Written by Lawrence Osborne — With its double identities and air of brooding menace, Hunters in the Dark is a literary thriller that’s earned comparisons to Patricia Highsmith. She was an author who travelled and enjoyed setting her shadowy psychological thrillers in far-flung locations. Osborne is also a well-travelled author who describes himself as ‘nomadic’. He lives in Thailand, where part of this novel is set, though much of it takes place in Cambodia. It’s a country of ghosts and past trauma – French imperialism and particularly the Khmer Rouge’s genocide – that brings a sense of foreboding to the aimless journey of world-weary English teacher Robert O’Grieve.
Robert is only 28 but he’s bored of a life back home in Sussex that, like his parents decades earlier, seems to be mapped out for him. Emboldened by his eastern adventure, he crosses from Thailand into Cambodia and makes a significant win in a casino. In a country where any westerner is already considered affluent, Robert finds himself taking the opportunity to lose himself. His summer holiday turns into a more permanent escape.
With the compromised characters that populate Hunters in the Dark, Graham Greene is also a clear influence. Brighton Rock even gets a mention during the novel as if Osborne is keen to draw attention to a literary hero. When Robert indulges in an opium pipe it’s suggestive of his escape from his everyday existence, but also a reminder of Greene’s Vietnam novel The Quiet American.
It’s a suave American who provides the impetus for Robert to leave his old life behind. He first encounters Simon Beauchamp as a mysterious presence amid the lonely ruins of Ba Nan. When they finally meet on the road Robert’s hustler of a taxi driver, Ouksa, is wary of the American in the white suit. But Robert is drawn to this confident expat who’s seems to offer the Englishman an introduction to a new life.
In fact, Robert ends up adrift in the city of Phnom Penh without his winnings or passport. Yet in true Highsmith style, he seizes the opportunity to take on a new identity and begins to offer English classes. He calls himself Simon Beauchamp and visits the American’s tailor to imitate his appearance. Robert’s soon rewarded with a client called Sophal, the daughter of a doctor, and the pair start a romance.
Of course, Robert’s dishonesty about his identity means he’s constantly worried about getting caught, but there are also dangers in his brief involvement with the real Simon Beauchamp. The American, a wealthy dropout, has a stash of heroin and he’s hiding out in an isolated lodge run by a taciturn Scot. The lodge’s furniture is made from military material, such as shell casings used as lamps, and there are uncleared landmines surrounding the site. It’s a stark reminder of the conflict the country had to endure in the 70s.
When a corrupt policeman called Davuth enters the frame, he provides a chilling insight into the mindset of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide that resulted in the murder and deaths of around 2 million people – a quarter of the population. Davuth was a young executioner for the regime and, in middle age, he’s become a disturbed and dangerous cop. However, Osborne doesn’t simply use the country’s tragic past as an easy way to create a menacing villain. He writes with understanding of Cambodia and its history, as well as the continuing exploitation by sleazy westerners.
Hunters in the Dark is an atmospheric and sinister thriller in which no one is quite what they appear to be. And as hunters close in on their prey, the tension builds to a devastating climax. For once, the comparisons to a pair of literary greats (Highsmith and Greene) are deserved, though Osborne merits recognition as a distinctive and stylish writer in his own right.
For more crime fiction set in Cambodia, click here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars