Hunters In The Dark by Lawrence Osborne, book review: Drugs and danger in the rice fields

Osborne is expert at locating the moment of crisis when a character loses faith

Ian Thomson
Thursday 18 June 2015 13:53

Lawrence Osborne, a British novelist resident in Bangkok, has been hailed as a "modern Graham Greene". His acknowledged fondness for alcohol and interest in shabby locations do suggest a latter-day Greene.

Publicity shots show a strenuously louche-looking man drinking quantities of white wine in (slightly too-tight) chino trousers. Osborne, who was born in 1958, has up until now lived a determinedly nomadic life of travel and fine dining. His travel book, The Wet and the Dry, chronicled a tour round Islamic lands in search of booze.

Without the responsibilities of family and home, travel has never been more easy. Osborne shares with Greene a sense of domesticity as a penance: a life on the move unhampered by children allows for the selfishness necessary for writing. Over the 60 years of his career, Greene had the time to create a gallery of shabby ("shabby" is one of Osborne's most-used words) characters who try to hide their weaknesses from the world and themselves. In Catholic terms, he was a moralist troubled by human turpitude and evil in our time.

Osborne is no such great writer. Hunters in the Dark, set in contemporary Cambodia, is not without its clichés ("dressed to kill", "victim of circumstance"). The local colour, heaped on by the shovelful, creates a cloying adjectival soup of the sort that Greene would have avoided. (The notion that literary style is a decoration – something you can apply to your subject – never appealed to Greene.) That said, Osborne is a gifted writer, who is expert at locating the moment of crisis when a character loses faith, religious or otherwise, and life is exposed in all its drab wonder.

Hunters in the Dark, his fourth novel, unfolds in the aftermath of Pol Pot's genocidal communist regime in Cambodia. An English teacher, Robert Grieve, 28, crosses the border from Thailand, having won $2,000 there at a casino. Footloose and unmarried, he is looking for adventure in the land of the "killing fields". Borders have a dynamism of their own in Greene's fiction, setting off a reflex of unease, and Osborne ably communicates a sense of menace as Grieve moves into Khmer territory with its south-east Asian Buddhist belief and animist superstitions.

Out of his depth abroad, Grieve is in trouble soon enough. During a sleepy tour of Buddhist temple ruins he encounters a Yale-educated ex-pat, Simon Beauchamp, who lures him into a night of opium smoking in a riverside hut hung with Khmer knickknacks. Beauchamp's Khmer girlfriend, Sothea, is a prostitute with a tell-tale pockmark of needles on her arm. Something is not right.

Next day, Grieve wakes up robbed of all his money and wearing Simon's clothes; a small boat seems to be taking him to Phnom Penh and he no longer has a passport. Bewildered, Grieve decides to assume Beauchamp's identity and see what happens.

The novel generates a palpable dread as Grieve is sucked into a Cambodian demi-monde of drugs, booze and the ghosts of those murdered in the 1970s by Cambodia's homespun Robespierre, Pol Pot. Cambodia, a "traumatised country", comes splendidly to life in Osborne's prose, its rice fields and Frenchified architecture. Hunters in the Dark is a tip-top thriller. Osborne knows how to keep the pages turning; he is a name to watch.

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