Lawrence Osborne, 61, is a 6-ft-6-inch-tall Englishman who can be spotted zipping through the Bangkok traffic on his black Milano scooter. He might seem like just another Western expat at first glance, but Osborne, who has made the Thai capital his home since 2012, might be “the best writer you haven’t heard of”, as The Observer commented in 2016.
Osborne has published five critically-acclaimed novels during this decade, starting with 2012’s The Forgiven. The story of a British couple on holiday in Morocco who get involved in a hit-and-run, it has Osborne’s signature theme of the clash of cultures as well as class. “Yes, clashes-or mergings-of cultures and classes are my themes because they are probably eternal ones. But what preoccupies me is the way the Western personality breaks down-because that is my own story,” he says.
Osborne’s work has been compared to Graham Greene. Like the late Greene, he fuses far-flung settings with the inner workings of his flawed characters, all told in a vivid, cinematic style. He may seem, in appearance and manner, to be a throwback to an earlier era, but he is one of the few contemporary writers able to show the present state of the world in all its messy complexity even while entertaining readers.
We met last month in Bangkok for a meal in the leafy environs of a Thai restaurant. From the veranda where we sat, we could see gleaming new highrises all around, several of them under construction, and it was perhaps natural that the talk started off with Hong Kong and China. “Those kids protesting in Hong Kong are really fighting against the China of their parents and grandparents, something they understand well. And I don’t think the Chinese generals would want to send in their troops in such an urban environment. Besides, Beijing needs Hong Kong for bonds, IPOs. The Belt and Road, remember, is paid for with dollars, not RMB (Renminbi),” says Osborne. He is currently putting the finishing touches to a short novel set in Hong Kong against the backdrop of the recent protests there. A former journalist who’s travelled extensively in Asia, Osborne has his finger on the pulse of things, especially in his adopted Thailand. “A lot of the investment money coming in is from China, well, at least, till the trade war with the US started,” he says. The Thai elite, he points out, are almost all Thai Chinese (the Chinatown in Bangkok is said to be the largest in the world). “The Thai language is related to old Chinese languages. The script is based on Sanskrit and Pali. While their society is Buddhist on the surface, there is a great deal of Hindu influence. Long ago, this might have been an outpost of the Khmer Empire, with Hinduism as the main religion.”
This ability to slip between worlds and periods exists in his fiction, too, and might be explained by his peripatetic life: born in Windsor, his parents moved to London when he was one. “I grew up in Haywards Heath, a small town south of London, to a modest middle-class family. I went to state schools, not private ones, and I thought I wanted to be a classical guitarist. Thank God, I went to Cambridge instead on a scholarship. I think all that time I really wanted to be a writer.”
He studied English until 1982 at Cambridge, and moved to Harvard the next year to study ancient Greek and medieval Italian, before spending time in Poland, Italy and France with his ex-wife. After a longish spell in America (where he covered the US-Mexico border for the San Diego Reader, before moving to New York), he stopped by Istanbul before finally moving to Bangkok, a place he knew well from covering Asia for publications like Vogue and the New Yorker. He has also travelled to Kolkata and Bhutan, and says he finds the decaying grandeur of the former imperial capital very interesting. He calls journalism a “young man’s game”. “By the time I got to 50, I was exhausted by all that running, catching those early morning flights,” he says.
Osborne had written an early novel, Ania Malina (1986), which sank without a trace, and then, for years, made a living from journalism, even while writing travel books and essay collections. “I wrote several novels in my 40s, and all of them were turned down. So, by the time I got to my 50s, I had my technique sorted out, and had the requisite life experience to go with it. Life started anew for me at 53,” he says. His mother’s death in 2011 and the move to Thailand the following year saw a return to fiction: The Forgiven (2012), The Ballad of a Small Player (2014), Hunters in the Dark (2015), Beautiful Animals (2017), set against the backdrop of the European migrant crisis, Only To Sleep (2018) an official Philip Marlowe novel, and the forthcoming The Kingdom (August 2020), about a group of four expat girls living in an apartment in Bangkok during the 2012 military coup.
The first novel of his I read was Hunters in the Dark, a dark, stylishly written tale of a quiet English teacher who crosses over from Thailand to Cambodia and is sucked into a world of deceit still shadowed by the Khmer Rouge era. A distinct writer’s sensibility came through in it. Consider this passage, where the teacher, Robert, is sitting with a corrupt Cambodian cop named Davuth, who was once a Khmer Rouge child soldier: “Davuth, he felt, was much deeper than himself because he had lived a much more dangerous life. The gift of a dangerous life: swiftness of thought, a fine capacity for hatred. You didn’t meet that type in developed countries any more. In rural southern Italy you might, wandering the roads. You might in Serbia or the darker French towns where strange military types still surface for a moment, veterans of wars they won’t admit to.” Like in Greene’s writing, there was the quick judgement balanced by apt detail: a sense of lived experience.
Though crime is usually present in Osborne’s stories, he says he doesn’t feel like a crime writer. “Is Dostoevsky a crime writer?” he asks. There is a vivid and varied cast of characters in his books: the Moroccan youth Driss from The Forgiven, escaping the harsh life of the trilobite-gathering region of Erfoud (in Morocco) for Europe, only to have his dreams thwarted in the end; Simon, the upper-class American from Hunters in the Dark, whose drug addiction leads him into increasingly darker corners in Asia; the high-end hooker Dao Meng in The Ballad, an economic migrant from the remote Kham area of Tibet. They come from the imagination of someone with a deep interest in the real world.
There is a section in The Ballad where “Lord Doyle”, a conman on the run from England to the casinos of Macau, and the hooker tell each other their life stories. Dao Meng’s description of her native Kham and Daocheng seemed exceptionally vivid to me, and as we talked, it turned out that those had been Osborne’s impressions from a trip to south-west China following in the footsteps of the Austrian-American explorer and botanist Joseph Rock for a Vogue magazine feature. “I spent two months on the road in 2007 with a Tibetan driver and two Chinese lady interpreters,” he says. “Rock lived in Lugu Hu in Yunnan and on Snake Island in the great volcanic lake there. But I also travelled through Kham and Tibetan Sichuan, visiting Litang, Snow Mountain and Xianggelila. It’s a landscape I revere and love. Almost like Ladakh.”
Similarly, in the well-reviewed Only to Sleep, in which Osborne revisits Raymond Chandler’s iconic PI Philip Marlowe as a 72-year old, he uses the US-Mexico border which he covered as a reporter. He enjoyed writing that one, saying it was “like eating chocolate.” Only to Sleep has been optioned for the screen by the actor Liam Neeson. Shooting starts in February on the film adaptations of both The Forgiven (with Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain) and Hunters in the Dark, on location in Morocco and Cambodia respectively, while Beautiful Animals and The Ballad have been optioned as well – the former by Amazon Studios.
Where does he go from here? One place he has never been is Ireland, though he does feel “quite Irish, in many strange ways. My mother was from the Gaeltacht, County Mayo, Clare Island. I’ve never been there. But maybe I will, this summer.”
Apart from literary comparisons with Greene, Osborne looks like the late English novelist, too. Had anyone commented on that before? “They have. And his family made a gift to me of his suits and pajamas, which fit perfectly. It’s a little eerie.”
Ankush Saikia is the author of the Detective Arjun Arora series (Penguin Random House India)