The recent publication of Bangkok Noir – edited by Christopher G. Moore – (Heaven Lake Press, 2011) has created a lot of interest, as it comprises the short fiction of a dozen writers, some of whom are of international fame while some have long since reached into the hearts of their readership in Thailand. A few of them have even succeeded in achieving both statuses, an extra reason for the reader to pursue Bangkok Noir.
In the Introduction to the anthology, Christopher G. Moore makes an attempt at placing the ‘noir’ movement onto the Bangkok literary scene. As it is such a debatable term, for Thailand, in the editor’s opinion, “Noir fiction chronicles a world where a person’s fate is sealed by a larger and more powerful karma, one from which, despite all efforts, they can’t break free.”
Bangkok Noir opens with Gone East by John Burdett, a short story about the travel bug we, as expatriates living in Thailand, surely feel on a daily basis. Gone East revolves around the folk story of Mae Nak, a Thai wife who remained faithful to her husband even after she died, continuing to take care of her family as a ghost. Burdett’s story is a contemporary remake that has all the ingredients one can easily find in the Bangkok metropolis: a successful farang lawyer, unscrupulous in-laws, a frigid and obedient wife, a mia noi (mistress) from the northeast, ancient Khmer tattoos, and plenty of dark magic.
Inspector Zang and the Dead Thai Gangster by Stephen Leather is a short story written in the tradition of the great detective-mystery writers. As if trying to emulate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, the writer puts Inspector Zang of the Singapore Police Force (an Asian Hercule Poirot wannabe) and his sidekick, Sergeant Lee (a female character fairly reminiscent of Dr. John Watson), in charge of solving a murder that took place on a flight from Singapore to Thailand. A Thai gangster ends up dead with a bullet wound in his chest, but nobody heard the gun shot and there’ s no gun to be found. Inspector Zang uses his questioning techniques and logic to solve the mystery and find the murderer.
In Thousand and One Nights, Pico Iyer deals with the main character’s confusing feelings and thoughts in the form of a confessional letter sent by e-mail. After he becomes a widower, the male protagonist feels the need to leave England, to go aboard. He finds himself in the heart of Bangkok’s red light district, cruising the streets without knowing what he “really wanted here.” Eventually, two “girls” take him to a short-time hotel and it is in their company that he discovers the genie he’s been looking for all along.
Funnily enough, Halfhead by Colin Cotterill is set not in Bangkok as you would expect, but rather in the north of Thailand, in Chiang Mai. Samart Wichaiwong, also known as Teacher Wong, is a charlatan who plays the role of a shaman. He lies to people about being able to contact the spirits of dead relatives, gives desperate people bogus lottery numbers, and spends all his days drinking beer. But, when the police recruit him to help them catch some “bad people,” the shaman meets his match in the person of Colonel Thongfa and a hideous spirit that visits him at night in his dreams… which soon become nightmares.
For the readers used to Moore’s novels, Dolphin Inc. by Christopher G. Moore is quite a surprising story that brings thoughts of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the movies Inception and The Matrix. Anyone familiar with these titles understands that Dolphin Inc. is set in a virtual reality world, with Bangkok as its background and “base.” The short story starts with the aborted attempt of an assassination but soon becomes a complex web of narratives and dialogues that take the readers from the Port of Klong Toey to a fishing village in Taiji, Japan.
Maybe the short story that most long-time residents of Thailand will identify with is The Mistress Wants Her Freedom by Tew Bunnag. Nong Maew, the mistress of a wealthy Thai man, feels the need to break free from the relationship, but at the same time, finds it difficult to give up the financial security and the hi-so lifestyle her status as mia noi offers her. When she discovers that her friend, Pi Nok, a young gay Thai, was once “involved” with her benefactor, Nong Maew decides it’s time for her exit. Unfortunately, greed is a powerful feeling and retribution finally catches up with everyone.
Hansum Man by Timothy Halliman is the story of Wallace, a foreigner once considered a “hansum man,” who returns to Bangkok after being away for a very long time. Only a few days in his stay, he realises that “Bangkok is changing” and a sense of a forlorn destiny soon imbues the short story. Remembering the old Bangkok, when Don Muang was still the gateway to all international and domestic flights in and out of the capital, Wallace succeeds in getting in trouble everywhere he goes. All the while, his search for Jah, a bar girl he once knew, proves to be an impossible mission. Hansum Man epitomises to the best the idea of hopelessness and gritty realism specific to noir fiction and is, by far, the “most noir” short story in the entire collection.
In Daylight by Alex Kerr we read about the fruitless tries of a New York correspondent based in Bangkok to find out more details about a murder that occurred in full daylight and in front of many witnesses on a BTS platform in downtown Bangkok. His investigation leads him to some shocking but “well-known” facts about the victim, but the name of the attacker remains unknown to him. But, in the end “Who cares…? […] It’s time to focus on serious news.”
Death of a Legend by Dean Barrett brings us into the world of paid assassins and the myths that are built around them. A job to eliminate another hitman turns out to be exactly the opposite. The feeling of regret that the main character feels after he had successfully completed the job is one that perfectly aligns with the noir ethos surrounding the genre.
The Sword by Vasit Dejkunjorn is the story of how Yuddha, a police superintendent, became the proud owner of a BMW Series 5, a car far too expensive for his colonel salary. On completion of another successful “transaction” that involved collecting money from the driver of a wealthy businessman, Yuddha remembers his training at the Police Academy and the pledge he took “to perform my duty with utmost integrity and honesty.” All these memories bring him back to the day of his graduation and the moment he accepted the ceremonial sword “directly from the King’s hands.” As he pulls the sword from its scabbard, he has an epiphany and… it rests with you, the reader, to find out what the power of his pledge was!
The Lunch that Got Away by Eric Stone is a short story that tries to instil in the readers a sense of social justice. If society as a whole combines its efforts and, most importantly, takes action, then people’s power will prevail. Although not too noir, Stone’s short story does pinpoint some of the injustices the lower strata of Thai society have to endure at the whims of the rich.
The anthology ends with Hot Enough to Kill by Collin Piprell, a short story based on the more recent socio-political unrest that rocked the streets of Bangkok. Chai, a former Red Shirt demonstrator, and Dit, an ex-Red Shirt guard, are driven by poverty and dreams of a better life to take on a job as hitmen: “Chai has finished his business for the day, and he has money. Now, finally, he’s going to eat. He is hungry, hungry.”
Bangkok Noir, with its twelve short stories, makes up a brief but exciting read. The anthology is part of a more and more distinct Bangkok noir movement that brings to the surface the darker sides of this city, exposing all its ugliness, hardships, and injustices that the powers-to-be would like kept at bay, right where they are: in the dark.
It is worth mentioning that Bangkok noir does not refer to literature only, it can also be portrayed through other artistic means. The cover of Bangkok Noir by German photographer Ralph Tooten is just one good example, while Chris Coles’s paintings of Bangkok noir people takes us to a different visual spectrum.
Learn more about the authors on the book’s official website.