The Motion Picture Teller
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An enchanting new standalone novel from CWA Dagger winner Colin Cotterill, set in Bangkok: a mystery without a crime, where the line between fact and fiction blurs, and nothing is as simple as it appears
Thailand, 1996: Supot, a postman with the Royal Thai Mail service, hates his job. The only bright spot in his life is watching classic movies with his best friend, Ali, the owner of a video store. These cinephiles adore the charisma of the old Western stars, particularly the actresses, and bemoan the state of modern Thai cinema—until a mysterious cassette, entitled Bangkok 2010, arrives at Ali’s store.
Bangkok 2010 is a dystopian film set in a near-future Thailand—and Supot and Ali, immediately obsessed, agree it’s the most brilliant Thai movie they’ve ever seen. But nobody else has ever heard of the movie, the director, the actors, or any of the crew. Who would make a movie like this and not release it, and why?
Feeling a powerful calling to solve the mystery of Bangkok 2010, Supot journeys deep into the Thai countryside and discovers that powerful people are dead set on keeping the film buried.
Release date: January 17, 2023
Publisher: Soho Crime
Print pages: 240
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The Motion Picture Teller
There were two worlds. There was the real world, where Supot delivered letters for the Royal Thai Mail service, where everyone he met was an unlikely character even for fantasy. In this world, teenagers dropped lighted matches into post boxes; elderly transvestites invited you in for coffee and romance; paving stones subsided beneath your feet, leaving you ankle deep in muck; monks smoked a joint before heading off on their alms rounds; and office girls paid homage to the plaster elephants at the concrete altar in front of the department store, then returned to instant noodles and cheesy television soaps in their windowless rooms.
There was that world.
He was six paces into Nisomboon’s yard before he realized what he’d done. It was an increasingly common bout of stupidity. He should have rung the bell and had the owner come to the gate. Or, even better, he should have stayed in bed. All around him like slow-breathing land mines were the mid-siesta bodies of nine dogs, semi-rehabilitated and doubtlessly dreaming of postal worker kebab even then. They were probably rabid ex-street mongrels with issues, each with the capacity to rip the flesh from his bones. But they slept in peace in the midday heat under the shade of the sprawling banyan tree. There was hope.
He completed the walk to the house more silently than any postman in the history of mail delivery. He placed the letter on the step of the open front door, then turned on his heel and prowled back toward the gate . . . and safety. Were it not for the clash of keys in the bunch on his belt, he might have got out of there unscathed.
Then there was the intended world—one that beckoned from a cruel distance. The world of motion pictures, where he spent his only truly happy hours. Where Brando pads his cheeks with cotton wool and Kelly risks pneumonia in the rain. Where Lang introduces the serial killer, Godard highlights the dangers of romance, Fellini encourages decadence, and Akerman demonstrates the beauty of housework. Where women are stabbed in the shower, seven men overthrow an army, and a computer takes over a spaceship. A world where anything is possible and preferable.
He sat beside Ali—his best friend—a spicy fish ball on a skewer poised at his lips. He had no idea what the actress was saying—she was speaking French, the language of seducers—but she was saying it so beautifully that he didn’t want to insult her by reading the Thai subtitles. Not while she was up on the screen acting her French heart out for him. He could pick out a semblance of a plot: there was some problem with her schoolmaster husband. Some deal going down with the man’s minor wife. But Supot could read that later. It didn’t matter. For now, he was in the trance of delight, riding around on this cinematic carousel for an hour or so. The truly great films could keep a person engrossed whether they were in Thai or Icelandic or Mauritian Creole. Language was superfluous, a supplementary bonus to a man who loved film.
If Supot Yongjaiyut had shown any aptitude at all, a mere glimpse of skill as a filmmaker, actor, or even a lighting technician, he would have lived contentedly in the world of cinema. But he was without hope. Hopeless, some might say. He’d trawled down through his depths of creativity and imagination and found not one modest shoal, not one squirming sprat of aptitude. In fact, considering the natural ability of his mother, Oi, he even left the plausibility of genetic transference in tatters. She had been the talent of the family, and she’d kept her genes to herself.
