Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, and what one can learn from crime novels

Christopher G. Moore's novel Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, written based on travel to Cambodia during that country's administration by the United Nations in 1992 and 1993, is full of didactic and journalistic passages:
“`So I’m going to fill in a gap in your knowledge. We French have been here since the last century. We imported the Vietnamese to run the civil administration of the colony."

“`The French were in Cambodia for fifty years before they built the first school,'” said Calvino."
*

Photos by your humble blogkeeper, Peter Rozovsky
except for the one obviously by someone else.
"This was Ratana’s Thai way of not just showing loyalty for her boss but taking a much larger step, bringing him into the kinship fold—where family looked after family, checking and double-checking on their safety, consulting with other family members."
*
"Cambodia in the 90s was a second chance, a new frontier, a new gold rush. And guys like Hatch and Patten weren’t going to miss out this time around."
*
"These strongmen had the unquestioned right over the peasant population. Who among them would have cared about the fate of one such girl? Hundreds of Khmers were stepping on land mines every day of every week, and it looked like that would keep on happening for the indefinite future."
Me and Christoper G. Moore
at Bangkok's Check Inn 99.
I would not like that sort of thing in most crime novels; I'll read a history book instead. But Moore has two things going for him: Cambodia is, in fact, a mystery to many, if not most, Western readers, who could use a bit of background, and he is forthright about his role as a cultural explorer or rather a cultural detective, to borrow the title he used for his book of reflections about life as a writer in Southeast Asia (a book to which I was honored to write the introduction).


So the didactic moments are pretty easy to get used to. Even if you disagree, you might like Moore's borrowings, of which one, when the protagonist, Vincent Calvino, finds a naked news reporter in his bed, is this:

 "She giggled. `You’re cute.'"

That just might remind you of Philip Marlowe and Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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10 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Its the other sin that upsets me more. The writer who is totally fucking disengaged from the world and who writes cute little stories about cute little people with no political or social context and without any moral norms being questioned or explored. Fuck that shit. Fuck the bored irony of disengaged millennials and gen xers. Bring on didacticism and sincerity. At least the writer's taking a goddamn position on something.

November 25, 2015  
Anonymous christopher g. moore said...

Thanks, Adrian. I agree entirely. I was in Cambodia covering the UNTAC deployment in 1992. To set a story in Phnom Penh during that period couldn't be done, in my opinion without placing it in the political and social context. Not many people were aware of what was happening inside Cambodia at that time.

If readers want only car chases and things blowing up, they've come to the wrong place when they read my books. You do an excellent job bringing life to Northern Ireland. I liked what you wrote about Don Winslow's The Power of the Dog. So there is a readership for crime fiction with political and social examination.

November 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, on the other hand, it would be easy to go overboard and make a story set in Cambodia at this time into one of unrelenting and undifferentiated Gothic horror, and hence to trivialize it. There's plenty of darkness in this book, but never merely to give the reader a delightful frisson of fright. But you won't find that here.

November 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Christopher: Many authors these days try crime fiction with political and social examination, or maybe it just seems that way since Stieg Larsson. Most of the results are clumsy, embarrassing, condescending, pandering, and trivial. That's why I'm happy to find an exception, especially one not from France, which has led the world in producing top-flight political crime writers.

November 25, 2015  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

What your complaint about isn't about didacticism its about bad writing. Either because he died and couldnt be edited or because he was new to the genre, Larsson's problem wasn't his engagement and politics it was his clumsy prose, themes and characters.

November 25, 2015  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Chris

Yeah I love your stuff, man. More power to you. I dont see you writing a novel about a mystery solving cat anytime soon.

November 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I agree, but I would also suggest that the chapter headings that consisted of statistics about violence against women in at least one of Larsson's novels did not help. That's the sort of clumsy lecturing that I mean.

I wonder why French writers tend to be so much better than others at writing crime novels with a markedly political slant. Jean-Patrick Manchette was the best at it, and Jean-Claude Izzo was very good. More recently Dominique Manotti has thoroughly deserved some of the awards she won. In Manchette's case, at least, it helped that he loved comics, jazz, and pop culture.

November 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In re Don Winslow, he's high on my list these days. I read and liked The Death and Life of Bobby Z some time ago and, more recently, was blown away by Savages.

But I'm reading a non-crime novel now alongside my Cambodia reading these days, and it looks like a great, great book: Midnight's Children.

November 25, 2015  
Anonymous christopher g. moore said...

Adrian,

You hit the nail squarely on the head: Larsson's problem wasn't his engagement and politics it was his clumsy prose, themes and characters. Peter may agree that awkward writing can overwhelm the political and social justice issues the writer seeks to raise. As Adrian rightly observes, that is a problem with the writer's craft not with his/her role to bring to life the most pressing of political and social conflicts into the heart of the story. Something Adrian does very well!

November 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Larsson was a admirable human being who should have devoted his time to what he was good at.

I would add Stuart Neville, John McFetridge, and Andrea Camilleri to that list of crime writers who have much to say about the politics and society of their times without, however, sinking into hectoring didacticism and polemics. They're writers, in other words.

November 26, 2015  

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