Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 116 in 2008.
Review of Christopher G. Moore, The Risk of Infidelity Index
(New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007)
For writers in the private eye genre, such as Christopher Moore, who take up the traditional form, as he does in The Risk of Infidelity Index, originality is not measured by examining the plot. This never varies. A client hires the gumshoe to investigate a matter, which turns out to be much more complex than it appeared. Neither does it appear in the creation of novel character types, since these, too, are largely invariable and include the heroic but flawed hero, a cop who hounds but also befriends the detective, a treacherous blonde, and so on. The true measure of originality lies in the invention of atmosphere.
By this term, I mean to convey a tonality that combines attention to setting and the details of everyday life as well as the creation of characters who emerge naturally from the milieu.
The fine accomplishment of Moore in this book is to excel in all three areas of atmosphere creation, as I will illustrate in a moment.
Now when I said that an author of a conventional detective book does not violate basic patterns, I did not mean that he or she doesn’t ever introduce minor variations. In truth, one (secondary) measure of an author’s worth is her or his facility at such variations.
In Moore’s story, for instance, while the hero, Vincent Calvino, is hired in the traditional manner to keep tabs on a straying husband, which, also conventionally, turns out to involve more than meets the eye, the novel itself begins with Calvino having already completed an assignment (a surveillance) but having trouble collecting his fee, a problem compounded when his client is murdered.
Moreover, to mention another clever variation, when Calvino is being hunted as a murderer, the crime having been pinned on him by the real murderer, this being a conventional motif, at which point, following the typical formula, the hero should make some reckless probe, such as breaking into the villain’s house, Calvino holes up and gets online. He uses the Internet to research and then publicize the true name of the killer.
But let’s return to atmosphere. Moore’s first skill is in rendering a vividness and authentic setting. The protagonist is an American expat in Bangkok, a city rendered in all its vulgarity, seaminess and glory. Moore offers, for instance, telling descriptions of the ladies and environs of the One Hand Clapping massage parlor (i.e., brothel), which is downstairs from the hero’s office; as well as of the patrons and spirit of the expat hangout, the Lonesome Hawk Bar, presided over by the genial octogenarian Old George; and of the mix of matter-of-factness and menace in the dockside area after dark.
Quotidian details (our second criterion) are rendered with rich grittiness. Take this description of the after-hours, last-minute assignations that are sewed up as the bars empty.
The parking lot churned with frantic bar yings in short skirts and high heels, others in jeans and T-shirts, supercharged by the knowledge that this was their last chance to score. Fashions accented the pelvis and hips. Kittenish and sensual, there were yings for every taste – geared up for food, drinking, drugs and sex. The subliminal message ran in the humid air: take me out of the parade and let’s go to the game.
Finally, to come to the criterion fewest are able to meet, Moore gives readers full-bodied characters, who, while distinctive in their own ways, are also indelibly part of the Thailand, seemingly like hothouse flowers, that could exist in no other world.
A fine example of this is Ratana, Calvino’s Thai secretary. Torn by different loyalties (like everyone in the book), she feels protective of her boss, yet is upset at him for not trying to stop the One Hand Clapping from moving in downstairs, which to her mind, adds an air of impropriety to her job. She has to pass the lounging yings on the way in and, god forbid one of her relatives might come by to see where she works. It is almost enough to make her quit. Her dilemma presented in a sensitive and thoroughly absorbing way.
Or take Weerawat, the millionaire, well-connected playboy, who is at the heart of the mystery. He is a disarmingly suave and persuasive man who, at the same time, is armed with a large dollop of power that he wields with unswerving force to protect his (corrupt) position, no matter whose head must roll. He makes a creditable nemesis, one who could only appear in the upper reaches of this Southeast Asian nation.
Then there’s Calvino himself. He came to Bangkok from New York City, after a disgrace ruined him as a lawyer in his homeland. He brings to his new profession a moral seriousness and acute appreciation of the city’s attractions and malignancies, bloodhound’s nose for clues, and a bittersweet view of the world and its tinsel that make him a worthy continuer of the shamus tradition.
All in all, the book’s loving evocation of the Thai atmosphere adds a glorious new locale to the detective genre’s geography, rendered with a master’s hand.