(Appears in this week’s Phnom Penh Weekly, free at all good coffee-shops in Phnom Penh; look also for Kevin Cummings’ review of Lawrence Osborne’s Hunters in the Dark.)
The genre of Asian noir seems to be flourishing just now. With established writers like John Burdett, Tim Hallinan and Thomas Hunt Locke continuing to explore the dark side of human nature in Thailand, and Tom Vater, Bob Couttie and Steven W. Palmer setting their adventures in Cambodia, fans of the genre have a wealth of material to choose from.
But head and shoulders above all of these is the Godfather of Asian noir; Christopher G. Moore.
A Canadian and formerly a lawyer, Moore has now lived in SE Asia for 25 years. His first book, “His Lordship’s Arsenal”, was released in 1985 to critical acclaim. Since that first release, he has written over 20 novels, 200 essays and a book on the Thai language as well as other collaborations and editing jobs. But Moore is best known for his Vincent Calvino series, now standing at 13 novels – with a new one due in 2106 – perhaps the first in the genre to feature a Western protagonist in a South East Asian setting.
His writing style has been praised globally, with such eloquent descriptions as: “The Hemingway of Bangkok” (The Globe and Mail), “Dashiell Hammett in Bangkok” (San Francisco Chronicle), and “W. Somerset Maugham with a bit of Elmore Leonard and Mickey Spillane thrown in for good measure”(The Japan Times).
The Weekly sent along Phillip J. Coggan, himself the author of “Sweet Nights of the Naga King”, to find out what makes Moore and Calvino tick.
Ladies and gentlemen, readers and gawkers, inhabitants of the steamy Phnom Penh night; please plug in your ear-buds, because today we have a rare treat, a double interview with Christopher G. Moore and Vinny Calvino, the latter of whom doesn’t really exist except as a fictional character.
Vinny: I what? Chris, what’s this guy saying?
Chris: Shut up and listen, Calvino, and you might learn something of use.
Vinny: That’s my line…
First, how long have you and Vinny been together?
Vinny: Been together? What’s this guy implying? Chris, if he keeps this up I’m gonna have to do summit. Summit serious.
Chris: Shut up Vinny. Seriously, I’ve been cleaning up your English and related messes for the last 25 years, and now I get nailed with some kind of Brokeback Mountain allegation.
So Vinny never had any real childhood? I mean, he just sort appeared out of nowhere?
Vinny: Hey, now he’s callin’ me an illegal! Serious, Chris, I’m gonna have to do summit about this guy.
Chris: He’s an ex-New York lawyer, who got on the wrong side of a Chinese Triad gang in Manhattan. He was trying to protect a friend, a young Thai guy named Pratt. His turf in Bangkok extends from the shopping malls, to Nana Plaza, Patpong, and Soi Cowboy, to the slums of Klong Toey, the racetrack at the Sports Club, and even the swanky shopping malls. His client list is as thick as a crooked cop’s wedge of notes. The clients are expats who live and work in Thailand: some live the good life on a fat package; others get by day to day on a nickel and dime. They are the kind of ordinary people who have no clue about the culture, law enforcement and justice system or language. A set of non-skills guaranteed to land them in trouble. Cheated or killed. By the time they or their next of kin walk into Calvino’s office they are damaged and look to Calvino to patch them up. In Calvino’s world, most of those who survive don’t go home after one tour of duty. They become addicted to the front. Like Calvino, they volunteer for just one more tour and forget about New York.
Vinny: Noo Yoik.
Vinny: I said Noo Yoik. Dat’s how we sez it in Joysey.
He doesn’t talk like that in the books.
Chris: I had to clean him up. Taught him there’s no joy in Joysey.
And there’s not much in Bangkok either. Chris, what is noir?
