The Big Weird is the fifth in a series of novels by Christopher G. Moore about an ex-pat American private eye walking the mean streets of Bangkok Dangerous. It’s a place where dreams are for sale and the dream merchants and the buyers alike end up with what’s left of their souls in hock. The boulevards and alleys of Philip Marlowe’s Los Angeles in the 30’s and 40’s seem like Disneyland by comparison. In Chandler’s noir world there was always the hope of redemption for at least some of the characters, but in Moore’s Big Town the people have given up hope. They’ve succumbed to The Sickness.
The Sickness is Moore’s term for the fatal attraction for the city’s prostitutes and b-girls felt most acutely by ex-patriots seeking a more exciting life than they had back home. Bangkok is painted as a city corrupted by vice and money, a moral corrosion as thick as the air pollution that is slowly killing everyone.
Perhaps the saddest victim of The Sickness is a famous Hollywood screenwriter who left Tinseltown to start over creatively. In an expository sequence at the beginning of the novel we learn that the writer had several years previously hired PI Vinnie Calvino to investigate a Thai woman he was living with. She turned out to already have a husband and a couple of kids. Another dream shattered. Now in the present, Quentin Stuart is seemingly no wiser (he’s got a new hot Thai chick), but he is dying, presumably of cancer. This time he calls on Calvino to find out if another lover, a blonde American named Samantha McNeal, really committed suicide by putting a gun to her head or was murdered.
The tale features a number of interesting characters, including a Chinese anti-porn feminist, a police lieutenant who is a regular character in the series, the Japanese lover of the dead woman, assorted members of Bangkok’s wild night life, and a couple of would be screenwriters trying to score with Mister Hollywood Big Shot and get a movie made. There’s another subplot concerning the then just beginning cyber porn industry.
But it’s the screenwriter who is the most fascinating character in the book. Loosely based on the legendary Stirling Silliphant, who expatriated to Bangkok in 1988. Moore’s portrayal of one of Hollywood’s brightest writing talents in his last years of decline, is both fascinating and heart breaking. Moore shows us, as Silliphant often did in his scripts, that a well-constructed sentence means more to a writer than a happy life. (“It’s the curse of a writing man to wonder if his fingers are as true when they touch paper as when they touch his daughter’s tears,” Silliphant once wrote.) A writer is an observer of life, sometimes finding himself on the outside looking in, always jotting down things in a notebook. Like Quentin Stuart, Silliphant never stopped observing and writing.
A central image in the book is a huge aquarium built in a nightclub for patrons to ogle nude “mermaids” swimming in the water. The mermaid symbolism reminded me of a script Silliphant wrote for TV about a young man who encounters a real life mermaid, but his critically intelligent mind cannot accept her as a reality. When he realizes the truth, he stands on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico calling for her, but it’s too late. The dream has gone.
The final image in the novel is of one of the female characters in the aquarium tank, looking out through the glass, crying. A dream frozen in horror. It’s an unforgettable image and a terrific novel, highly recommended. You can order it here.