Defective Force/Detective Farce
It’s a great time to be a crime reader. From Tartan Noir to Scandinavian sleuthing, there’s a ton of good reading out there.
It’s comforting to see the same threads emerging. Protagonists share their authors’ tastes in music: Rankin and Rebus are fans of the Stones, Harvey and Resnick delight in jazz, and Dexter and Morse turn to Wagnerian opera. And in other things. Camilleri pads out Inspector Montalbano’s investigations with obviously heartfelt paeans to Sicilian cuisine that normally require a glossary at the back.
The authors are often as interesting as their work. Fred Vargas turns out not just to be female but also a eukaryotic archaeologist. (Neither did I, I had to look it up.) (No, the exercise will do you good.)
The heroes (alas, heroines are rare) are flawed individuals (think Hole’s alcoholism) and more often than not have a history of troubled marriages. This allows a sexual tension to emerge when they are partnered with a woman (think Rebus and Siobhan; Lynley and Havers).
But they are clever, at least cleverer than their bosses, blinkered by rules, conventions or downright prejudice, and their intuitive nous gets us there in the end.
Somewhere around page 250 you think you’ve cracked it, but the next 50 pages prove you wrong. But you always know that by the end, you’ll reach enlightenment and even if the denouement isn’t as insightful or inventive as you’d hoped, well, there’s always the next in the series.
And then there’s real life.
You can get a glimpse of how the Royal Thai Police fare in comparison courtesy of a regular Monday column in the Bangkok Post called Crime Track.
The aim of the column seems to be to reassure readers that the safety of the citizenry is in good hands and that the police force, normally represented by some go-getting middle-ranking officer, solve crimes with a mixture of initiative, intelligence, perseverance and, yes they admit it, good luck. Just like the fictional detectives.
Until you look a bit closer.
The last column recounts the arrest of Nirut Sonkhamhan, the ‘pickup driver killer’. Now Nirun is the kind of person whose complete lack of invention gives serial killers a bad name. His modus operandi was to hire pickups with a driver to transport something to the same destination in Chumphon. En route, he gave the drivers drinks laced with insecticide, dumped their corpses by the roadside, and drove on to Hat Yai. There he sold the vehicles to a gang, flew back to Bangkok and gambled away the proceeds, before doing exactly the same thing all over again. At least 7 times.
So did this repetitious pattern of poisoned roadside corpses/disappearances attract the police’s attention? No it didn’t. It was the Mirror Foundation who spotted similarities between what the Post calls ‘several’ cases, but may have been only 3.
Now how come a non-government organization running a missing persons service on a shoestring budget can outdo the police? Could it perhaps be that their data is centrally collected and (I hazard a wild guess) computerized?
But once the police were alerted to the fact that one dead and two missing truck drivers had been hired to go to the same destination ‘between Prachuab Khiri Khan and Chumphon’ (note for the geographically challenged: there is nothing between Prachuab and Chumphon but a border), they ‘were certain of a link’. Sherlock would be proud.
Then another corpse was found. At this point (and why not before?) the Crime Suppression Division ‘expanded its investigation’ – all the way to the next province. They got reports from Cha-am of two earlier cases of poisoning where the victims survived. The police now had the identity of the alleged murderer and issued a warrant for his arrest.
At this point you have to know why arrest warrants in Thailand often don’t work. They identify a person as resident at the address on his ID card. Since changing this address is a bureaucratic nightmare, people don’t bother. They typically maintain the fiction of living in the family home somewhere upcountry, even though millions of them haven’t actually lived there for years.
The police knew that their suspect was registered in Songkhla. But he actually lived in Nakhon Pathom and they had no clue of this.
And how do we know they had no clue? Because the Post disarmingly reveals that there was already an arrest warrant for murder out for this guy. And while they were puzzling where in the country Mr Nirut might be, he killed again, in exactly the same way.
Now at this point, the CSD seem to have worked something out, though the Post doesn’t say how. They knew enough to expect him at Bangkok airport, spotted him on the CCTV and got the taxi licence number. But if they knew this, why wasn’t he nicked at Suvarnabhumi? Do they not check passenger manifests against outstanding warrants?
They traced the taxi which had dropped him off at Nakhon Pathom Big C. Good. And they still don’t know where he is.
Then the deus ex machina that commonly appears in Crime Track columns. ‘A witness helped police locate Nirut’. So he was nabbed and the leader of the CSD investigation concludes ‘I think he was the serial killer’. Why? ‘He confessed to killing all of them.’ How do they do it?
Now a confession is pretty damning evidence, but lots of people in Thai police stations confess to all manner of things, some of which they haven’t done. So we have to have a trial and prove it, right?
Not this time. Nirut attempted to commit suicide in custody on the Monday he was arrested, but the wire broke. He tried again 2 days later and this time hanged himself with his shirt.
Does ‘suicide watch’ mean anything to the Thai police? Apart, that is, from watching while someone commits suicide and achieves a botched end to a botched investigation.