I keep a list going of books that I'd like to read one of these days. It is mostly crime fiction or espionage, of course, culled from recommendations from the few blogs I follow, and I cross off what I've read. Sometimes they are hits, sometimes misses, but following my previously stated need to break out of my series rut, I picked up Behind the Night Bazaar (Text Publishing, 2006) by Angela Savage. I don't recall where I got the idea for this one, but it may have been from the International Thriller Writers Bill Thrill webzine or something like that.
I'd been trying to make a go of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (and I'm back at it so expect a report, um, maybe not so so soon but someday), but a frenetic time at the day-job necessitated less work on the reading and relaxing front, and Conrad is most definitely NOT relaxing. Behind the Night Bazaar is lightweight in comparison.
That's not to say that this is crime-lite. Our Hero, private investigator Jayne Keeney is drawn into the sordid scene of the sex industry in Thailand, particularly focusing on the abuse of children. Her best friend is killed, and although his death is announced by the police as basically shot-while-trying-to-escape, Jayne is pretty sure that he's been murdered to prevent him from revealing information that would implicate the police in the sex-trafficking rings. You know I'm not wild about woman crime-solvers (yes, lots to unpack there as the academics would say) and Jayne doesn't change my mind. She's brave, yes, but stupidly so, and conveniently unencumbered by family or a day-job. I just didn't connect that well with her, but then that was also the case with most of the characters here. Other than the potentially interesting Officer Komet, everyone is kind of one-dimensional.
There were also a few plot turns that seemed just a little too contrived. I thought that Jayne and Didier's debate over old cosy v. new hard-boiled crime fiction a bit too obvious a way for Savage to prove her bona fides. And it is hard to understand why Didier felt the need to leave Jayne clues about his possible death (she called him about the visit), so the whole hidden message business was a bit rich. Jayne's dalliance with the Aussie cop is pretty sexy, but again, no surprise that it happened. With respect to plot turning points, there just isn't that much there there.
That said, what I expected to enjoy about this story, and did, was the fine setting in Chiang Mai. Savage has clearly spent a lot of time in Thailand, and knows her way around well - the setting really drips with authenticity, even down to the depressing red-light districts of this tourist destination. So what if probably every writer has referred to gleaming golden temples, they DO that, right?
"The Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road ran along the east bank of the Mae Ping, affording Jayne a view of the town at its finest. The spires of its numerous wats sparked gold in the late-afternoon sun, the river was liquid copper an the distant mountains lavender.
People sauntered along hte riverbank: school children in uniform, young men wearing baseball caps; mothers with toddlers learning to walk. Among them was a Yao woman in an indigo turban and tunic with ruffles of red wool. As the tuk-tuk passed, Jayne saw the red pom-poms of a baby's cap peeking out from a sling on the woman's back. It struck her that while Chiang Mai might have an ugly side, the light that afternoon was at its most flattering." (288) Yes, obvious, and that last sentence isn't properly edited (the two clauses don't agree) but you know, I'd probably write about the same thing in a travel journal and you'd all think it was marvelous.
Perhaps Savage is at her best when not trying so hard. At the end, I found myself unexpectedly touched by the last scene, of Didier's Buddhist funeral. Savage describes a beautiful and moving send-off for Jayne's friend, in language that is never overwrought, just simple and heartfelt.
I can't say that I'll pick up another Jayne Keeney story any time soon, unless I'm Bangkok-bound. Because even with all the sad backdrop of the child sex trade, you may want to visit Thailand after you read this!