Book review: Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne - end of innocence

Bangkok-based author dubbed 'the new Graham Greene' by one critic has written a moody, vividly atmospheric mystery novel

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 May, 2015, 11:10pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 May, 2015, 11:10pm

Hunters in the Dark
by Lawrence Osborne

Lawrence Osborne's slow-burn mystery, Hunters in the Dark, follows British innocent-abroad Robert Grieve as his ordered, unremarkable life is transformed during an aimless summer holiday when he crosses the Thai border into Cambodia.

Fortune seems to favour the small-town schoolteacher after he heads to a seedy casino and can't stop winning. He returns to his hotel US$2,000 richer, yet is overwhelmed by a sense of restlessness.

"He was beginning to like the heat and the pace, the day-by-day gentle sinking into his own laziness … he didn't want to go back … There was no future for him in the little village of Elmer … He realised that he was waiting for something different. Beyond his own life there was, without question, a parallel one that he might one day acquire."

Grieve's new-found wealth brings him into contact with a disparate group of "hunters" also looking for something more: a mysterious yet charming American expatriate, Simon Beaucamp, and his local girlfriend, Sothea; a taxi driver, Ouksa, with a switchblade in his pocket; a free-spirited doctor's daughter, Sophal, and a malicious, corrupt policeman, Davuth.

One morning, Grieve wakes up to find himself lying on a small fishing boat travelling along a river, dressed in another man's clothes, with US$100 in his pocket. But his backpack, containing his passport and the money he won, is missing. "Secretly he was thrilled. From now on he could tell himself that he was a victim of circumstance."

Like his protagonist, British author Osborne is no stranger to wanderlust. His first stab at being an author ended in 1986 after publishing one largely forgotten novel. He then, quite literally, packed his bags and began a nomadic existence - working as a journalist, travel writer and author of short stories in Paris, New York, Mexico, Morocco, Istanbul and now Bangkok, which he calls home.

His acclaimed return to novels with two dark-hearted books - the brooding, bestselling The Forgiven in 2012 and last year's ghostly Macau-set The Ballad of a Small Player - led one critic to call him "the new Graham Greene".

Those two books, and his latest - a moody, vividly atmospheric novel hinting at malice lurking just below the surface of genocide-scarred Cambodia - all look at how fate catches up with us.

Osborne's elegant writing, scattered with surprising bursts of violence, takes a satisfyingly firm grip on the reader once the stumbling, naive Grieve has been cast adrift to fend for himself. The ending - after a period of rising tensions - does not disappoint.