Evolution of Vincent Calvino
literary hero is Cervantes the creator of Don Quixote. Chasing
windmills in the name of honor and love takes a certain turn of
mind. Don Quixote presents the most human of choices: between
the ideal and the real. What is and what ought to be. Between
chivalry and murder. The landscape where illusion competes with
this talk, I’d like to share some insight in into my literary
influences, the reception of the books locally and around the
world, and evolution of author’s mind over 30 years.
literary creation is Vincent Calvino, an ex-lawyer turned private
eye transplanted from New York to Bangkok. His story is one of
adapting to working in a different social, cultural and historical
ecology than the one he was born to and grew up in. Bangkok wasn’t
NYC. He had to learn fast if he was going to survive.
the length of the series, Calvino became a “cultural detective”.
As Cervantes said, “For a knight errand without love [without
Justice & Honor) was like a tree without leaves or fruit or
a body without a soul.” The Calvino novels are the quest
for understanding in a world of ambiguity, paradoxes, riddles,
and ironies. A world of naked power where humor and tragedy comingle
weight of thirty years have inevitably changed Calvino. He was
no superhero character. Like Don Quixote, Calvino never was Peter
Pan or Bruce Wayne. He wasn’t even a super sleuth. He was
very human. He did what he could do and often failed. He was who
he was and didn’t pretend to be someone else. He exposed
his flaws and defects. It never stopped him from chasing windmills.
He had help along the way. Colonel Pratt and McPhail were his
Sancho Penzas and Ratana, his secretary Dulcinea.
an author of a series, I get asked all the time by new readers
if the 17 books in the series are to read in chronological order.
I’ve always answered no to that question. The Calvino series
is not a continuing story with each book a new episode and you’d
be lost unless you read the preceding books. All of Vincent Calvino
novels stand alone in that sense.
there is another sense in which the books fall not into separate
categories but into a number of decades. Each decade has its own
methods, technology and stories. With the passage of so much time,
the continuing character of Bangkok changes. And by so doing changes
the main characters in the novel. Time has left a stamp on Bangkok,
Thai people, expats, and the general spirit of the times.
books found under each decade of Calvino has its fan base. A lot
of fans have stuck with all three decades. I’d like to think
most friends and readers share an interest in all three decades
of Vincent Calvino’s life. But from conversations and reviews,
there are some who prefer the books from a certain decade. What
we like or dislike, our taste and preference are uniquely our
impressions and memories and recollections I am sharing are a
journey I’ve finished. This is my report on the windmills
Calvino has fought.
The first decade: 1990 to 1999 (6 Calvino novels, 7 other
Asia Hand (1993)
Zero Hour in Phnom Penh (1994)
Comfort Zone (1995)
The Big Weird (1996)
Cold Hit (1999)
was the old Asia Hand decade. Washington Square/the Texas Lonestar
Bar. Insider knowledge was needed to navigate this largely hidden
world for foreign expatriates. Communications were difficult.
It was an era of rotary phones, fax and Telex machines and postal
mail. This was the pre-Internet, pre-social media world where
the fall of the Berlin Wall started the decade. The opening of
the BTS, the sky train, in Bangkok ended this period.
this period, I worked as a corporate lawyer and journalist. I
spent 6 weeks a year in Vietnam (1990 to 1995) working in law
offices in Saigon and Hanoi. I covered the UNTAC period in Cambodia
in 1993 as a freelance journalist. I was soaking up multiple histories,
cultures, languages, and tensions as change brought conflict.
around hostile gunfire. I’d been a civilian observer authorized
to ride with NYPD. I rode in a patrol car a couple of times a
week over a period of six months in 1986. It was the first time
I’d been shot at. In Brooklyn. A ruined, crumpling tunnel
of buildings smelling of poverty and fear. I’d been riding
with a night patrol. A couple of shots rang out. Nothing personal.
My next direct experience with gunfire was in Phnom Penh during
the UNTAC period 1993. M16 gun fire by local gunmen. Lastly the
gun fire came closer to home in Bangkok during in the third decade
of writing Calvino.
thing with violence, like sex, the experience changes people in
subtle ways. After the experience, consciously or unconsciously
the world is never quite the same.
this decade, New York, Saigon, Rangoon, Phnom Penh and Bangkok
were far different place than today. I ate and drank in the back
street bars in each of these cities, gathering stories. I was
deep into the nitty-gritty of the dark side where crime breeds.
experiences and memories of those times and places are salted
into the Calvino books and other novels written during this decade.
The first decade was productive for writing and publishing books.
I published 13 books, 6 of them novels in the Calvino series.
literary influences in the first decade: Nelson Algren (Man
with a Golden Arm), Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer),
Henry Miler’s publisher and my mentor and friend, Barney
Rosset, and Charles Bukowski.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way
of seeing things.”
1988, I arrived in Bangkok with one suitcase and a laptop. Some
years before that I left a tenured position as a law professor
at the University of British Columbia. First for NYC, and later
to Bangkok. In Bangkok, I landed among people who had allowed
themselves to go crazy. I found a naturalness in this strangeness,
a genius in the way poor people survived, and a profound sadness
in their broken dreams and the day to day treachery that appeared
was in a position not unlike Henry Miller’s in Paris in
have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man
from Nelson Algren, Calvino discovered that many of his cases
during this decade resulted from expats failing to follow his
sleep with a woman whose troubles are greater than your own.”?
Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side
The reviewers emphasized the dark side of Bangkok as an essential
part of the mood of the novel. This review of Spirit House
is an example:
thinking man’s Philip Marlowe, Calvino is a cynic on the
surface but a romantic at heart. Calvino . . . found himself
in Bangkok—the end of the world for a whole host of bizarre
foreigners unwilling, unable, or uninterested in going home.”
—The Daily Yomiuri
stylish second Bangkok thriller… explores the dark side
of both Bangkok and the human heart. Felicitous prose speeds
the action along….”
US edition of Asia Hand, won a coveted Shamus Award when
published by Grove/Atlantic in 2010, nearly two decade after the
original Thai edition.
the best-known Calvino novel of this decade, one that was widely
translated, was Zero Hour in Phnom Penh (1994). This
novel was the first introduction I’d overtly made by examining
the dark side of a traumatized population and how they existed
in a world of power, influence and violence. As the third Calvino
novel in the series, the edition translation of Zero Hour
in Phnom Penh won a German Critics Award for international
crime fiction in 2004 and the Spanish translation won the Premier
Special Director Book Award Semana Negra, Spain in 2007.
more than a thriller, Zero Hour in Phnom Penh is a
fresco of Cambodia and its people, their despair, their hopes,
their fears, their lives. And that’s what makes this book
a single work, much deeper than what can be expected to begin
Europeans liked what they read in Zero Hour in Phnom Penh
(originally published under the title Cut Out in English).
A French drew favorable reviews along these lines:
excellent hardboiled whodunnit, a noir novel with a solitary,
disillusioned but tempting detective in an interesting social,
historical context (of post-Pol Pot Cambodia), and a very thorough
psychological study of the characters.”—La culture
decade of the 1990s ended as it had begun with Vincent Calvino’s
investigations taking him into the nightlife of Soi Cowboy and
Nana Plaza. The cultural clashes and the growing opportunities
and higher education for women resulted in changed in attitudes
and a commercialization of night venues. Neon lights and anything
goes. The scene was changing as the Internet appeared. I caught
the first glimmer of online hookups was featured in 1996 with
The Big Weird, which predicted sexuality would migrate
to the digital world.
this decade, in which I wrote 6 Calvino novels, I also published
7 other books:
novels: Enemies of Memory (later retitled: Tokyo
Joe) (1990); A Killing Smile (1991), A Bewitching
Smile (1992), A Haunting Smile (1993), Saint
Anne (later retitled: Red Sky Falling) (1994), God
of Darkness (1998).
Heart Talk (350 Jai phrases) (1992)
Second Decade: 2000 to 2009 (4 Calvino novels, 3 other books)
Pattaya 24/7 (2004)
The Risk of Infidelity Index (2007)
Paying Back Jack (2009)
2000s could be described as the post-Asian economic crash era,
with the arrivals of more diverse groups of foreigners. The crash
was in 1997 but the effects were felt for a number of years afterwards.
