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How Lawrence Osborne subverts the crime genre

In The Glass Kingdom, Osborne upends our most basic assumptions about the human world. 

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“All that filled his mind in that moment was the simple idea that this was life and nothing else… life itself always went on, unending and unfair in equal measure, like all things that have been ordained and yet are impossible to see in advance.” Such thoughts – the fatalistic reflections of a hotel caretaker dancing in the surf at a beach café after stealing a cache of money that a resident had acquired by fraud – make unlikely closing lines in a novel that centres on crime.

The genre is one of many relics of monotheism that shape contemporary Western culture. With few exceptions, crime fiction presents a world in which human events form a coherent narrative held together by notions of right and wrong. If the classic detective story is a puzzle soluble by reason, hard-bitten noir describes those who investigate crime, and sometimes criminals themselves, as rebels against injustice. The protagonists are in search of redemption, and if they fail in their struggles they are still inspired by a moral vision.

No one in Agatha Christie’s stories questions that criminals are responsible for their crimes and ought to be punished. Even Parker, the brutal anti-hero of the pulp novel The Hunter (1962) by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), played by Lee Marvin as Walker in the film Point Blank (1967), believes that someone has a duty to return the money taken from him after a robbery he helped commit. Perhaps the modern genre begins with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866). Raskolnikov murders an old pawnbroker in the belief that he can redeem the world with the proceeds; he succumbs to guilt, confesses and in the end is redeemed himself. Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) illustrates a similar faith in moral order: though Pinkie knows he faces damnation, he never doubts that he deserves it.

A lack of order in the world they portray is one of the reasons the novels of Georges Simenon and Patricia Highsmith continue to shock. Simenon’s characters turn to murder from impulses that seem little different from whims. Highsmith’s Tom Ripley plans his murders, but without any sense that what he is doing is evil. Simenon and Highsmith are outliers in a tradition based on the premise that humans are autonomous beings who choose their paths in life on the basis of moral judgements. That humans possess such free will is not a matter of fact. It is an interpretation, an image of human action formed by Western theism and its secular surrogate, liberal humanism.

Today autonomous choice has become the chief fiction many people live by. The belief that our lives can be fashioned by our decisions may help turn our days into a meaningful story, but it can also be dangerous. It blinds us to our actual experience, in which we find ourselves moved by shifts in our surroundings, ephemeral moods and inexplicable desires. Not knowing why we act is what makes us human, and it is in showing how our belief in our own autonomy can derail us that the work of Lawrence Osborne is so arresting and compelling.

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Born in England in 1958 and educated at Cambridge and Harvard, Osborne has lived in many parts of the world, including France, Turkey and Mexico. He worked as a journalist, travel writer and essayist for some years, mainly based in New York. One of his novels, The Forgiven (2012), reflects a period in Morocco. He spent many years in Bangkok, where he now lives. Osborne’s immersion in other cultures differentiates him from writers with whom he has been compared, such as the all-too-English Graham Greene or the American Paul Bowles, who settled into expatriate life in Tangier without ever imaginatively entering the world in which most Moroccans lived.

In contrast, Osborne has used his time living in other cultures to inhabit different worlds. Some of his most powerful novels evoke the syncretic Buddhist animism of Thai folk religion. The Ballad of a Small Player (2014) tells of a crooked British solicitor who reinvents himself as an aristocrat in Macao, multiplies ill-gotten gains at the casino tables, loses it all and strays into a realm of ghosts. Hunters in The Dark (2015) recounts how an English teacher leaves his life behind to travel in Cambodia, only to be caught between the pleasures of memory-erasing hedonism and nightmares of atrocity. A highly developed sense of place features in these novels, as in all of Osborne’s work. The weather – lowering cloud-banks, enervating heat, thunderous rains – is an active protagonist in the lives of his characters. Human identities are not fixed, nor are they finally self-chosen. They morph into unfamiliar shapes along with the places in which we find ourselves.

Showing Osborne at the height of his powers, The Glass Kingdom upends the Western reader’s most basic assumptions about the human world. The central character, Sarah Talbot Jennings, exemplifies the reversals that befall those who believe they can choose their identity and control their future. Coming from modest beginnings in a small US Air Force town in the Californian desert, she moves to New York and cultivates a new persona as the secretary of an aged writer, April Laverty, whose work she has long admired. Gradually taking control of Laverty’s correspondence, she forges letters from prominent personalities, which she sells to a Hong Kong collector. She then heads for Bangkok, where she rents an apartment in the Kingdom, a once-fashionable high-end complex consisting of four towers, each with 21 floors.

