“Beasts of the Night,” by Matejs Kalns, captured my imagination right from the start and grabbed me all the way to the end—despite the fact that it centers on human trafficking, a topic I find so disturbing that I would generally not opt to read fiction about it. With his strong mix of suspense, intrigue, alluring characters and fascinating locations (particularly Bangkok and Cairo), Kalns not only provides an excellent diversion for the reader, but he also manages to shine a light on the horrible scourges of human trafficking and the sex trade, which too many people would rather sweep under the rug.
The novel is told through the eyes of Canadian security consultant Quinn Mills, who is desperately trying to locate a Cambodian girl who was kidnapped from her shelter. This may at first glance seem like a classic savior story, but “Beasts of the Night” is not typical or oversimplified. While the girl, Mei, needs a physical rescue, Quinn needs an emotional one. Kalns describes his main character as a “disillusioned pseudo-authority” with an axe to grind and a way of taking everything too personally. Indeed, at the beginning of the book, Quinn is so disaffected and whiny (he really hates stupid airport officials), that I questioned whether to keep reading about such a jaded jerk. And yet, this is partly why I kept reading. I wanted to see where he would go, emotionally speaking. The interwoven fates of the man and the girl drive the story well, and by chapter eight, Quinn was growing on me. “He couldn’t tell if it was the whiskey or the sobriety that was getting on his nerves,” Kalns writes. Eventually, Quinn progresses from pure cynic to a man capable of humor with real reasons behind his disillusionment.
An independent author with a background in education and human rights, Kalns has a talent for painting vignettes and conjuring up characters. As Quinn tries to find Mei, for example, he meets the old priest Father Marco, the flower shop owner Areum, the back alley document forger in Bangkok, the new intern Heidi in Cairo, the old doctor Youssef Nasser—all distinct individuals. Whether Kalns has met people who form the basis of these characters, or they are composites, their images stuck with me long after I finished their chapters. By interspersing letters that Mei once wrote to Quinn, the reader gains insight into the girl and her relationship with the man she nicknamed “cockroach.” When the trail of clues becomes thin and verges on impossible-to-believe, Quinn himself questions everything, effectively reestablishing plausibility for the reader.
Part II, which takes place in Cairo, was even better than the first. The reader gains a sense of the ancient city and the complexities of Egyptian politics (post-Arab Spring), while the portrayal of Quinn’s old friend Maha, a feisty Egyptian working on women’s issues, is fantastic. Kalns does a masterful job writing about her frustrations with the men in her workplace, and the dialogue between Maha and Quinn was refreshingly funny. As a woman, I felt Kalns’ ability to capture the perspective of a woman here was surprisingly apt. I especially loved the banter in Chapter 24, when Quinn and Maha go out to dinner and finally get to the core of things. “It’s not all bad, seeing you again, but you weren’t this bitter before,” she tells him. “So then, give me an example, Mr. Scrooge. What makes you think you’re turning into such a grouch?”
“Beasts of the Night” doesn’t easily fit into a box or genre. Part thriller, part suspense, part exposé, part literary fiction, it is a clever mix, something I applaud, but it is worth noting that such multifaceted books are a nightmare to market, particularly for indie authors. Amazon has it in the “Suspense Action” and “Action Thriller” categories. But how to locate such a thing from scratch? In my case, I found “Beasts of the Night” through an unusually fortuitous encounter with a social media algorithm. (I think it was Instagram, but could it have been Twitter?) Algorithms often bury good material, or deliver stupid suggestions, but in this case the mysterious system hit the mark. In fact, I doubt I would’ve found this novel otherwise: It does not fall into my usual “espionage” pool; I have absolutely zero connection to Kalns; and I can’t imagine how I could have initiated a search for this book. My vote is for updated genre categories, such as “international affairs novel” or “international intrigue thriller.”
By any measure, the editing of “Beasts of the Night” is remarkably clean—even more so than many big names in commercial fiction. Indie authors have fewer editors than authors working with mainstream publishing houses, so I believe a certain amount of editing glitches should be overlooked in indie books, because they would have been eliminated by the editorial swarm that comes with the big publishing deal. “Beasts of the Night” had hardly any typos at all, and I only identified a few minor faults. I tripped over a few rough transitions in the first few chapters, and I was thrown off by the lack of location of the airport transit zone in Chapter Three. I had falsely assumed Quinn was somewhere in Asia, and only later realized he was returning from a vacation in Costa Rica, and must have been in Houston or Chicago. After I figured this out, I wondered why Kalns didn’t just say the transfer point was in the U.S. (How could a man who could create cranky Quinn fail to specify that the moronic airport officials were American?) But, anyway, my recommendation to anyone who trips up the way I did is to keep going; everything falls into place.
Kalns deserves credit for tackling the difficult topics of modern slavery, sex work and human trafficking, all the more fraught by layers of colonial legacy, racism, sexism and other biases prevalent in real life and in art. For an author interested in shedding light on any social issue, it can be hard to strike the right balance between telling truths and retaining readers—some readers will be lost if tragedies or crimes are too detailed, but then if they are not detailed enough, no justice has been done. Not only is Kalns grappling with these taboo topics, but it struck me that as a Canadian man with Latvian heritage (according to his biography), he was in a tough spot telling a story involving a little girl from Cambodia and a woman from Egypt. How well would he do in representing their points of view? On the other hand, must we only tell the stories of people who have our own gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc? And how would that even be possible—since one can’t tell a story without the main character interacting with others, who can’t all be the same? How can people be respectfully and accurately described? These are questions that all authors have always faced, but are now in the spotlight more than ever. Rightly so. We need to scrutinize the words we use to illustrate our points, what our biases are, and what we may be unconsciously signaling. In Kalns’ case, there were a few instances when I would have used a different word, or deleted a word, but literally only a few. Overall, “Beasts of the Night” is a beautifully written story about a tough topic, taken on with great sensitivity and sophistication.