Christopher G. Moore’s prize-winning series of Bangkok thrillers featuring Vincent Calvino, a disbarred American lawyer turned PI, have been praised for their captivating plots, engaging characters, and insight into the steamy Thai capital. In Asia Hand , the second novel in the series, Bangkok is celebrating Chinese New Year when Calvino’s revels are cut short. The body of an American, an acquaintance of Calvino’s, has been fished out of the lake in Lumpini Park. Around his neck are a string of wooden amulets, the kind upcountry Thais wear to protect themselves from evil spirits. Only rather than saving Hutton, these have killed him.
A freelance cameraman scraping by on the margins, Hutton had photographed something shortly before his death that he thought would make his career. Now the footagea shocking execution on the Thai/Burmese borderis running repeatedly on CNN, and the rights to Hutton’s life story have been sold to a Hollywood producer. But who killed Hutton and why? When Calvino investigates, he collides with a powerful filmmaker and an experienced old Asia hand who knows the terrain as well as our man in Bangkok. It’s all Calvino can do to stay alive, and find out who killed his fellow American.
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THREE days into the Year of the Monkey, around midnight, Calvino perched on a stool at the Yellow Parrot jazz bar. He was killing time. Pratt, his police colonel friend, was running more than an hour late. The private investigator instinct made Calvino ask himself some questions. Then he stopped. Bangkok was Pratt's town, his beat; he was running a little late, that was all there was to it. Calvino's attention drifted until it focused on a twenty-something Thai waitress who pulled all male eyes within a twenty-yard perimeter. She glided like a bee, dancing from bottle to bottle, pouring drinks. She was packaged in a pink silk dress wrapped like mist around the waist and hips. It was the kind of dress that wore a woman. Her earlobes and throat were fitted with gold pieces; more gold bracelets encircled her wrists. The gold was a statement that she had successfully mined the Bangkok night for her precious metals. She emptied the last shot from a Chivas Regal bottle as a Thai man in a business suit held a mobile phone to his ear and smoked a cigarette.
The waitress waited for some reaction from her customer. She leaned over the bar, smiled at Calvino, and then turned back to the customer.
"Hum hiaw," she said, using a Lao expression, which immediately suggested she had sprung from peasant stock in the northeast. The Japanese businessman on the mobile phone laughed, and then washed away his smile with his drink.
Hum hiaw — the condition of a penis that even though suitably stimulated remains placid — was an emotional stinger aimed to puncture the male ego. She scored a bull's-eye. The customer winced as his ego recoiled into an outburst of nervous, hollow laughter. Then he ran a finger along the edge of the gold bracelet on her left wrist, touching a three-inch scar.
He shook his head. "Hum khaeng," he whispered. He was hard, he was telling her. But she grinned as if she wasn't buying it.
"Hum hiaw," she insisted, then pulled her hand away and swept to the other end of a bar, where another customer was holding up an empty glass.
When a Thai woman stared you in the eye and said, "Hum hiaw," she was passing on a piece of confidential information, some personal intelligence. She had disclosed that she was from the region of Isan and that Lao (as opposed to Thai) was her native language — a Thai from Bangkok would have said, "juu hiaw." And a woman in a Brooklyn bar would have said, "Can't get it up. Can't get it to stay up."
In the Thai language, this was said as a joke to foreigners. Pood len. Talking fun. Most of the time Thais liked to play with language; it was fun.
"You'd never say that to a Thai boyfriend," Calvino said to her. "He'd box you."
The smile disappeared from her lips and she turned from the Japanese customer. "Farang know too much, not good." She'd suddenly lost her sense of fun. Reminding her there were two sets of rules: one for the locals and one of the foreigners wasn't appreciated. Her Japanese customer bought her another drink, and she drifted back into conversation with him, making a point to ignore Calvino.
Calvino knew that most jokes, even in Thailand, were like a fingernail rubbing a tender spot of despair or fear. Inside this world the hard were favored. Bangkok allowed them to show their stuff — to score, flash money, buy affection and respect; to accumulate followers who looked to them for protection. In these ways, Bangkok was no better or worse than Brooklyn. The same nocturnal raids, the same get-ahead and stay-ahead paranoia, the same strong arms and big swinging dicks building an empire out of force. He glanced at his watch again, then over at the large crowd by the door. There was no sign of Pratt's shrewd eyes sweeping the room, looking for Calvino at the bar.
Overhead a string of dozens of yellowing New Year cards fluttered. Hum hiaw, thought Calvino. The cards flapped aimlessly and limply as the overhead fan blade rotated. Another Chinese New Year had come and gone. He liked the idea of a twelve-year cycle — everyone was some kind of animal, depending on the year they were born — a pig, horse, rabbit, snake, dragon, and several others. This year brought another animal — the monkey. If you were born in the Year of the Monkey — and if you believed human beings fell into one animal cage or another, as determined by the laws of this zodiacal zoo — then you bought the idea that a person born in the Year of the Monkey was clever, compassionate, and sex-mad. Monkeys weren't Hum hiaw. People born in the Monkey Year were great lovers, always ready and willing.
Calvino sat forward and watched the waitress measure a shot from a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, and he wondered what animal she was. Her Japanese customer with the mobile phone had gone. She drained the last drops into the last shot from the bottle; it had been a Chinese New Year bottle from Pratt. The odds were he had another two cycles of the monkey before he took the inevitable journey to that big jungle in the sky.
A slight shudder passed through Calvino as he watched the waitress, gift- wrapped and available on the installment plan Bangkok style, drop the dead bottle into the garbage. He arched an eyebrow as she looked up at him; and she arched one eyebrow in response. Monkey see, monkey do. One of the New Year cards broke free of its moorings and sailed in a rough tumbling action onto an ancient out-of-tune piano a few feet in front of Calvino. Several members of the Thai jazz combo — Dex's Band — had wandered back from the break and the guitar player was warming up with a few riffs on an acoustic guitar. All night two white women in their mid-twenties had sat curled up like cats beside the piano. One of the women had a pair of large white thighs that rippled from her short hot-red skirt like paste from a tube stepped on by a jackboot. She reminded Calvino of Judy, his first cousin in Brooklyn. Judy had the habit of sitting with her skirt hiked up and other members of the family would notice and tell her she had nice legs. Judy believed she had nice legs too. But legs were like wine: They didn't travel all that well from west to east. Some of the old hands had an expression for girls with Judy's build — an elephant chicken. Every band attracted the groupies it deserves, thought Calvino, sipping his scotch.
Dex had been warming up on a tenor sax. He was one of Pratt's arty friends who had taken on a hip Western name. Jazz and saxophones were the things Pratt and Dex shared. They talked about jazz like guys into sports talked about leagues, teams, and players. Dex and Pratt were players. For Pratt the sax was a serious hobby, but his job was a different world — he was a cop attached to the Crime Suppression Unit. Pratt had supported and encouraged Dex's career, which was about to take off: He had signed a recording contract with a label out of New York. Pratt had been invited to the Yellow Parrot for a party after the bar officially closed. It was Dex's last night as a local celebrity before heading into the big time of jazz in Japan and Europe. His first big tour. And Pratt had asked Calvino to drop in and say good-bye.
Only tonight, Pratt was running late and had missed the first session. On the break, Dex came over and leaned against the bar next to Calvino.
"Pratt says you got him involved in the pro-democracy movement, and now you're ditching the masses to become famous. You would make a good American," said Calvino.
Dex smiled. "Pratt says that, man?"
"Democracy will survive without you, Dex," said Calvino.
"You're forgetting we live in a country where people don't always survive politics," said Dex.
"Becoming famous is an insurance policy against getting yourself killed," replied Calvino. Dex had received threatening phone calls telling him to stop supporting troublemakers. Pratt took the threats seriously, as did Calvino, who phoned a friend, an entertainment lawyer in L.A. named Tommy Loretti, and got Tommy to have Dex booked for his first international tour. Tommy put together five hotel engagements; that allowed Dex to leave Bangkok a hero instead of under the threat of armed attack. The people on the other side of the democracy movement had their own idea on how to handle troublemakers like Dex.
"I wanna thank you for helping, Vinny. Pratt said —"
"Pratt said I helped? Forget it. You gonna believe him when he can't show up for your farewell performance?"
Calvino twisted in his chair and looked straight ahead, picking up Dex's big, mournful eyes in the bar mirror. Dex had a large fleshy head; his hair was shaved except for a long Apache mane that divided his head into two lumpy spheres. "Stay cool, Dex. Playing jazz is an art form."
"So is dying in your own bed when you're an old man," said Dex. He laughed and leaned in close to Calvino. "Pratt's not gonna stand me up on my last night, is he?"
"What do you think, Dex?"
"No fucking way, man. Did I tell you some film people were in the other night asking if I was interested in a film role?"
"Americans," said Dex. "Bad timing, I guess."
"What goes around, comes around," said Calvino.