Now palpably decaying, “a vertical realm made of glass, every inhabitant partially visible to his or her neighbours, squandered and guttering lives piled on top of one another in anonymity”, the Kingdom enables Sarah to discard her past. The counterfeit identity she constructs – as an only child who lives off inherited wealth from affluent parents who died in a traffic accident – does not entirely convince her fellow residents. But in one way or another many of them have hidden lives, and no serious questions are asked.

To begin with Sarah pays little attention to the condition of the country to which she has fled. But as the weeks go by she realises it is teetering on the edge of upheaval. Demonstrators are on the streets and there are rumours of a military coup. The rusty rhythms of the Kingdom are punctuated by power failures and outages in its air-conditioning system. Packs of feral dogs roaming in wasteland near the complex become larger and more threatening. Geckos that cling to the walls appear to be less afraid of their human co-residents. The Kingdom is crumbling.

Their loyalties uncertain, the staff are not as deferential as before. For some, the situation presents opportunities for profit. A maid who routinely gathers information on the residents sells it to Pop, the caretaker and general factotum. The receptionist explained to Sarah that Pop’s nickname came from the Thai word pop-hen, meaning “to find”. Whenever something went missing, Pop could always retrieve it. For the residents, he is simply a fixture of the building. But Pop has a life of his own, and for many years has considered how he might enjoy a comfortable retirement. The maid confirms his suspicion that Sarah has a large amount of cash secreted in her apartment, and now seems the time to implement his scheme.

When Pop invites Sarah for a drink in his ramshackle quarters near the pool, there are only the two of them left in the complex. The guards have melted away, and the wild dogs are in the corridors searching for food on the landings where garbage is left. Glad of the company, Sarah accepts Pop’s invitation. He slips a paralysing agent obtained from a hospital contact into her drink. Falling to the ground, she hears the splashing of a lizard in the pool. Pop watches her slide into unconsciousness, and then, after slowly finishing his meal, strolls over to observe the lizard. The scene reminds him of his home island, whose inhabitants had in the past killed foreigners and fed them to the reptiles. He considers killing the lizard.

But as he watched the beast lazing at the side of the pool having tired of the water, it occurred to him that it might have its uses after all. Its acute sense of smell had alerted it to the presence of two humans, and its snout was lifted… Since the animals had conquered the Kingdom for a few days it was wiser to step aside and let them have their way. It gave him a quiet satisfaction.

Pop goes to Sarah’s room, locates the money, leaves the city with it and travels to the island where his family lived. He has long planned to renovate his father’s abandoned house and exorcise his parents’ ghosts. Along the way he checks into the island’s hotel, where he passes the evening eating, drinking and frolicking on the beach with the waitresses. If his plan has worked, it must be because it was in the nature of things. The all-compassionate Buddha would not begrudge him his moment of happiness.

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The Glass Kingdom has nothing in common with that most boring of literary forms, “the novel of ideas”. Throughout, it is vividly realistic. The floating world of Bangkok, which seems to have passed from ancient times to the post-modern present day without any intervening period of starchy modernity, is expertly portrayed. The changing atmospheres of the city linger in the reader’s mind as much as the dark plot that unfolds. The book is worth reading for these vignettes alone.

Sarah is the most fully realised character in the story, and the most sympathetic. In Buddhism, knowing yourself means realising that selfhood is an illusion. When Sarah looks within, she finds nothing substantial. “She had concocted so many layers of lies around herself that fact and fiction had come to merge.” Sarah’s identity is being worn away, and at times she relishes its erosion. Yet she does not yearn for the egoless serenity that is the end-point of Buddhism. She never surrenders the determination to author her life, and there is something appealing in her refusal.

When the Kingdom succumbs to chaos, the forces that destroy it do not come only from the city around it. They are inside the building, and inherent in life itself. When Sarah finds a gecko staring down at her from a corridor wall, it turns to look at her: “The two animals examined one another for a while as the sweat dried on Sarah’s face and her heart slowed.” The two are not unlike. The human scents weakness and profit as the gecko senses blood. The difference is that some human beings imagine they can determine how they will live.

Slyly, almost imperceptibly, but quite relentlessly, Osborne subverts crime fiction as a genre and the world-view of its readers. As you turn the pages of this stylish and disquieting tale, you will find your fictions of choice and autonomy crumbling along with the Kingdom.

The Glass Kingdom
Lawrence Osborne
Hogarth, 304pp, £16.99

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Seven Types of Atheism (Allen Lane)

This article appears in the 09 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid