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Hard-boiled and stuck to Thai ways

by Mark Schreiber

“When I finish a book I collapse and say, ‘That’s it. Never again,’ ” sighs Bangkok-based author Christopher G. Moore. “About three, four months later the demons pull me back, and the whole mad process starts over.”

The Vancouver native, a law instructor by training, happened to be Japan in 1983 to observe production of his drama on NHK radio when a Thai friend invited him to visit Thailand. After a brief stay, Moore decided Thailand was the perfect location for a novel. He returned to Bangkok at the end of 1988.

“It never occurred to me that I would stay on indefinitely,” he says. “One book led to another, and 16 years later, after 17 novels, I still haven’t come close to exhausting the material.”

Moore’s somewhat unlikely series character — a middle-aged Jewish-Italian private eye named Vinny Calvino — was inspired during four years in New York City.

“I rode as a civilian observer with the NYPD off and on and came across a number of New Yorkers — cops, producers, lawyers, real estate developers, drug dealers, merchants, artists, photographers — who had characteristics not unlike Calvino,” he recalls.

“One of my friends, a filmmaker, had a Jewish father and Italian mother and this caused all kinds of turmoil for him — emotional and psychological — and turning this around, Calvino, with a Jewish mother and Italian father, is more secure in his identity. At the same time, my friend [like Calvino] had to adapt from an early age to living between two different cultures. This New York upbringing equipped Calvino with the skills to adapt to living in Thailand.”

Moore likes to point out that the adventures of his hard-boiled American gumshoe also form an ongoing chronicle of the rapid changes in Thailand’s culture, society, politics and economy since the late 1980s.

“While Thailand generally has become more affluent, there are still large numbers of people in rural areas whose lives remain largely unaffected by the economic development,” he notes. “That said, the middle class has grown. Condos, office buildings and shopping centers have been built, turning Bangkok into a modern congested international megacity. You can still find isolated pockets of the old shop house architecture, but how long before the bulldozers move in? The past is living on borrowed time in Bangkok.”

The exotic settings of Moore’s works have attracted a growing body of non-English readers as well. He has been invited to Munich this September to accept the 2004 German Critics Award for Crime Fiction (Deutscher Krimipreis 2004) for “Stunde Null in Phnom Penh” (English title: “Cut Out”) in the category of best international crime fiction, and his works have also been published in Chinese, Japanese and Thai.

” ‘Minor Wife’ (the title refers to the hierarchy of mistress-keeping by wealthy men) was translated by one of Thailand’s most respected translators, and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive,” Moore notes, adding that the Thai edition “has sold very well.”

In Moore’s latest work, “Pattaya 24/7,” Calvino makes his eighth literary appearance since 1991. Hired to investigate the suicide of the gardener at a wealthy foreign concert pianist’s estate, Calvino encounters a cast of memorably eccentric figures in an exotic Southeast Asian backdrop, which also turns out to tie in with the terrorist intrigue of post-9/ 11.

“One of art’s purposes, after all, is to identify and amplify our collective fears, to give them shape, meaning and velocity,” Moore observes. “For a novelist, the tradecraft is to render our fears in the daily landscape of life and this connects the reader to the story and the character. The terrorism of 9/11 was like the appearance of a black swan. Sooner or later there will be another black swan. When and where and how — no one can predict.”

Moore, who is 52, still has plans for his character, who so far has taken assignments in Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Saigon and this time Pattaya.

“Variation in settings brings new cultural and historical diversity to the story,” Moore asserts. “Calvino and his Thai partner Police Colonel Pratt, like anyone new to a fresh terrain, must adapt quickly. At the same time, as an author, I am lucky to live in Southeast Asia which is rich in locale and atmosphere. The geography, history and language of each setting keeps the series fresh for me, and I’m constantly learning new things on the road.”

As an Asia-based writer, Moore’s most unique attribute may be that his literary impact continues to grow without reliance on a North American or European publisher. Although his first novel, “His Lordship’s Arsenal,” was published in hardback (1985) and paperback (1988) in New York, he has continued to turn down offers for rights to North America for various books. He enjoys a close working relationship with Heaven Lake Press, a wholly Thai-owned publisher with good distribution at major bookstores and airports.

“Unless a publisher is willing to commit to a large print run and marketing budget, a book stands very little hope of distribution,” Moore says. “If the book isn’t available and no one knows about it, it will fail. What is needed is an editor with an international perspective and strong belief (reflected in a large advertising budget) in the books.

“Meanwhile, I have the luxury denied to most authors. I don’t have to write to a formula in order to please a marketing team that does market studies showing things like the reading taste of the 18-35 group living on the Upper East Side requires that the central character should have an identity crisis because her favorite deli has closed. I have the best of all worlds. I have the freedom to write what I wish and a substantial international audience that finds my books on trips to Thailand or buys them through my Web site.”