"So they say. I'm still waiting for the 'come' part," cracked Dex. Nice, thought Calvino.
A few minutes after Dex strapped on his tenor sax and began the second session, a cop in a brown spandexlike uniform, a hat with the plastic bill pushed back, a .45 riding high on his hip, made his way across the crowded room, seemingly toward Calvino, whose head was visible above the horseshoe-shaped bar. Dex's last night brought in a standing-room-only audience, but the young officer had no trouble parting the sea of fans. Farangs and Thais crammed together over their drinks, craning their necks for a glimpse of Dex and his band. The officer pushed through a huddle of expat single white women: thirtyish, bored, indifferent, and distant, with diamond-hard faces set off by shark black dead eyes. The kind of eyes of someone who'd survived a head-on collision with life. It was as if the seal holding the soul inside had burnt out and the life force had leaked out, then boiled away into steam on the tropical heat of the night.
He watched the officer inch closer. Calvino felt the officer had been sent for him; and he wished it would take him an eternity to reach the bar with what could only be a piece of news he didn't want to hear. Calvino ignored the officer for a moment and locked onto the faces across the floor. People with money and toys who had jaded out too soon. In Bangkok, to survive meant finding the right path to that final state. The worst cases were expats who had jaded out too soon; and a few had skidded off the road beyond jadedness. They filtered into the Yellow Parrot hoping that Dex's tenor sax might revive them for a few hours, or for another night. The man threatened with death still came out to perform in public. He drew a kind of executioner's crowd on his final night, thought Calvino.
The police officer squeezed in beside him as Calvino's arm slowly lifted his drink. The cop watched him drink. As the empty glass was lowered, the cop slid a name card along the bar. Calvino glanced at it without exchanging a word. No word was necessary. It was one of Pratt's cards. In engraved gold lettering, "Col. Prachai Chongwatana," and below the name Pratt's handwritten message: "Lt. Somboon will escort you through security."
The waitress with the dance of the bee asked if Calvino wanted another drink. Calvino looked up from the card at the bartender and shook his head, and then lifted off his stool with a glance at Lieutenant. Somboon.
"We got far to go?" Calvino asked the young officer.
"Across Soi Sarasin."
Was this some kind of a joke? Pratt had sent this guy to escort him across the road? Calvino looked hard at the cop, then decided to leave it, play it later. He let the cop sweep a path through the crowd. He winked as he caught Dex's eye, his cheeks bulged as he blew hard into the sax. Dex lowered the sax and let the acoustic guitar player take over. He watched Calvino leaving the bar with the uniformed officer. There was something in the way that Calvino moved, a level of aggression, a swift, determined, hard stroke in his step. He had the look of a man trying to kick down a door before someone on the other side could hurt him. Dex had crazy ideas. It was his last night. People had threatened to shoot him. He closed his eyes, puffed his cheeks, and did what he knew best, played his sax.
* * *
A wind had broken holes in the gray ceiling of accumulated pollution, revealing the moon and stars. Taxis and tuk-tuks parked, let out and picked up passengers. The crowds spilled from sidewalk tables, mingling in twos and threes into the street. Opposite the bars was Lumpini Park. Some said Lumpini Park was the lung of Bangkok. Others said it was more like a lung in an emphysema patient. At the side gate to the park, two uniformed Lumpini district station cops stood guard and saluted as the police lieutenant escorted Calvino through an outdoor restaurant. The place called Mom's restaurant was closed, and as his police escort led the way through the dark, narrow lanes of tables, Calvino thought about the author of The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren. He liked Algren's three principles for living: Never eat in a restaurant named Mom's, never play cards with a man named Doc, and never sleep with a woman whose troubles are greater than your own. Calvino prided himself on never having played cards with a man named Doc.
A ground fog swirled at ankle level above the concrete patio. Plastic chairs stacked upside down on the tables threw ghostly, elongated shadows. A moment later, they came out of Mom's and onto a paved road. Twenty meters beyond the shoulder of the paved road, a paddle-boat churned through the water. A spotlight swept the shore and stopped on Calvino, who kept on walking toward the light. The splashing stopped as the boat docked against a wooden wharf, where dozens of plastic hulled boats were tied alongside one another.
"I have the farang," said Lieutenant Somboon to the two officers in the paddleboat.
They said nothing, as they shone the light into Calvino's face. He had put on the sunglasses that made him look like a blind man. One officer spoke into the walkie-talkie, and a couple of minutes later they had turned their boat around and pulled away toward the center of the lake.
"Maybe you should take off your sunglasses before you get in the boat. You might step wrong. Then we have two bodies," said Lieutenant Somboon, stepping into the lime green boat with number 34 painted on the side. It rocked to one side, splashing water.
"Whose body you got out there?" asked Calvino, folding away his sunglasses and looking at the lake.
"Ask the colonel."
"I will. But now I'm asking you," said Calvino.
"Get in. We go now," Lieutenant Somboon said, ignoring the question.
"An old Patpong line," said Calvino. The joke didn't dislodge the look of distrust on the lieutenant's face. Being assigned to escort him from the Yellow Parrot to a murder scene must have been costing Lieutenant Somboon a load of face, thought Calvino.
Calvino eased off the wharf in the dark, touching a foot into the molded seat cubicle next to the one occupied by the lieutenant. He hated the look of a dead body submerged underwater — it often looked like a French fry pulled out of a Coke bottle. He sat crumpled up, wishing he were back on dry land, listening to Dex's sax. The Chinese New Year moon had a small slice missing, as if an axe had shaved it. The pinkish fog rolled out from the empty outdoor restaurant, following Calvino across the lake. The boat moved out as they worked the bicycle pedals on the floor of the boat. Soon the wharf disappeared as moonlight rippled across the lake, leaving the shore in darkness. As they paddled closer to the center of the lake, a number of boats were circling around a common point. He could hear officers speaking Thai and directing spotlights at an empty boat. As they pulled up, one spotlight swung around and illuminated the paddleboat. An officer in Pratt's boat reached out bare-handed and steered Calvino's boat alongside.
"Why is it I think you wanna spoil my evening?" asked Calvino.
He followed Pratt's eye line to the left, where a large black tarpaulin covered the form of another of the toylike plastic boats. He stared at the tarp, thinking about Calvino's law: People were divided into two groups — those who sought protection and those promised protection. Tarpaulins were invented to cover the bodies of those whose protectors had let them down. He watched as the tarp was pulled back to reveal the identity of the body.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Asia Hand"
Copyright © 2010 Christopher G. Moore.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Favorite sentence from the book would have to be "Bangkok's not Brooklyn, Vinnie," said Kiko, ... "And respect is the first thing you give up living here." Mr. Moore should be required reading for any Thailand expat needing a visa extension beyond 60 days. Asia Hand is the second in the popular Vincent Calvino P.I. crime series. The first half of the book I thought had some really good writing. I was prepared not to like when I got to the Hollywood Treatment by Vinnie at the 1/2 way point but that actually worked for me and reinforced the plot lines. I liked the plot and didn't think it was particularly difficult or easy to follow. You had to pay attention. I like the little things about Christopher Moore's writing style and following a Raymond Chandler 1950's book it made the evolution of crime fiction writing apparent. I doubt Chandler would ever have a chapter like THIRD SHIFT, which highlights the misfits found in Bangkok brilliantly. And who doesn't have a little misfit in them? Chandler paints external pictures well; Mr Moore paints internal pictures well. I prefer internal assessments. An example is his brief but brilliant treatment of the triumvirate of all sexual relationships: commitment, passion and trust. I liked that a lot. It was dark, believable, nicely interwoven and full of bad guys. The ending I enjoyed. I am a sucker for a Buddhist moral so that worked for me and I thought Moore did a great job of painting the personality of Vinnie's 13 year old daughter, visiting Bangkok with his ex-wife. Vincent describing a truck load of Thai peasant labor to her also stands out as to why Moore is one of only a handful of authors who have the Thailand expertise to write about the various layers of complex Thai society. The whole insider's Hollywood scene I actually liked and learned from, unlike the reviewer who gave this book a 1 star rating. Different strokes for different folks as we say in Thailand. Start out with Spirit House by Moore then go from there. A Killing Smile is also a good read about Bangkok expat life. Pattaya 24/7 and 9 Gold Bullets were also good.
In this 1993 novel, our hero, detective Vinnie Calvino, says that he gives himself, at best, another 20 years. After all, his is a dangerous profession, especially in Bangkok. But if we have to wait 17 years for the novels, then Vinnie will be long dead before we read about is last exploits. Sad, huh? Asia Hand is full of typos and other language mistakes, the characters enter the most improbable of relationships, yet I give it four stars. Why? Because it has charm in abundance. You cannot help but like the good guys in the novel, nor can you hate Bangkok even given its numerous faults- and improbable relationships. The city is alive if nothing else, and Asia Hand entertains despite its faults. And making us wait 17 years is definitely a fault!