Ever been to The City of Angels – home to 12,000,000 folks? That’s a lot of angels to be fluttering their wings in the heat. Besides those wings aflutter, that’s an awful lot of feet pounding the pavement and sidewalks. Sorry – we are not talking about Los Angeles.
The first City of Angels is actually Bangkok, the capital and largest urban area of Thailand. This isn’t a place for those of you who can’t abide hot weather. That heat is the reason why Bangkok has been called the Furnace of the earth.
It is also the home of writer Christopher G. Moore, author of the famed series of novels about Private Eye Vincent Calvino. So far there are a dozen Calvino novels. The first one, Spirit House was first published back in 1992. The most recent Calvino novel called 9 Gold Bullets came out in early 2011.
In this post, we are going to give you a look at four of the Calvino books. The series has hit best seller lists in about a dozen different languages. There’s no doubt that Vincent Calvino is a very popular Private Investigator. So who is he?
He was born and raised in New York. Calvino’s background is that he is half-Jewish and half Italian. He takes on a variety of cases. Some from well-heeled corporate clients, some from well to-do ex-pat society wives who think their husbands are cheating on them, and other cases which don’t bring in much in the way of revenue (sort of like the pro bono cases done by lawyers) but might result in some positives for a local community.
Calvino’s office is in a small office building. On the ground floor of his building is a massage parlor called One Hand Clapping. Not what you might call inspiring to his clients who agree to meet Calvino at his office. In the first Calvino novel, that space was occupied by an always-out-of-town Finnish real estate developer. But that didn’t last, and the space would eventually be taken over by the rub-and-tug massage business.
Calvino’s office and business is maintained by his secretary/office manager called Ratana. Though Ratana is indeed gorgeous, at least in the books I’ve read – his relationship with Ratana could best be described as both friendly, semi-personal, as well as professional. What I mean is that he hasn’t slept with her.
Don’t let that point give you the wrong idea about Vincent Calvino. He likes women, and women like him. There’s no shortage of intimate moments in these novels.
Calvino’s best friend in Bangkok is Colonel Prachai Chongwatana, a cop in the Bangkok police force. For brevity and for easy reference, Calvino calls his friend Pratt. Pratt is a true man for all seasons. Besides being a terrific policeman, Pratt is also a fine artist in watercolors and woodblock prints which he studied at the Pratt Institute in New York (no doubt this was at least part of the reason for the knickname Pratt), a wonderful saxophone player, and someone who could recall and quote from a vast assortment of memorable and appropriate for the moment, Shakespearean quotes.
Calvino and Pratt met years ago in New York. Pratt, already a cop on the Bangkok police force, was in New York taking some courses in a law enforcement program at NYU. When they met Calvino was already a practicing lawyer, and Pratt was selling his paintings in Washington Square Park when he wasn’t in class or studying. Without giving too much away – while in New York, Pratt ran afoul of some nasty gangsters. Calvino found a way to help his friend. The mobsters weren’t thrilled. In fact, their version of payback was to plant some contraband in Calvino’s home and then they notified the authorities. Calvino was able to evade any criminal prosecution, but the New York Bar Association wasn’t thrilled about this. They disbarred him. His days as a practicing lawyer in New York came to an immediate halt. This fact also put a severe crimp into Calvino’s marriage. His wife divorced him.
Hence, via his friendship with Pratt, who believed he owed Calvino a lifetime of favors for getting him out of the mess he had been in, Calvino soon had moved lock, stock, and barrel to Bangkok, where he set up his shop for discreet inquiries. A few more facts follow.
Weapon: His weapon of choice? A concealed .38 caliber handgun which is usually stored in an under-the-jacket shoulder holster, and was of course, illegal.
Clothes: Vincent Calvino is never going to be featured on the cover of GQ , Men’s Vogue, or F/Homme or any such similar magazines. It’s not that he wouldn’t wear or like elegant clothes. But his job would eat up his clothing budget in no time. You can’t be wearing Armani or Burberry, or other leading haute couture designers when you’re either hugging the ground while dodging bullets, or close enough to some guy you just shot so that his blood lands on you. Let’s not forget the occasional bar brawls (usually one punch affairs) that result in either some one’s clothes getting rumpled, or immersion in the sawdust usually found on a barroom’s floor. Finally, during a stakeout you’d want to blend in – not stand out. In short Calvino’s preferred look would be that he wouldn’t be remembered for his appearance, and his usual look is most accurately described as closer to rumpled than not. And when he does get some new threads – they generally don’t last.
