Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Southeast Asian mystery novels...

Though it's only starting to arrive in the United States, over the years there's been a growing body of work featuring detectives set in Laos and Thailand  by expat writers. Most quickly leave readers with a jaded sense of "seen-one, seen-em-all," frequently covering the same territory.

This particularly concerns me because we may grow tired of Southeast Asian mysteries before native Thai and Lao writers even get a chance to fully explore our own region and all that might be accomplished within the mystery and thriller forms on our own terms.

Several writers have gotten a lot of traction out of Thailand and Laos. The big five of mystery writers tend to be considered Dean Barrett, Christopher Moore, Colin Cotterill, John Burdett and Stephen Leather. And there are several interesting books between them. But they often bring an unmistakably falang take on the countries their mysteries are set in.

John Burdett's made a name for himself in recent years. His primary character is the philosophizing smart-ass Thai detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a leuk krung. The majority of Jitpleecheep's adventures take place in, near, or relating to the red-light districts, with lots of exotic deaths and kinky eroticism.

Christopher Moore has been one of the very first to successfully write in the genre, creating a recurring character in Bangkok, Vincent Calvino, who's half Jewish and half Italian, an ex-New Yorker who became a private eye in Thailand, abandoning his law career and acting like Sam Spade with papaya salad near Patpong.

And then we have Colin Coterill, who sets his series in Laos with Dr. Siri Paiboum, a Paris-trained physician and aging widower who is also the country's only coroner in the 1970s. And apparently is a reincarnated Hmong shaman.

Dean Barrett writes books like "Murder at the Horny Toad Bar and Other Outrageous Tales of Thailand." The title alone should give a sense of the field's challenges. Very rarely do we see writers like S.P. Somtow or others getting much acclaim, encouragement or introduction to readers beyond Southeast Asia.

The very nature of mysteries and thrillers is to examine the underworld and to present an image of a corrupt society, and the hard-boiled noir detective novel requires a look at the 'worst' of a society. But most of what we've gotten so far leaves me wanting something more, and to see how native Thai and Lao writers would write about solving crime in their own countries.

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