Last month I introduced Travel Porn, a new feature in which I review books from my beloved travel literature genre. There’s nothing like Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar to make you want transport yourself to a hot sweaty train in Southeast Asia or J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals to make you want to sell everything you own and move to a tiny island in the Pacific. This genre, this kind of book — it’s travel porn, plain and simple.
“Dig deeper and the tropical paradise reveals a far colder, damp darkness of souls stranded, battered and estranged.”
Despite the fact that I’ve actually been doing a ton of reading, it took me a while to find another book worthy of a review. Private Dancer, while being a very famous book set in Bangkok, erred a little too much on the porn side of this feature. Tales From A Broad, while meant to be a humorous book about expat life in Singapore, erred a little too much on the side of, well, not humorous. Finally, in a tiny bookstore on a corner of Sukhumvit, I found Bangkok Noir.
I was drawn in by the names of many prestigious authors on the cover and the fact that I have come to enjoy short story collections over the years. The “noir” part is a total departure from my usual memoir- or humor-based reading, but I was excited to give something completely new a try.
A Look Inside
Bangkok Noir consists of twelve short stories from a diverse list of authors both famous and relatively obscure, both Western expats and Bangkok-born Thais. What unites them is they all fall under the noir genre. What is noir? As Christopher G. Moore explains in the introduction, “noir” is translated from French to mean black, or dark. In its use today by modern English critics and authors, it describes a specific set of crime fiction. It’s authors, Moore claims, “made a reputation selling a bleak, nihilistic vision of life… the characters find themselves caught without the possibility of redemption.”
The stories varied wildly in topic and tone. A brief summary:
• Gone East by John Burdett tells the story of an expat who marries into a wealthy Thai family that he grows to resent. An encounter with dark magic changes his life forever.
• Inspector Zhang and the Dead Thai Gangster by Stephen Leather is a mini murder mystery taking place in an airplane headed between Singapore and Bangkok. The main character is a pitch-perfect Southeast Asian Sherlock Holmes.
• Thousand and One Nights by Pico Iyer is a familiar tale of an expat exploring the sex industry in Bangkok — told in a completely unfamiliar way.
• Halfhead by Colin Cotterill tells the story of a scam artist clairvoyant who begins receiving tips from “the other side”, and the dark consequences that come along with taking help from ghosts.
• The Mistress Wants Her Freedom by Tew Bunnag is a classic revenge saga involving a wealthy Thai couple, a mistress and a gay lover. In this short story you never know exactly who is about to scam who.
• Hansum Man by Timothy Hallinan tells the tale of a Vietnam Veteran expat who finds trouble when he goes looking for a Thai lover from decades past.
• Daylight by Alex Kerr follows a New York reporter trying to solve a murder that took place in broad daylight on the Skytrain.
• Death of a Legend by Dean Barrett is a dark peek into a day in the life of a Thai hit man — and as usual in this collection, nothing is what it seems.
• The Sword by Vasit Dejkunjorn explores the world of police corruption in Thailand and the deep sense of honor that it violates.
• The Lunch That Got Away by Eric Stone is a fun (believe it or not!) story about a regular Bangkok visitor who comes up with a clever way to take revenge on the powerful restaurant owner that stole from his favorite local street vendor.
• Hot Enough to Kill by Colin Piprell follows a poor young boy who turns to a life of crime in order to keep up with his changing city.
What I Liked and Didn’t Like
As I mentioned above, the noir genre and crime-fiction in general is fairly new to me. I found that the stories I connected with most were the ones rooted fairly firmly in reality, such as The Lunch That Got Away, The Mistress Wants Her Freedom, Thousand and One Nights, and Inspector Zhang. Those stories were all about quirky characters, interesting structures and yes, uniquely bleak tones.
The stories that I didn’t like so much were ones that had plots based on fantasy, magic, and other realities, such as Gone East and Dolphins Inc. Some stories, like The Sword and Halfhead, flirted with those themes but also contained major insight into Thai culture and in those specific cases, into the fascinating world of police corruption in Thailand. Luckily this collection was extremely well-balanced and for every story that seemed a little too fantasy-based, there was another one right after that I loved. This is the beauty of short story collections!
Of course this is personal preference. To a reader who loved Harry Potter and Twilight (sorry if those are terrible example, those are the only fantasy or science-fiction related books that pop into my head!), the list of liked and disliked stories may be completely reversed.
Another personal aspect that drew me to Bangkok Noir is my deep love of The City of Angels (no, that nickname does not refer exclusively to LA!). I have always been drawn to this city that defies easy description; a place that marries the ancient and the shockingly modern, that lays luxury alongside poverty, that both satisfies and defies its own stereotypes. Bangkok is often reviled for its fast-pace, its grime and its grit. Those are the things that I love about it, and why I was drawn to this book that promised to revel in the dark sides of the city.
One thing I think all readers of this book will enjoy is the cultural insight into Thailand. You will come away with a deeper understand of “the Thai smile,” the concept of loss of face, the belief in karma. You will explore the worlds of the gentrifying slum-sois, the luxury high-rises of the elite, the notorious neon go-go districts. And like anyone in the midst of a great love affair, you will come to cherish even the underbelly of the enigmatic country that is Thailand.
Who This Book is For
Anyone who loves noir or crime fiction, those that feel a connection to Bangkok, those that want to learn more about Thai culture and beliefs through a slightly sinister lens.
Now It’s Your Turn!
Today I’m giving away my copy to one lucky reader! Perhaps that reader is not quite so lucky when you consider the dog-eared pages and the notes scribbled in the margin, but let’s just call that condition well-loved, shall we?
To enter, simply subscribe to this blog via RSS or email (below) and leave me a comment telling me that you have done so! Next week I’ll use a random number generator to pick a winner. All readers are welcome to enter as I’m happy to mail internationally.
Happy reading and good luck!