Under the pseudonym Bangkok Byron, a member of the influential literary site ThailandStories.com wrote in 2011 an essay putting forth the idea that writers in Thailand have by now established their own artistic movement. Comparing these expatriate writers to the Paris-based Decadent Movement of the late 19th century, he suggested that writers in Thailand belong to a family whose fiction is “a protest against a spiritually bankrupt civilization” but where “sex, alcohol and drugs [are] important catalysts.”
This idea was not something new as another website previously suggested the same thing. An anonymous writer for ThaiOasis.com sustains that “the still-emerging genre of Bangkok Fiction contains common elements that define its ‘look and feel,’ including the heroism of anti-heroes, the increasingly thin line between innocence and vice, and the often-necessary relationship between honesty and corruption.” Some of the established writers identified as belonging to this new local genre are Christopher G. Moore, Dean Barrett, Stephen Leather, Jake Needham, Collin Piprell, Jason Schoonover, and David Young.
But, apart from these well-known names, there’s also a score of emerging writers who constantly try to find their own voice and role in this new literary movement. Discovering these writers has become easier these days, as new electronic platforms have given them a simple and inexpensive way of making their work available via e-books.
One of these emerging writers is Bangkok-based English author James A. Newman, who has been calling Thailand home since 2001. Born in London in 1977, Newman moved to Bangkok to write fiction full time and, ever since, has published short-stories, novels and non-fiction in publications from Mumbai, Arizona, London and, of course, Bangkok.
Newman describes his writing as “new-noir crime with pulp heart,” a mixture which no doubt comes from his vivid imagination and a vast life experience as a litigation insurance broker, copy-writer, English teacher, movie extra in Bollywood, rare book dealer, rainforest tour guide, and importer of cheese and wine.
His first book to hit the shelves of AsiaBooks throughout Thailand is actually his first written novel, Bangkok Express (Spanking Pulp Press, 2012), previously published by Bangkok Books in 2010. According to the author himself, the new, improved first print edition of Bangkok Express has seen a lot of edits, being somewhat unrecognizable from the 2010 version he had actually written at only 24 years of age.
This brief novel introduces Joe Dylan, a 31-year-old fraud investigator with a dark past who is sent from London to Thailand to get to the bottom of two mysterious death insurance claims. He’s a regular member of Alcoholic Anonymous and due to his travels, he gets to attend AA meetings in a score of cities, including Mexico City, Vienna and New York. Joe tries to stay dry and actually succeeds in doing this for exactly ninety days: “Ninety days of not picking up. Ninety days of sober reflections of his past. Ninety days of hope. Ninety days.”
Especially with emerging writers, there’s quite a lot of the writer in his or her first book, and it is hard not to see Dylan, the fraud investigator who falls in love with the freedom he find in Thailand, as the alter ego of Newman, the former litigation insurance broker now turned novelist in Bangkok. On top of that, Newman also has a few skeletons in his closet and his stay at the Thamkrabok detox temple in Saraburi Province has been a somewhat major influence in his life as a writer. To top things off and blur the line between real life and fiction even more, the author chose the name for his lead female character after his own wife’s name and Joe Dylan, the detective, just so happens to be his son’s name too.
But James A. Newman, the writer, or Joe Dylan, the fictional character, could be any one of the thousands of expats that come to Thailand and soon fall victim to its seductive life: “Whatever you do don’t pick up. In Bangkok there was nothing else to do but pick up. Women. Bottles. Vice. Picking up was the city’s mantra. More stuff to pick up than there were hands to do the picking. Each vice was the compartment of the same train. One led to another.”
The action of Bangkok Express takes the reader from England to Thailand, from Bangkok to Ko Samui, from the red light district to Chinatown, from cheap hotels to pristine beaches, from every backpacker’s heaven to every gambler’s hell. Standing menacingly in the way of Joe Dylan’s mission in Thailand is Shogun Sukarasorn, a Thai mafioso who owns almost the entire island of Samui and definitely controls everything dirty that takes place there.
Shogun is the mastermind of the insurance claim that drives the plot of the novel, having planned and facilitated the death of an Italian diver and subsequently her Finnish diving instructor as well. But when the second insurance claim is filed, bells start ringing at the insurance syndicate in London and an investigator is sent to uncover the truth. What Joe Dylan discovers is a world where every dark alley has a killer waiting for you, every drink on tropical islands is spiked, and everyone is someone other than whom they claim to be.
The details that pepper the novel reveal that Newman is a man in love with nature and, from all the bird-watching he has done, possesses deep knowledge of wild birds. Shogun, the bad guy in Bangkok Express, is not only a cold stone killer, sodomite and rapist, he also has his own private zoo. Shogun’s two prized birds are Nok, a tropical and very rare ten year-old hornbill, which he keeps inside a gilded cage and Gantira, his gorgeous wife, whom he abuses and neglects. The obvious metaphor, that this cruel man likes to keep his possessions, whether pet or wife, in cages, is a good one.
Both attempts at outlining a Thailand Decadent Movement mentioned above put corruption and the disillusionment with life at the top of the list of topics tackled by its writers. Newman is no exception, with his whole novel revolving around the idea that corruption and the exploitation of the weak will only bring immense profit and even fame: “Listen kid, corruption is part of the system here. It isn’t a little chink here and there. It is everywhere. It is in the bowels of the sewers with the rats and the pythons. It’s on the streets, noodle carts, the office buildings, all the way up to the very point at the top of Baiyoke tower.”
After being shot, beaten up, cheated, threatened, drugged, arrested, and incarcerated, Joe Dylan finally cracks the case and solves the insurance “mystery.” He completes his mission in Thailand and buys a ticket on the Bangkok Express train from Surat Thani to Bangkok, leaving behind a stack of cadavers and a few people to whom he had caused major loss of face. Then, just when the reader thinks that the carnage is over, you get another ten pages of pure violence, hatred and instinctual struggle for survival. For Nemwman’s Bangkok Express is exactly that, noir pulp fiction.
The book makes a good weekend read but I’m not sure all readers will like the author’s staccato prose, mimicking American crime fiction writer James Ellroy’s telegramatic style. If you’re used to books that have a flowing narrative with sentences that are more than just half a line long, then Bangkok Express will feel a bit rushed and fragmented. But if it’s pure pulp entertainment with an exotic flavour you’re looking for, then Newman’s book will serve its purpose. Also, if you can overlook the few typos, not worry about the body count, and take for granted the many coincidences that bring the right characters in the right place at the right time, then get aboard Bangkok Express and enjoy the ride.
James A. Newman has been busy in the twelve years he has been writing in Thailand and has produced quite a writer’s portfolio including short stories, non-fiction studies and, of course, novels. Among his short fiction, it’s worth mentioning Thailand after Dark (Bangkok Books, 2011) and the upcoming Two Lumps and a Pair of Glasses (Big Pulp Magazine, March 2013). His non-fiction work includes Thai Meditations (Bangkok Books, 2010), written as James Alexander, and The Sub – Teaching in Thailand (Bangkok Books, 2011), written as S.T. Ray.
His novels include The Boy That Played Chequers (Fried Fiction, 2011), a serialized private-eye novel featuring Joe Dylan, which can be read for free; Bangkok City (Books Mango, 2012), the sequel to Bangkok Express; and Lizard City (Books Mango, 2012), a pulp horror novella now available as a free e-book.
Author’s photographs by Lillian Suwanrumpha.
Initially published in “Bangkok Trader” (Vol.7, No.3, February 2013)