phone age. Readers young and old will spot this right away, and wonder (from different perspectives) that it took so much time back then to communicate across distances.
But Hurst also chose this period, he told me, because that’s when “opium and heroin production in the Golden Triangle was a genuine international problem, much more than nowadays”. With US President Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs” underway, it was “a very challenging and exciting period for law enforcement”.
Hurst has contrived an engaging, believable tale filled with well-crafted characters. The dialogue is marred by a shyness over contractions, and there are other curiosities – renderings like “tuc tuc” in place of “tuk-tuk” and a penchant for unnecessary italicisation. But there’s also some fine writing, as in this evocative passage:
“A woman screamed from inside the house, a glass shattered, and there were shouts from some of the policemen who were clearly rising to their task. The brutal noises from within continued for a few minutes and then ceased suddenly. An eerie silence fell like a soft blanket over the house and Rawlin could hear the forest birds again; their song sounded jubilant and joyous – laughing, almost. For the first time, his ears picked up the soft lapping sound of the nearby lake and the pungent fragrance of white jasmine invaded his nostrils.”
The most remarkable aspect of “Assignment” is that it’s fundamentally a police procedural – the villain is identified and tracked down step by step, and there’s nothing else along the lines of car chases, cliffside fisticuffs or gory shoot-outs, not even a speedboat explosion of the type with which the first novel in the trilogy culminated.
And yet, despite lacking the usual tropes of a thriller, the story is innately compelling, a drama of considerable suspense. As surely as the drug lord must be caught, the pages demand to be turned. This is a cool, calm, collected thriller of a different order, something akin to 007 without the Hollywood-scale pyrotechnics – yet with the canny Ian Fleming-style plot-building intact.
It will be interesting to see where Hurst takes his hero in the closing episode, when he says the trilogy will finally emerge into the modern world, mobile phones and all. After that, he adds, he’d like to try different genres, including short stories about Thailand. Those too are awaited with anticipation.
The Chiang Mai Assignment
By Frank Hurst
Published by Books Mango, 2017
Available at Amazon.com, US$15 (Bt481)