Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bloody foreigners

Back in the paleolithic days of Detectives Beyond Borders, I wrote that I was wary of novels set in countries other than the authors' own. "Such books," I wrote, "often degenerate into travelogues." In fact, I'm not sure that's the case; I have read few such books. Still, the wariness remains, the suspicion of arrogance on such an author's part, and the fear that he or she will concentrate on sights at the expense of story.

I've read enough of Christopher G. Moore's The Risk of Infidelity Index to know that Moore never pretends his protagonist is anything but an outsider, and I didn't have to read far to figure that out; the novel makes it clear from the first page. Vincent Calvino is a Bangkok private eye, an expatriate New Yorker, and a farang, a Thai word for a foreigner of European ancestry. The novel's opening line quotes a Thai saying about a frog living inside a coconut shell. Some of Calvino's clients are like the frog: blind to reality, safe, secure and unable to solve their own problems, so they hire Calvino. Spiders change those inside-the-coconut-shell dynamics, though: "Drop two alpha spiders into a coconut shell and watch as things become infinitely more interesting. It's still a shell, but the dynamics change from security and comfort to fear and suspicion."

"As far as Calvino could make out," we are told, "there was no Thai saying about a couple of large, hairy spiders spitting poison at each other in a coconut shell, but when he mentioned it to the Thais, they laughed and said that he knew too much about the country. When a Thai said that, it wasn't a good thing for the farang. It wasn't a compliment; it was a warning."

By the end of the chapter, Calvino has worried that he was the only farang inside a massage parlor when police arrived to investigate the death of one of its workers, and such worries contribute to a tone of apprehension and menace -- good things for a thriller or a crime novel. More on this subject once I've read more.

The novel's title refers to an index that ranks Bangkok tops in the risk that its sexual temptations present to the sanctity of expatriates' marriages.

My favorite line from the opening pages: "His mind possessed an image of the perfect bow tie."

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tenderness of Wolves was OK on this score, set in Canada but not by a Canadian (or by someone who had ever been there, one gathers), and not a travelogue -- although it is a book about journeys.

May 24, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read several comments about the novel, and most have mentioned that the author gained her knowledge through reading and research, I believe.

An author writing about a country not his or her own faces the additional hazard of trying too hard not to write mere travelogue and winding up with a story that could have been set anywhere. I have had that feeling about novels from time to time.

May 24, 2007  

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