provoking tales. This volume is special for another reason: it is the first time that foreign and Thai professional writers have combined their visions of Bangkok within a single volume.

I opened this introduction with a comment about the ambiguity of noir as a concept. It is worth noting some basic background. “Noir” is the French word for black or dark. The French used the term to describe certain dark films portraying characters doomed by the hand of fate. Appropriated years ago by Anglo-Saxon critics and authors, the word “noir” in English has been used to describe a certain category of crime fiction. American authors like Thompson, Willeford, Goodis and Cain made a reputation selling a bleak, nihilistic vision of life. The contemporary notion of noir, traceable to the original French idea, is based on an existential space where the characters find themselves caught without the possibility of redemption. Noir fiction chronicles a world where a person’s fate is sealed by a larger and more powerful karma, one from which, despite all efforts, they can’t break free. The stories in this collection are in the tradition of past noir authors who were masters at leading characters onto the platform, slipping the noose around their necks and springing open the trap door.

What Westerners call a fatalistic vision of life, in Asia often passes as karma. All of those good and bad deeds from your past life work themselves out in the streets, bars and back alleys of this life, and there’s not much room for free will inside this concept of a universe where payback awaits in the next life.

With this anthology this group of authors, known for their writings about Thailand, have put their creative talent to the task of showing that noir is geographically unbounded. If noir is looking a little tired in the West, in Thailand it has all the energy and courage of a kid from upcountry who thinks the Khmer tattoos on his body will stop bullets. Dark stories, like a good som tum, need the right number of red hot peppers to press the pain and pleasure buttons, and when a noir writer runs short of hot peppers, he throws in a Thai dame (she may be a ghost), knowing she can drive any man to ruin with the flash of her smile.

What makes Bangkok noir different from, say, American, English or Canadian noir? There’s no easy answer. But a stab in the heart of noir darkness suggests that while many Thais embrace the materialistic aspects of modern Western life, the spiritual and sacred side draws upon Thai myth, legends and customs, and remains resistant to the imported mythology structure of the West. In the tension between the show of gold, the Benz, the foreign trips and designer clothes, and the underlying belief system creates an atmosphere that stretches people between opposite poles. I like to think of noir as the by-product of the contradictions and the delusions that condemn people to live without hope of resolving the contradictions. No matter how hard they struggle, they can never break free.

Take a late night walk through some poor neighborhoods in Bangkok. Hear the soi dogs howling as the angry ghosts launch themselves through the night, and and observe that modern possessions don’t stop the owners from making offerings to such spirits. In the slums life is short and cheap, and it’s a tough life filled with uncertainty and doubt. But noir isn’t just about the poor or dispossessed. The rich occupy their expensive condos and drive their luxury cars, sheltering inside the circles of influence and power, only they, too, like the poor, can find their world overturned by an accident of fate, stripping them of their safety and exposing them to terror and loss.

No one is going to provide a definition of “noir” that satisfies everyone. Critics and writers try to distinguish hard-boiled fiction from noir fiction. Strip away the fancy stuff and it comes down to nothing more than this: the difference between hard-boiled and noir is the difference between hemorrhoids and cancer. Hard-boiled stories make for uncomfortable reading, but you know somehow there’s the possibility of hope at the end (no puns are allowed in noir). Noir is black in the way certain death is black. No redemption, no hope, no light at the end of the tunnel.

Tough guys, players, losers, the tormented and lost souls all appear in Bangkok Noir. But the heart of Bangkok Noir is the existential doubts that haunt the characters. Many of them are expatriates washed up like pilot whales on the shore, thinking that someone is going to save them. Instead they get rolled over, sliced up and processed as another part of the food chain. The heat, the corruption, the lies and doublecrosses, the bars and the short-time hotels conspire to lull, entrap, encircle and finish off anyone who betrays the system.

In Bangkok there is an old trail that leads through a thicket of historical noir cases told by Thai storytellers of the past. Books and TV shows have created a mini-industry around the likes of See Ouey, the ChineseThai cannibal executed in the 1950s for murdering half a dozen young children. His preserved body is exhibited like a ghoulish alien creature inside a see-through display case at the Forensic Museum. Another noir celebrity is the ill-fated Jim Thompson, not the noir writer, but the American (rumored to be a CIA agent) who reintroduced silk-making into Thailand and who mysteriously disappeared on a walk in the Malaysian jungle. His body was never found.

This anthology of contemporary stories weaves a pattern of intrigue and mystery where the living and the dead occupy the same space. Crooked lawyers, crooked cops, transsexuals, minor wives, killers and ghosts take you along for a tour that unlocks the secret doors and invites you to enter into the space where Thais and foreigners work, live, play and die together. The only mystery not uncovered by the writers in this collection is why it has taken so long for a volume of Bangkok Noir to appear.

Christopher G. Moore


February, 2011

Gone East

John Burdett


Go East, Young Man.

Anyone with a brain who followed this advice between, say, the end of WWII and the beginning of the 1990’s, is probably a millionaire by now, most will be in the ten million bracket, some are even captains of industry—but who was giving such advice? Answer: my Uncle Walter.

I only met him once when I was fourteen: long hair, sandals, beads, a deep fondness for trees and an extreme gentleness that could seem phony—oh, and a big marijuana habit, too. He took me to the Glastonbury music festival for a week and, by means of mystical argument, did his best to liberate my mind from its suburban prison. My mother had always spoken of her brother in ambiguous terms, sometimes as the black sheep of the family, at others, more wistfully, as the only one who found freedom; she never forgot to mention that he was a polyglot, like all the male members of her family, including me. In his endless travels he picked up languages like shells on a tropical beach. From my point of view it was a momentous meeting: there weren’t very many rebels left by the eighties.

Mum warned me not to be overly influenced by Walter, whose profound hope it was that he would die in the shadow of the Himalayas. The mountains granted his wish somewhat earlier than he had anticipated by means of untreated amoebic dysentery at the age of forty-two. His death left me at a forked path: should I follow the fear- based path of respectability, or take my chances with dharma? Or was there a way of hedging my bets?

I inherited his diary and his advice to go East, which I adapted to my own needs: after all, flower power had long been eclipsed by dough by the time I reached my twenties, and Uncle Walter was already pushing up poppies somewhere in the Hindu Kush. Nor did I expect to stay East; no, his diaries had seduced me, I had to visit those magic places, which he described with a gigantic literary gift he never exploited—then I was going to go West, to make real money.

Yeah, right. In the event I fell in love on my first trip to Bangkok (Thailand was second in Walter’s list of

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