Live From Thailand
Being a writer in the U.S. is one thing, but being an American writing in far-off lands is quite another. We’ve heard from C.J. Daugherty, who left her Texas roots for the English countryside and found a niche in the European Young Adult market, and now, we bring you Jake Needham, who moved a little further away to Thailand.
Jake, like C.J., found himself in a place where the stories flow, and his readers are anywhere but the U.S. In the first of two columns, Jake, who writes contemporary crime novels, shares his journey to Bangkok, including some excerpts from his works that best describe his adopted home. Next month, Jake will tell us about what it’s like to publish in Thailand.
The Life of a Crime Novelist in Bangkok
(Probably isn’t what you think)
By Jake Needham
A little over twenty-five years ago, I was living in Los Angeles and earning a reasonable living writing and producing crap movies for American cable television. Then, out of that proverbial clear blue sky, HBO got interested in a script I had written a couple of years earlier and my life spun off in an entirely unanticipated direction. The script was for a political thriller set in Asia, and it was making that film that resulted in me living for more than two decades in what is surely the world’s most notorious city.
This is how it came about. The production company thought it would be cool to shoot the film in Bangkok so they figured they ought to put at least one producer on the project who had some idea where Bangkok actually is. I raised my hand. Looking back, if I had known then what I was getting myself into with the movie business, I probably would have kept my hand in my pocket.
The good news is that while we were in production in Bangkok I was lucky enough to meet the saintly woman who has been my wife for the last twenty-three years. She was born in Thailand, went to boarding school in the UK from the age of ten, and graduated from Oxford, and then she had been lured back to Bangkok to become the editor of the Thai edition of Tatler Magazine. She came out to the set one day with a writer who was interviewing me for a profile in Tatler. I think she was mostly curious to see what an American film producer actually looked like. I gather I passed inspection because a year later, to the complete horror of her prominent and respected Thai parents, we were married. We have lived in Bangkok for at a good part of every year ever since.
These days, I am a novelist rather than a screenwriter, having come to the realization fifteen or so years ago that I really didn’t like movies all that much. I’ve published eight contemporary crime novels set in Asia so far and the ninth will be published later this year.
Bangkok is an enigmatic city at the best of times, a place where the mystery of what you can’t see is surpassed only by the ambiguity of what you can; but it is also a place of sensual immediacy, and lush, transporting power. Something magical always seems to be dangling just out of reach. Living in Bangkok, I sometimes feel as if I am playing out a scene from ‘The Third Man.’ Lurking warily in the shadows. Picking my way through markets, temples, and bars. Dodging gangsters, con men, and killers. Trolling the streets of the city like Holly Martins searching the back alleys of Vienna in 1945 looking for Harry Lime.
In narrow back streets, mysterious buildings lurk behind walls topped with broken glass. Uniformed guards pace in front of tightly closed gates, suggesting dark and mysterious doings within. Embassy compounds look like fortresses or perhaps prosperous prisons: all blast-hardened concrete, slit windows, high walls, and iron gates. They bristle with radio towers and satellite dishes, and flat-eyed men with automatic weapons track anyone who ventures near.
All over town you see them and wonder who they really are. Beefy, crew cut Caucasians, big men wearing big wristwatches. They sit in darkened corners of grimy bars watching the girls, sucking down cold beers, and talking in low voices to swarthy, Middle Eastern men who watch the door as they listen. Bangkok is a wide-open frontier town. You can get drunk on the intrigue.
On the other hand, there’s at least one big disadvantage to living in Bangkok. A lot people have strong preconceptions about westerners who live in Asia and their assumptions frequently make for somewhat weighty baggage as I wrote in The Big Mango:
Americans have always been keenly suspicious of other Americans who voluntarily chose to live in another country. After all, half the population of the world seems to be clamoring to move to California and work in a 7-Eleven. So what the hell was with this guy who wanted to live in Bangkok? He must have done something. Yeah, that was it. Committed a crime or something. If he wasn’t a drug dealer, he had to be a tax dodger or maybe he owed child support to a penniless ex-wife in St. Louis. Bastard. Low-life. Had to be. Otherwise he’d want to live in America like everyone else.
The reaction I typically get back here in the U.S. when people find I am living in Bangkok inevitably goes something like this. Oh, the place is no doubt exotic and interesting, they murmur, but…well, it’s a city where a lot of people go who aren’t particularly nice, isn’t it?
Sadly, I’ve never found a way to deny that with a straight face.
I have always thought there must be some kind of international network devoted to coaxing social misfits and dropout cases worldwide into coming to Bangkok, because come they do and by the thousands. They walk away from third-shift jobs in places like Los Angeles, London, Sydney, Berlin, and Toronto, buy a cheap airline ticket, and make their way to the Land of Smiles.
Some are looking for a cheap tropical paradise. Others think they’ve found Sodom and Gomorrah. But every one of them is hoping in some way or another to make a fresh start on a life that probably has had up until then very little to recommend it. Many of these refugees from reality probably couldn’t locate the city on a map before they decided it was the place for them. Maybe they still can’t, but now Bangkok is their last, perhaps their only hope. They are all there. The lonely, the frightened, the guilty, the depressed, and the psychotic. Soaked with sweat, they rush from one bar to another, reeking of that peculiarly sour, metallic odor habitually given off by the emotionally overmatched and underachieving.
After midnight, it is this floodtide of the lost and misbegotten that owns Bangkok. At its most benign, Bangkok is part Miami and part Beirut. But at midnight on the fault line, Bangkok is anything but benign.
When you’re a novelist who lives in Bangkok, a lot of people take for granted you’re one of those guys. They assume you’re writing books, likely very bad ones, only because you’re on the lam from the cops or maybe from
another life you would rather forget, and they figure the books you write must be about the ocean of cheap hookers and crappy beer in which most people are absolutely certain all western men living in Bangkok constantly wallow.
I write crime novels that are set largely in contemporary Asian cities. My books are about people who live along the margins of society and work the netherworld of Asia.
My Jack Shepherds series series focuses on a high-flying American lawyer who has swapped the intrigues of Washington politics for the backwater of academic life in Bangkok. Now he’s just an unremarkable professor at an unknown university in an unimportant city, or at least that’s how the people he left back in Washington think of him. The truth is Shepherd’s anything but that. He’s a lawyer for clients who laugh at the law, a friend in a land where today’s allies are tomorrow’s fugitives, and a man perpetually assailed by the moral labyrinth that bedevils all western expatriates in Asia.
My Inspector Samuel Tay series is about a detective in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Singapore police who is a bit of a reluctant policeman. He is a little overweight, a little lonely, a little cranky, and he smokes way too much. When Tay thinks back, he can’t even remember why he became a cop in the first place. All he knows is that he is very, very good at what he does, and probably not much good at anything else.
Shockingly, there’s not a single sex tourist or hooker to be found in the books of either series.
I hope you’re not too disappointed in me.
Jake Needham is the author of eight contemporary crime novels set in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bangkok. Called “Michael Connelly with steamed rice” by the Bangkok Post, and “Asia’s most stylish and atmospheric writer of crime fiction” by the Singapore Straits Times, his books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in those Asian and European countries where they have been distributed. Sadly, none of Jake’s books have ever been sold in the United States except in their e-book editions. You can learn more about Jake at www.JakeNeedham.com
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