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Phnom Penh Confidential


Hardboiled Bangkok-based lawyer and author Christopher G Moore talks to 7Days about his ‘Vincent Calvino’ crime novels, his writing process and his upcoming novel: The Wisdom of Beer {jathumbnail}

The file landed on my desk. The brief read, “Christopher G Moore. Bangkok-based lawyer stroke private eye author. Believed to be moving in on Phnom Penh territory. Diligence is due.”

The lawyer-author combo makes for a dangerous beast. Cross the animal and it could sue. Or write ruinously. Or both.

I contacted the boss. “Boss,” I said, “You’re asking a lot. Can you give me something extra in return?”

The boss said, “I can tentatively guarantee your ongoing full time employment.”

That didn’t give me much, but it gave me something. I started snooping. I immediately uncovered two interesting facts. The “G” in Christopher G Moore stands for “George.” And his shoe size is 43. That makes his shoe size slightly smaller than average, and this could have future bearing. Or not.

But after working the trail, I learn the boss’s concerns are correct. Moore’s about to muscle in on Phnom Penh in a big way.

The big cheese in the book publishing game in Phnom Penh is Monument Books supremo, William Begley. The push is on because Begley has confirmed this, noting that on the eve of Thursday November 17 Moore will undertake a special in-house guest appearance and talk to promote his Phnom Penh noir novel, and his latest book.

I lace a café latte with a stiff drop while sitting in the Blue Pumpkin café that lurks on the second floor within Begley’s eyrie, Monument Books’ Norodom Boulevard international headquarters, and ruminate on what I’ve uncovered.

From where I’m sitting inside the Monument Books headquarters, I can see a long row of Moore titles taking up valuable retail shelving space. Prominent amongst these are Moore’s Vincent Calvino works, Calvino being the former-lawyer-turned Bangkok private eye that Moore has created, ostensibly from the depths of his novelist’s mind. But one wonders where Moore ends and Calvino begins? Or vice versa?

Prominent amongst the Calvino titles is the latest work, 9 Golden Bullets, an ominous title that tells me to tread carefully. Also featured is Moore’s localised Calvino novel Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, originally published in 1994 as Cut Out.

The books show that Calvino has an unhealthy working ‘noir’ knowledge of Bangkok’s (and Phnom Penh’s) underbelly, of cheap violence, even cheaper whores, and really cheap seedy bars.

Calvino has a lot of inside information on the goings, not to mention the comings, of the Bangkok working girls and their ilk. From reports, his insight into Thai bargirls are also applicable to Phnom Penh’s legion of “hello, I love you” girls.

I have a good idea what she’s after. Money, a photo of another woman, passport, rings, gold, cameras, the usual stuff”

In the book Cold Hit, the Calvino insight is: “[Baby powder?] When I bring a girl back I head for the shower and afterwards I come back and do the due diligence. I follow her tracks to see where she’s gone, and by knowing where she’s gone I have a good idea what she’s after. Money, a photo of another woman, passport, rings, gold, cameras, the usual stuff.”
And from God of Darkness: “She knows the drill and heads straight for the bathroom. She pulls back the shower curtain. Two white towels are carefully folded and hang side by side on the wall rack. No Thai girl would have left the room without first having taken a shower. Not only would one Coke be missing from the fridge, there would be a damp, used towel left on the floor.”

The dead know what the living learned, that coincidences are never really coincidental and so it seems no coincidence that coinciding with the imminent arrival of Calvino in the guise of Moore, or vice versa, local musician, entrepreneur and what-have-you Chris Minko, together with video producer Ian White, announce the release of the song The Ying that they have written for a new album by local band Krom titled, Krom: Songs from the Noir.

A press release states, “Krom dedicates this song to Christopher G Moore as founder of the creative genre that is: ‘Bangkok (South East Asia) Noir’.

“The 10 song CD, Krom: Songs from the Noir will be released in December of 2011.”

The song The Ying is further evidence of Calvino’s first hand experience of the noir, the black side of both Bangkok and Phnom Penh.

The word ‘ying’ is liberally sprinkled through the works of Calvino and refers to the working girls, the bar girls or indeed, as some would say, the whores or harlots of Bangkok.

Songwriters Mink and White signal that the song’s lyrics are significant enough to warrant full disclosure within the press release:

“In the Soi of delusion
22 for the illusion
Merchants of sex without name
Lean from alleys in a serpent’s lane
But no matter
how hard she tries
She can never hide the pain
in those cold Sukhumvit eyes

Oh Yeah, that Ying
She’s a beautiful thing
those oriental eyes
seduction is the prize
Oh Yeah that Ying
She’s a beautiful thing
Her soft silk skin
The lure of original sin

No like but she do,
No, eat no money
Love you like monkey
I not lie you, I talk true”

But investigations reveal that Moore’s mission in Phnom Penh is about more than the mere retailing of books to the tunes of ringing cash registers and songs about loveless whores.

Moore is casting an expert legal eye over the confusing ongoing shambles that is the UN war crime trial of the Khmer Rouge, scheduled to open on November 21. This also coincides with the publication of Moore’s essay about ‘Khmer Rouge Noir’ in America’s Evergreen Review, once the premiere underground magazine of the ’60s counterculture.

Evergreen Review was founded by Barney Rosset, who after a protracted legal battle in the US, won the right to publish the uncensored version of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Later he was also the US publisher of Henry Miller’s controversial novel Tropic of Cancer.

In September 2008, a documentary feature film was released about Rosset, titled Obscene.

Photographic evidence is on hand to show that the relationship between Moore and the man who was once one of America’s most subversive publishers goes back some time.

A candid photo shows Moore engrossed in meaningful dialogue with Rosset in a ying-less Bangkok bar “some years back.”

What conclusions can be drawn from that historic liaison in the dark depths of Bangkok is for others to make and to act on. Or not.

But ultimately that liaison led, in a roundabout way or otherwise, to the publication this month in Evergreen Review of Moore’s essay titled, Khmer Rouge Noir.

In Evergreen, Moore gives this brief biography: “In 1993 as a journalist I covered the UNTAC period of administration in Cambodia, and was embedded with UNTAC civilian police. Along with them, I entered the old prison system. Zero Hour in Phnom Penh drew upon my experiences during this period of transition. Some years later I spent a week in the field with Cambodian mine officials in Battambang.”

His essay opens by saying, “There is an awful redundancy in the linkage to Khmer Rouge and Noir. Paired with a city whether Bangkok, New York, Moscow or Berlin, noir defines a mood, a texture of menace, despair, loss and doom.

How does any artist, writer or painter capture on a page or canvas the vast abyss of darkness that represented the crimes of the Khmer Rouge against their own people? How can any number of words or images express the amount of suffering, pain and terror of those caught in the ideological madness of the Khmer Rouge?

“So many questions float to the surface when the stone of Khmer Rouge is thrown into the lake of our common humanity.”

The essay continues on to be an homage to Tuol Sleng artist Vann Nath, who died on September 5 this year, and the horrific canvasses he painted after the Khmer Rouge fell, depicting the grotesque scenes of torture and brutality that he had witnessed while an inmate.

Time to talk to the man himself. The plan was to phone, but the boss had cancelled my international dialling capacity, so off went an email to Moore querying his presence at the KR trial.

Back came a somewhat enigmatic response: “I want to check out what is a historical case. Better not to have preconception. Otherwise it’s easy to fall victim to confirmation bias.”

Another email to Moore about his intentions regarding this present push into the Penh invokes more enigmatic response.

“Let’s see what happens next. Another book set in Cambodia? The agenda is always open when you’re a writer.”

Moore has written in several genres, but claims the mantle of being the first writer to set an English-language crime series in Southeast Asia, with the launch in 1992 of Spirit House, the first Calvino novel.

Some view the notion of a lawyer writing crime books to be a crime in itself and if that’s the case, Moore is the arch criminal, the leader of the small pack of lawyers writing crime novels regionally. Moore now shares the book shelves with the likes of former Hong Kong lawyer John Burdett whose more-than-noir novel, Bangkok Tattoo, was unleashed in 2005.

More genteel and not so noir is Singapore lawyer, kids book writer and crime writer Shamini Flint with her endearing Inspector Singh series. Earlier this year she published Inspector Singh Investigates: A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree.

