The Man Who Controls the Earth by Marc Schiffman
Self-published in 2012, Marc Schiffman’s novel is the story of a hard-boiled investigative newsman that moves—or gets pushed around.
Expatriate news writer, Peter Merlo, lives a self-destructive life in Bangkok, Thailand. One “evening after,” two mysterious Thai men call on his help. An old friend and former lover, Piseth Pilinka, now a famous Thai dancer and screen star, has been shot. Piseth’s sister, Sukanya, sent these men to bring him to her to help her save her sister and find who shot her.
Merlo fits the profile of the hard bitten investigator: immoderate drinker, drug user, conflicted soul, quick with a smart-ass retort, especially when he should keep his mouth shut. He is conflicted with his past, an abandoned daughter; with Asia, which, as a farang, a foreign outsider, he can never consider his home; even Piseth recalls past closeness and betrayal. He had been given Piseth’s diary, and read enough of it to gather Piseth was in love with a powerful man, self-described as dangerous though Piseth claimed never to have felt threatened.
Merlo’s first effort to save Piseth from those who would want to finish the job they started ends in failure, and Merlo is thrust in to the Thai criminal system, full of dangerous cops on the take and death constantly lurking after someone with no family to watch out for him. And he has come to the attention of Piseth’s enemies. Asked by one cop what he, a farang, an outsider with no family could hope to accomplish on the celebrity’s behalf, he says simply, “My job is to tell Piseth’s story” (8).
His efforts to find out Piseth’s story take him to the southern provinces where guerrilla warfare between Muslims and Buddhists threatens a fragile monarchy. Merlo’s efforts to uncover inconvenient truths are not met well at Siam’s underbelly, where state corruption and numbing poverty forge uncomfortable alliances, forcing hard decisions on people. Consequences are especially dire for Western “wannabees” without family.
The heat and sweat, voices and the smell of food stalls on the street, produce, fish and blood in the marketplace, sounds of motor scooters and exotic characters jockeying for position against the grind of poverty, corruption and uneasy bargains conspire to give Schiffman’s Thailand life.
I liked that it lacks the purposefulness of a procedural, almost pushed around by circumstance, perhaps an effort to reflect the randomness of life and victimization of the Thai people by corruption at all levels.
In spite of its rough hewn humor against the exotic backdrop, there is a lot of violence, all necessary, unfortunately, to get at the story of Thailand. A little confusing how little good Merlo says about a land he claims to so profoundly love. Could be, as bad as Thailand is, he considers America worse.
One short scene that gets to the flavor of this hot Thai soup concerns Cham Pieomkamphut, Police Director General, advising two cops, who are considering killing Merlo as a drug dealer (Thailand takes its war on drugs very seriously). Noting he is an American, Cham says:
“Just be sure you know you are right and more important that you have evidence. Americans love evidence. All their lies are based upon evidence. Even if it is fabricated, they drool like horny water buffaloes on such things. The American embassy will demand evidence. Whatever you have to do, just be sure you can save yourself.”
“Why are you here?” The handsome cop asked.
“To see him,” He pointed at Merlo with his cigarette. “If he’s dead, then I never saw him. But if he isn’t, he comes with me (111).”
Merlo went with Cham and to his fate. And I would change the ending, so I won’t say anymore.