A Good Death by Christopher R Cox
It’s customary for thrillers to globe trot. For the high-end market, James Bond transports us to hyperreal destinations. When first written, these were the playgrounds of the rich and powerful, the places we ordinary people could never access. Now that travel has democratised the world to some extent, the film versions must present these more accessible locations in a way that heightens their difference. The sun must rise from just this angle to reflect off the buildings, the neon of the advertising hoardings must make surreal flickerings on marbled floors, the waters of the sea must be crystal clear and free from the sewage more usually found floating around urbanised coastlines. At the other end of the market, thrillers insist on more real locations where we vicariously experience more brutal violence and feel the lack of human kindness.
A Good Death by Christopher R Cox (Minotaur Books, 2013) falls into the latter camp where we get a slightly sanitised version of life in the demimonde of Bangkok and then a positively romanticised trip across the border into Laos. The best way to capture the spirit of this book is to see it as a slowly evolving adventure story. As is usually required, we start off in America with a young man coming into his father’s business as a PI. Early on in this career move, he’s offered a chance on an insurance case. The company is deeply suspicious about a claim on a life policy. A young woman has apparently overdosed in Bangkok. This would trigger a double indemnity claim. Even though there’s a body verified by the local staff of the US Embassy, the company believes this is a fraudulent claim. Our hero is therefore sent off with specific instructions to prove the fraud.
This is the ultimate fish-out-of-water set-up. He’s never been to this part of the world before and is profoundly inexperienced when it comes to dealing with people in radically different cultures. Yet with little difficulty, he’s able to talk with the coroner, officers at the local police station, people at the hotel where the body was found, and so on. In other words, despite the lack of language skills, he’s moving with the same ease he might back home in the US. At first sight, everything about the death looks legitimate except. . .
The problem with the first part of the book is we have to go through it all to get to the second part. Yes, I know. I’m sorry. But the first third is rather slow-moving and not terribly convincing but, unless and until our hero resolves the question of the death, we can’t get on with the next phase. Think of the story as growing organically, one part naturally developing into the next. So during the course of his investigation, he runs foul of one of the more senior police officers who seems to be into some level of corruption involving prostitution if not more serious offences. It therefore becomes expedient to leave Bangkok. There’s a travel third and then a final third of straight thrillerish adventure.
I would like to be able to tell you this is a good story. In fact, the author is genuinely trying his best to tell a story that spans the generations and makes recent history relevant to today. In other hands, may be this could all have worked but, as it is, the whole thing starts off ponderously and then slowly collapses under its own weight. It’s like watching a slow-motion car wreck as our hero slowly moves off the map and ends up in a different country. This just does not feel credible. He hasn’t got the personality to undertake a journey involving this level of risk. Even though he acquires one of his father’s ex-army buddies as a guide, I don’t believe it would play out this way. And even if he did end up in this place, I seriously doubt he would survive. The natives in this part of the world are notorious for their ability as hunters and, if they should want to ensure those they captured hung around to see how it would all end, they would still be there. The result is more an adventure than a thriller with our hero blundering back into civilisation so there can be a next book in the series. Why I am classifying this as adventure? Because in true thriller mode our hero is the prime mover who pulls everyone through to the triumph at the end. At best this guy is reactive and little better than a spectator during much of the action. It’s a shame. I have the sense it could have been a lot better but, as a first novel, I suppose there’s just enough to encourage us. Perhaps the next one will all come together in a coherent and well-paced package. Until then, A Good Death is something you should only read if you have an interest in studying the problems in first novels.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.