Thursday, December 11, 2014

Viper's Tail: A Matt Chance Thriller by Tom Crowley

One of the unexpected pleasures of attending Bouchercon in Long Beach this fall was that I met a surprising number of authors heretofore unknown to me. Tom Crowley was one of these writers, and actually the first person I  met after stepping through the conference doors. As we sat at a small table orienting ourselves for the days to come, I learned a bit about his life. A Vietnam vet, he then spent many years in the Foreign Service, and ultimately left that world to work for General Electric in Asia. He ended up in Bangkok, where he volunteered in helping street children there. And he's also a pool player, which ended up being the subject of his first non-fiction book, Bangkok Pool Blues. More recently he's decided to try his hand at novel writing.

After going to his author profile session I was even more intrigued to read his Matt Chance books, and luckily for me, I happened to end up at the table of his publisher Down and Out Books, where he very generously gave me signed copies of his work. I have just finished reading the first one.

Matt Chance is a third generation soldier, his grandfather fighting in World War II and his father in Vietnam. Matt has served as a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan but has grown disillusioned with the cynical deployment of young men and women and, after being wounded in the war, is ready to resign when a kindly medical examiner has him medically discharged. He decides to return to Thailand where he was born to a Thai mother, though he has spent much of his adulthood in America, home of his deceased father. Only back in Thailand for two years, he is still trying to figure it out and to find his place in it when a mysterious visitor approaches him in a pool hall he frequents. He turns out to be an American investigating the death of another American who had worked with him at the Center for Disease Control. He is supposed to have been trampled to death by elephants, but this man isn't buying it.

Matt's only looking for a quiet life, getting to know his girlfriend Noi better, and acting as a governmental advisor on environmental matters in the country's forests and parks. Unfortunately for him, that turns out to be a great cover for him to go up and look further into what happened to the dead American. And his Ranger background is pretty useful too. Try as he might to extricate himself from the adventure he's been  set on, there are powers at work that are greater than his own power to resist. And, as he finally reluctantly admits, the only way out is to go all in.

One of the things I like best about this book is that Crowley is willing to stop the plot for some contextual explanation. We learn a lot about Asia and the various power struggles going on there from a perspective that is not purely defined around American self-interest. Even more interesting to me, though, was the perspective we get on Matt as a combat veteran. As we get further into the story, Matt is being drawn back into a way of being that he doesn't want to identify himself with anymore, warrior mode, if you will, and we start to get the author's insights into how combat changes a person. As I read the first of these sections that take us somewhat out of the direct action, I found myself thinking that this is one of the great things about books. You could never just stop and talk about what it's like to be a soldier in the middle of an action movie.

And though of course this is in the end written for entertainment, at the end of the book you will find some clarifying notes, a historical context that gives weight to the fictional situation.

A very interesting novel on many levels, and even if you aren't primarily a thriller reader, I do recommend it.


  1. And why did it take me so long to discover (track down) your blog? Shame on me. I hope you do not mind me stopping by so abruptly; since we have both chatted with Peter so often, I felt as though you would not mind an unannounced visitor. Note that "Beyond Eastrod" has ceased "publication," and I am going in a new direction with "Crimes and Detectives, Inc." Since the subject matter of the blog is made obvious by the title, I hope it will be right up your alley. Do stop by now and then. And let me know if you have any "must read" recommendations that will get me started at CDI.