If you like a slow, dark, lush, literary suspense thriller that transports you to an exotic and dangerous world, you might appreciate Lawrence Osborne’s “Hunters in the Dark.” It’s the type of rich atmospheric novel that celebrates outstanding literary craftsmanship while taking you on a suspense-filled journey deep into the dark hinterlands of Cambodia and…once there, delivering you cleverly and artfully into the jaws of a likeable, yet cunning sociopath.
Robert Grieve, the 28-year-old main character, is a disillusioned, solitary, and aimless young man. He is, perhaps at the beginning, not a very likable protagonist. But as you get into the novel and come to understand the man and his predicament, you learn to care about him.
In the beginning, we meet a young man disillusioned and apathetic about life. Life has sidelined him into a career as a schoolteacher in an isolated English village. He hates it. His future holds no promise and for that, he blames the poor global economic situation facing Millennials. But underneath it all, he’s aware he may just lack ambition. Robert is good-looking and charming, but friendless by choice. He likes his own company and blames his lack of a girlfriend on his meager and lackluster economic situation. Robert spends his leisure reading great literature and traveling. In fact, traveling is his singular escape. But of late, even that has become boring. Travel around Europe has stopped being interesting. Yearning for something entirely different, exotic, and far away, Robert goes to Thailand. Once there, his life changes forever.
As the novel opens, we find Robert at the tail end of the long summer school holiday. He’s on the Thai-Cambodian border. He’s been traveling with very little money and living in seedy hotels, the type rarely visited by European tourists. He’s trying to make his money last. Somewhat as a lark, he decides to uses his last remaining Thai bahts to try his luck at gambling. It’s a very popular “sport” that’s legal just over the border in Cambodia. There, he finds an array of sleazy casinos, most teeming with women in the sex trade, many curiously dressed like Chinese government officials. It seems the Chinese tourists love their prostitutes that way.
Robert’s foray into gambling turns out lucky. Rather than continue, he decides to use his unexpectedly good winnings to extend his vacation. He cashes in his chips and cautiously slips away…or so he thinks.
As the hours and days unfold, seemingly everyday circumstances lead him on a path toward meeting and befriending a very likeable American. Little does Robert know how dangerous this man will become…how much his life will be forever changed on account of their meeting.
Don’t expect the strong pull of a potboiler popular fiction thriller. This is not that type of fiction. This is a book of slow, steady suspense. The prose is hypnotic; danger lurks just out of sight everywhere, violence turns up unexpectedly. Love is intense, passionate, and exotic. Much of the pleasure of reading comes from being immersed in this fictional experience.
In the last analysis, this is ultimately a book about identity, a book where the themes, the mood, and the literary craftsmanship are almost more important than the plot. Not all readers will like that; I did. This is my first book by Lawrence Osborne; I’m sure I will read more.