Car: Calvino prefers taxis, but when he does have a car you can count on it being functional rather than flashy, dull rather than dynamic, and boring rather than beautiful.
Drugs: He does not use drugs but has more than just a passing knowledge because many of his cases involve clients who use drugs socially, or have drug problems, or are clients with problems with drug dealers.
Drinks: Vincent drinks either a local brand of whiskey called Mekhong, or he’s been known to imbibe some Singha beers. Due to the vagaries of his job Calvino always consumed coffee regularly. Calvino is also well acquainted with a term we all know of if we drink – morning hangovers.
Women: His secretary Ratana is beautiful but they have a hands-off relationship. Kiko, a Japanese beauty, is also a head-turner – but she and Vinnie are on and off. The rest of the time, Vincent Calvino is admired by women of all ages, sizes and shapes. It is pretty much a given, that in each and every book, Calvino will bed a woman. He’s also got an ex-wife, a teenage daughter, and a Thai housekeeper. Her name is Mrs. Jamthong – she’s 53, married, very proper, and never owned a pair of shoes until she was 17. Her main purpose seems to be to make Calvino’s breakfast, keep his rather ordinary apartment clean, and to give the ‘all clear’ signal when his latest overnight guest has left the premises.
That’s the background – so now, let’s have a quick tour through four of Christopher G. Moore’s Vincent Calvino novels that I’ve read. By the way, Moore’s Calvino novels did not reach America until 2007 – but these days they are widely available in the states.
Spirit House (1992) – “D.O.A. Bangkok” are the opening words of this novel. In standard practice, D.O.A. means Dead on Arrival – and is a widely known acronym used by hospitals, trauma center doctors, and is often found in police reports and conversations. It is also the name of a Bangkok bar that Calvino frequented.
In this case it also referred to the death of one Ben Hoadly, a farang or foreigner from Britain living in Bangkok. The police had gotten their arms around the case almost before the body had gotten cold. Before Calvino had even heard of the case, the police not only had a suspect in custody but they also had a so-called confession from this suspect. Worth mentioning is that the suspect had been severly beaten.
Now this suspect was addicted to paint thinner. And he was a neighbor of Calvino’s current girlfriend – the aforementioned lovely Japanese beauty Kiko. So with Kiko pleading that this boy couldn’t have done it, and with Hoadly’s parents having hired Calvino to get to the bottom of their son’s murder, our hero quickly became deeply involved in the case.
We will meet a sexy dealer of Southeast Asian antiques, a fortune teller, embezzlers, drug runners, crooked cops, and even a series of hitmen who do their drive-by-shootings not from fancy Cadillac Escalades, but instead they whiz by on small and nimble Kawasaki motorcycles, or from powerful speedboats afloat on the many klongs (canals) that are found in Bangkok. Toss in an assortment of yings (bar girls, pole dancers, strippers, and prostitutes) and you have quite a cast of characters. Ying is the short form of pooying which is the Thai word for girl.
This is a book filled with tons of Bangkok atmosphere, action, heat, blood, and lots of warm female flesh.
Asia Hand (1993) – another farang turns up dead. This time a body was fished out of the lake in Lumphini Park in central Bangkok. It is the body of Jerry Hutton, an American wanna-be news cameraman. Actually Jerry was a neighbor of Calvino’s (they were sort of friends) and he did work as a camera man for hire.
He recently had been hired to go up-country and shoot some footage along the Thai-Burma border where some military and quasi-military squirmishes had been going on. What Hutton took footage of appeared to be a shocking war-crime. He returned back to Bangkok, turned in his film, and was promptly killed.
Calvino is soon involved in the case. Who killed Hutton and why? As the case develops we will find that a hack Hollywood Director and film producer are involved, along with some higher-ups in the American military. If that wasn’t enough, you will find that a certain “Company” with lots old Asia hands is also involved.
A film company sets up shop in Bangkok as a film is actually in production with a Hollywood starlet cast in the lead. When Calvino starts to get too close to the truth, he is asked to back off. When he doesn’t, stronger measures are needed. You won’t believe who gets cast to be in this movie production as a means to control Calvino. This was a terrific book filled with strong characters, thrilling pacing, and lots of unexpected turns and twists.
The Risk of Infidelity Index was the 9th book in the Calvino series. As usual, a farang turns up dead. He happened to be one of Calvino’s corporate clients, a lawyer working for a large international law firm. Calvino had been handling a case for this lawyer away from the lawyer’s practice. Unfortunately, this client died under somewhat suspicious circumstances and this happened even before Calvino had been given a check for his services. This was another time when we got one of Calvino’s Laws.
