Follow me:

Amazon Kindle
Buy Amazon Kindle Gift Card and Download Christopher G. Moore's Books on Kindle Today!


The Evolution of Vincent Calvino


My 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 actuality.

In 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.

My 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.

Over 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 with farce.

The 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.

As 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.

But 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.

The 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 own.

The 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 books)

Spirit House (1992)
Asia Hand (1993)
Zero Hour in Phnom Penh (1994)
Comfort Zone (1995)
The Big Weird (1996)
Cold Hit (1999)

This 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.

During 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.

Being 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.

The 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.

In 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.

The 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.

My 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.”
—Henry Miller

In 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 normal.

I was in a position not unlike Henry Miller’s in Paris in the 1930s.

“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
—Henry Miller

And from Nelson Algren, Calvino discovered that many of his cases during this decade resulted from expats failing to follow his advice:

“Never 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:

“A 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

For Asia Hand:

“Moore’s stylish second Bangkok thriller… explores the dark side of both Bangkok and the human heart. Felicitous prose speeds the action along….”
Publishers Weekly

The 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.

However, 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.

“Much 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 reading.”

The 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:

“An 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 se partage

The 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.

During this decade, in which I wrote 6 Calvino novels, I also published 7 other books:

Literary 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).

Non-fiction: Heart Talk (350 Jai phrases) (1992)

The Second Decade: 2000 to 2009 (4 Calvino novels, 3 other books)

Minor Wife (2002)
Pattaya 24/7 (2004)
The Risk of Infidelity Index (2007)
Paying Back Jack (2009)

The 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 life.

The 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.

During 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.

“Moore 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 Sun

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 his control.

Reviewers 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.

“Grim, violent, and saturated in details of Bangkok’s underworld.”—The Boston Globe

The Risk of Infidelity Index is a complex, violent, and high readable thriller.” —One80 News (UK)

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.

“Moore 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 Weekly

During the second decade I wrote 4 Calvino novels and also published 3 other books:

Fiction: Chairs (2000), Waiting for the Lady (2003), Gambling on Magic (2005)

The Third Decade: 2010 to 2019 (6 Calvino novels, 13 other books)

The Corruptionist (2010)
9 Gold Bullets (2011)
Missing in Rangoon (2013)
The Marriage Tree (2014)
Crackdown (2015)
Jumpers (2016)

This was my most productive decade as a writer.

The 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.

The 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.

“I 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 to Catalonia

It 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.

My literary influences during this period were Borges, Camus, Orwell, and Saramago.
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.

Orwell’s powerful literary gravity pulled me into his orbit.

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”—George Orwell, 1984

Like Henry Miller, Orwell visited the idea of insanity and that had a great appeal during this decade.

“I enjoy talking to you. Your mind appeals to me. It resembles my own mind except that you happen to be insane.”—George Orwell, 1984

Jorge Luis Borges taught me the nature of time, not from the laws of physics, and of perspective from which wisdom flows.

“Time 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 the fire.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

I 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.

In 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.

I started out with a controversial title in The Corruptionist. Bernard Trink, legendary Nite Owl, caught the meaning.

“Politics . . . 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

In 9 Gold Bullet, Calvino returned to New York, and important one.

I 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:

Fiction: The Wisdom of Beer (2012), Reunion (novella) (2013)

Non-fiction: 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).

Anthologies (Editor and contributor): Bangkok Noir (2011), Phnom Penh Noir (2012), The Orwell Brigade (2012).

The Fourth Decade: 2020 (1 book, so far)

The Vincent Calvino series ends.

Dance Me to the End of Time (2020)

The 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.

Fiction is, in many ways, the enterprise of mythmaking of monsters from windmills. Storytelling and narrative construction are the scaffolding for building an idea of

who am I,
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.

But 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.

When 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.

It 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.

Dance 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.

I 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 that.

Dance 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.

The 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--

Dance Me to the End of Time (a nod to Cohen) tries to pry open that crack. There is light, dim, fragile, but light, nonetheless.

It’s 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.

I 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.


Copyright © 2003-2020 Heaven Lake Press, All Rights Reserved.