The Calvino novels had at their heart always been about cross-cultural
relationships, misunderstandings, failures of communication, deceit,
mistrust, and psychological separation that accompanies an expat
power relations between people are explored in the first two novels
of the second decade. A minor or secondary wife in the first novel
and a local warlord in the second novel of the period. These power
dynamics arose inside a social and political transition, a shifting
and testing of authority, redrawing the boundaries of what was
permitted and what was forbidden. During this time, the books
draw upon the emergence of a modern sensibility.
the second decade, the Calvino novels explored how the fidelity
and trust in relationships had diminished. These four novels shown
a world of submission, domination, and plots to control minds
and hearts. Bangkok (and Pattaya) were the backdrop to the tensions,
suspicions, and amorality that surfaced in cultural clashes.
pursues in even greater detail in Minor Wife the changing
social roles of Thai women (changing, but not always quickly
or for the better) and their relations among themselves and
across class lines and other barriers.”—Vancouver
The second decade of the Calvino novels expanded to an audience
internationally, especially in Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain and
North America. Two the books, had a large publishing run in New
York City and were widely reviewed. In both, The Risk of Infidelity
Index and Paying Back, the political dimensions are at the
forefront. Calvino finds a Bangkok more dangerous, less understandable,
and he realizes the loss of coherence is caused by forces beyond
read the last two books of this decade as thriller, noir fiction
about the underworld of Bangkok. This was the start of the noir
era. The dark side of life.
violent, and saturated in details of Bangkok’s underworld.”—The
“The Risk of Infidelity Index is a complex, violent,
and high readable thriller.” —One80 News
With Paying Back Jack, international reviewers wrote
the Calvino books were less about the bars and nightlife than
the connection between the criminal class, the powerful, and their
networks that extended deep into the night life. The book brings
in the secret prisons run by the Americans in Bangkok as part
of the story.
reveals the seething stew of wealth, corruption, cultural clashes,
poverty and lust that is modern Bangkok . . . all will appreciate
the raw passion that drives the action.”—Publishers
the second decade I wrote 4 Calvino novels and also published
3 other books:
Chairs (2000), Waiting for the Lady (2003),
Gambling on Magic (2005)
The Third Decade: 2010
to 2019 (6 Calvino novels, 13 other books)
9 Gold Bullets (2011)
Missing in Rangoon (2013)
The Marriage Tree (2014)
was my most productive decade as a writer.
third decade opened with civil unrest on the streets of Bangkok.
For about a week in May 2010, I walked from my condo to Rama IV
Road and through the frontlines beyond which military units were
in position. Tires were set afire. The unmistakable sound of gunfire.
The sight of people, running, ducking, monks crouching in a doorway.
I watched columns of black smoke rising from fires across the
city. One of those eventful days, I witnessed a crowd set fire
to the Securities and Exchange Building of Thailand and watched
them throw stones at the fire brigade that quickly withdrew from
the scene. Night after night, with the blackout and curfew restrictions,
my wife and I heard gunfire. From our window high above the cityscape,
we looked out into darkness. Most nights a lone motorcyclist blasted
down Ratchadaphisek Road as if chased by dragons.
third decade of Calvino started with me at the boundary of the
line of fire. When I look back at that time, I remember what Orwell
wrote about in Homage to Catalonia. I never experienced
even a small portion of what befell Orwell, but I’d seen
enough to know that he was right. I wrote about what I had personally
witnessed. Over the decades that had been a mantra.
believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely
truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except
what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously
everyone writes as a partisan.”—George Orwell, Homage
was during this decade that I began writing and publishing essays
that were collected and later published in a series of books.
I also reached out to the larger community of writers as editor
of three anthologies in order to show the diversity of voices
in the noir community.
literary influences during this period were Borges, Camus, Orwell,
Orwell had been a colonial official in Burma. I loved his Burmese
Days, his first novel, where he recorded his experiences as well
as Shooting an Elephant, his short story.
powerful literary gravity pulled me into his orbit.
is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together
again in new shapes of your own choosing.”—George
Henry Miller, Orwell visited the idea of insanity and that had
a great appeal during this decade.
enjoy talking to you. Your mind appeals to me. It resembles
my own mind except that you happen to be insane.”—George
Luis Borges taught me the nature of time, not from the laws of
physics, and of perspective from which wisdom flows.
is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps
me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me,
but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am
—Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other
was never happier than during the third decade. I’d found
my voice as an author. These books were signposts on a journey
into what I labelled as the Great Unraveling. The foundation of
the earlier decades—socially, politically and economically—had
begun to collapse, slowly, gradually, but with the eerily feeling
that the center would not hold.
these books, Calvino is caught up in cultures where the rate of
change accelerated at a dizzy velocity. His cases took him into
the midst of major changes in the structure of how things had
been done in Bangkok, Rangoon, New York City into labyrinths connected
by a tunnel of terror, humiliation and unreliable memories. The
hourglass was running out of sand.
started out with a controversial title in The Corruptionist.
