TRACKING CRIME: The Red Nail Thief by Christopher G. Moore

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Authors who write crime novels keep an eye peeled on the crime news. Living in Thailand the best crime reports are found in the Thai language press often accompanied by gruesome photographs and more often by smiling uniformed police officers standing behind suspects with that defeated, I am on my way to jail look.

Neither The Nation nor the Bangkok Post cover the local crime beat. Unless there is a high-profile foreign connection, the local crime news flows down the canal through Thai consciousness without ever causing a ripple on tranquil lives of foreigners.

The exception is Pattaya newspapers. Pattaya One and Pattaya People are two English language publications that cover local crime stories. The coverage includes crimes against foreign residents and tourists who are involved. Most of the time, these fall into the category of ‘petty’ crimes or ‘victimless’ crimes.

As an author, what do I look for in a local crime story? Usually I am on the alert for material that can be worked into a novel. The story that catches my attention is one with an unusual angle. Over the top violence (the noir element), a hint of humour (the comedic relief element), or a telling cultural lesson (cultural misunderstanding and crime often go hand-in-hand). The best cases are ones that combine several of these elements.

An example comes from Pattaya People which recently reported a breaking and entering. The call came in to the police at 3.30 in the morning. The caller was a Thai married to a foreigner. She told the police that as she spoke a thief was trying to break into her house. She and her husband had been awakened by the sound of breaking glass. They saw a man climbing over their fence.

The police arrived at the scene immediately. That’s a novel aspect to the story already. It is, after all, after three in the morning. The first thing the police notice is that the caller lived in a luxury villa. The villa was in a moo ban, a cross between a residential compound and small village usually with high-walls around it and security at the gates. The police suspected the thief was still in the neighbourhood and mounted a search.

They found a blue Honda Wave 100 motorcycle. Suspicious indeed. People who live in luxury villas drive imported luxury cars. People who rob the rich usually opt for a Honda Wave until the day they, too, can save enough of the ill-gotten gains to buy a villa and drive a luxury car.

As it turned out the caller’s next door neighbours and her husband were British. Clearly we get the picture the police are investigating a crime in a foreign enclave in the heart of Pattaya. The British wife informed the police that an unknown Thai man was hiding in one of their closets. It may be a British ritual to go through your closets at four in the morning just to see who might be hiding inside. In any event, the police entered the house and confirmed that indeed a Mr. Pumsit, age 29, a local man, was hiding in the British woman’s closet.

The police pulled Mr. Pumsit out of the closet (so to speak) and asked what he was doing in the farang’s closet? He replied that he hid in the closet because he was afraid of the police. There was an honest answer if there ever was one. The report doesn’t elaborate why he chose this particular house and closet to avoid being frightened by the police. Mr. Pumsit insisted he wasn’t a thief.

What Mr. Pumsit didn’t have an answer for was why he had painted his right thumbnail and his right big toe with red nail polish. It is unclear how the police discovered that the right big toe was painted red. But never mind, Mr. Pumsit was in trouble enough. In Thailand, everyone has a nickname. Normally a nickname is bestowed at birth by one’s parents, a monk, a relative or an elder. Thai nicknames (like official names) are known to be changed (though far less frequently than real names), and, if need be, updated to take into account more recent developments.

That is how Mr. Pumsit became known by the name “Red Nails.” One of the first types of punishment is humiliation. Being caught in a British woman’s closet with a thumbnail and big toe nail painted red, meant quite simply Mr. Pumsit’s life and identity has forever been changed.

By the way, the Pattaya police are convinced that Red Nails didn’t act alone. They were seeking to find his accomplices. The tip off, no doubt, was that Red Nails was right-handed. There was no way a right-handed man could have made such an artful and delicate painting job on his own right thumbnail.

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