Saturday, January 19, 2013

Reading Notes: Behind the Night Bazaar

This review is part of my commitment to complete the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013. I have signed up to read at least 6 books by Australian women writers and review at least 4 of them, and I'm actually hoping to do a little better than that - I'm aiming to read one a month and review half of them. All of the books will be by authors I have not previously read.

Angela Savage's 2006 crime novel, Behind the Night Bazaar,was an accidental find for me. Visits to the local library with three kids in tow are something of a close-your-eyes-and-grab proposition when it comes to choosing my own reading material; I snatch up three or four things with nice covers, interesting titles or a familiar author's name and hope for the best. This has sometimes disappointing and sometimes hilarious results, but about half the time, I end up with at least one really good thing in my potluck. Savage's book is definitely one of the better ones that rolling the library dice has delivered.

Behind the Night Bazaar (Text, 2006) is Savage's debut novel, and introduces her series detective, Australian ex-pat PI Jayne Keeney, who lives and works in Bangkok. Much of the action of the book takes place not in Bangkok itself but in Chiang Mai, the northern city best known to most Australians as a tourist destination par excellence.

Now, I have read a lot - an awful lot - of crime fiction in my life as a book nerd. Crime is one of my two favourite fiction genres (the other being hard science fiction) and while my preferred sub-genre is Golden Age-style classic-puzzle (think Christie, Marsh, Sayers, Allingham, Wentworth), I also have a fondness for PI stories and the occasional well-written procedural. I don't tend to like stories that go for very violent or blood-soaked crimes, though, and yes, I do understand the irony inherent in that statement. (Crime stories are almost always murder stories. There really isn't a polite and kindly way to homicidally dispose of someone, at the end of the day).

So in reading Savage's book, I was bringing a couple of different lenses, one of them my fondness for the PI genre when done well. On this score, I would say that Keeney doesn't disappoint as a central protagonist. She comes across as very human, flawed, intelligent, curious and driven, but not at all fearless - in fact, her fear is palpable at several stages in the book, and it adds an edge to the perception of danger that the book evokes. I didn't feel, at the end of the story, that I was at the bottom of her either - Savage has left herself plenty to do in future stories to fill in the complexities of the character, which is very smart and shows there is a depth to Keeney that will support a nice long exposition.

Keeney reminds me a little of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, in that she is a bit emotionally stunted, confused, doesn't seem to make clear-eyed decisions about relationships, and avoids commitment at a frantic pace. As yet, Keeney isn't as layered or rounded as Kinsey Millhone, but as Grafton has had 22 novels so far to develop Millhone, that's hardly a fair comparison. In time, I could see Jayne Keeney being every bit as compelling as Millhone.

On to the plot, in which Savage pulls no punches whatever. Instead of going for a nice uncomplicated shooting or knifing, motivated by a personal application of one of the Big Three (money, passion, revenge / protection), Savage weaves a labyrinthine tale of corruption, child exploitation, and entwined evils. Triggered by the murder of Nou, who is the 24-year-old lover of Jayne's friend, Canadian ex-pat AIDS worker Didier, Keeney ends up embroiled in a dismal conspiracy with systematic child exploitation at its end.

I normally dislike stories involving the exploitation of children quite intensely, and in fact have been known to stop reading them mid-paragraph at times. Not only is the subject matter inherently upsetting, especially since I've had my own children, but it just feels like too many writers use it as the Death Star Device to convince you that This is A Really Serious and Dark Story, OK? I really detest the way the real world pain of vulnerable people is sensationalised as a useful plot meme for Ultimate Evil.

However, I think Savage avoids this trap, albeit quite narrowly, in the way she handles the events of her plot. (I'm trying not to spoil too much, so forgive me if this part is a little vague). It's obvious that she's thought, and carefully, about how to balance storytelling and authenticity, and has crafted a plot that is at once quite depressingly realistic in its compromises and venalities, and also a coherent, fast-moving story. The exploitation aspect of the plot is not, for want of a better word, exploited for cheap pathos points. Rather, she weaves it into the master plot in a way that feels naturalistic and valid. And the emotional content, when it comes, packs a huge wallop precisely because of this skillful deployment.

I have really only two quibbles about this book. The first is the relationship, for want of a better word, between Keeney and the Australian Federal Police officer, Mark D'Angelo. To me, this felt forced, unnatural and a bit weird, and I think it was mostly an issue of timing - Mark was introduced far too late in the book, and under far too invidious conditions, for the subsequent relationship between them, developing at red hot speed, to be plausible.

However, this is ultimately a minor issue; my second quibble is a little more significant. It's this - I wonder if Savage conflates "practical complications" with "moral ambiguity". What I mean here is that while the ending felt very likely to me, I thought Savage let Keeney off the hook far too lightly for the machinations she employed to achieve posthumous reputational justice for her friend. There was a lot of talk about how the issue was complex and that this was the only possible outcome that could be achieved, so we are strongly invited to give Keeney a pass for her interventions that lead to corrupt police escaping without consequence, because, it's implied, there are moral ambiguities involved.

The thing is, though, there really isn't any moral ambiguity here at all. Selling children is morally repugnant, The End. There are not two (legitimate) sides to that message. There may be - and Savage convincingly shows that there are - significant practical complexities involved in preventing and punishing this trade, but that does not translate to any real ethical doubt about what the outcome should be. It bothered me a little that Keeney is not shown as experiencing any remorse, or even reflection, about the fact that she effectively sabotaged an opportunity to bring down a house of cards in this area. She might have engineered the most possible solution, but it's a grey and compromised one, and I guess I would've liked to see more awareness of that.

Overall, though, I thought this was a very good book, and the start of what is probably an extremely good series. I grabbed another one, The Half-Child, when I changed my library books over today ... this time on purpose!

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