Sunday, January 30, 2011
Jake Needham's The Big Mango
The Big Mango, by Jake Needham, is a confident thriller that builds up to its explosive conclusion, rather than blowing up people and things from the beginning. The story is more in the line of Eric Ambler than that of many recent thrillers, taking an ordinary guy and thrusting him, in frequently comic ways, into an unfamiliar and unfriendly situation. The writing is clear and evocative, whether in portraying San Francisco in the early chapters or Bangkok for the majority of the book, and the characters are lively and interesting. The story is set in the '90s (originally published in Asia in 1999, The Big Mango was reprinted in 2010 by Marshall Cavendish in Singapore; the only editions so far have been limited to Asian publishers and distributors). Eddie, a small-time lawyer and former Vietnam-era marine, starts getting threatening mail and visitors that refer to his time in Vietnam, when he worked in a squad involved in guarding the Embassy in the waning days of the U.S. presence.
The maguffin is the stuff of legends, urban and otherwise: it seems the gold and currency from the Bank of Vietnam vanished during the chaos of the U.S. departure, and someone (several someones, as it turns out) thinks Eddie's former Captain knows what happened to the money, and maybe Eddie does too. After a visit from the Secret Service, Eddie gets an offer from a mystery man offering him a lot of money to go to Bangkok to look for the Captain and the money.
From there, Eddie becomes involved with a shady crew: his old Army buddy, a laid back bookstore owner and Native American; an American in Bangkok who writes a column on the nightlife there; a DEA agent; and various other Americans, Thais, and Vietnamese. It's a story told from the point of view of outsiders, seduced by Thailand but not blind to the pollution, corruption, and violence of the capital city. The other book I've read by Needham, The Ambassador's Wife, is quite different, more of an insider's look at another Asian crossroads city, Singapore (also seen with a jaundiced eye). And The Ambassador's Wife is a police procedural or mystery, whereas The Big Mango is more of a slowly building adventure story.
On the basis of these two books, I'm now a fan of Needham's writing, and wish that the more of the books were more accessible: maybe his books are a prize to be sought by travelers and noir readers who find themselves in English-language bookstores in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, etc.