Jake Needham’s novel, The Big Mango, broke into the expat market at a time when detective genre and most books covering Thailand focused heavily on the Red Light District and clichéd burnt out expats and their jaded bar girlfriends.
With the release of The Big Mango, Needham joined the company of other great writers of Southeast Asian fiction such as Stephen Leather’s Private Dancer, and the detective novels by Christopher G Moore. With Needham now on the scene, the thriller set in Southeast Asia gained a fresh new look with wit, tight plotting, and insights into the people that he wrote about and their various points of views in fresh new ways.
Access to the Big Mango, which was first published in 2000 used to be quite a challenge as it was previously available almost exclusively in Asia, where it quickly gained a cult following, but with the release of all Needham’s books in Kindle format they can now easily be obtained at Amazon and I suspect this and other novels by Jake will quickly gain a new following.
One aspect that immediately stands out as you are reading The Big Mango and which is often lacking in thrillers, is the character development. Mango brings the best of literary fiction and it’s fully thought out characters to the thriller genre.
The book begins in San Francisco. Eddie Dare is bored, a divorcee with an estranged son and a less than successful legal practice. In short, he needs a fresh start. Eddie, a protagonist who hasn’t lost his yearning for a destiny beyond his ordinary life, leaps at the chance to go to Thailand when his past comes back to haunt him, in the form of a cryptic photo, with his head circled in red which Dare notes was penned so aggressively that it tore a hole through the photo.
A lesser man may have sought refuge in his work and the safety of San Francisco, but Eddie Dare with his clumsy, but loyal pal Winnebago head out to the Far East with open arms where they find themselves quickly mired in a variety of thrilling and comic antics.
Both men are in need of excitement and redemption, but the potential $400,000,000 cash prize that a mysterious general mentions has been hidden somewhere in Bangkok adds intrigue and danger to their journey.
The dialogue is sharp, witty and fast paced. Needham captures the absurd and often contradictory elements of the Thai persona brilliantly on just about every page. We are led through grenade blasted massage parlours, swank five star hotels, and the streets themselves as we follow the exploits of Eddie, who finds he might still have his moxie after all. He just needed Bangkok to find it.
Eddie is a fish that can swim at all levels of society.
The vortex is Bangkok. He and Winnebago function brilliantly out of the eye of the storm, and for the next couple of hundred pages, the unfolding story sucks the reader along big time.
Even though they find themselves caught up in the biggest treasure hunt in Bangkok, with an unlimited expense account, on the behest of a shadowy figure called the general, there’s an array of players from all over the globe ready to stab each other in the back to get it.
Now that the door of a promising and uncertain future is opened wide for Eddie, he at first enters it cautiously. Then the subterfuge of Bangkok lures him and his mate. Winnebago Jones, who served in Vietnan with Eddie, is half Indian mate, who runs a bookshop in San Francesco. He doesn’t make much money but picks up all kinds of trivia, and a few languages along the way, that help tremendously, while he’s playing back seat driver with Eddie in Bangkok.
What ever they do on the streets is done on the fly, which makes for surprises on every page. Nothing seems rehearsed, and through omission, Jake lets us decide what’s going on in Winnebago’s head, while there are all kinds of thinking aloud going on with Eddie. This makes for a nice balance, between feeding the reader, and letting them imagine what’s going on.
Winnebago plays lazy and stupid, but in many ways, Eddie respects his decisions and sixth sense on what is actually going on in this invisible tangled web of lies and deception.
Over time, Eddy comes up with a few new tricks of his own, while trying to outwit a former DEA agent, who smells the scent of lots of money, and lets the lawyer lose on the streets of Bangkok. But if its Needham’s center left observations that make this more than the run of the mill thriller book.
Take for example, the interaction between Bar, a Bangkok Post reporter (who seems a close approximation of Bernard Trink, columnist of the defunct Night Owl column of the Bangkok Post,) who ruminates on his DEA buddy, agent Chuck: “Bar liked cruising Bangkok with Chuck for two reasons: he was pretty good company, and he carried a really big gun. Both of those things, Bar thought, were important when you hit the streets, although you could probably get along without the company if you had to.”
- A World of Trouble by Jake Needham (farsidetravel.net)