Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bangkok 8

I'd bought this mystery by John Burdett a few years ago when I was exploring for new and different kinds of procedurals and picked it up now because Monsoon made me want to find out more about some of these Asian countries. Burdett rewarded me in spades. His smooth, entertaining, often very funny story makes you feel like you've been to Bangkok and seen it from the eyes of an insider. His engaging detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, is no doubt a Thai filtered through Western sensibilities but nonetheless his wry observations about Thai culture and philosophy, especially in contrast to Western notions, are humorous but also revelatory.

The story itself is fine, beginning with the dramatic and mysterious death of a U.S. Marine from the bites of dozens of cobras locked in his car with him. Why he was murdered, by whom and why in such a bizarre fashion is what Sonchai has to find out. The fact that his partner and soul brother was killed by one of the snakes when they went to the aid of the victim makes it also a mission of revenge for the Thai detective.

Burdett introduces a fascinating array of characters -- the murdered marine and his brother and girlfriend, the police colonel who gives new meaning to the word corruption, a number of Thai bit players, a truly evil villain, and not least Sonchai's mother, a retired "bar girl" turned entrepreneur who provides some of the most hilarious dialogue.

But it is the character of Sonchai, who narrates in first person, who most engages the reader. He is striving for the wisdom of Buddhism but he is also a young man sorting things out. His interactions with the various characters, his attempts to see the bigger meditative picture, his musings on reincarnation all add up to a quirky, original character who is unfailingly sympathetic. His observations on his mother's former profession and the Thai sex industry in general provide a good deal of insight into that culture. His praise for Thai cuisine, coming on top of a wonderful Thai dinner recently at our neighbors, prompted me to go out and get a Thai cookbook.

Less successful is the character of the FBI agent assigned to work with Sonchai on the murder of a U.S. soldier. Kimberly Jones is portrayed with a slight edge of misogyny that almost suggests Burdett has spent too long in Thailand, and her ambivalent relationship with Sonchai is so inconclusive as to be frustrating rather than adding any depth to the story or to the main character.

Sonchai's unraveling of the mystery has a number of surprising twists, but the author's ultimate resolution was neither convincing nor satisfying. Sonchai's belief in reincarnation was interesting as his belief but dabbling in some pseudo-hysterical reincarnation crosses the line into surrealism that doesn't really belong in a book as convincingly real as this one.

Burdett's writing is sharp and witty, his descriptions are telling, and his humor is on a par with that of Carl Hiaassen and Jess Walter. I see on Amazon that he has followed up this debut novel with several other Sonchai mysteries, so I just ordered the second in the series, Bangkok Tattoo. I doubt that I'll let it sit on the shelf several years as I did this one.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Daughter of Time

This quick read by classic crime writer Josephine Tey was suggested in David Stewart's blog in the wake of the discovery of Richard III's skeleton. It turns out there is a whole movement of "Ricardians" seeking to rehabilitate his reputation as a cruel and monstrous tyrant. The team searching for the skeleton has that as one of their goals and Tey's "procedural," first published in 1951, was an early work seeking to correct his bad historical rap.

In this book, her detective, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, is laid up in the hospital with a broken leg (for a period unimaginable under today's health insurance schemes) and is bored by the literary fluff he has to read. Because his finely honed detective skills give him confidence that he can tell much about people simply by studying their faces, a friend brings him a number of historical portraits to study. One is the classic portrait of Richard III, which immediately strikes Grant as the face of a kind and intelligent person who has suffered much, and not the monster accused by history of murdering his nephews to ensure his accession to the throne.

With the help of a convenient young American researcher, Grant works to find the truth about Richard III, focusing as a detective not on what people say, but on their actions and movements. When he finds "gaps," he zeroes in on them to find out why their behavior is at variance with the received truth. Long story short, this detective determines that Richard III had no motive for murdering his nephews; there was no evidence that he had or even that they were dead before Richard himself was killed in the Battle of Bosworth, ending the Plantagenet dynasty; that contemporary accounts portray Richard as a just and compassionate ruler; that the "confession" by Tyrrel 20 years after the fact that Richard commissioned him to kill the princes was a frame-up by the Tudors, who themselves are guilty of the crime in order to secure their own dynasty.

At the end, Tey reveals of course that all of this revisionist history has been well-documented in the 500 years since Richard III's death. But the combination of Thomas More's slanderous account and Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard III as a murderous hunchback (Richard in fact had curvature of the spine from idiopathic scoliosis, but this was not visible or known to most people) meant that a wider public and school textbooks preserved this unsympathetic portrayal.

It turns out a certain Philippa Langley is heading the Ricardian excavation with plans to produce a miniseries telling the true story of Richard III centuries after his death and 60-some years after Tey's popular book. The title comes from an "old proverb" cited at the beginning: "Truth is the daughter of time."

The book itself has virtually no action. It could be a radio play or a static stage play because it consists almost exclusively of dialogue between Grant and his researcher and other interactions in his hospital room. For those of us who did not have an education in British schools, the proliferation of Edwards and Edmunds and Warwicks and Woodvilles and Lancastrians and Yorkists can all be a bit confusing. But with a little assistance from Wikipedia, it is an entertaining way to absorb a lot of history.

Two other things stood out for me: Tey anticipates the Hilary Mantel's debunking of the "sainted Thomas More" by several decades, portraying him as a scurrilous, dishonest tool of the Tudor effort to discredit Richard. The researcher, Brent Carradine, at one point describes More as "The mean, burbling, insinuating old bastard." So far from Paul Scofield's More in "A Man for All Seasons."

