Lawrence Osborne’s atmospheric thriller “Hunters in the Dark” recounts what happens when a young man at loose ends decides to shed his old identity and start a new life in Cambodia.
“Hunters in the Dark”
by Lawrence Osborne
Hogarth, 320 pp., $25
A restless young Englishman tries to make himself disappear while on a solo vacation in Cambodia in Lawrence Osborne’s lush and brooding new suspense novel, “Hunters in the Dark.”
Robert Grieve, a dull and passive 28-year-old schoolteacher with a ho-hum attitude toward life at home, saves up enough money to take a trip to Southeast Asia during his summer break. But when he wins a bundle of cash at a casino in freewheeling Cambodia, things spin fantastically out of control.
A land of superstition, furtiveness and opportunism of all kinds, where memories of the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s still cause chills in survivors, Cambodia may seem like an odd place for the relatively unworldly Robert to travel. But given his own adrift state of mind, it suits the moment. With his trusty cabdriver Ouksa in tow, it looks to be a fun adventure.
The problem is that word has spread that the reserved Englishman just hit the jackpot.
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Soon, Robert is befriended by a dashing American expat, a profligate heir named Simon Beauchamp who strolls around in fine linens, sells drugs and gets high with his Cambodian girlfriend Sothea.
Robert, however, has the look of “a wide-eyed innocent from a small town somewhere,” and Simon takes full advantage of his naiveté, swindling him out of that casino windfall, as well as his passport, and literally sending him up the river in a drug-addled haze.
Robert awakens on a riverboat with his money and ID missing, so he decides to capitalize on his misfortune, seeing the swindle as the perfect opportunity to melt away his old self and embody a persona more worldly, adventurous and cunning — that of Simon Beauchamp. In adopting Simon’s identity, Robert is running away from the man he’s become, from what his whole listless millennial European generation has become. But what is he running to, and at what price?
As he settles into his new life as an English tutor in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, Robert, now who now goes by “Simon,” starts a budding romance with a client named Sophal, the spunky daughter of a wealthy doctor who’s wisely suspicious that her language coach is holding something back.
Meanwhile, the real Simon and his Cambodian girlfriend soon have troubles of their own as they attempt to lay low. But their fate takes a vicious, karmic turn, one of many in this beautifully topsy-turvy story, when Robert’s old taxi driver spots Simon and decides to rob him on a dark country road.
What transpires next is a game of cat-and-mouse as a corrupt local policeman named Davuth tries to uncover the truth about the relationship between the shifty American and the British lad who’s traveling around Cambodia under Simon’s name.
A Thailand-based journalist and fiction writer (”The Forgiven,” “Bangkok Days,” “The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey”), Osborne creates an atmosphere dripping with torrential rains and intrigue. Cambodia comes off as a dangerously seductive playground, plying visitors with the sultry false promise of uncomplicated abandon among the Buddhist ruins, all under the bemused gaze of the local, ethnic Khmers who know better.
The risk, of course, is that there may be no easy exit from the dizzying whirlwind of escape.