The centerpiece for THE ASSASSIN ON THE BANGKOK EXPRESS is the train itself. The concept came about when the manager of the French company Belmond read my book THE CHANGI BROWNLOW about the Thai-Burma railway, built by British and Australian POWs in World War Two. He asked me to give a speech on Anzac Day 2015 on Belmond’s train---The up-market Oriental Express, which is modelled on the Orient Express, the legendary train that has run in Europe since the 1930s.
It runs for four days from Bangkok to Singapore through some of the most hostile Islamic terrorist regions.The pleasure of doing this in considerable French/Thai opulence, while devouring endless sensual French food and champagne, costs a tidy $60,000 for two in the better class carriages. The weight conscious should add three or four kilograms before boarding. The weight unconscious will have no complaint.
The train was the near perfect vehicle for a thinking person’s thriller. The challenge was to put all the key characters on the train. Think of Agatha Christie’s classic, Murder on the Orient Express. The stories are very different, but have one thing in common.
A murder occurs on both trains. In Agatha Christie’s tale, the mystery is in who commits the murder. In THE ASSASSIN ON THE BANGKOK EXPRESS, the reader knows who the killer is. The question is how the assassin plans to carry out a killing mission against huge odds.
Taking the comparison further I needed a Thai Hercule Poirot on the train. My choice was someone modeled loosely on the eccentric and brilliant Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand, the DNA investigator. She is 62 and the most popular living Thai in a population of 68 million.
More often than not she is seen in skin-tight jeans and adorned with jangly bracelets, rings and fancy wrist-bands. The most striking feature is her hair.
It’s spiked like a teenager’s and coloured red, pink and purple. Pornthip’s sparkling eye make-up adds to her youthful appearance.
Mutton dressed up as Mutton, the politically incorrect might say. But not in this case. This woman has charisma and courage, especially when she is at work. Her platform shoes give her added height and authority when she is dealing with a male dominated criminal justice department and the military.
The Police detest her interference into their work that she often contradicts. They have tried to belittle her but she has learned to use the media to challenge autopsy findings by the police, who control all aspects of criminal investigation in Thailand.
Her parents, both scientists, wanted her to do medicine. She obliged. But she found that doctors were supposed to act conservatively and not upset patients by dressing eccentrically. Pornthip decided the best way around this block to her natural behaviour was to deal with the dead instead of the living. She lights up when discussing corpses.
‘The dead can’t criticise me or complain about my hairstyle,’ she says, ‘so I wear what I like. Besides, working with people always creates problems and conflicts. Working with the dead is easy.’
This is said with an inscrutable smile. You wonder if she is joking. But more research on her makes these kind of responses comprehensible. Pornthip has killed off the expression ‘dead men tell no tales.’ To her the deceased and their DNA, in their own way, are story tellers and at times, garrulous. She is a Buddhist and like most Thais, spiritual. She claims to commune with the spirits of the dead.
‘They are my guardian angels,’ she says, ‘they keep protecting me.’ Pornthip claims these ethereal beings dictate her aims that include setting up a national institute for missing persons.
‘They also want me to improve forensic skills in Thailand,’ she notes.When the police decide suicide, Pornthip has said on more than one occasion, ‘no, it’s a murder set-up.’ Her skills in interpreting crime-scene evidence puts her eons ahead of police who are more comfortable with rounding off, or even covering up slayings rather than examining hard evidence.
Pornthip is a survivor. Two different bouts of cancer, thyroid and colon, failed to defeat her. She believes these personal victories strengthened her for future fights.
‘If I were a man, I would be dead by now,’ she says, ‘I would be shot by someone. Maybe by angry police. I am still alive because I am a woman.’
Pornthip has the image of a harbinger of truth and credibility; a subtle reminder to authority that the integrity of events involving high crimes could be exposed in the modern era by DNA. That is, if it handled by a fearless investigator. Her shield is honesty. This and a high public profile make her near-untouchable. The police dubbed her ‘Dr. Death.’
The attempted smear stuck in the media. But Pornthip wears the label like a badge. In her case it represents strength. She has examined more than 10,000 corpses in a 30 year career. Death is her life.
I have followed this exceptional woman’s career ever since she rose to international prominence after the Tsunami hit Thailand and South East Asia on Boxing Day 2004. She had rushed to Phuket voluntarily to help identify thousands of corpses in a Buddhist temple and makeshift morgues.
There is not one quote in my story from her real life commentary in books, articles and the media. It’s not necessary. She is such a forceful, predictable and outstanding individual you can imagine her reaction in every scene.
Especially one of murder.
However, despite her genius, in this story she may or may not be out-witted by the assassin on the train. On board also in this fictional account is a young man, known as ‘Cowboy, who has a severe intellectual disability. But he has certain capacities far beyond the norm. A kind of Savant, but not. His reactions are often based on sensing people’s emotions.
This character is also based on a real person, who incidentally attended the launch of THE ASSASSIN ON THE BANGKOK EXPRESS in Melbourne. He does what no one else on the train can do. He works out who the murderer is.
Just a couple of observations about the background to the Assassin books so far. You only have to Google ‘Mexican Cartels in Asia’ to have a general sense of the illegal drug trade in Asia and worldwide. It’s worth half a trillion dollars a year. Drugs are trafficked in every country, with Australia’s affluent middle class being a major market.
Research into the crime and issues around it are essential. But it is only a part of delivering a good read. More important are the plot and narrative. More vital still are the characters.
VICTOR CAVALIER, the investigative journalist with a second, secret profession, returns from the first book [The Honourable Assassin]. He is the series’ mainstay. You learn much more about him, his character, his background, back-story and his psyche. He even submits to psychiatric analysis to see if he is a psychopath.
Jacinta Cin Lai, the former Muay Thai boxer and special Thai cop returns, as does her nefarious boss Police General Azelaporn.
Jose Mendez, based on the Americans’ most wanted person, also features again.
The main settings are Thailand’s Chiang Mai and Bangkok, and the story’s main ‘character’, the train.
It takes on a life of its own during the action-packed four days as the assassin attempts to free his daughter who has been a slave to Mendez.