The big question is what’s the deal with lawyers turning to crime books? Moore claims innocent intent: “One thing hammered into law students (I was a law professor for ten years in Canada and England) is the importance of the rule of law. In crime fiction, the rule of law often comes apart, misfires or otherwise is on holiday. To follow a cast of characters who are trying to cope in the absence of the rule of law provides a window into how important that concept is to keep violence and mayhem at a minimum. There is also the psychological factor of fairness and equal treatment that is a thread running through the life of most people. Ill-treatment, double standards, and discrimination are the kinds of issues that lurk in the background of the best crime fiction. Seeking to understand how close to the edge many people’s lives appear gives us insight into how we would deal with their situation.

“Crime fiction is a way of accessing the empathy part of our consciousness, stepping into the shoes of the other person, and asking what it would be like to suffer what that person has endured.”

Furthermore, Moore claims no guilt by association with Calvino which he says came about not by hanging out with bad dudes for insight, but instead he cruised with the good guys.

“Inspiration for the character of Vincent Calvino came originally from police ride-alongs in the early 1980s when I lived in New York City. I spent time as a civilian observer with NYPD and through my association with the police I developed the basic character. Calvino is the classic fish out of water. An ex-American lawyer working as a PI in Thailand. Through Calvino’s caseload I have been able to explore the noir side of the rapid economic development in Thailand as well as the political turmoil over a number of years.

“There are 12 novels in the Vincent Calvino series. They span a 20-year period and capture the dynamic changes in Thai society and culture over that time period. The series has been optioned for a Hollywood film. The script is finished and the producers are in the process of hiring a director. “The hope is to start shooting Spirit House in 2012 on location in Thailand. The ninth novel in the series has been translated into a number of language. Titled The Risk of Infidelity
Index, it has become a best seller in Germany.”

Suspicion is engendered by Moore’s proclivity to prolific output. In just over a 10 year period he’s been able to knock out 27 books, with book number 27 due to hit the shelves early next year. That’s an average of about 2.7 books a year.

Yet there is no evidence of drug abuse or exceedingly aberrant behaviour.

The output is normal according to Moore: “These things always appear far more impressive than they are in reality. If you are a full time writer, and you set up a schedule, then producing one or two books a year isn’t going to make you break into a sweat.

“I also have started to do a book of essays a year. Once I have an idea for a book, I make a short outline. Think about the structure, the characters, the basic story. Mainly it is getting the characters right at the start. Most of my books are character driven, so I need a strong cast that works well together before advancing forward.

“The first draft is the most difficult. Blank screens mock you as a writer, sneering, ‘I guess this is not an improvement on a blank sheet of paper.’ But the characters come to the rescue as they develop the story through their motives, desires, flaws and overcome the problems (they find in their path, or fail to do so.

“During the physical writing process, the writer of fiction checks out of the usual time/space zone, books himself into a rich creative mental sphere and mines deep into the emotional landscape we all have but is normally closed off.

“After a month, I start on a second draft, and this is where I can lay down much more texture, integration of plot points, and work on the continuity of the story and further refine the relationship of the characters. The screen is no longer blank so that part is easier. But the technical aspects of fully realizing the characters’ potential and building a story remain critical at this stage.

“Then a third draft where the loose ends are hunted down like mad dogs and put our of their misery. Each stage as a different daily word count. I try to average 1500 words a day overall.”

If Moore was a journalist and wrote his observations of the yielding ying and sundry bar girls in action, he’d be pilloried by the PC brigade. But as a novelist he seems to have ducked such flak.

“Some of my biggest fans are women readers. They have no problem with the reality that is under the surface being written about. Not to say they don’t have issues with why certain circumstances prevail and why the authorities benefit from the existing set up. But that is a different kettle of stir fried fish. Women are very smart. They understand that shooting the messenger is a fairly stupid thing to do.”

Certainly no point in shooting the messenger, and the message is that there’ll be more next year with the new book.

“The 2012 novel is The Wisdom of Beer, a crime caper set in Pattaya: Russian gangster, local mafia, a macaw that curses in Scottish, a katoey beauty contest, Chinese beer brewing, and a warehouse heist. That will be my twenty-third novel, and it comes out in January 2012. With the non-fiction titles, it comes out to 27 books.”

The beat goes on. Moore writes on. Whether this is good for regional security in general or not is not the purpose of this report. Evidence is merely gathered to pass onto others, who may wish to see the man at Monument, to read the man’s books, to sing the ying song. Or not.

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