For well over twenty years Canadian lawyer turned crime writer Christopher G Moore has chronicled change in Thailand and the surrounding region through the character of Bangkok-based American private investigator, Vincent Calvino.
Moore has penned thirteen Calvino books. Most of them are set in Thailand, although Moore has also taken his character to Vietnam and Cambodia. In the latest instalment, Missing in Rangoon, Calvino heads to Burma or, as it is now officially known, Myanmar.
The opening pages find Calvino standing in the shell of the Lonesome Hawk Bar, one of the establishments that used to form part of Washington Square, a well known and down at heel part of expat Bangkok, recently demolished to make way for yet another of the condominiums that mark the city’s skyline. Calvino suggests to the former owner that he should consider starting over in Rangoon, a city on the make and welcoming all comers, much like Bangkok was decades ago.
Not that Calvino particularly wants to make the journey himself. He’s being pressured to travel to Burma by a disagreeable English brothel owner, who wants to hire him to find his son. The son has disappeared in country’s capital along with his Burmese girlfriend, a real head turner and the lead singer in the band the son plays in.
There’s never any doubt Calvino will take the case, especially when his long time off-sider Pratt, a colonel in the Thai police and an honest cop, announces he is travelling to Rangoon. A keen jazz enthusiast, Pratt has been asked to the Burmese capital to play his beloved saxophone at an upmarket club. Off the books, he’s also been asked by his police superiors to help cut off the supply of cold pills from Burma used to make methamphetamine, then trafficked to Thailand.
Rangoon now is a lot like Phnom Penh was like in the nineties, a heady mixture of breakneck economic and social change, gangster capitalism and political rumour and intimidation. Soon Pratt and Calvino are enmeshed in its brutal Darwinian underworld and shadowed by Burmese military intelligence.
I read the first few Calvino books when I was living and working in Mekong region in the nineties, but stopped getting them after I left. I didn’t pick up another one until Missing In Rangoon.
Moore has lost none of his ability to convey a sense of menace and intrigue. His descriptions of Rangoon are excellent. In particular, he excels at describing the human and social fall out that occurs when a poor, isolated country suddenly opens its borders to the world. There are flashes of humour too, particularly concerning Calvino’s interactions with Burma’s self declared first PI and astrologer.
Missing in Rangoon is a satisfying read, a mixture of hard-boiled crime fiction and acute social observation set in a little known part of Asia. What’s not to like.