The Big Mango – Jake Needham

Writing about books, as I do, I occasionally get free stuff in the mail from authors, and occasionally, I read them. In a recent column, I wrote about Penguin UK’s insipid campaign to make book reading by males “sexy” (ad slogan: “Are You Good Booking?”) and received an email from Jake Needham, a writer of detective novels who can’t get published here, but does a rollicking good business out of Asia. It helps that his novels are set in Thailand, of course, but he’s all-American and writes in English. He’s also been told that he’s “too male,” whatever that means (and James Ellroy isn’t?).
So I just spent a few days reading his debut novel “The Big Mango,” a chewy bit o’ pulp that made its way to the top of my reading list as soon as I opened the envelope. The plot revolves around a huge load of money, hidden after the fall of Saigon, and the two-bit lawyer who is mysteriously called to Thailand to investigate the death of the man who may have known where it is.
It reads fairly autobiographically (not that Mr. Needham is two-bit, or any bit), a middle-aged farang falling in love with an alien world (here being Bangkok) and its hot alien women. There’s a lot of driving around on tuktuks and many descriptions of the unbelievable tropical heat. Lead character Eddie Dare is well drawn enough, but his army buddy/traveling companion Winnebago is along for the ride mostly–he doesn’t seem to have much narrative function apart from comic relief. Ex-pat reporter Bar feels like a flip-side to Eddie, and his life is interesting until the plot necessitates more action. There are no major Thai characters in the book, just farangs and a mysterious Vietnamese woman named Lek, although I guess you could say Thailand is the main character. With Eddie fresh off the boat and the time span of the novel only a few days, there isn’t time for a deeper portrait of Bangkok to emerge. But as Mr. Needham’s written two more set in the country, perhaps he’s had a chance to flesh it out. Still, a quick read, exactly what the book sets out to do.