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Harlan Wolff left London and arrived in Bangkok in 1977 shortly after a coup but in time for martial law and a curfew. So began his long relationship with Thailand, complete with its economic roller coaster and curious clandestine occasional democracy.
Money wasn’t a problem because he rarely had any to worry about. A legal visa was a luxury and at one time he was seven years overstayed and therefore an illegal alien. Possibly the most wanted illegal alien in Thailand as there were very few foreigners in those days and even fewer like him. Harlan was never caught and rectified the situation in his late twenties, he has been a legal alien since.
Having turned survival into an art form and becoming fluent in streetwise and the Thai language his situation gradually improved into a harum-scarum existence fueled by alcohol and accompanied by rogues. The supporting cast included foreign businessmen and criminals, alcoholics, local gangsters, imported gangsters, gamblers, whores, politicians, and policemen. The salt of the earth to an aspiring writer.
Harlan Wolff’s maternal grandfather was the well known Swedish war correspondent and writer ‘Sid Roland Rommerud’. He was best known as a prolific writer of children’s detective books under the pseudonym ‘Sivar Ahlrud’. Harlan claimed from early childhood that he too would be a writer and the search for the required life experiences was the driving force behind his decision to travel to Thailand at such a young age.
By the 1990s Harlan had become the person foreigners went to when they had problems and so began his life as a private detective and troubleshooter. In the last twenty years he has successfully concluded such cases as theft, industrial espionage, extortion, kidnapping, and murder, in Thailand and around the world. There can be no further details as all work was conducted in strictest confidence. However; Harlan has agreed to write an autobiography after his 60th birthday, “As long as I’m still around,” he says, “and with the understanding that some of the names will be changed to protect the innocent and the guilty alike.” In the meantime, we are told by some of Thailand’s old hands, the life of his fictional character ‘Carl Engel’ is not far removed from the author’s own experiences.
The private investigation business was successful enough to provide Harlan with a life of five-star hotels, fast cars, slow lunches and beautiful women. He took to the high life like a duck to water and although he found the low life an interesting place to have visited, he says he is glad he didn’t have to stay there forever. Harlan recently promised his third wife that he would give up the fast cars and naughty women and settle down. So far so good, we hear. Harlan retains a fondness for single malts and Cuban cigars and remains an avid collector of leather-bound books and classical music on vinyl.
Harlan Wolff finally began writing after his 50th birthday claiming he had at last acquired sufficient ammunition. Should everything go as planned he hopes to spend the rest of his life writing and living a quieter and more sensible existence with his wife and three children in the Thailand he has grown to love.
Paul Sean Grieve
on June 16, 2014 :
Put the words "private investigator" and "Bangkok" in the same book description and you can be sure your novel will get noticed. You can also be sure your core group of readers will open the cover with with lofty expectations. That's no problem for Bangkok Rules by Harlan Wolff, because the book delivers.
Maybe it's because I've personally spent considerable time in Thailand, but the book struck a chord with me. I recognized the people instantly: shady officials, corrupt cops, taxi drivers, burned-out expats and even the "Bangkok Hurricanes." Ever since Murray Head’s song One Night in Bangkok topped the charts in the mid 80's I’ve had a fascination with that most mysterious and vibrant of cities, and Bangkok Rules reawakened the yearning for exotic adventure that let me to Asia in the first place.
The story follows down-on-his-luck private investigator Carl Engel as he goes on a personal mission to bring to justice a depraved serial killer stalking young women in the Thai capital. The problem is, in Thailand justice is a commodity to be bought a sold by the rich and powerful and as he closes in on the killer, Engel realizes he's made the worst kind of enemies.
Engel is the kind of character great series are made of. Like Barry Eisler’s John Rain or John Locke’s Donavan Creed, or even Mikey Spilane’s Mike Hammer, Engel is a hard-edged, life-worn, philosophical man. But unlike some of the other characters, he's less of a hero than an anti-hero. Tearing around Bangkok in his vintage red Porche, Engel comes across as a poor-man's Magnum PI, a deeply flawed man of broken marriages and failed relationships, nostalgic for a time in his youth when he'd fallen in love with, in his own words, "what Thailand could have been like for him".
Ironically, his flaws are precisely what allow Engel to function effectively as a P.I. and ultimately to turn the tables on his dangerous quarry. He understands corruption. Yet, while thirty years spent navigating the seedy underbelly of the city where tough guys tumble have disabused him of anything resembling optimism, he has managed to retain his humanity. The case that causes his life to careen out of control is one he took on at least partially for altruistic reasons (though the thrill of gambling with someone else's money had something to do with it) and the maneuver that propels the story to the climax depends in part on his ultimate belief in the better aspects of human nature (or at least the nature of one of the more obnoxious expats in his milieu).
One suspects that Carl Engel is a rather faithful avatar of the book's author, a notion that gives the book a sheen of authenticity. Having waited until he was 50 to publish his first novel, Harlan Wolff is no doubt a patient man and Bangkok Rules proves that patience is definitely a virtue. Brimming with witty one-liners and pithy observations, the novel is much more than a P.I. thriller in an exotic setting. Voiced via Engel, the observations of how the city has changed over the decades are clearly Wolff's own and indicate a deep understanding of the true struggle of the city's poor. For example, while Wolff (via Engel) laments the corporate takeover of his beloved city of quaint noodle shops and traditional food stands, he knows that such establishments were hardly bastions of happiness and prosperity for the threadbare workers who earned the meagerest of livings keeping them running. A seemingly throw-away paragraph about "a chubby girl with depression's flat feet" reveals Wolff's nuanced grasp of the social conditions that drive the transformation towards an "Orewllian future" (I almost quoted the paragraph here, but, since I'm strongly recommending the book, I'm sure you're going to read it for yourself).
As much as I loved reading Bangkok Rules, I didn't fail to note a few weak points. There are some glaring formatting errors (occasionally different font sizes in different paragraphs) and a number of typos, but I pity the reader who would allow such minor glitches to ruin such a great story. Some of the dialogue could have been a bit more vernacular and more generous contractions would have made it come across more like natural speech. This may not concern a lot of readers, but it jumped out to my editorially trained eyes. What bothered me the most was the way the climax unfolded. It was a great surprise, very well set up and as skillfully executed as the rest of the novel. What I didn't like was the implausibility of some of the exchanges between the characters. I can't be more specific without spoiling the story. Let it suffice to say that it just didn't work as well as I thought it could have, especially given how tightly written the rest of the book was.
Since any criticism of a book's climax has the potential to dissuade readers from buying the book, I have to say the following: don't let my nitpicking deter you. If you like books about Bangkok, private investigators or serial killers, or just like edge-of-your seat thrillers peppered with incisive and witty commentary, you absolutely can't go wrong with Bangkok Rules.
On a personal note, when I emailed Harlan Wolff for a review copy, he replied with words that suggested he was writing another book. I do hope it's the second instalment in the Carl Engel series, because if it is, I can't wait to read it!
(reviewed long after purchase)