March 23, 2014 00:00 By Special to the Sunday Nation 3,107 Viewed
Christopher Moore's engaging detective gets a 14th run in hair-raising fiction that's marbled with fact
Christopher G Moore’s Vincent Calvino series is not only a fine collection of finely calibrated mysteries, it’s also a chronicle of major upheavals – political, criminal, pathological and even psychosexual – that have rocked Southeast Asia over the last two decades.
“Zero Hour in Phnom Penh” details the traumatic, UN-backed elections in Cambodia in 1993. “Comfort Zone” plays out against the backdrop of the United States lifting the economic embargo against Vietnam in 1994. Two years later “The Big Weird”, set in Bangkok, forecast the rise of cyber-sex.
More recently, “Pattaya 24/7” has Calvino and his partner – the sax-playing, Shakespeare-quoting Police Colonel Pratt – investigating a Muslim terrorist threat during the Sars epidemic. “Missing in Rangoon” delves into a disappearance in the former capital of what is now Myanmar and a deadly car bombing in Bangkok.
“The Marriage Tree”, No 14 in the series, continues on from those cataclysmic events with Calvino suffering the side-effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as he starts to see the spectres of the slain. Though I’m no authority on the mystery genre, this is the first time I’ve ever seen a detective undergoing psychotherapy.
Calvino’s first-person journal entries, written for his own psychiatrist – a Thai woman, Dr Apinya – make this his most personal book in the series.
The opening is riveting as ironies abound. The French took to American noir because they enjoyed the existential ennui of the genre. But here we have a reversal as Vinnie discusses the Greek myth of Sisyphus, condemned to forever struggle to roll a boulder up a hill. French author Albert Camus modernised that parable as a reflection on the futility of work – indeed, of all human endeavour.
True to the series, Moore weaves a topical thread into the plot. The plight of the Rohingya refugees has been documented many times, but never dramatised like this. Explaining too much here would be a crime in itself, so let’s just say that when a novelist brings his powers of description and sense of empathy to bear on such a subject, the wholehearted tragedy of these crimes against humanity hits home in a powerful way.
The writer’s penchant for depicting real places and real people, like an Indian murder suspect who earns his living selling peanuts on Soi Cowboy, erases the borderline between crime reporting and crime fiction. Sometimes his readers cannot tell the difference. At the Bangkok Literary Festival in 2012, the former law professor mentioned how a fan asked how he had solved the Saudi jewel heist in “Zero Hour in Phnom Penh”. Moore’s solution was entirely fictional, of course. In real life, that mystery has never been resolved.
The Canadian author has never shied from depicting the harsher truths of life in Thailand, including xenophobia and police brutality. The cops give Vinnie a good working over because he’s the first one to spot the dead beauty lying beside the jogging track of the Tobacco Monopoly Authority.
A deficiency in this book, and the series in general, lies in the flights of metaphorical fancy that have little to do with the plot or characters. Early on, Goya’s painted giants and “The Matrix” are invoked in the same paragraph. Later, Darwinism and astronauts tumble together. Also distracting are strange similes, such as “He held out a half dozen shopping bags like a man with a divining rod searching for water.”
Moore’s writing is at its best when he sticks to the nitty-gritty details and the sort of punchy prose that Dashiel Hammett pioneered and Elmore Leonard perfected. “Seated across him was Akash, skinny, dark, with sharp features, his moustache glistening with a thin sheen of sweat. His eyes burned a fiery brown adrift in a red sea. The previous day Akash had heard the news of the death sentence handed down to four Indians convicted of raping and murdering a woman.” It’s another allusion to true crime that will resonate with readers.
The prose gets a little flabby in places, but the plotting is taut and the pacing sharp. Seeing a murder suspect killed just before the cops arrive isn’t the most original twist in the thriller playbook – and it happens a few times in “The Marriage Tree”. But it’s done with aplomb and an articulation of details that is fascinating – like the woman whose breast implant leaks after she’s been shot to death. Thai women’s obsession with cosmetic surgery (and labiaplasty) is another very modern topic that adds a few nips and tucks to the murder investigation.
One of the series’ strong suits is that it functions as a chronicle of expatriate life in Thailand, and in Moore’s view, it’s become more affluent. Describing the lawyer’s lavish office in a high-rise off Silom Road, Calvino tersely notes the new breed of expat now migrating to Bangkok in droves. “He might not understand a lot about Thai culture, but he got one thing right – in Thailand, appearance is substance. What you see is all there is. Nothing behind the mask but another mask, so what would be the point of ripping off the mask?”
The Calvino books also track the evolution of hi-tech CSI technology. He deploys pinhole cameras hooked up to an iPad, GPS trackers and directional mics, and I’m probably not the only reader who’s never heard of professional crime-scene “cleaners” before.
Yet, compelling as they are, all those CSI details take second place to the all-too-human intricacies of the Rohingya refugee crisis and the private eye’s breakdown. In trying to heal himself, with the help of the psychiatrist, Calvino returns to his old role of hunting down the overlords of the underdogs.
Fourteen books into this marathon mystery series and you would think Moore and Calvino might be flagging. Instead, it looks like they’re just hitting their stride.
Jim Algie’s latest book is a collection of prize-winning short fiction, “The Phantom Lover and Other Thrilling Tales of Thailand” (Tuttle, 2014). More bytes and pixels at www.JimAlgie.com.