His laws were not actually codified, or even written down anywhere. They were more like an internal guide to to living, working, and having fun all in Bangkok. And they show up in all of the Calvino novels. This time, the ‘law’ in question could be called – Get Your Retainer Fee Up Front.
Since he hadn’t, Calvino was quickly becoming short of funds, so he had to take on a few cases of infidelity. You know what I mean. Married and rich ex-pat women who suspected that their husbands were keeping mistresses on the side for afternoon delights and more hire Calvin to follow these men, and come back with incriminating evidence. This was not exactly the kind of work that Vincent Calvino liked to do – but the rent was due, and groceries were needed at home.
This is one of the lighter Calvino novels but that doesn’t mean that it is all fun and games. There’s a particularly vicious Thai C.E.O/gangster named Weerawat involved, and he he is not the kind of guy that you’d want to pick to be annoyed at you.
But aside from dodging hitmen, passionate women, and even taking part in a few classes in a Thai cooking school, Calvino has his hands full in finding out who killed his client.
The last Calvino book that I read was called Paying Jack Back. This was the 10th Calvino novel. This time Calvino has been hired to follow a big time Thai Politician’s mistress. Calvino’s client is an American named Rick Casey.
Casey is a guy with a shady past and a recently murdered adult son. Casey wants Calvino to get the goods on this politician named Somporn – you know what I mean – get evidence of Somporn screwing around with his Chiang Mai mistress who went by the name of Meow. Somporn was also using her as a bag-lady to help in payoffs to corrupt people, and in Casey’s eyes, he’s the responsible party for the murder of Casey’s son. But Somporn has friends in high places, and the police can’t lay a hand on this guy. On the surface, this seems to be just a revenge based surveillance job for Calvino.
But things spiral out of Calvino’s control very quickly. Calvino has to follow a trail across Thailand to Pattaya. His accomodations in Pattaya have all been pre-arranged. He crosses paths with a very attractive woman on the grounds of his Pattaya hotel. Not more than a few minutes later, Calvino is sitting on the balcony of his hotel room enjoying a drink. It is precisely at this moment that he and this woman, Nongluck, cross paths again.
He’s sitting having a drink on his high-floor balcony when Nongluck passes him in a flash. That’s because she’s just been thrown off the balcony from the room just above Calvino’s room. He’s tasting his Mekhong whiskey on ice, and she’s plummeting to her death. You won’t be surprised when the Pattaya police arrive moments later to arrest Calvino for her death.
Toss in an American sniper team, also by hired by Casey, and you’ve got another thrilling book that will keep you on the edge of your seat as you won’t be able to put the book down. As always, Colonel Pratt, and Ratana are more than just along for the ride.
Now that you’ve sampled a bit of Vincent Calvino, I’m sure that you quite likely may want to read these novels, or others from the series yourself. It seems appropriate to think that Vincent Calvino is not only an exciting fictional character who works as a P.I., and that his stories, as penned by Christopher G. Moore will transport you to steamy and exotic Bangkok, but this character has also the makings of becoming the central character in a noirish thriller movie.
Well guess what, Vincent Calvino is going to be in the movies. Moore’s very first Calvino novel, the aforementioned Spirit House, is coming to the world of cinema. So, please move over Bogie (that’s Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon or Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep). Step aside William Powell who played Nick Charles in numerous Thin Man films. Others like Jack Nicholson who played J.J.Gittes in Chinatown, Robert Mitchum who played the gumshoe Phillip Marlowe in two films, and even Frank Sinatra – all of these actors got to play a ‘private eye’ in the movies .
The point is, and I could take you all the way back to Sherlock Holmes, a fictional detective who first appeared in print in 1887 (that’s 125 years ago), that private eyes – you know, when the case calls for ‘discreet inquiries or private investigations’, make for terrific characters in the movies. Is there any finer evidence of this than Holmes himself?
A screenplay to be produced by FilmNation Entertainment has been written by Chase Palmer who has adapted Spirit House. While this is not exactly fresh news – in fact, the news of Palmer being hired to write the screenplay is from the early summer of 2010. But what is fresh is that Mr. Moore told me directly (in mid-February of this year) that negotiations are in progress (no names yet please) with an A-List director. FilmNation hopes to begin shooting later this year in Thailand. Since FilmNation optioned the entire series of the Calvino novels – this sounds serious and I’ve no doubt that they have ‘franchise’ in mind.
I can’t wait.