My German translator Peter
Friedrich made a recent observation about the Vincent Calvino series that I’ve
been thinking about. Peter said:
Did it ever occur to you the he
might be the only literary character who really evolves along actual history? I
mean, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe, Travis McGee to Dirk Pitt, and I
know most of them, they all never really change and become dated as time goes
The Vincent Calvino series
started in 1992 with Spirit House and the 13th novel in the
series, Missing in Rangoon, comes out in January 2013. Over the last
twenty years, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia have gone through
tremendous political, social and economic change. The world has changed
from bulky cell phones, fax machines and clunky computers to smart phones, thin
laptops and iPads. Most people in the region who never had any landline
telephone or cell phone in the 1990s now have Wi-Fi Internet or at least
For a moment in September
2012, you have an idea for a book, characters, setting, and story. Ask yourself
what those characters will be doing, thinking and saying, and how the setting
has altered in September 2033. The honest answer is no one has a real answer to
what the world will look like in 2033 or how social interactions will be shaped
by technological, political and economic events we can only made wild guesses
When I started work on
Spirit House in 1989, I hadn’t any idea of these huge changes that lay
just over the time horizon or that a private eye named Vincent Calvino would
evolve as his environment shifted. Globalization wasn’t a term in circulation at
the end of the 1980s when I started writing about Thailand. Hindsight bias makes
looking back from 2012 to 1989 much easier, than predicting from 2012 what the
world will look like in 2035.
I have had look at the
has the names of detective fiction authors. I searched through the names for a
writer who has used a private eye to chronicle the social, technological and
political changes in a culture by spreading the novels in the series out over a
couple of decades. I haven’t read all the authors on the wiki list. Those of you
who are better read than I am can correct me if I’ve missed a writer who has
written such a detective series.
There may be several
reasons. Crime fiction has traditionally focused on the underground world of
crime, crooked politicians, brutal cops, and rich people calling the shots.
There is a halo of timelessness hovering above such themes. The nature of a
private eye series normally is aiming to do better than others in honouring the
I haven’t stayed within
the usual boundaries of crime fiction in a number of ways. When I started the
Vincent Calvino series, there weren’t established series featuring a private eye
set in foreign countries. Transporting an American private eye to Bangkok opened
an opportunity for cultural exploration far greater than had Vincent Calvino
stayed in New York. Not that I knew this at the time. Sometimes things turn out
not through some great planning or foresight, it more often is chance, an
accident, doing something a little different and finding that the adaptation
works in usual ways.
It never occurred to me in
1989 that I’d be writing an essay in 2012 when the 13th novel in the
series is off to the copy editor. And it never occurred to me that Vincent
Calvino would evolve as Bangkok changed, as Thailand modernized, westernized,
and connected with the outside world. I didn’t see that coming. What I did do
was set Calvino to ride each wave as the latest tectonic movement sent tsunami
waves through the region.
Most people have heard of
Moore’s Law. Here’s the wiki take:
The capabilities of many digital
electronic devices are strongly linked to Moore’s law: processing speed, memory capacity, sensors and even the number and
size of pixels in digital cameras.
I have mostly (though not
always) used the 18-month Moore’s Law as a thumb rule as the amount of time
between researching and writing novels in the Vincent Calvino series. Over
twenty-one years I have averaged a Vincent Calvino every nineteen months. That
has been enough time to witness change as they slowly work through the social,
economic and political system. I suspect that may be another reason other
authors aren’t as interested in the social changes, especially the ones
generated by technological innovation. There is a huge pressure to write a novel
a year in a popular series. That schedule is too short a turn around time to
write the kind of novel in the Calvino series.
Here are a few examples of
the great social and political waves Calvino has rode to shores outside of
Zero Hour in
Phnom (1994) Vincent Calvino and Colonel Pratt are in Cambodia at the time
of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force (UNTAC) a time a major shift in the
fortunes of Cambodia and with thousands of foreign troops on the ground.
Comfort Zone (1995) Calvino had a case that took him to Saigon at the
time the Americans lifted the embargo on Vietnam unleashing a rush of
businessmen into the country seeking an opportunity. In Missing in
Rangoon (2013) Calvino is searching for a missing person Rangoon as that
country opened to the outside world and a new gold rush has begun.
From Cambodia to Vietnam
to Burma, Vincent Calvino has been in the back alleyways as a political system
in the region made a major pivot, turning in a new direction. His case in those
three novels was set against the backdrop of the sudden social and political
changes happening inside the country. With all bets off, life in a place of
enormous transition has always brought out the very best and worst in people.
That is the stuff which makes for story telling.
The other ten novels in
the Vincent Calvino series are set in Thailand. The changes were brought by
online chat rooms, email, avatars and expansion of the sex trade through the new
technology featured in The Big Weird (1996). In The Risk of
Infidelity Index (2006), Vincent Calvino accepted a case on behalf of expat
housewives who worry about their cheating husbands and the investigation took
place on the eve of the 2006 military overthrow of the elected government.
In the Corruptionist (2009), Vincent Calvino’s case took him into the
heart of the political divide in Thai society as he slipped inside government
house, which was occupied by protestors.
There is another feature
with the series and it has to do with the subsidiary characters. There is a
standard relationship between private eye and sidekick and secretary in
detective fiction. The Hawk and Spencer template is commonly found in this
genre. Calvino isn’t a lone individual hero in the Chandler tradition of
fiercely honest and tough Philip Marlowe. Calvino’s personal friendship with
Colonel Pratt makes the cases collaborative efforts. By relying on Pratt,
Calvino showcases aspects of how people rely on each other in Thai society, and
how that reliance is culturally based.
Calvino couldn’t last a
week without Colonel Pratt or his secretary, Ratana. The relationship of the
private eye to those in his life explores the cultural adaptations required of
the ‘hero’ as his survivor depends not only on his skill, cleverness and luck,
but on others who protect and advise him in a strange social
With Vincent Calvino, I
have been interested in culture, technological change on the culture, the way
society has changed over the years. I have been lucky to live in Southeast Asia
at a time when change exploded. Nothing is quite the way it was in 1992 when
Spirit House was published, and my New York agent at the time wrote a
letter (yes, we still had those then) asking if I could change Bangkok to Boston
as there was a publisher who was interested and he thought Boston would sell
That didn’t happen.
Vincent Calvino stayed in Bangkok, venturing out to neighboring countries in
only three books. What will this world look like in 2033? I am the wrong author
to ask. In 1992 I had no idea that things would look the way they do in 2012. I
can leave you with this thought—Vincent Calvino will continue to change along
with Thailand and Southeast Asia. Every eighteen months, you can check in and
find out for yourself whether the characters and story set against that change
capture the zeitgeist.