The Simple Art of Murder (in Thailand)


Dean Barrett

As I passed a skimpily dressed young Thai woman whose dark eyes, direct stare and seductive smile suggested many possibilities, I took stock of where I was and what I was doing. A friendly bargirl was helping me lug my suitcases as we climbed the dark, narrow, mysterious staircase above the Texas Lone Staar Saloon at Washington Square. And I thought, hello, I must be back in Thailand.

And, indeed, I was. I had first arrived in 1966 with the Army Security Agency, then left in 1968. After two years in the States to get a Master’s Degree, I spent 17 years in Hong Kong, among other activities publishing Thai International’s Sawasdee magazine, and the next 14 years in Manhattan’s East Village, mainly as a librettist and lyricist. Although while based in Hong Kong I had been in Thailand just about once a month, while in New York, I had seldom made it back to the Land of Smiles.

Over the years, I had written two novels on Thailand, Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior and Kingdom of Make-Believe. Then, just over three years ago, while still in New York, my mind began filling with tantalizing bits of images of a detective novel set in Thailand. I sat down at the computer and wrote the first chapter which as it turned out would be little changed in the final draft. I began keeping a file of murder-related stories from Bangkok’s English language newspapers which I found on the internet. This would serve as background.

I decided my detective would live over a bar strikingly similar to the Texas Lone Staar Saloon, a kind of down-and-out fellow who had worked at the American Embassy with the CIA until a misunderstanding with another man’s wife would have him leave his job under murky circumstances. I also knew he would have a Thai girlfriend who was a muay-Thai boxer. Other than that, I knew little of the plot but I could feel very strongly that, with research and writing, the characters and the material would come.

It soon became obvious that Bangkok was no longer the place I had known in the 1960’s or even the one I had known in the two decades following, so I knew I had work to do in catching up. Much had changed: motorcycle taxis, cellphones, the skytrain, the modern skyline, the lost beauty of the city I had once known. But, of course, much remained the same, especially the character of the people and their wonderfully different way of seeing the world.

I knew the detective would handle low level cases involving bargirls absconding with money or farang wives wanting their husbands’ activities checked out; but I also knew he would get involved in a murder case which would allow him to enter different worlds of Thai society.

It would be natural for him to hang about the downstairs bar a bit but, while I was writing, I realized I needed him involved in an activity other than detective work. This would make him more rounded and provide relief from the main plot or might even add a subplot or might turn into a main plot. In any case, it would contribute to providing the novel with a proper pace. Fortunately, I knew a dive master and realized the detective might also be a kind of freelance diving instructor working for one of the dive shops.

There are two groups of people who can help a writer doing research. The first are the experts in their fields. In the case of Skytrain to Murder these included: the dive master, the experts on muay-Thai, the muay-Thai camp managers who let me watch and ask questions, former CIA agents, US embassy personnel, bar managers, bar patrons, bargirls, actual detectives, those with experience with boileroom sales, and those with knowledge of how a house of domination works. These are the people who generously shared their knowledge and gave their time and help, and without whose help there would have been no novel.

The second group which can give the writer very valuable assistance are the characters in the novel themselves. Voices in your head, if you will. What Stephen King refers to as “the boys in the basement.”

Notice I said they can assist but, alas, it doesn’t always work that way. It may be that characters refuse to come to life and insist on acting or speaking in stereotypical ways. In that case, it is up to the writer to decide what the problem is and how to fix it.

Sometimes characters do just the opposite: they come to life and begin taking the plot in ways the writer never intended, or they begin speaking or acting in strange ways. At least characters such as these have been brought successfully to life and, if the writer can tighten the reins on them a bit, they may add realism and vitality to the novel.

But beyond plot, pace, and characterization is voice. Who is telling the story and how? Is it the main character or is it the narrator? With Skytrain to Murder I finally decided a first person voice, i.e., the detective himself, would be best. I would not be able to get into the minds of other characters except as he saw them, but there would be an immediacy to the novel which objective narration would lack.

That meant that the reader would be spending a lot of time with Scott Sterling, the detective, and I decided I had better make certain that in addition to colorful characters he might know, and to whatever murderer he was tracking, he himself had to be interesting. Especially as I planned a sequel for the novel.

And so my Bangkok-based detective joined with all the other fictional detectives most of whom can be described accurately in the words of Raymond Chandler in his famous essay “The Simple Art of Murder”: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man…a man of honor. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world…He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.”

My challenge and my opportunity was to create such a detective and his world but one operating in an exotic setting like Thailand.


The sequel to Skytrain to Murder is Permanent Damage



This article first appeared in Thailand's Nation newspaper ARTISTIC RESUME

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