Chris: Noir, like porn, has many definitions. You know it when you see it. The characters in noir live under a dark shadow where intimidation and violence are part of the fabric of life. When the outcome is hopelessness, desperation, sorrow, you can be certain you are down a noir road. The powerful forces with the guns are the winners; others yield or are destroyed in their path. A sense of doom prevails. A good example of what represents noir for me is found in Georges Simenon’s novel titled Dirty Snow.
Cambodia would seem to be the perfect home of noir. In fact you edited a collection of short stories, Phnom Penh Noir?
Chris: I tried to bring together a community of writers and artists in Phnom Penh Noir, publishing their stories, lyrics, and photography. I had the rare chance to work with legendary creative talents like Roland Joffe, James Grady and John Burdett along with a young generation of Cambodians. The best thing about the collection is the diversity of noir tales told through multiple points of view. Truth, mortality, regret, betrayal, and loss play out in these stories, poetry and lyrics.
Do you have any favourites in that collection?
Chris: That’s like picking threads out of an incredibly intricate Persian carpet as favourites. What makes Phnom Penh Noir work is the whole of the anthology creates a small universe of feelings, thought, motives, behaviour, and along the horizon of these experiences you find how storytellers carry history inside their imagination.
Vinny, you visited Phnom Penh, what did you think of our lovely city?
Vinny: I think you mean Zero Hour in Phnom Penh? That takes me back to 1993. I’ve been to Rangoon and Saigon. Okay, that amounts to handful of times I’ve left Bangkok since I arrived back in the 80s. It does a man good to get shot at in other places. You don’t take Bangkok so personally after that. These places are like Bangkok but not like. Back then it was…
He’s not talking like a cheap Al Capone knock-off any more, Chris! He sounds almost educated!
Chris: Vinny has a NYC side of his brain that does this sumo wrestling thing with the educated side. They flop around inside his muddy skull and after awhile you can’t tell one from the other.
Vinny: Can I go on? Thank you. Phnom Penh in 1993 was dirt back streets where chickens scratched, slums overrun by rats, and UNTAC forces chasing women, ghosts, and drugs.
I especially liked the visit to T3 prison. Chris, was that a real visit?
Vinny: Was it a real visit? This guy is seriously starting to annoy me.
Chris: Keep calm Vinny. He’s not armed. Yeah, the T3 prison scene was based on a real visit with UNTAC officers in 1993.
And the bit where you eat the dog?
Chris: Dog? I don’t remember eating any dog?
Vinny: Yes you do, it was that little place outside the jail, just a little street stall. I think the Golden Soyra is there now. That Golden Sorya place, that’s noir! We were trying to get on the good side of those Cambodian cops. They served us something brown and I put it in my mouth and all the Cambodians raised their glasses and toasted me, and I asked why and they said it was because not so many foreigners liked dog. Street mutt special someone said. Pratt was with us, he said it reminded him of New York.
Chris: He’s that fair pair of dice in a rigged casino called justice. Forget about climbing Everest. Even pushing a ladder against what looks like a molehill in Thailand requires an experienced Sherpa. And even then an avalanche has been known to bury a man if his chit cup is knocked over.
And Pratt is a cop who isn’t corrupt? All Thai cops are corrupt, aren’t they?
Vinny: Seriously, Chris, this guy is starting to annoy me.
Chris: Think of corruption as a plumbing problem. Pipes leak. Someone figures out putting bucket on the leak is profitable. Once that happens repairing leaks becomes difficult, if not impossible. And where are all of those pipes? Behind walls with nice pictures on them so you never know they’re there. You turn on the tap, water comes out. The leak doesn’t seem to hurt you. You move on.
Your latest book was Crackdown, right?
Chris: Came out in March 2015.
I remember there were some Cambodians in that.
Chris: Yes. It’s set in Bangkok but a major figure is a Cambodian named Munny. He’s an illegal migrant, living in a derelict apartment building with about a hundred squatters. The basement is flooded and filled with fish, and the squatters make a living catching the fish and selling them in the market. So they start off, you see, in a condition of communal innocence.
