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The Sleuth on the Sukhumvit: 25 Years of Noir Fiction With Christopher G. Moore

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The Sleuth on the Sukhumvit: 25 Years of Noir Fiction With Christopher G. Moore

Noir fiction set in Southeast Asia is particularly popular.

The Sleuth on the Sukhumvit: 25 Years of Noir Fiction With Christopher G. Moore
Credit: Flickr / zuk0

Christopher G. Moore has written on linguistics, politics, crime, culture, and technology and during his 25 years in Southeast Asia, but he is perhaps best known for his creation of the Sukhumvit gumshoe Vincent Calvino, a private eye solving crimes in the Bangkok sois. Jumpers, the 16th Calvino novel from the former law professor, launched late last year, and the Christopher G. Moore Foundation is in the process of choosing works to promote human rights. Moore speaks with The Diplomat about military coups, his decades in Southeast Asia, and the evolution of Vincent Calvino.

This is your 16th book with Vincent Calvino. How did you come up with the Jewish-Italian New Yorker as your Thailand sleuth?

There are lots of ways to tell the story, but the thing is: When you write about a character that’s been around for 25 years, your story tends to evolve, so you forget where emotionally, psychologically, and culturally you were on the actual day in Phuket that you thought it was a good idea. Basically, it came as a good idea in a conversation with a friend of mine, Ronnie Lieberman from Toronto. He said that no one’s really done a private-eye, Raymond Chandler-style series of books set in Southeast Asia. I thought about it and thought it was interesting so I wrote Spirit House. For a number of years I would write a more literary book and then a Vincent Calvino. So I had 10 literary stand-alone novels. The 16th book, called Jumpers, came out in October of last year.

You said recently that the purpose of noir literature was to “deconstruct the security state by exposing hypocrisy, banality and brutality.” Can you expound a little more on that?

That’s one of the definitions of noir, and probably controversial. It actually brings noir into a relevant political ecology that exists around the world. The ultimate sense of the darkness – which is noir – is that there is no escape from the bureaucratic, governmental black hole. No matter where you turn or how fast you accelerate, you never escape that event horizon. So the idea is to look at traditional crime fiction as, in a sense, that expanding event horizon that people stumble into. You can feel the force of that gravity, but it’s quite slight in most people’s lives, until suddenly it accelerates and they’re gone. I think that noir captures a kind of primordial fear.

You’ve been writing your Vincent Calvino novels since around 1988, is that right?

The first Calvino novel came out about 1991, 1992. So it’s been about 25 years and there’s no question that the technology has changed drastically in that time. Personal relationships, the way people interact with one another. When I started people still wrote letters. There were no mobile phones. No cable TV. No internet. It was an analog world – obviously more advanced than what was available to Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham – but it was much closer to that world than the world we’re living in now. And that’s the challenge of doing a series: You have to keep it relevant. You have to keep it consistent with the challenges of those changes.

Well, since you’ve been writing here, there have been four coups in Thailand, and the most recent one in 2014 comes up in your most recent Vincent Calvino novel. How does the upheaval affect your characters?

Any time you have a major political event, it’s bound to have an impact on people’s lives. These major events, what makes them major is their consequential impacts on how people do business, go to school, what they write, what they read. Big events can alter that mix, and it’s in that confusion of that alteration that leads to a sense of frustration, feeling in danger, complexity of what right and what’s wrong, so those kind of feelings show up in fiction when those things happen. I mean, we think about things being disrupted; a lot more than jobs are disrupted.

So, why Bangkok – or Southeast Asia, rather? It’s an awful long way from your previous position as a law professor.

Well, a lot of it is serendipity. I mean, we make these decisions with all this foresight, but by in large it could have happened another way. My old university had an exchange program that took a lot of us to Japan in 1983; if that exchange program had been with Brussels as opposed to Tokyo, would I be sitting across from you now? I don’t know, probably not. Chances are that that event brought me to Thailand for the first time, and it stuck in my mind that this is the sort of place that would make a great place for a book.

Would you like to tell us a little about Vincent Calvino in Jumpers?

Jumpers revolves around a young Canadian from Quebec with a checkered history but very talented. It’s a look at the life of a young man at a time when a lot of people his age don’t have a lot of options. Coming here to make his mark, a little like Paul Gauguin who left for Haiti to make his mark, in some ways it’s a little bit of a tribute to that book by Somerset Maugham. I wanted him to be someone who had to make some tough choices about art and his life. He lives in a part of town with a lot of transient people – people working in the night entertainment industry. You might say that one of the goals of an artist is to achieve some sort of immortal work, something people will queue up to read. And every writer has a similar sort of vanity as well. It’s an immortality project when someone comes to them with a specific offer that will give him immortality but at a real cost – a cost to him and to others. So the question is, will he take the offer?

Well, you’ve got a heck of a lot of knowledge about how things work in Bangkok – three-day funerals and bribing cops. How did you garner all this knowledge to build a career on back-alley murders and conspiracies?

When you find a way to observe that without being reactive, just observe how people function. What are the values? Without judging, what are the normative values? It doesn’t matter if they’re true or fantasy, what matters is that they are incorporated into their worldview. When you’re doing cross cultural novels like mine, you have to try to get to the deepest layer you can get to in order to understand that value structure.

Yes, obviously you’re writing from the foreigner point of view, so why is it that Bangkok breeds noir novels that sell both here and in Europe?

It’s hard to know. I could come up with a glib answer, but I don’t really know. Crime fiction is popular throughout the world. There is a special, ready form created for most people in most places, so it’s everywhere. But, international noir has taken off in the last 20 years, very popular in Germany, popular in France, Japan – so it’s not just Southeast Asia. I think we’re probably equally represented. But, what makes it odd is that the writers are expats writing in English, French, or other languages, not Thais writing in Thai.

So what can we expect next from the desk of Christopher G. Moore?

I’ve written a memoir that will come out in June 2017. It’s called A Memory Manifesto: A Walking Meditation through Cambodia. It covers my 25-year connection with Cambodia, I first arrived as a correspondent in 1993 to cover UNTAC operations and returned many times afterwards as a novelist and essayist, meeting and talking to artists and musicians and journalists and others that I’ve met over the years. The memoir is my record of how Khmer society and culture has evolved since the Pol Pot era. I document my small role into encouraging Cambodian voices to emerge in Cambodian noir movement, something I did five years ago. There’s an indigenous noir scene in Cambodia, probably larger than here, and I wanted to capture the personalities and spirit of the times.