By Paul Dorsey
The Sunday Nation
WHAT do you do when you get a text message from a friend who’s on an important mission and all it says is, “Troubl”? You have no way of responding, and that missing “e” is a screaming urgency. It’s one of many, many alarming moments in “Bangkok Belle”, the latest crime thriller from Ron McMillan.
The Scottish former photojournalist now living in Chiang Mai has produced another hair-raising adventure for his private-eye tag team, Mason and Dixie, last seen in 2013’s well-received “Bangkok Cowboy”. He’s already assured the fans there’s a third yarn on the burner.
If Mason and Dixie sound like the geographical line separating north from south in the antebellum United States, they certainly have glaring distinctions of their own. They couldn’t be more dissimilar – she’s petite, Thai and transgender and he’s British ex-Army, muscled and macho. But if they ever had to turn their individual combat skills against one another, readers would be hard pressed to predict the outcome. Both are fast, street-smart and dangerous, and naturally they make a lethal team.
McMillan launches into “Bangkok Belle” with one of the ripest openings this side of a durian festival – a swaggering, tattooed, gay-bashing braggart lured into what he sneeringly calls a “poofter palace” in Nana district, where the Nascar action on TV does nothing to stem his discomfort.
The jerk is meeting Dixie. She gets him out of there soon enough, but he doesn’t last much longer. He’s just an appetiser anyway. There’s trouble afoot in far-off Sydney and it’s boarding a plane for Thailand.
Bouncing between battlefronts, we find half-Thai Belle Cooper, a soap-opera star in Australia who’s also transgender (and a friend of Dixie’s), coming under attack from all directions because she wants to enter a transgender beauty pageant in Bangkok. Dixie and Mason have to help protect her.
People start getting maimed or killed left and right, her own life is in grave danger, her career might tank, and she’s jeopardising her boyfriend’s business plans. Nevertheless – and this takes repeated explaining – she’s determined to go through with it because the trans community needs her to.
In what has to be one of the oddest juxtapositions in crime writing, McMillan has produced a book that is both ferociously violent when it needs to be and, when it comes to addressing the plight of LGBT people, remarkably sensitive. The presentation is jarring, and yet it works just fine.
“When I’m in Sydney I hear from Thailand all the time, old-fashioned handwritten letters and emails from trans girls. Some of them are heartbreaking,” Belle tells her worried entourage once it’s assembled for the pageant.
“For all the supposed tolerance here, transgender girls all over Thailand are living in f**king misery, hiding from bullies at school or, worse, among family members. Forced to undergo gender ‘cure’ sessions at temples, too frightened to come out as the women they know they are. I came here for them. So what if it’s a tacky beauty pageant? It’s something that I can participate in and bring my reputation from ‘Bondi Dreams’ and force the Thai press to sit up and take notice of people like us who are living all around them. That’s who I’m here for. And that’s why I’m not going to run away and hide.”
None of the central characters gets to do much hiding in “Bangkok Belle”. There are multiple threats – from the Thai owner of a seedy bar and her ex-IRA boyfriend, backed by a ruthless police colonel, to a Jersey hoodlum now working for the Macao casino mob. The pageant organisers are no sweethearts, either.
Guns, grenades, knives, fists, fingernails, sharpened bamboo poles and electric prods find targets of varying nationality, and the damage done can get pretty hairy. A body count is not kept, but a shovel will come in handy.
All of this necessitates a high volume of action scenes, of course. Beyond the white-knuckle van rides in and around Bangkok there’s even a high-speed golf-cart chase that’s not without thrills. You can easily see Hollywood rousing to attention.
But Hollywood would surely have to summon the rewrite department, because this is an extremely intricate plot, perhaps a little too complicated for the usual two-hour dose of escapism. In fact the weave of characters and subplots is so ornate that it takes several closing chapters to unravel all the knots. Ultimately there is not one but a series of climaxes as each of the underlying riddles is resolved in succession.
Just the same, readers needn’t fear being confused. McMillan never loses the thread and the pacing is perfect – a little thoughtful explication here, a thug’s face shattered beyond recognition there. And he manages this amazing balancing act with riveting style. Dixie, menacing an opponent, “stood over him like a gun about to go off”. Jet streams line the blue sky “pointing at faraway lands”. A mama-san wears “a curly black wig, a black lace dress and enough makeup to paint an Italian chapel ceiling”. For a bit of comic relief there’s a boozing TV producer and a couple of very embarrassed naked Lebanese lechers.
Amid “the creeps on the streets” and against a coarseness of dialogue that’s surprisingly uncommon in local crime fiction, a stream of landmarks passes to make readers in Thailand feel at home. The story leaves space for the trendiness of cycling tours, manic Chinese tourists, the falsehoods of reality television, electronic surveillance, and police corruption, brutality and ineptitude. The sprawl of Bang Na, once nothing but rice fields, is noted, and both the Afghanistan and Bosnian conflicts are revisited. A gunfight rends the evening silence in green Phra Pradaeng.
It’s impossible to imagine anything extra being packed in to “Bangkok Belle”. Hollywood could have a field day, and it should, but good luck getting it to the screen in under three hours.
By Ron McMillan
Published by Amazon, 2016
Available at Amazon.com, US$5.49 (Bt192, Kindle edition)