House of Fat Man, an Atmospheric Spy Thriller by M Gerard-Alesco

The Bottom Line: A deeply atmospheric, labyrinthine spy thriller written in the tradition of John le Carre.  

House of Fat Man opens at dawn in Chiang Mai as 29-year-old American ex-pat Greg Robber  is polishing off yet another beer. The previous night, he had found a friend named Nok severely beaten at a research station. The primary suspect? The Fat Man – a Chinese drug lord who operates in the Golden Triangle, the region in Southeast Asia, encompassing parts of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, that is synonymous with the opium trade. 

The novel takes place during the mid-1970s near the end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Author M Gerard-Alesco lavishes Greg with a generous backstory that involves his studies at Oxford while on a Rhodes scholarship. While nearing the end of his residency, Greg finds himself disinterested in his studies, disinterested in teaching, and vulnerable to excess drinking and womanizing. However, his savant-like ability to learn languages makes him an ideal candidate for espionage. Enter CIA operative Elliot, who recruits Greg after infiltrating pickup basketball games at the university.

With the exception of photography, Greg’s work for the CIA is largely unassisted by modern technology. Aside from what he can capture on film, his learnings about the drug trade are committed to memory or handwritten notes. He relies on his network for information and survival. As Greg gets pulled into the search for a missing British scientist named Sir Albert Saint Clair IV (his friend “Albie”), he realizes the path may lead straight into Burma. 

Using immersive, highly sensory prose, Gerard-Alesco’s Asia is a disorienting, complex and highly dangerous place in which people of every ethnicity and nationality are used like chess pieces by some higher power. American soldiers wait to be transported back to the safety of their homeland, while barmaids in skimpy outfits serve them. Greg’s girlfriend, Preeya, is under contract by The Fat Man, and despite Greg begging her to leave with him to go back to the U.S. she knows they are both trapped – Greg by his duty to search for his Albie, and her through her allegiance to her sister. Accordingly, House of Fat Man is at its most suspenseful when Greg is at risk of exposure and, much as he resents it, is forced to adhere to his training (Stick to the story, stick to the lie. Never amplify. One lie on top of another is always a tip-off). 

Greg’s eventual journey – and the mission’s endgame – is anything but predictable. While Gerard-Alesco’s vivid prose is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad, his plotting more closely resembles that of John le Carre. The exact opposite of contemporaries Mark Greany or Brad Thor, Gerard-Alesco is a patient storyteller and isn’t afraid to confront his characters with the grim realities of 20th century politics. Pick up House of Fat Man for the atmosphere and cat-and-mouse spycraft, and stay for what the book has to say about the futility of colonialism and moral ambiguity.  

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