Monday, 10 December 2012

A reading list – Thai based fiction

It’s impossible to put these in any sort of qualitative order, it depends on what you like and the mood you are in.  I can only list the books (or series’ of books) in the order in which I discovered them.

Private Dancer – by Stephen Leather: it was once suggested that single men should be issued with a  free copy on arrival at Bangkok Airport. It’s a “how not to” guide for sex tourists but its also a good story with some interesting twists. “Everyone” who likes books and has a passing interest in the Thai bar scene has read Private Dancer and will probably have a strong view on its merits. The harshest critics are those who have steeped themselves in the ex-pat lifestyle and feel the story is too simplistic. I really enjoyed it and particularly liked the technique by which each key scene is described from the perspective of different characters. It’s an ingenious way of demonstrating the cultural gulf between the various players. The same circumstances can be interpreted in totally different ways depending on whether they are being viewed by a Thai or a westerner.

The Bangkok Series – by John Burdett: I found Bangkok 8 in a bookshop at Suvarnabhumi Airport as I was waiting for a flight back to London. Unfortunately I did not start reading it straight away. That’s why I still had about an hour’s reading to do when we were only 30 minutes short of Heathrow Airport. For the first time in my life, I was praying for my flight to go into a holding pattern, I could not wait to find out what happened. It was one of those books you start to read more slowly as you get to the end, you just don’t want it to end. Torture. I finished the book in the taxi home and was hugely relieved to find that it was part of a series. The quality does not let up. The author knows the region like the back of his hand  and has a quite extraordinary imagination. That combined with a fascination for eastern mysticism makes a powerful combination. It’s hard to believe he used to be a lawyer but easy to see why he quit. I went back and found an earlier book called “The Last 6 million seconds” about the British handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese. Completely different style but every bit as engaging.  

The Poke Rafferty Series – by Timothy Hallinan

This short summary appears in “Thai Lottery… and Other Stories from Pattaya, Thailand:

“Rafferty is a super smart travel writer turned detective.  Living with an ex bar-girl; the magnificent Rose, he unravels complex mysteries, whilst battering bad guys and taking care of Miaow, his adorable adopted daughter.  He's part Irish, part Filipino and in spite of the strange first name, extremely cool.”

Many books based in Thailand, have been written by visitors, people passing through who may have a good story to tell but are unable to capture the essence of the country. Hallinan is a glorious exception. The story lines are sharp and clever but the key to these books is in characterisation and atmosphere. If the author ever reads this, he can try to find a compliment in the following sentence, “when I read your books, I can smell the streets of Bangkok”.  It’s there, honestly.

Hallinan captures the feel of the city perfectly. You could be reading on the beach and you would still be transported to a polluted, overcrowded, humid, vaguely threatening metropolis in your mind’s eye. Each character is perfectly drawn, any man would yearn for a woman like Rose and the feisty Miaow would be the perfect daughter. The villains are genuinely scary and whilst you suspect a happy ending (of the literary variety of course), Hallinan manages to make you think it might not happen this time.

Brilliant stuff, the next one is already out and I will be buying the e-book once they drop that vertiginous £11 price tag for the download.

Killed at the Whim of a Hat – by Colin Cotterrill

For me this was “Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” comes to Thailand, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. A meaningless analogy if you have never read the Alexander McCall Smith series, so I will try to explain.

The heroine is Jimm Juree, a crime writer for the local Chiang Mai newspaper, but family loyalty forces her to relocate to the south. She tries to resuscitate her career by investigating the death of an abbott and the discovery of two ancient skeletons in a long buried vehicle. The characters just jump off the age at you, despite the fact that the author has attempted something quite audacious. The book is written in the first person, so a western male is writing as a Thai female. Clearly there are limitations to my ability to say he has nailed it, but from the perspective of another western man, I really think that is exactly what he has done.  

The Thailand he writes about is one I definitely recognise, and he captures the often bizarre nature of the place that makes it simultaneously bewildering and captivating. Only the second term applies to Mr Cotterill’s book. The crimes are solved with cunning, subtlety and charm rather than with guns and violence, hence the McCall Smith analogy.

I am delighted to see there is another book in the series. As soon as I have finished writing this blog, I will be straight onto it.

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