Eccentric, jaded and fading ex-pats populate Harlan Wolff’s debut novel. But before you say ‘another cliché driven exposé of Bangkok life’ (phew!) read on. The journey may well be worth it.
At the centre of this crime novel is Carl Engel, a private eye on the edge of destitution, who scores an apparent ‘lucky break’ when he is hired to track down a long forgotten missing person.
Facing a mid-life crisis of broadening chest and shirking options Wolff’s protagonist is a man who, despite numerous foibles, understands the ‘rules’ for living and working in the ‘city of smiles’.
In fact, early on Carl seems to understand them so well that you have cause to wonder why his life has come so unstuck. That is until you see that he is his own worse enemy, squandering money, love and opportunity in the pit of his own vices.
While reading Bangkok Rules I recalled memories of another book that explores the darker sides of an Asian city, Paul Theroux’s Saint Jack.
Like Wolff’s lead, Jack, is a long term resident, this time of Singapore, with a similar understanding of the norms and codes that are necessary for surviving and working across the fringes of that city.
However, while Theroux avoids exploring the darkest corners of Singapore life, Wolff heartily embraces the noirish alcoves of Bangkok’s streets, sois and bars.
Plot wise, at the centre of Bangkok Rules is a serial murderer on a killing spree, sadistically making his way through the shadows and prostitutes of Bangkok’s underside. Carl’s investigation quickly intersects with the killer’s case as the two become one.
Or do they?
In the noir world of smoke and mirrors nothing is as it seems and Carl’s case and life spiral out of control as the thin ice that he has built his existence on starts to crack.
As I indicated at the start, throughout Bangkok Rules the reader is served up characters and images that many an ex-pat living in Southeast Asia, especially those of a male persuasion, will be familiar. Yet Wolff’s ability to engineer a phrase and breathe new words into old stereotypes gives them fresh life and meaning across the evolving plot of his novel.
Undoubtedly Wolff, a long time resident of Thailand and a private investigator himself, has dedicated time to new ways of writing about these things; with one or fifty stakeouts providing the time and opportunity to neatly tailor his neat phrases and metaphors.
Thus we are served weary ex-Vietnam vets, retired CIA spooks, overweight and sun burnt sex tourists and corrupt local officials, which are all combined together in a tale that becomes increasingly intertwined as it barrels towards its climax.
Clichéd? Formulaic? Sure! But Wolff’s debut will also give some readers pause for thought as the ‘mirror moments’ that he conjures yields reflections of themselves. The opportunity for such introspection is just one of the reasons for placing Bangkok Rules in your reading pile.
The Advisor is Phnom Penh’s leading arts and entertainment newspaper. Published weekly and delivered to more than 425 locations throughout the capital, The Advisor covers and uncovers art, music, theater, books, food and drink with grace and attitude.
The Advisor Cambodia was founded by Anthony Galloway and Sweetie Phalkun in December 2011.