Sunday, July 05, 2009

A Long Line of Zen Men

“Thais have a saying about a frog living inside a coconut shell. The frog believes that the world inside the shell is the whole universe. In the private investigation business, Vincent Calvino had clients who were like the frog. What they saw from inside their shell blinded them, made them unable to solve a problem. So they hired Calvino. He knew the drill. Shells offered comfort and security. Leaving a shell could be a dangerous business. Calvino’s froglike clients paid him to venture into a larger existence and to find out and report on the wiring of relationships and places and events, how they were linked and fit together in networks.”
-- from The Risk of Infidelity Index, 2007
Christopher G. Moore and I bonded during this last spring’s Left Coast Crime convention in Hawaii, specifically over the subject of Lawrence Block’s 1994 Matt Scudder novel, A Long Line of Dead Men. Earlier that same day, I had enthused to another author, Barry Eisler, about this thing Block does in Long Line: he places detective Scudder and his friend, career criminal Mick Ballou, in the back room of a bar and just allows them to talk. And talk. Block writes a conversation that goes on for four or five chapters. Your average novelist couldn’t get away with that; it’s breaking all the standard rules of writing, but the results are absolutely riveting.

I recalled all of this in a conversation with Moore when we met during a panel discussion about politics in modern thrillers. We got along famously after that, and I convinced Moore to sit for a short interview with me the next day. I had arranged with LCC organizers to do a 15-minute thing called Talk Story, which allowed me to present something to the public during this convention on whatever subject I preferred. I decided to do an interview, since that’s so often part of the job of a blogger and Internet book critic. Hardly anybody showed up to watch me talk with Moore, but that was fine, since it allowed me to go longer than was planned and dig deeper. Fortunately, a filmmaker friend of Moore’s, Tito Haggardt (of Tito Productions), was on hand to capture our exchange on videotape.

Videotaped interviews are destined to become more important in the future, as the media move farther and farther away from traditional print presentations. They can also be extremely interesting. A live exchange is a spontaneous and living thing, allowing the viewer to see the interaction between interviewer and subject.

And the 56-year-old Moore is a delightful subject--a gentleman, soft-spoken and articulate, and passionate about the crime-fiction genre. A former law professor at Canada’s University of British Columbia, Moore first visited Thailand in the early 1980s to do some research for a book. He’s stayed there ever since, and has written almost 20 novels, 10 of them mysteries featuring ex-New York private eye Calvino. Moore understands that character is what comes first, what always must come first. His Vincent Calvino is a great character, a white man who flees America’s East Coast (I will not spoil things by telling you why) and lands in Thailand, where he gradually embraces Buddhism. That was one of the things we talked about in Hawaii: the peculiarity of his focusing not on a white Catholic, but on a white Buddhist.

In his novels, Moore writes about Bangkok as if it were one of the most famous cities of noir fiction. The nightlife there comes off as mysterious, dangerous, and exciting and the people in power are cast as no less corrupt than their counterparts might be in America. He makes Bangkok breathe and work as an important part of his cast. It’s akin to what George Pelecanos does with Washington, D.C., and what Don Winslow does with San Diego. Moore is a stylist much like the writers of the early to mid-20th century who kick-started the P.I. genre in America. He writes with the angry and sad voice of Ross Macdonald and the flow of and beauty of Raymond Chandler. Penning his books in the third-person, he uses allegory and symbolism to great effect. The Calvino series is distinctive and wonderful, not to be missed, and I’m pleased to see that it is finally becoming better known in the States.

I want to thank Tito Haggardt for capturing my one-on-one with Moore on video, and for making it possible for us to post that here in two parts. This technology for blogs is still developing, so please forgive us for taking so long to offer my interview in The Rap Sheet. I’m confident, at least, that you will enjoy the results.

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