Supot couldn’t complain, though. Oi undoubtedly loved her children. Where other mothers might have given themselves to an unsuitable replacement husband for their benefit, Oi never did. She vowed never to leave herself dependent on a man again. She worked two jobs and dedicated herself to doing the best for her kids—sending them to a good school and having plans for their futures. During the day she clerked in the office of a river barge company. At night she made tiny clay models at home to meet orders from Central Department Store.
She molded little market people, bunches of fruit, carrying baskets, and sleeping dogs between her clever fingers. She painted them with brushes as fine as a baby’s eyelashes, varnished them, and baked them in her old Chinese oven. Every evening, Supot and Tam would finish their homework and sit on either side of the table watching her, wondering whose mother this woman was. If she was really theirs, they thought, surely, they would have inherited something of her. Surely, she wouldn’t have produced these two clumsy people with hands like hoofs.
Supot and Tam tried. Goodness how they’d tried. They turned out whole tribes of deformed elephant-man market people and dogs as ugly as congealed mucous. They painted eyes that filled up whole heads and bananas that contaminated all the fruit around them with their hepatitis yellow. Oi always giggled at their efforts, not to embarrass them, but because she was realistic. There’s no justice done in telling your children lies. Very soon they all saw the funny side, and their clumsiness lost its stigma. She told them that the Lord Buddha shared abilities around. She admitted she had certain gifts, but that her children had other skills to make up for those they lacked. To this day Supot was still searching for his prowess.
Now, he was thirty-two, reasonably good-looking as far as postmen went, but somewhat economical when it came to facial expressions. The span between boredom and shocked horror was barely perceptible, no more than an eyebrow shift. He had feelings as deep as any, but they rarely inconvenienced his face. To the customers on his route, he often seemed to be drunk in thought, philosophically high, even on days when he was as empty-headed as an egg puppet.
If you asked, he would tell you he had a mental disability. He was the first to confess to it. He didn’t need to compare himself to the genius of his film idols or even to normal thinking folk he met every day. Standing alone on a street corner, he could feel it. He probably should have qualified for a disability pension, but his defect wasn’t listed in the postal service manual. Otherwise, he could have collected his compensation check alongside the armless and the legless. Supot, “the original thoughtless.”
Memories from his childhood would suggest he once had an imagination, or part of one at least. He could remember sitting with Oi sharing theories about where his father might have gone in his hunt for a heart. The heart-hunt series had been Supot’s last original work. It had grown out of Oi’s telling him how a glittery lady had stolen the heart of her husband. To a three-year-old, the image of his father traveling around Thailand trying to get his heart back had been as vivid as the golden roof of the Grand Palace across the Chaophraya River. Together, he and Oi sent the treacherous man on mythical journeys through dark northern forests and sandy southern islands. Never did the man find his heart. Never did he return.
But imagination had left Supot somewhere along that journey, and now he could barely come up with excuses for being late to work. Naturally he had no less of a capacity for lying than any, but once a man convinces himself he can’t do a thing, no amount of counseling will make him believe otherwise. He’d been a postman for almost ten years. But if you asked him what he did for a living, he would answer that he was working at the post office “for the moment.” It wasn’t a career. It was just a job he did while he waited for his “big something.”
The setting for Supot’s unwanted life in late 1996 was a suburb called Bangkok Noi—Little Bangkok. In the mind of someone who hadn’t been there, the name probably conjured up an image of a quaint place with narrow streets and flower boxes. And there could have been a time in Thailand’s past when that was how it looked. It had once sat immune like a foreign land on the west bank of the river. But Greater (and uglier) Bangkok soon gobbled it up. Bangkok Noi turned from a destination to a transit route. It was sliced through, hemmed in, and overpassed from all directions. It ended up caged like a dove in a latticed concrete dome. It was blinded in a fog of exhaust fumes, and its song couldn’t be heard through the relentless noise of traffic. If it hadn’t been for the river at its back, the suburb would certainly have died without a trace.
But people like Supot, those who had been born there, had gone to school there, and lived all their lives there had a strange ability not to see the concrete crowding in on them. There were still little streets here and there, and canals with pink orchids drooping over them. If that’s all you bothered to notice, that’s all there was.
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