Bernard Trink, legendary Nite Owl, caught the meaning.
. . . has a role in the series, more so now than earlier. What
with corruption during elections and coups afterwards, the denizens
watch with bemusement the unlikelihood of those in office serving
their terms. Moore captures this in his books. Thought-provoking
columnists don’t do it better. . . . Moore is putting
Thailand on the map.”
—Bernard Trink, Bangkok Post
9 Gold Bullet, Calvino returned to New York, and important
started writing essays writing of this period. Hundreds of essays
over 6 years.
Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski have receded as influences. Borges
and Camus’ grip on my thinking continued through the final
book. During the third decade where I wrote 6 Calvino novels,
and also published 13 other books:
The Wisdom of Beer (2012), Reunion (novella)
Heart Talk (3rd Ed. 850 Jai phrases) (2005), The
Vincent Calvino Reader's Guide (2010), The Cultural Detective
(2011), Faking It in Bangkok (2012), Fear and Loathing
in Bangkok (2014), The Age of Dis-Consent (2015),
Memory Manifesto: A Walking Meditation through Cambodia (2017),
Rooms: On Human Domestication and Submission (2019).
(Editor and contributor): Bangkok Noir (2011), Phnom
Penh Noir (2012), The Orwell Brigade (2012).
The Fourth Decade: 2020 (1 book, so far)
Vincent Calvino series ends.
Me to the End of Time (2020)
Calvino series journey ends with the 17th book in the series.
Dance Me to the End of Time is set at an unspecified date in the
future. The impact of climate change has caused a great upheaval
in the social, political and economic fabric. Calvino pursues
a missing person case in a transformed environment of Bangkok.
The city has become a Chinese colony under Belt & Road. Sinkholes
appear in the city. Water is rationed. And there is a manufactured
virus infecting the population.
is, in many ways, the enterprise of mythmaking of monsters from
windmills. Storytelling and narrative construction are the scaffolding
for building an idea of
where am I,
what this place is,
why am I here and not there,
and I’d been examining life for more than thirty years.
I never forgot one important element. The story and the characters
that readers cared about. I stepped back from the gradual evolution
of Calvino’s mythmaking enterprise and realized I’d
been asking these larger questions and seeking answers for decades
through my stories.
a writer ends a long-standing series, what is to become of the
central characters? The obvious solution is they go out in a blaze
of glory like Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy
and the Sundance Kid. While I loved that movie and thought the
ending was deserved and appropriate, but 2020 was no longer 1969.
That ending fifty years later had become a cliché.
would have been inconceivable in 1990 when I started researching
and writing Spirit House, that one day in the future I would be
explaining the reasons for ending a long-running series.
Me to the End of Time has been labelled by some as “dystopian”.
Writing about the aftermath of climate change in the future constructs
a drought ridden world, the institutions have mostly collapsed,
and society reorganized to adapt to the new environment virtual
reality and the reality of extreme heat, extreme weather, and
a city under water.
returned to where it all started all those decades ago. Exploring
the fuzzy boundary between illusions and actuality. On the journey
I’ve offered hope and humor. And a picture of life that
is larger than life. But it is the small detail that remains with
a reader. Orwell observed how on the way to the gallows a condemned
man avoids stepping into a muddy puddle. You don’t forget
Me to the End of Time ultimately is a story of hope. No matter
how dark things become, leaving people lost in the labyrinth without
hope we suffer. My Quixote role as a writer in search for justice,
honor, hope and romance along a slippery trail.
darker the vision, the more important it becomes to locate and
mark such a trail of hope. As Leonard Cohen’s lyrics instruct,
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That's how the light gets in--
Me to the End of Time (a nod to Cohen) tries to pry open
that crack. There is light, dim, fragile, but light, nonetheless.
early days in the fourth decade. I’ve published no other
book in 2020. I’ve founded Changing
Climate, Changing Lives Film Festival 2020. This
is a new direction into a different medium. As for new books to
be published between 2020 and 2029, my crystal ball is cloudy.
A writer never knows when his last book is his final book. All
one can say for certain is there is always a final book. While
Calvino won’t be back, hopefully I will. Stay tuned.
have copies of Dance Me to the End of Time and other
Calvino novels for sale. Baht 495 for one; buy two for Baht 795.
Signed. A bargain.
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