Monday, January 02, 2012

Jake Needham, Laundry Man

I've reviewed a couple of Jake Needham's books (The Amassador's Wife and The Big Mango) but Laundry Man is the first of his Jack Shepherd series that I've gotten my hands on. Needham's books have mostly been available only in Asia, though his current publisher, Marshall Cavendish, is now making some of them available in the U.K., including Laundry Man, and several of the books are also available as e-books.

Laundry Man is a caper novel (sort of) about money laundering. The unique device of Laundry Man is that the caper is going on offstage while the narrator-hero struggles to figure out what's going on and why everybody thinks he's involved. Jack Shepherd is a banking specialist who moved from the Washington DC area to Bangkok and has a teaching job (and a wife who's a respected painter) there. A supposedly dead voice from his past calls him and asks for a meeting, setting in motion a wild ride through international banking scams featuring a colorful panoply of Asian and Western characters. There are, in fact, a lot of characters, but Needham does a good job of keeping them straight for the reader.

Another thing the author does well is explaining the technical details of banking and money laundering, which he does in Needham's voice as well as in conversation with several members of the legal and illegal establishment of Bangkok. In addition, the novel gives a very good portrait of the city (as well as glimpses of Phuket and Hong Kong). No other Bangkok novel I've read gives as vivid view of the Thai capital.

The story is, for the first 3/4 of the novel, mostly Jack stumbling around in the dark, exploiting his various contacts to try to figure out what's going on. Then some of his contacts start turning up dead, and the story shifts into thriller gear. But Jack (thankfully) does not suddenly transform from a banker and professor into a neo-Rambo. When he ends up with a gun in his hand, it's with reluctance and without the amazing shooting technique that mars some other ordinary-guy-in-extraordinary-circumstances sort of book.

Also, unlike some o.-g.-i.-e.-c. stories, Jack's narrative voice is consistent and entertaining, whether he's talking to his wife, his students, a guy who claims to be FBI, a top Thai cop, or any of the other spectrum of characters (and whether he's facing an offer of information or a threat of violence). It's Jake's voice, in fact, that is the key to the novel's entertaining quality, and the quality that will send me to the other Shepherd novels, when I can get hold of them (in fact, I already have a digital copy of the next one, Killing Plato, in my tbr virtual pile).

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