Arriving in Bangkok is a jolt to the senses. Sweltering heat. Pungent smells. Gridlock traffic. Food vendors sharing broken sidewalks with stray dogs scavenging for scraps. And when the sun falls, rather than things cooling down, the atmosphere thickens as the city’s legendary nightlife begins to stir.
This heady brew creates an ideal atmosphere for noir fiction, which is thriving in the city.
“A lot of foreigners, most of them men, come to Bangkok to roll around in it,” Tom Vater, a Bangkok-based journalist and author of the Detective Maier Mystery series, told The Diplomat. “The city is hot, dark and sticky. It offers plenty of darkness and hardly cares how it’s portrayed so long as the dollars keep coming in. Bangkok Noir owes its existence to this rather unique situation.”
Tom Vater Source: Laure Siegel
To be precise, the literary genre that has found a home in Bangkok is not noir in the classical sense. “It’s really crime fiction set in Bangkok. But the term Bangkok Noir has a nice ring to it,” said Vater, who co-founded Asia’s English-language crime fiction publisher Crime Wave Press with Hans Kemp.
“Bangkok is perfect for crime fiction,” added John Burdett, bestselling British crime author of the Sonchai Jitpleecheep Series, which centers on a Thai Buddhist police detective. “Everyone has heard of it, many have visited, but very few have penetrated its mysteries, which are protected by an almost impenetrable language and alphabet, not to mention the thousand and one superstitions that can come up from behind just when you thought you were making progress.”
Whatever the literary label, Bangkok has spawned a community of expat writers inspired by the city’s dark side.
“There is a rat pack of writers here, most are also journalists or veteran commentators from the English-speaking community, although France is well represented also,” said Burdett, who previously worked as a lawyer in Hong Kong.
“Thai crime writers are few and far between, as are female authors; the roost is ruled by aging white men,” Vater added.
Night of Noir
But this could change. Over the past few years British crime novelist James Newman has organized several editions of an event called Bangkok Fiction: Night of Noir, bringing together local writers and visitors such as New York Times bestselling American mystery writer Cara Black, novelist John Daysh, and performance poet John Gartland.
“It would be nice to have more local writers and female artists join in, along with some younger artists, writers and creative people,” Newman said.
For newcomers, whatever their background, Bangkok’s street life alone provides the necessary ingredients to set the scene. But those who dig deeper will discover a well of social, political and cultural forces that are used by the city’s best crime writers to add layers of complexity to their work. One of the most significant of these forces has been Bangkok’s frenzied push to modernize.
Christopher G. Moore, a Canadian former lawyer and professor, and author of the Vincent Calvino Private Eye series set in Bangkok, emphasizes the vast impact of rapid modernization on crime trends. Having first arrived in Bangkok more than 30 years ago, he has witnessed this process firsthand.
“Crime fiction authors in Bangkok have been among the first to identify and track the knock-on effect in crime, which has followed the incredible rise of megacities around the world,” Moore said. “Bangkok has doubled in size since I first arrived in 1983.”
In that time, Bangkok “has morphed from a city of languid canals, shop house stores selling 50 kilo sacks of rice, mom and pop shops, CD shops, and no cellphone, internet, or cable TV, dominated by family compounds into a high-tech, social media active, modern, urban center with an educated middle-class. That is a lot of change in one generation.”
These words ring true to anyone who has visited Bangkok, which is awash in visceral reminders of clashing economic realities. Luxury shopping malls abut crumbling apartment blocks. BMWs share congested roads with motorcycle taxis and tuk-tuks. Mounds of coconut shells accumulate on sidewalks in front of hipster cafes and fashion boutiques. But the impact of the city’s runaway growth extends far beyond visual pollution.
“The law and infrastructure have lagged, trying to play catch up, creating conflicts and arguments amongst various groups,” Moore says. “Riding the waves of rapid changes are new and old criminals locked in a battle to control turf… For a noir writer, the corruption, double-dealing, and inequality provide source material for his or her characters caught in the vice of power and chart their futile attempts to escape their fate.”
One does not need to search long for “source material” in Bangkok. A grim stream of crime news flows steadily from the Thai-language press. Burdett, who has only recently begun to read Thai newspapers, said he has encountered the following in spades: Drugs, violence, superstition, teen warfare, Buddhism, details of the lives of workers on rubber plantations in the South, banana plantations in the North, insurrections in the Southwest, midsummer hailstorms that destroy huts and homes, killer jellyfish, Yaabaa trafficking from Myanmar, ice from China, heroin from Afghanistan, cocaine from Colombia.
“None of these themes have been exhausted and they are all there in the news everyday along with domestic violence and glamour from the entertainment industry, which is hugely powerful and important,” Burdett said.
This doesn’t end with the local community. According to Newman, ample fodder for crime fiction is also found in local English-language media. He recounts a few particularly grisly cases involving victims from the farang (foreigner) community.
“There was a story a while back about a foreigner whose Thai wife had him killed and then barbecued him,” Newman said. “Then there was a man who lived in the Northern city of Chiang Mai who was duped by a girlfriend into buying an elephant sanctuary. She took the money and banked it while fixing it so he could work at the sanctuary as a volunteer.”
He continues: “One day he’s sitting in a meeting telling the owners how to run the sanctuary when they have to inform him that he was just a volunteer. The girlfriend has vanished with several million baht. He checks into a guesthouse and drinks five bottles of local rum daily until nature does the rest.”
