by Paul Sean Grieve
Put the words “private investigator” and “Bangkok” in the same book description and you can be sure your novel will get noticed. You can also be sure your core group of readers will open the cover with with lofty expectations. That’s no problem for Bangkok Rules by Harlan Wolff, because the book delivers.
Maybe it’s because I’ve personally spent considerable time in Thailand, but the book struck a chord with me. I recognized the people instantly: shady officials, corrupt cops, taxi drivers, burned-out expats and even the “Bangkok Hurricanes.” Ever since Murray Head’s song One Night in Bangkok topped the charts in the mid 80’s I’ve had a fascination with that most mysterious and vibrant of cities, and Bangkok Rules reawakened the yearning for exotic adventure that let me to Asia in the first place.
The story follows down-on-his-luck private investigator Carl Engel as he goes on a personal mission to bring to justice a depraved serial killer stalking young women in the Thai capital. The problem is, in Thailand justice is a commodity to be bought a sold by the rich and powerful and as he closes in on the killer, Engel realizes he’s made the worst kind of enemies.
Engel is the kind of character great series are made of. Like Barry Eisler’s John Rain or John Locke’s Donavan Creed, or even Mikey Spilane’s Mike Hammer, Engel is a hard-edged, life-worn, philosophical man. But unlike some of the other characters, he’s less of a hero than an anti-hero. Tearing around Bangkok in his vintage red Porche, Engel comes across as a poor-man’s Magnum PI, a deeply flawed man of broken marriages and failed relationships, nostalgic for a time in his youth when he’d fallen in love with, in his own words, “what Thailand could have been like for him”.
Ironically, his flaws are precisely what allow Engel to function effectively as a P.I. and ultimately to turn the tables on his dangerous quarry. He understands corruption. Yet, while thirty years spent navigating the seedy underbelly of the city where tough guys tumble have disabused him of anything resembling optimism, he has managed to retain his humanity. The case that causes his life to careen out of control is one he took on at least partially for altruistic reasons (though the thrill of gambling with someone else’s money had something to do with it) and the maneuver that propels the story to the climax depends in part on his ultimate belief in the better aspects of human nature (or at least the nature of one of the more obnoxious expats in his milieu).
One suspects that Carl Engel is a rather faithful avatar of the book’s author, a notion that gives the book a sheen of authenticity. Having waited until he was 50 to publish his first novel, Harlan Wolff is no doubt a patient man and Bangkok Rules proves that patience is definitely a virtue. Brimming with witty one-liners and pithy observations, the novel is much more than a P.I. thriller in an exotic setting. Voiced via Engel, the observations of how the city has changed over the decades are clearly Wolff’s own and indicate a deep understanding of the true struggle of the city’s poor. For example, while Wolff (via Engel) laments the corporate takeover of his beloved city of quaint noodle shops and traditional food stands, he knows that such establishments were hardly bastions of happiness and prosperity for the threadbare workers who earned the meagerest of livings keeping them running. A seemingly throw-away paragraph about “a chubby girl with depression’s flat feet” reveals Wolff’s nuanced grasp of the social conditions that drive the transformation towards an “Orewllian future” (I almost quoted the paragraph here, but, since I’m strongly recommending the book, I’m sure you’re going to read it for yourself).
As much as I loved reading Bangkok Rules, I didn’t fail to note a few weak points. There are some glaring formatting errors (occasionally different font sizes in different paragraphs) and a number of typos, but I pity the reader who would allow such minor glitches to ruin such a great story. Some of the dialogue could have been a bit more vernacular and more generous contractions would have made it come across more like natural speech. This may not concern a lot of readers, but it jumped out to my editorially trained eyes. What bothered me the most was the way the climax unfolded. It was a great surprise, very well set up and as skillfully executed as the rest of the novel. What I didn’t like was the implausibility of some of the exchanges between the characters. I can’t be more specific without spoiling the story. Let it suffice to say that it just didn’t work as well as I thought it could have, especially given how tightly written the rest of the book was.
Since any criticism of a book’s climax has the potential to dissuade readers from buying this book, I have to say the following: don’t let my nitpicking deter you. If you like books about Bangkok, private investigators or serial killers, or just like edge-of-your seat thrillers peppered with incisive and witty commentary, you absolutely can’t go wrong with Bangkok Rules.
On a personal note, when I emailed Harlan Wolff for a review copy, he replied with words that suggested he was writing another book. I do hope it’s the second installment in the Carl Engel series, because if it is, I can’t wait to read it!
Paul Sean Grieve has an extensive background in the world of storytelling, in addition to being a news cameraman and documentary producer for Discovery Channel Canada, he has written and directed independent films and written screenplays which have been considered by major studios. He has also worked as an English teacher in several countries and as a corporate communications specialist in Tokyo, where he taught high-level executives of Fortune 500 companies. In 2012, he earned a Master of Arts in Sustainability Studies from Trent University in Peterborough, Canada. You can read more reviews by Paul Sean Grieve and also learn about his first novel, Poison, on his blog PaulSeanGrieve.com.