Riding the Crime Wave


Everyone has a good book in them so they say, Asia’s first English-language crime publishing house looks set to put that adage to the test. Words by Mark Bibby Jackson.

The setting is hardly classic noir. A Bangkok sports bar just before noon, my source has a bottle of water in front of him, I a cup of black coffee. Our conversation flows naturally rather than being weighted down with unspoken innuendo. Then again we are here to talk about crime fiction rather than create it.

“Most of the books are terrible,” writer Tom Vater says of the spate of books he calls ‘bargirl genre’ on sale in book shops in Bangkok and across the region. “They are badly printed, the fonts are awful and the stories are just these endless sob stories about the bargirl scene here.

As a great reader of crime fiction himself, Vater felt there must be something better. So, together with publisher Hans Kemp, the seasoned author decided to establish Crime Wave Press — Asia’s first English-language publishing house devoted to crime fiction.

The two were working together on ‘Sacred Skin’, a non-fiction book about Thailand’s tattoos, when they came up with the idea.

“What me and Hans thought was print book sales are going down, eBook sales are going up, and a new publishing house that has a little bit of a maverick attitude …. can offer something to authors that can really write,” he says.

Vater refers to traditional publishing houses as “dinosaurs” struggling to get to grips with new technology such as eBooks, although he adds that such technology has its own pitfalls.

“The problem with eBooks is that there is no gatekeeper,” he says. “Anyone can write a book now, format it and put it on Amazon. The quality is often rather low.”

This is where Crime Press comes in — to sort the wheat from the chaff — publishing a select series of crime thrillers under a label readers can trust. The aim is to publish 20 titles over the next few years, either as eBooks, print on demand or conventional print publishing.

Though launched officially last month at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, where he participated in three sold out panel discussions, Vater is already receiving two to three manuscripts a week; all of which he reads himself. Some, however, do not fit into the specific genre of the publishing house.

“We had 120,000 words on Satanism the other day,” he says. “Non-fiction.”

Satanic verses aside, Crime Wave will consider any full manuscript (preferably 80,000 to 100,000 words) relating to crime fiction that has an Asian angle. Vater is particularly keen on receiving novels based in China or Japan, as Crime Wave seeks to prove its credentials on a pan-Asian rather than an ASEAN basis. The publishing house is based in Hong Kong.

In addition to having their book edited by Vater, authors benefit from the network of connections developed by Kemp during his 10 years of publishing books, such as the popular photography title ‘Carrying Cambodia’, produced under the Visionary World label. At the time of our interview Kemp was at the Frankfurt Book Fair promoting Crime Wave’s publications.

One of the first books published by Crime Wave is Vater’s own work, ‘The Cambodia Book of the Dead’, a crime mystery set in 2001 – the year Vater first visited the country. He believes that Cambodia, like Thailand, affords great opportunities for crime writers.

“It makes an excellent backdrop for … crime novels with a dark, twisted tale because there are plenty of things in Cambodia which are dark and twisted,” he says.

Recently Crime Wave sold the international rights for ‘The Cambodia Book of the Dead’ to British publishing house Exhibit A, while another of its books, ‘The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu’ will be published in Spain early next year.

“We’re really pleased that our first two titles have been picked up straight away,” Vater says. “The industry is taking note of what we are doing.”

Written by Nick Wilgus ten years ago and set in Thailand, the latest book published under the label is a reissue of ‘Mindfulness and Murder’, part of the Father Ananda series. Negotiations are also underway with the view to publishing a thriller about Phnom Penh and another one set in Thailand at the time of the Vietnam War, according to Vater.

With the recent explosion of fiction labelled Asian Noir, including Christopher G Moore’s compilation of short stories entitled ‘Bangkok Noir’, the launch of Crime Wave seems particularly well-timed.

However Vater is quick to point out that most of these works are whodunnits or crime fiction that technically belong more to the tense Hard Boiled detective fiction of American authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett than to the Noir fiction popularised by subsequent writers such as David Goodis, Jim Thompson and James M Cain.

“The term Asian Noir … seems to suit more the backdrop of those countries … than the actual literature itself,” he says. “In the Noir of the 40s and 50s the main protagonist is usually a loser for whom life will get worse throughout the book and then everything will collapse.”

Then Vater adds, with a smile totally out of keeping with the fiction he adores, “but Asian Hard Boiled doesn’t sound as good, maybe.”