Newman points out that the victim of the elephant sanctuary scam was Oxford educated, and emphasized that suicide among foreigners is common in Thailand. There’s even a website dedicated to foreigners who die in Thailand.
Adding a fantastic dimension to darker fiction set in Bangkok, many crime writers also draw on folk superstitions, ghosts, spirits, dream interpretation, gender, murky politics, Southeast Asian black magic rituals – featured heavily in Newman’s Red Night Zone, available for a limited time as a free download – and ancient Thai cultural texts like the Ramakien (derived from the Hindu epic Ramayana).
These story elements are undoubtedly intoxicating, and lend themselves to a seemingly limitless number of potential plot lines. But is there deeper value in crime fiction than entertainment? Moore thinks there definitely is.
Raymond Chandler, the British-American author of such classic hardboiled crime novels as The Big Sleep, “instructed us in examining the effect of a weak rule of law,” Moore says. “The examination goes back to Socrates. He challenged us to shine a light on the monsters under the bed – those beady-eyed monsters of arrogance, greed, and injustice.”
“Noir writers are part of much larger and older tradition,” he continues. “The hallmark of noir is to shine the light on the monsters all you want, but injustice wins. That’s a tough one for readers to swallow when Hollywood has taught them to seek a happy ending where justice prevails.”
Yet, with any luck Moore’s fictional private eye, Vincent Calvino, may have a chance to challenge this cultural obsession with tidy endings. While the Calvino series has been under option in Hollywood since 2008, Moore has recently heard reports “of significant progress” towards some sort of adaptation being produced for the mainstream.
He is quick to add that “as this is Hollywood, it isn’t a done deal until the ink is dry on the contract. Even then you worry about the ink turning invisible and starting over with blank sheets of paper. [But] Vincent Calvino as either a film or TV series would be a great boost for the Bangkok noir community.”
Whether the exploits of a farang detective roaming Bangkok’s humid streets reach a Western audience remains to be seen. But now is a good time to assess Bangkok’s place in the larger genre of crime fiction. Increasingly, the unique conditions that have made the city an ideal backdrop for noir tales are gradually being sanitized. Bangkok’s number one ranking in Travel + Leisure’s annual “World’s Best” cities list – aimed at affluent travelers – from 2010 to 2013 attests to this fact. After a brief hiatus in 2014 – when the current military regime was ushered in by a coup on May 22 – the city was back in T + L’s good graces again in 2015.
Is the glowing mainstream press a sign that Bangkok is losing its edge?
“In recent years, the free-wheeling ways of the City of Angels have been somewhat arrested by politics, and incessant and hypocritical talk of morality now curtails the most public displays of debauchery,” Vater said. “I don’t know whether that increases Bangkok’s Noir credentials or not. It’s a contradictory situation in a city of many contradictions.”
Jonathan DeHart is a journalist based in Tokyo. He can be followed on Twitter @jon_de_hart
Check out the Facebook page Bangkok Noir Authors here for updates on events and other happenings in the community. And to watch an enlightening discussion between Burdett and Moore, moderated by author Jim Algie at the recent Bangkok Edge Festival, click here.
Bangkok Noir (a collection of short stories edited by Christopher G. Moore)
Mindfulness and Murder (the first book in Nick Wilgus’ Father Ananda series, published by Crime Wave Press)
The Sonchai Jitpleecheep Series, by John Burdett (a series of crime novels centering on a half-Thai, half-farang Buddhist detective; six books and counting, beginning with Bangkok 8)
The Vincent Calvino private eye series, by Christopher G. Moore (award-winning series of 16 books which follow fictional Bangkok private eye Vincent Calvino into the darkest corners of the city; start with Spirit House)
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (sci-fi meets noir in this award-winning biopunk tome, set in Thailand during the 23rd century)
Detective Maier trilogy, by Tom Vater (The first two books in the series, The Cambodian Book of the Dead and The Man with the Golden Mind, were published by Exhibit A and used Cambodia and Laos as their main locations. The third volume, The Monsoon Ghost Image, is set in Thailand where the German detective is on the trail of the world’s most secret photograph. Tentatively, the book could be published before the end of the year.)
Vincent Calvino’s World, by Chad Evans (a chronicle of history of noir and how it has evolved in Bangkok in the context of a quarter of a century of change in Bangkok)
The Funeral Casino, by Alan Klima (an ethnographic study of funeral gambling and Buddhist meditation on death, within Thailand’s pro-democracy movement and its accompanying street massacres)
Guns, Girls, Gambling, Ganja: Thailand’s Illegal Economy and Public Policy, by Sungsidh Piriyarangsan and Nualnoi Treerat (an in-depth study on Thai’s illegal economy)
Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse: The Battle for Human Dignity in Bangkok’s Bleakest Slums, by Father Joe Maier and Jerry Hopkins (an account of a Catholic priest’s experience working in Bangkok’s slums)
Queen of Patpong and the rest of the Poke Rafferty series, by Tim Hallinan
Skytrain to Murder, by Dean Barrett
And for a lighter take on Bangkok, here is some recommended expat non-fiction:
Bangkok Days, by Lawrence Osborne
Very Thai, by Philip Cornwell-Smith
Bizarre Thailand, by Jim Algie
Bangkok Beat, by Kevin Cumming
Bangkok Found, by Alex Kerr
Fear & Loathing in Bangkok, by Christopher G. Moore