Scene of the Crime

Bangkok’s Multiple Personalities: Christopher G. Moore’s “Vincent Calvino” Novels


Christopher G. Moore, author of the Bangkok novels featuring Vincent Calvino, a disbarred American lawyer turned private investigator, is our guest today on Scene of the Crime. There are eleven books in this series that began with the novel, Spirit House and has continued to The Corruptionist, from 2009. The first books in the series were published by a small Thai house; now Moore’s books come out in fine editions from Grove Press.

Moore is, as he notes on his Web site, “a Canadian writer who once taught law at the University of British Columbia. After his first book His Lordship’s Arsenal was published in New York to a critical acclaim in 1985, Moore became a full-time writer and has so far written 22 novels, a non-fiction and one collection of inter-locked short stories.” Best known for the Calvino series, he has also written a cult classic, the Land of Smiles trilogy. Maclean’s magazine had high praise for his work: “Moore’s noir thriller and literary fiction—like Graham Greene, he alternates between ‘entertainment’ and serious novels—are subtle and compelling evocations of a part of the world rarely seen through our eyes.” Likewise, January Magazine declared that the Vincent Calvino series “recalls the international ‘entertainments’ of Graham Greene or John le Carré, but the hard-bitten worldview and the cynical, bruised idealism of his battered hero is right out of Chandler.”

Christopher, it is a genuine pleasure to have you with us on Scene of the Crime. Bangkok has become one of those sudden in-spots for writers, it seems, with several different and excellent mystery series set there.

Perhaps we could begin with a description of your connection to Bangkok. How did you come to live there or become interested in it?

As with most significant events, my arrival in Bangkok for the first time 27 years ago was an accident. Not in the sense that I turned left when I should have turned right. But one of those accidents of fate that changed the course of your life and in retrospect, like first love, you never see it coming until it’s too late. I returned five years later. It’s going on 22 years that I’ve lived in Bangkok. I made frequent trips in and out of Thailand during those first dozen years in order to renew my visa. I left the country every ninety days on visa runs for years. And years. I filled passport pages faster than a bookie filling betting sheets on Super Bowl Sunday. Every country should require their citizens to go outside their border every ninety days. Not only would it boost the airline, hotels, and restaurants worldwide, but would help people to better understand the world that wherever you go there is always a KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut.

What things about Bangkok make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?

Places are unique in the way people are unique. It is largely perception, this notion of uniqueness. Familiarity sands through the varnish of life and soon you get to the hard wood.  I’ve lived in Bangkok so long that it has started to seem, well, for a better word, ‘normal’ and that is worrisome. The city isn’t so much laid out, but more like a pumpkin dropped from a height and splattered over a range of more than 500 kilometers, spilling out high rises, office towers, slums, temples, canals, spirit houses, road rage making traffic jams, smoke belching buses, modern sky train, cops in too tight brown uniforms, food stalls, soi dogs, rats the size of a first grader, enclaves of Africans, Arabs, Middle Eastern visitors, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and a large Western expat population which never stops scratching and sweating under the heat of the mid-day sun.

Did you consciously set out to use Bangkok as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?

Given the multiple personalities of Bangkok, it isn’t one character; it’s a football stadium filled with characters, some armed, some drunk, some happy, other suicidal, a few in love, many lost, and some seeking redemption, adventure or a hide out from the authorities back home. It is like fishing a lake teeming with fish and few anglers just cast your line and a dozen fish leap, breaking the surface, taking the bait to become the literary trophy/dinner.

How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?

In most of my fiction, Bangkok neighborhoods weave their way into the story. The people I write about live, work, love and die in Bangkok. Place is a huge factor in everyone’s life. The physical surroundings can present an opportunity. Or a cage. For expats living in a ‘foreign’ city, the home instincts don’t always work. It takes time to find the flash points that cause anger, rage, and revenge. Some don’t get a second chance. So it is important to learn fast and run faster. All those safety nets that you assumed existed fall away for foreigners living in Bangkok. Many novels are about the absence of such safety nets, the consequence, the futility of trying to build home made ones (they inevitably fail), the hunger, the denial, the forever desire to fit in all come together once you separate a person from the place of his or her birth and drop the person into an environment that has a different, and often obscure, set of rules.

How does Vincent Calvino interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Calvino?

Vincent Calvino, this ex-New Yorker, who is half-Jewish and half-Italian, has learnt to adapt to Thai culture and live inside Bangkok. He rides the rail of the foreign cultural roller coaster, holding on white knuckled, trying to solve crimes. Usually a murder in Bangkok (not an uncommon event), and it is his insight into the language, customs, and culture that keep him alive. And when he stumbles (which is often) he has his patron and best friend Colonel Pratt, a Thai cop, and his secretary, Ratana, to fall back on for advice. In the world of crime and criminals, it is good to go into a situation with eyes wide open. And if you can add other eyes to a problem, it is even better. Most of Calvino’s clients are foreigners whose eyes are shut tight, glued by home grown cultural expectations and when those fail, the trouble starts. The quote that I pulled from A Haunting Smile below sums up the lessons of living in Asia.

Has there been any local reaction to your works?

Five of my novels have been translated into the Thai language. Altogether my books have been translated into German, Japanese, Chinese, Norwegian, French, Spanish, Turkish, Italian, Hebrew and Thai. The local reviews have been supportive over the years, and have helped greatly in bringing the books to an international audience. The Germans, Spanish, and Italians reviewers standout as big supporters of the Vincent Calvino series.

Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).

I’ve written 22 novels. Crack open any one of them and you’re bound to find a howler lurking somewhere between a short-time hotel and airport. It is relatively easy (for me any way) to get off track with some crazy idea about how I can make a clever twist in old Thai proverbs that are filled with snakes, buffalos, frogs and other creatures as well as flower, grass, watermelons. I regret by passing zoology or botany for law. My wife will sit me down in a chair and gently explain that, well, no, a Thai probably wouldn’t mixed up the name and nature of a specific ghost (they have various perversions). The problem is that in Thai culture there are many specialized ghosts. Some eat you from the bottom up and other from the top down, and sometimes I confuse the two. I came up with a system to remember the difference by visualizing one as a Republican and the other as a Democrat (in the American political system).

Of the Bangkok novels you have written, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?

This is from A Haunting Smile, the 3rd novel in the Land of Smiles trilogy:

“Demographics explains a great deal. Take one square kilometer of England. What do you find inside? Nine adults, three dogs, six children, a couple of pubs, and a church. Now take one square kilometer of Asia. You find three thousand families, eight hundred dogs, two hundred monks, and four hundred generals. Everyone is bunched up; squeezed together; stepping on each other’s feet. You can’t move without someone noticing. You can’t raise a concern without causing offense. And the person you offend may have power. Remember the four hundred generals part of the equation. The social arrangements are compromised to make certain you don’t cause offense. So you don’t complain; you don’t criticize; you learn not to see problems. The most efficient way of living is to move with great caution; if you step forward from the spot where you stand, always remember that people are watching you. Never move quickly forward or backward without honoring the cardinal rule of the East—yield to those more powerful than you. Spontaneous behavior is dangerous. You must take your time, one step at a time so those in power don’t become anxious. You learn to test the water slowly, putting in one toe at a time. It is better to lose a toe than a foot. And it’s better to lose a foot than a leg. You master the art of moving without causing offense.”

Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?

George Orwell, Graham Greene, Paul Thoreau, Timothy Mo, Matt Beynon Rees, Barbara Nadel, Colin Cotterill, Timothy Hallinan, Alex Kerr, Pico Iyer, Barry Eisler, Eliot Pattison, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, George Fetherling, Peter Carey, Lawrence Durrell, J.G. Ballard, Kazuo Ishiguro among others.

What’s next for your protagonist?

9 Gold Bullets, number 12 in the Vincent Calvino series, will be published in an English language edition in Thailand sometime in January 2011. FilmNation Entertainment is in the process of turning the Calvino series into a Hollywood film franchise.

Thanks again, Christopher, for talking to Scene of the Crime.

For more information on Christopher G. Moore, visit his homepage.