Crime and corruption, hookers and hitmen, the anthology “Bangkok Noir” makes a case for hardboiled crime fiction in the Thai capital
At first glance, the title Bangkok Noir reads like an oxymoron. Given the sunny climate and the sunny-side-up dispositions of most Thais, invoking the word “noir” next to Bangkok seems a mite strange, because the French word for “black” is more a state of existential despair than a genre of film and fiction. In response to two World Wars and the Great Depression that carved a long dark trench between them, much of the crime fiction and cinema of suspense from the ‘40s and ‘50s was infected with a lethal strain of fatalism.
It’s a bleak worldview best represented in this collection by Timothy Hallinan’s Hansum Man. The author of The Queen of Patpong, a 2011 nominee for the Edgar Allan Poe best mystery novel award, tells the punchy tale of a Vietnam vet coming back to Bangkok in search of R ‘n’ R after a long time away, only to find a city that is more hostile and foreboding than he remembered. True to the genre’s downwardly mobile nature, the only way for the protagonist to go is to hit rock bottom.
The elasticity of Bangkok Noir is stretched in engrossing new ways by the book’s editor, Christopher G. Moore, in Dolphins Inc. Displaying the author’s penchant for melding contemporary concerns like the annual dolphin slaughter in Japan with the imaginative realms of cyberpunk and hardboiled fiction, this genre-jumping tale rewards repeat readings. In fact, I’d challenge anyone to figure it out the first time around.
That stock character of Bangkok Noir, the femme fatale, gets revamped in Thai fashion. John Burdett (Bangkok 8) adds a few touches of tastefully written erotica to a portrait of Thailand’s most infamous female phantasm in Gone East, while the eminent travel author Pico Ayer (Video Nights in Kathmandu) returns to the Bangkok scenes of that non-fiction collection in the only story that flirts with the city’s main tenderloin for tourists.
Penetrating the love lives of Thai society’s elite is a subject rarely dealt with in English-language writing from Thailand—until now—as local author Tew Bunnag sketches the incongruities and murderous passions in a love quadrangle of an older, bisexual politician, his younger mistress, an errant gigolo and a forsaken wife in The Mistress Wants Her Freedom.
Tew’s sympathy for the plight of the young mistress at the hands of the Viagra-gobbling politician is rendered explicitly well: “He merely needed her to be there as a beautiful trinket to bolster his esteem and as a receptacle into which he could pour his artificially stimulated desire.”
The term “dark influences” turns up a lot in the Thai and English press as shorthand for a murky collision between the underworld of contract killers and the realm of more respectable figures from the upper echelons of power.
In this anthology, a few of the shadowy killers from the margins of society are fleshed out by veteran expat authors Collin Piprell, author of the Magic Circles sci-fi series, and Dean Barrett, now retired, who zero in on a stock figure of crime writing.
Hot Enough to Kill by Piprell deglamorizes the hitman. To Chai, it’s just another job that pays better than menial labour. At the end of the workday, all he wants is do is have a cold beer and flirt with some good-looking women, like many other working stiffs.
In Death of a Legend, Barrett supplies the book’s cleverest and most Hitchcockesque plot twist, with the noir served up in dollops of black humour.
But the riskiest story here may very well be Pol Gen Vasit Dejkunjorn’s The Sword. Of all the different crime and detective stories set in Thailand, the police procedural is off limits, for the simple reason that any author revealing the behind-the-crime-scenes machinations of the force’s do-badders would be bringing down a death sentence on their own heads.
In all of the country’s Thai and English newspapers, the editorial is a yearly déjà vu—Police in Need of Reform—but how does the corruption play out on a daily basis? Vasit, the late police general named a National Artist in Literature in 1998 who passed away in June 2018, fills in the blanks and grey areas of a young cop’s rise to riches:
“He did not forget that criminal investigation and interrogation alone were not sufficient for his fame. To be hailed as a police idol, he would have to show that he was skilled too in crime suppression. The young superintendent consequently turned to the easiest prey: the petty thieves. His arrest records were impressively long. When an armed robber resisted arrest, Yuddha did not waste time negotiating. The robber was gunned down in a brief firefight. With the extrajudicial killing, Yuddha joined the prestigious class of police exterminators.”
The Sword—a reference to the ceremonial offerings given to graduates of the police academy by a member of royalty—takes the case of a tycoon whose driver has possibly caused the death of a motorcyclist and expands it into a much bigger tale that details how the bribery system works. In light of the Red Bull heir killing a policeman with his Ferrari, and never being charged for it, several years later, this tale has become an eerie prophecy.
After the canon of noir’s greatest exponents, such as the American novelist Jim Thompson’s Chester Himes and David Goodis, ran out of firepower and readers as the ‘60s came to a close, a new kind of crime tale emerged, typified by Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen and the early films of Quentin Tarantino, which plays the darker elements for black comedy.
But now, as a new post-Brexit era looms, Donald Trump makes a mockery of democracy, and Europe seethes with the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Only the lunatics are laughing. While the world stage is set for a return to noir’s pessimism and primary theme of corruption: corruption of politics and big business, the corrupting power of sex, the betrayals of friendship and marriage that ultimately lead to the corruption of the individual’s integrity and most cherished beliefs, as happens to the crooked cop in The Sword.
After all, in a country and body politic like Thailand where the last two elected prime ministers are convicted criminals on the lam and the press is now more straightjacketed than ever, Bangkok noir is a telltale art.