During Thailand’s 2006 coup, dead bodies lay in Rama IV Road in Bangkok, right outside the swank apartment of Christopher G. Moore, one of Canada’s most famous expat writers. The next coup, in May 2014, didn’t affect him in such a direct and gruesome way, but the worsening repression under the current military government is certainly changing his writing.
Moore, who once taught condo law at UBC, has lived in Southeast Asia for 30 years and during that period has published 30-plus books. Fifteen of them have been police procedurals featuring his fictional creation Vincent Calvino, a disbarred lawyer turned PI, a character who’s especially popular with readers across East Asia and Western Europe.
Like his creator, Calvino is fluent in Thai and knows how to work with the local police—and, until recently, how to absorb society’s punches. The brand-new Calvino, Crackdown (Heaven Lake Press), is techno-noir set in what, sadly, has now become the Thai surveillance state—a subject that Moore has been turning to more and more in nonfiction as well.
“What will my next book be?” he says by telephone from Bangkok. “It could be another Calvino in the series.” But he doesn’t sound convinced or convincing. “The character has had to change because when I came up with him 25 years ago the world wasn’t so interconnected. Thailand seemed quite cut off from the rest of the world in some ways. The buildings here were different then, there was no Skytrain, there were mom-and-pop stores where the big shopping plazas are now, and so on. Thai society has become such a part of the globalization process…” He trails off, but seems to be thinking something like: “…that a hard-nosed old private dick would run the risk of being quaint.” Of course, he could always write another “stand-alone novel”, though in the past these have sometimes turned into the opening salvos in trilogies. “So I think I might take a one-year rest from fiction”—which would be a first for him.
As for nonfiction, that’s another matter.
“I wrote an essay a week for five-and-a-half years, until last December, when I slowed the pace,” he says. The pieces tend to be cultural in the broad sense but also political, with special emphasis on privacy and social-justice issues: subjects that can be dangerous at times in a society as authoritarian as Thailand has become. Three collections of these topical pieces have appeared in the past few years: The Cultural Detective was the first, followed by Faking It in Bangkok: Crime and Culture in the Digital Age and Fear and Loathing in Bangkok. The fourth, The Age of Dis-Consent: Essays, has just appeared.
I jokingly ask him how he’s avoided apprehension all these years. He replies just as jokingly by paraphrasing Sherlock Holmes: “The best place to hide is in plain sight.” Then, growing serious, he compares Thai politics to the weather. “The situation is unstable, uncertain, hard to predict. There may be a certain pattern for 30 days, let’s say, but it defies long-term analysis.” The political situation is like what political wonks call a black swan: a monumental event that surprises everyone because it doesn’t jibe with statistical norms.
Putting his money where his mouth is, Moore has created the Christopher G. Moore Foundation, based in London. Its purpose is to fund “authors of written works (either fiction or nonfiction) that call attention to instances of clear breaches of human rights [and] encourage further research into these and other instances, as well as creative incentives for writers to continue to monitor such abuses”. The foundation is run by the son of an old UBC friend.
Displaced British Columbians stick together. Another one, Chad A. Evans, a critic living in Australia, has written the first book-length study of Moore’s work—Vincent Calvino’s World: A Noir Guide to Southeast Asia (Heaven Lake Press). It appears next month. It presents itself as a tool for understanding “the change from the analog world to the digital one through the private eyes of a detective who bridges the old divide of East and West cultures and balances opposing views about life, the Confucian view of deferential social harmony versus the Western concept of ‘free’ rancorous verbal debate or disharmony”.
Moore says he’s determined to stick it out, but one never knows. After all, he has the safety net of a Canadian passport.