Palpable feel of urban Bangkoks underbelly

Last Updated 09 October 2010, 12:03 IST

Calvino’s Law: You can’t get lost if you don’t know where you are going. Comes a little unstuck in Asia Hand. For you may not get lost. But you can get whacked. Especially if you are in Bangkok. With professional killers hunting you down. The dreaded INSOC disapproving. A shadowy CIA outfit, on your trail. And are on the wrong side of Thailand’s powers that be. And if that’s not enough you have jungle mercenaries. A porn film outfit with sinister baggage. Why even the Al Qaeda and neo-Nazis. And not to mention a tough ex-wife and child, who become bait in this game of rescripting power in 3rd world dung heaps.

Calvino is a farang: A foreigner in Bangkok and therefore the eternal outsider. Never quite accepted, never completely welcome, always on the fringes. But Calvino ain’t a pushover, for he is citizen of the mean streets, has spent years in the sleazier sewers of Bangkok. Also this hard—as—nails investigator has earned the undying friendship of Colonel Pratt. For he was driven out of the USA post a pyrrhic victory over Chinese Tongs in defence of the colonel. He makes real friends and real enemies. 

Calvino’s Bangkok, is the Bangkok of the farang with the clothes off. You are quickly educated about this world. Are you “Hum hiaw — placid.” Or Hum Khaeng— hard?
In Calvino’s Bangkok the “hard” were favoured. Bangkok allowed them to show their stuff — to score, flash money, buy affection and respect.

In these ways, Bangkok was no better or worse than Brooklyn. The same big swingers building an empire out of force. “If you are smart, you no longer have any illusions that the one you sleep with likes you. ‘It’s pussy to sell’. It’s survival.

Here you either have patronage or you are meat. If you do have illusions, well then you may end up in the bottom of a river strangled by a  wooden  chain . Which is also the start of an ugly trail of murder, conspiracy, cover up, seething underground protest, jungle warfare, and cynical spy game.

In Asia Hand, Christopher Moore builds the atmosphere, the ugliness, brilliantly. It would have been a piece de resistance if he could sustain it. The feeling in the beginning’s taut even unbearable.

However, by the middle, the intensity drops, the villains step too clearly out of their shadows. The plot begins to border on the absurd. Take the evil plan in the garden of styrofoam phalluses. Ok, it maybe ridiculous, but you’d think that’s the climax, but no, there’s more being played out. Christopher stretches the book, giving the villains yet one more evil potshot.

You know the good guys will get rescued. The trouble is, you know exactly how. There’s no surprise. If Hum Hiaw is soft. Hum Khaeng is hard. Asia Hand is ‘Hum somewhat’. With a good start and less than thrilling finish.

But even with a script that meanders a trifle to the end, Calvino is hardly a figure one forgets in a hurry. The hard bitten detective is real, and grittily impressive. Calvino in the midst of the sewers of human degradation has his rules. They are hard ones in a hard world, but they are workable ones. Unlike many other fictional detectives, he doesn’t play in the manicured imagination of an armchair novelist. He’s real. He’s stepped out of the real world.

The author has a real feel for the underbelly of the urban world, the prostitutes, waitresses, bouncers, dons, crooked cops… you’re there walking dangerous streets, bathed in neon.

This ain’t pretty boy, touristy stuff that passes for detective fiction. Cockroaches crawl on the page, the book spits blood instead of ink, and the wash of human degradation threatens to drown you.

(Published 09 October 2010, 12:03 IST)

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