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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tale of a fallen woman and other intrigues


PAYING BACK JACK by Christopher G. Moore. Bangkok: Heaven Lake Press, 2009, 332 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Since his literary debut in 1992, Vincent "Vinnie" Calvino, an expat Italian-Jewish attorney from New York, has been pursuing investigations on behalf of mostly foreign clients in Bangkok.

Canadian author Christopher G. Moore's latest installment in the Calvino series maintains the exotic Southeast Asian venue and lineup of regular characters, but adopts a webwork formula somewhat more complex than his previous books.

To escape a potentially life-threatening situation, Calvino is hustled out of Bangkok to a supposedly safe haven at Pattaya beach resort. Soon after checking into his hotel suite, however, he is startled to see a young woman from an upper-floor room plummet past his window on the way to the pavement below.

Calvino dashes to the veranda to look down at the woman's corpse, and since he's glimpsed by eyewitnesses this immediately makes him suspect in her death. Confined to his room, Calvino persuades two Thai cops to remove his handcuffs and, in a hilarious reversal of the Stockholm syndrome, proceeds to wine and dine the obliging officers with imported Scotch and several deluxe meals delivered from nearby restaurants.

Once back in Bangkok, the second plot kicks in. It seems Calvino had been set up when he was hired by an American to track the movements of an aspiring Thai politician who had been targeted for assassination by a team of "black ops" hit men. Thanks to Calvino's report, the team knows just when and where to find their prey, since he enjoys a tryst with his "minor wife" each week with clockwork regularity.

"Paying Back Jack" expands on Moore's 2004 novel "Pattaya 24/7," in which intrigues in the U.S.-led war on terror spill over into Thailand. Moore's latest is the most complex of his works to date, as he introduces a stream of shadowy characters — some so obscure they barely connect with the narrative — who habitually employ freelance killers to settle their personal grudges.

Calvino is deeply attached to the people in his adopted country. The process of acculturation has earned him the devotion of Ratana, his loyal secretary, and close friendship with Colonel Pratt, his jazz-loving, Shakespeare-quoting mentor in the Thai police.

It's easy to see why Moore's books are popular: While seasoned with a spicy mixture of humor and realism, they stand out as model studies in East-West encounters, as satisfying for their cultural insights as they are for their hard-boiled action.



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