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Sunday, March 16, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Hard-hitting Bangkok PI knows how to Thai one on


ASIA HAND, 1992, 277 pp.; COLD HIT, 1999, 330 pp.; MINOR WIFE, 2002, 297 pp.; by Christopher G. Moore. Heaven Lake Press, Bangkok (all three books priced at $11.95)

Canadian novelist Christopher G. Moore, a former law instructor from British Columbia, has been described as "The Hemingway of Bangkok." A more fitting comparison, however, might be to W. Somerset Maugham, with a bit of Elmore Leonard and Mickey Spillane thrown in for good measure.

Some of Maugham's earlier works were set in the milieu of colonial Asia, and focused on the pretentious attitudes -- and dark secrets -- of European expatriates. Thailand, a tolerant country that was spared colonization, today plays host to a resident community of farang (Westerners) who are attracted to its laid-back lifestyle, low cost of living and the fetching smiles emanating from what Moore calls the yings, an abbreviation of phuying (woman). To the respectable members of the expatriate community, these depraved types no doubt resemble modern-day versions of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," although they haven't quite sunk to the depths of living in huts surrounded by shrunken human heads on poles. Still, it's probably the last place you'd expect to find a Jewish-Italian private eye at work. Vincent "Vinee" Calvino, a disbarred lawyer from New York, runs a Bangkok detective agency. He is able to operate thanks to a powerful local benefactor. Years ago back in New York, he helped a Thai student over a crisis. Now Prachai (rendered "Pratt" to get around the Western tongue) is a colonel in the Thai Royal Police who steers occasional jobs Calvino's way, and goes to bat for him when the chips are down. As a quid pro quo, the American gumshoe serves as Pratt's eyes and ears among the local farang.

Hewn from the hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler model, Calvino is a tough, somewhat tarnished hero with a heart of gold. As evidenced by the ants crawling in his mostly empty refrigerator at home, he's also something of a slob. He spends evenings drinking at dingy joints, and has been known to pay the bar fine and bring home a ying for the night. Yet he is tolerated, even adored, by Ratana, his solid and caring secretary, who plays a Thai Della Street to Calvino's Perry Mason. It's plain that they love each other, and it wouldn't surprise me if Moore marries them off in some future happy ending.

"Asia Hand," which starts with the murder of a photographer who films something he shouldn't have in Myanmar, is a spy story with a whodunit thrown in for good measure. By the time "Cold Hit" appeared seven years later, the series had clearly evolved and its characters had become more eccentric. This novel lays bare the networking among middle-aged Westerners who, thanks to the wonders of Viagra, win a new lease on their sex lives and head straight for Bangkok, using an Internet kiss-and-tell site as their guide to bars, hotels, girls and prices. After they nod off in ecstatic stupor, someone is injecting them with lethal doses of heroin. Robbery does not appear to be the motive.

Meanwhile Calvino, after getting his nose broken in the second chapter, is hired to protect an American lawyer coming to Thailand to conclude a hotel purchase. The lawyer, despite an attempt to kill him on the highway scant minutes after his arrival, is totally uncooperative with his bodyguards and so obnoxious, you almost find yourself wishing someone would whack him -- despite Calvino's efforts to keep him alive. The story is plausible and riveting to the end.

Along with a murder mystery, "Minor Wife" doubles as a sociological treatise on the status of women in Thailand. Among the mia noi, poor country girls kept as concubines, is a girl named Neung, who goes by the nickname "8K" -- a reference to the outrageously high price in Thai baht (equivalent to $400, or 45,000 yen) she charges for her services. On a bet between two foreigners, Neung becomes an Eliza to a local Henry Higgins, and this "Pygmalion" experiment uncovers her remarkable talent for art. Then her career is cut short -- literally -- when she is found with her throat slashed in the bathroom of her next-door neighbor -- who just happens to be the minor wife of Quinn, Calvino's former client.

From this month, the Thai translation of "Minor Wife" will be released; I'd be curious to know the reaction of native readers to this Canadian's astute insights into their social and sexual mores.

A limited number of Moore titles, not all Calvino mysteries or set in Thailand, can be ordered from the Amazon.com U.S., U.K. and Canadian sites; but it appears the only way to obtain all seven works in the Calvino series and Moore's nine other books is from his Web site (www.cgmoore.com), or else buy them in Thailand. I have purchased books from Thailand via the Web without any problems, but those who mistrust e-commerce will have to resort to other measures. These three rekindled many memories of previous sojourns to Thailand, and this reviewer certainly intends to peruse more of Moore, particularly the upcoming "Tokyo Joe" scheduled for release this July.

Mark Schreiber is a devotee of mystery and adventure fiction set in Asia.


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