I finished reading Bangkok Rules, recently, the debut novel by Bangkok expatriate, Harlan Wolff. A good, quick read, which I completed in less than 24 hours. It is a familiar but entertaining tale: the hard drinking, cynical private investigator in a foreign land – the land being Thailand and the city, Bangkok for the most part. But it has its uniqueness too.
Carl Engel is the smart P.I. Smart enough not to pay rent for an office, when the lobby and staff of a 5 Star hotel will meet all his needs. A longtime Bangkok expat whom drives a classic red Porsche, which has taken him around the block more than a few times and given him the needed education that goes with that ride. Carl is suspicious enough of humans that he finishes his drink in any Bangkok haunt before he heads to the head – a practical practice in Bangkok City. His taste in music leans toward classical, with Puccini operas being his preferred mood setting story. He quotes Mark Twain and can be found reading Hemingway’s DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON when others would be worrying about something – like staying alive. He’s typical in some ways, complex in others. Self aware and self disciplined. And he can cook a good Italian meal. There is a lot to like about this Bangkok based protagonist.
As debut novels go, this one is top notch. BANGKOK RULES seemed to have created more buzz than most debut novels, so I was curious to see if Harlan Wolff can tell a good yarn or not. He can, in my opinion, which any cynic will realize, (and any critic should realize) is not worth much – the opinion not the yarn. He’s got some issues with America and Americans, but we can forgive him for that – most people do, nowadays, and at least he likes our breakfasts and our authors. This novel is a thriller, not a who dunnit, so that element is absent but it does not detract from the pace of the story. It has a good beginning third and a great ending third. The middle third, always the tough part, was a bit slow at times but Wolff takes that portion to give us good details, large and small, about life in Thailand. The final third had the best dialogue. An example of Harlan’s writing when his friend asks him why he likes opera so much?
“It’s about the real things, the important things; life, love, relationships, loss, death. In real life there are no happy endings, George. Happy endings are a con trick …”
His narrative captures Bangkok as only a handful of authors can. An example of a scene when Carl and company are holed up in a short time Bangkok no-tell room: They drank most of the whisky then slept, drunk, with their clothes on under the mirrored ceiling.
His cynicism comes with self reflection. Carl is judgmental but at least he knows he’s judgmental. Another example:
Carl’s awareness of the duality of people killed any possibility of taking strangers at face value. Every time he thought he was being unnecessarily judgmental, something, like dead people in morgues, would prevent him from changing his mind.
I liked Bangkok Rules. I tend to like Bangkok fiction but I like it to be written well. Bangkok Rules is good in a proven formula way, with smart writing, good characters and decent settings throughout. My favorite setting was the wooden estate, located outside of Bangkok, used to shoot a popular Thai soap opera, involving ghosts, right before the well written finale. Poker players should particularly like this tale because Carl tends to beat the odds when they are stacked against him.
I’m giving this one 4 Stars, for many reasons, mostly because those are the ones most people read and believe anyway and because, I can.
I get the feeling Carl Engel and Harlan Wolff are a lot alike. If I ever meet Harlan, I’d tell him I very much enjoyed his debut novel. But he’s probably sharp enough about expat lingo and the duality of man that what I really mean is, “I hope you don’t make too much money too soon – because then I’d wish I’d written Bangkok Rules.” Best of luck on the sequel to Harlan Wolff, which has been set up nicely.