A bit like the Garden of Eden?
Chris: You could say the Garden of Eden in dystopia. But then corruption starts. Some of the squatters form themselves into a council and start imposing rules. Let me read a bit and you’ll see what I mean:
The meeting-calling men referred to themselves as the Eight-Nine Safety Council and made it clear to everyone squatting in the building that from now on they were the ones who ran things …. A couple of men from other floors who challenged them were beaten up. After that no one, including Munny, risked offending the council.
So society is based on the rule of violence ahead of the rule of law?
Vinny: The rule of law is based, ultimately, on violence, or the threat of violence. That’s half of what noir is about. Those officials with the monopoly over violence figure they can do a lot to improve their own position. About then things start to roll down hill and people get flattened.
And the other half?
Chris: Let me read you a bit more, about Munny’s wife, Chamey, when she tries to buck the system:
The Eight-Niners … set a quota on the number of fish each family could take from the basement pool for personal use. Beyond the quota, residents now had to pay for the fish…. The leaders of the Eight-Niners supplied the fish market from the pool. They also collected a “tax” to pay off the police and the owner. But as the new rules and demands increased, Munny said nothing.
Chamey wasn’t quiet. No one owned the fish in the basement. Anyone could see the massive numbers were sufficient for all to take as many as they wished. She complained, and her discontent reached the eighth and ninth floors. The Eight-Niners didn’t frighten her. They watched her taking fish from the basement, and when they told her to stop, she flashed a knife. She threw her last hundred-baht note at one of them.
“Here’s your tax,” she said. “Now leave me to feed my family.” She earned money frying and selling fish harvested from the basement.
“You owe us one thousand more. We want our money.”
Vinny: That’s just background. But that’s where it starts. And what Chris is saying is that the Munnys of this world matter. You should read that book by that guy Evans. Chad Evans. He just wrote a book about me. Nice guy. You should learn from him.
Chris: Vincent Calvino’s World. One of the points he makes is that there are two ways of responding to the noir. One is Henry Miller’s way – withdraw from public life, create a private world of personal self-indulgence. That’s what old Henry did in Paris. The other way is George Orwell’s way – engage and fight. In Crackdown, Munny is taking Henry Miller’s way, and Chamey’s way is Orwell’s way. Not that things stay like that. Without conflict there’d be no story.
Oh, I don’t like conflict.
Vinny: Sure, buddy. That’s exactly the way the Eight-Niners want it.
Mr Moore, I wanted to ask you about Reunion, because it’s set in Cambodia. What’s it about?
Chris: It’s an unsentimental story of friendship, one formed in desperation, and nurtured by deception. It’s about the lies that are part of life when survival is in a killing field. Two men, one a journalist and the other a survivor, meet again years later. Both seek redemption and discover that the past, with its lies and deceit never morphs into the truth. This is a post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia story that explores friendship and survival, and how peace and justice remain unfinished business.
Oh right. Chris, I wanted to ask you something really personal here, if that’s all right.
How can I become a noir novelist? I mean, if I had the right table to work at, and all that. Bought myself a black beret, lightweight trenchcoat. Can you teach me?
Chris: It’s not that easy…You could join the Bangkok Noir Authors Facebook page that I just launched with 8 other authors. That might be useful.
And Vinny, just one last question for you.
Vinny, in Chad Evans’s book about you, he calls you “an existential bachelor” with a self-made moral code. What does he mean by that?
Vinny: That does it. I’m really gonna do summit about this guy right now!
Chris: I wouldn’t worry, Phil. There’s nothing to worry about in the analogue world. We are all digital in the expressions of our emotions, right? To be on the safe side, it would be wise to keep your precise location to yourself while in Bangkok. Sit with your back to a wall. That’s always a good precaution whether in New York or Bangkok. You just never know.
VINNY: At last Chris said summit that I can agree with. I mean that last sentence.