Tim Hallinan On Detecting Asia

On December 13, 2009, Tim Hallinan posted the following article on Murder Is Everywhere, a blog that shouldn’t be missed.

Tim writes about other writers who “detect Asia” and who better to guide readers to great story-tellers than a master story-teller himself.

Detecting Asia

We live in a golden age for thriller and mystery fans.

As the title of this site suggests, any reader can now investigate dozens of places and cultures through the lens of the mystery or thriller novel. Mysteries are great books for armchair exploration — as many have noted, the detective is classless, able to interact with people at all levels of society; mysteries and thrillers, by definition, lift up a corner of the social fabric and peer beneath it; and what other genre revolves around a character whose primary function is to ask questions?
The bloggers who contribute to MURDER IS EVERYWHERE live on, and write about, four continents: Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia. I’m the Asia hand, and I thought it might be fun to talk about the writers who I think are the best at capturing the countries they write
about. Disclosure: I’m limited to writers who write in English or are translated into it.
HONG KONG — Eric Stone’s four Ray Sharp books mostly begin in Hong Kong, although Ray goes wherever the story takes him, memorably to Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, mainland China, and other points East. Ray (like Eric) is a former journalist who (unlike Eric) now works for a company that does due diligence in the feverish climate of modern Asian business. As a result, he bumps up against bad guys of all descriptions, in settings that are always persuasive. You can feel Asia in Eric Stone’s writing — in fact, you can almost smell it. Living Room of the Dead, Flight of the Hornbill, Grave Imports, and the current Shanghaid — they’ll all take you to places you haven’t been, and some you probably wouldn’t want to get anywhere near.
CHINA — Qiu Xiaolong is a Chinese-born poet and mystery writer who now lives in St. Louis and whose Inspector Chen books look closely at the fastest-changing country in the history of the world. Qiu brings a poet’s touch and a moralist’s eye to the

challenges of a nation where everything has been turned upside down in a matter of years, where the police can’t touch certain people (often the most guilty) and frequently don’t know which laws they dare to enforce. Inspector Chen is a man I’d like to meet. He has wit enough to survive in a system where the only constant is change, and a moral core that holds him steady when the points of the political compass suddenly reverse themselves. Death of a Red Heroine is a great starting point, but you could also pick up Red Mandarin Dress or A Loyal Character Dancer— any of them.
THAILAND — I write about Thailand, but the guy who owns Bangkok, from a literary
perspective, is Christopher G. Moore. If the Bangkok private eye has become a cliche — as was suggested in a review of one of my books by a critic who hasn’t laughed since the day the hogs ate grandma — it’s Chris Moore’s fault. He invented the genre, and his Vincent Calvino set

the mold. A nervy, bright New York lawyer, now disbarred, Vinnie brings a distinctly farang attitude to Bangkok’s mean streets, which are rarely meaner than they are when Vinnie walks them. Without Vinnie Calvino, there wouldn’t be a Poke Rafferty, and I wouldn’t have a publishing contract and a tiny (but deeply appreciated, guys!) fan base. Among the many very good things about Christopher G. Moore is that he’s written lots of books. One of the earliest, Spirit House, has been published recently in America by Grove Press, as have two more recent titles, The Risk of Infidelity Index and the wonderful Paying Back Jack. (Are those great titles, or what?) And you can get his “Land of Smiles” trilogy, beginning with (I think) A Killing Smile at Amazon. Nobody writing today knows Bangkok better.
LAOS — Colin Cotterill is the guy. Even if he weren’t the only writer I know who sets

mysteries in Laos, he’d almost certainly be the best. His 73 year-old-hero, Dr. Siri Paiboun, is a French-educated physician who is drafted by the totalitarian (and totally inept) government of Laos as the state coroner. An interesting thing happens to Dr. Siri as he accepts dead patients — he discovers a previously undiscovered ability to commune with them. The Laos are among Asia’s spacier groups — there’s a saying in Cambodia: “The Vietnamese own the rice, the Cambodians plant the rice, and the Laos listen to it grow.” Cotterill handles his characters and their beliefs with empathy and seriousness, even as the books shade into gentle comedy. I suggest starting with the first, The Coroner’s Lunch, followed by the second, Thirty-Three Teeth, and then reading the rest of the series pretty much as they come to hand. They’re a continuing delight.
JAPAN (modern) — Natsuo Kirino is a writer of prodigious talent and the subject of the most dramatic author picture I’ve ever seen. Her books, especially Out and Real World, are densely

woven psychological thrillers that show the reader a Japan that’s never on The Discovery Channel. In Out, a group of women who work together at a factory plot to kill the brutal husband of one of them and then carry the plan out — and from then, it’s “The Telltale Heart” times five. Real World is the most chilling novel of alienated youth I’ve ever read; after teenage boy murders his mother, he begins to text the girls in his class, each of whom reacts in a completely different way. It’s unlike anything I ever read. Grotesque was actually too strong for me — its picture of a teenage girl who’s a sociopath was so convincing I felt like I’d been trapped in a bell jar with something poisonous and vicious. Kirino is the real thing.
JAPAN (medieval) — Laura Joh Rowland is the author of the Sano Ichiro series, which, happily for readers, comprises many books and which, taken as a whole, recounts an epic of Wagnerianproportions — a complex, meticulously researched tale of treachery, betrayal,

and jockeying for power at the highest levels of feudal Japan. Rowland’s hero, Ichiro, rises high through his service to a weak, easily manipulated emperor — with the (usually) secret help of his spirited wife, Lady Reiko. I actually don’t know how Rowland does what she does. I sometimes pick one up thinking I’m not really in the mood for it, but, what hell, I’ll give it a try — and then realize that I’ve been reading for three or four hours. This is one series you definitely want to read in order, so kick back and start with Shinju, in which Ichiro begins his ascent to the treacherous peaks of power.
So many books, so little time. Such a long blog. Such eccentric margins.
Tim — Sunday
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