Eating Smoke by Chris Thrall Blacksmith Books Chris Thrall certainly packed plenty of experiences into the year and a bit he spent in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s. Just how many were real and how many happened inside his head isn't entirely clear from Eating Smoke, his autobiographical account of the period - and that's the book's greatest strength. Englishman Thrall arrives in the city aged 25 after a seven-year stint in the Royal Marine Commandos with high hopes for the business he'd built up selling security products, part of a US-based network-marketing operation. Unfortunately the security products turn out to be rubbish, and so he embarks on a series of jobs, most memorably getting employed to do very little by Gung Wan Hong, a dubious computer-component trading company owned by a magnificently louche, sly and paranoid old boss, Mr Fang. Thrall is never shy with his consumption of intoxicants and doesn't hesitate when he's offered Ice, or methamphetamine. Inevitably, he begins a descent into addiction, loses jobs and ends up working as a nightclub doorman in Wan Chai. He finds himself at the triad-owned Club Nemo - and it's there that the fun really starts. A triad-controlled Wan Chai nightclub, of course, is not a clever place to work if you're addicted to a drug with a tendency to induce horrifying paranoia. A lot of bad stuff is going to happen and it's very easy for an Ice-addled mind to imagine that even worse stuff is also going on. This is at the heart of Thrall's nightmare and it's a narrative device that makes Eating Smoke work so well. Facing casual violence and transactional attitudes to human life in a district where people are frequently treated like meat, his disordered brain spins into a full-blown nightmare in which everyone is watching him, following him, abusing him. He comes to believe that everyone in Hong Kong is involved in a vast triad-led conspiracy. Because the book is told from Thrall's perspective - which we come to realise we can in no way trust - the reader is likewise frequently unsure quite what's real and what isn't. Culture shock weaves into this paranoia perfectly. When he first arrives in the city, Thrall is entranced by Hong Kong and tries to understand its culture. He learns Cantonese. But the cultural dislocation that he finds part of the city's intoxicating whirl when he first arrives later becomes yet more horrifying grist to the mill of his obsession that the world is conspiring against him. He becomes obsessed with uncovering the conspiracy, and being admitted to what he sees as a sort of secret society that dominates the city. Before his downward spiral begins, there's a lot of enthusiastic reminiscing about long, intoxicated nights in Wan Chai nightspots, both as doorman and patron. Thrall is refreshingly unapologetic about the main reason for his drug addiction: before the madness took hold, he really enjoyed taking drugs. He's an engaging narrator whose charm and essential decency are first twisted and then eventually dissolved by his addiction. There's also a fair amount that will raise a smile of recognition. Evidently the greasier end of Wan Chai hasn't changed too much in the past 15 or so years, but there's also something everyone in Hong Kong will recognise here, with a wealth of entertaining and believable local detail about everywhere from the flophouses of Chungking Mansions to that infamous haunt of expat-controlled drug syndicates, Lamma Island. The book is also populated by a cast of richly entertaining misfits, both expat and local, ranging from benign losers and chancers to more sinister figures - and sometimes, with the narration reflecting the discombobulated Thrall's unreliable judgment, it's often impossible to know where along that continuum of possibilities a particular character lies. In addition to the aforementioned Fang, there's excitable schizophrenic Neil Diamond, who claims to have accidentally started the UK's best-known prison riot; comically self-deluding would-be gangster Lee Aimes; and social grace-free oddball Old Ron (the sort of person who turns up at work after an all-night session in Wan Chai wearing a skullcap with pigtails). Eating Smoke is a little rough around the edges, but never jarringly so, with any slight infelicities of style more than compensated for by its characters, exemplary pacing, completely engaging tone, wealth of winning detail and, above all, Thrall's sense of humour. Much of the action in the book is relatively humdrum, but Thrall uses such verve, enthusiasm and faultless comic timing that it's hard not to be swept long. The book's only potential weakness is that less happens in Eating Smoke than you might expect. And it's really only a weakness because the dustjacket blurb missells the book, pitching it as an expos? of the city's gangland underworld, a sort of Sino-Shantaram. But Thrall doesn't really penetrate the world of the triads, except, probably, inside his head; a supposed journey into Hong Kong's heart of darkness is really only a journey into Chris Thrall's heart of darkness. What's a touch frustrating is that the ambiguity at the heart of the book's narration actually makes it rather more interesting than that. Anyone picking up this book and hoping to read a naive expat's shocking uncovering of the inner workings of Hong Kong's criminal organisations is going to be disappointed. That's a shame, because Eating Smoke is so good as a window into the terrfiying world of drug-induced psychosis that it doesn't need to be sold as anything else.