Second, Shakespeare's role in perpetuating what truly seems to be a false picture exposes his Histories as the blatantly political screeds they are. (Obviously the world is richer for immortal lines like the "winter of our discontent" and "my kingdom for a horse," but much of what the playwright wrote is fiction, not history.) For me, it fits in with the total deception surrounding Shakespeare since I'm firmly in the Oxfordian camp that believes a titled nobleman wrote these plays and not a functionally illiterate sometime actor from Stratford-on-Avon.

So until I see other evidence to the contrary, I am in the Ricardian camp and eager for the miniseries to be produced. In the meantime, I've ordered the much longer historical novel The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman, a sympathetic portrayal of Richard III.

The discovery and verification of the skeleton is an exciting story of detection in its own right, and would make for a compelling documentary.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Robert Kaplan's geopolitical travelogue, subtitled "The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power," was the first book selection of our Chevy Chase men's book group. While some members found it a bit of a slog, I found it riveting and it certainly generated a good discussion.

Kaplan portrays the Indian Ocean littoral on the basis of his first-hand encounters, lacing his analysis with history and interviews. The result is a gritty, authoritative look at the countries -- some, such as Oman, little known; others, such as India, quite familiar but seen here through a different strategic lens -- stretching from East Africa and the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea.

One of the revelations for me was that this ocean does not spill into the Pacific across a wide expanse, but is a fairly enclosed, self-contained body of water. Kaplan starts from the premise that most trade, and especially the vital transport of oil, goes by ship and so requires free passage through sea lanes. Oil from the Middle East on the way to China must pass through the Strait of Malacca, a geopolitical choke point whose significance is hard to exaggerate.

So the main narrative is China's effort to improve and maintain access to the Indian Ocean, which dictates a two-ocean strategy as the country flexes its growing economic power with acquisitions for its navy. It gives a focus to the rivalry between India and China and defines the continuing role for an American presence.

The author presents a series of vignettes -- Oman's enlightened despot showing how an authoritarian ruler can be as beneficial as democracy; the port of Gwadar in Pakistan illustrating China's use of its financial wealth to reinforce its geopolitical stature; the success of Guajarat's Hindu nationalist leader Modi in combating many of India's endemic ills; the corrupt dictatorships of Burma and Sri Lanka stifling development in these countries while giving an opening to China.

Kaplan is ambivalent about the benefits of democracy, at times optimistically praising its ability to help a nation like India rise out of poverty, but other times suggesting that it is ill-suited to some cultures and more of a hindrance to development. To me, he seemed overly optimistic about India's prospects and insufficiently pessimistic about the obstacles and challenged China faces in raising its billion-plus population to middle-class prosperity.

He provided the geographic connection to why China's rapid growth has boosted the economies of African nations. I knew the phenomena were linked because China is scouring the globe for natural resources and food, but I didn't realize that Chinese navigators historically used the monsoon winds to visit East Africa back in the middle ages. For that matter, I didn't even realize a monsoon is a system of winds sweeping across the India Ocean; I thought it was just a rainy season.

Kaplan's descriptions and analysis in this 2010 book are very much up to date and make it much easier to decipher reports in the newspaper. But his travels in Rangoon and Mandalay and Ceylon conjure up an exotic colonial world that makes want to pick up Somerset Maugham's Far Eastern Tales or George Orwell's Burmese Days to go back into time.

I enjoyed the book and it gave me a new appreciation of a region I've never been particularly interested in visiting. I'm still not in a hurry to see it first-hand but I'll have a better feel not only for the news coming out of there, but for the abundant fiction set in this world.


This review of the biography by Alan Forrest appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books:

Napoleon Bonaparte, conqueror of Europe and emperor of the French, achieved greatness in just 51 years of life. Although he died in 1821 after six years of miserable exile, this account of Napoleon’s life and legacy begins in 1840, with the pomp and ceremony and public enthusiasm that greeted the return of Napoleon’s ashes to France from his burial place on the remote island of Saint Helena. Those remains eventually were interred under the grand dome of the Hotel des Invalides, where tourists to this day can witness the enduring hold that Napoleon has on the French.
Alan Forrest, an emeritus professor at the University of York, has written extensively on French history. He distills a lifetime of learning into what is less a traditional biography – those often- tedious tomes filled with excessive detail – and more a highly readable historical perspective that tells you everything you need to know about the lasting influence of this extraordinary leader. The book compresses a great deal of history into its pages. Forrest assumes the reader is familiar with the principal events of the French Revolution and often mentions key players in passing, filling in details only when essential to the narrative.
Forrest captures all of Napoleon’s contradictions. He was a champion of France’s Republican revolution who became a ruthless dictator, a general who led hundreds of thousands of young Frenchmen to an early grave but established a legend of national glory that France still revels in, a man of incredible energy and drive who spent his final days in tortured solitude on one of the globe’s most remote islands. Forrest provides a lucid sketch of a career that led a provincial artillery commander to rise to unparalleled power in the space of just 20 years.
Forrest focuses much of his narrative on how Napoleon consciously manipulated public opinion to create a larger-than-life image for himself, exaggerating the significance of his early victories in Italy and depicting his Egyptian expedition as an historic success even though by most measures it was a failure. In Forrest’s view, Napoleon’s genius in public relations contributed to his success just as much as did his skill as a military strategist. He cultivated journalists and monitored his press during his campaigns. He took to Egypt an entourage of artists and poets to turn that lackluster campaign into a triumphal epic. Once he seized absolute power he suppressed all contrary opinions.
Most everyone has heard of Waterloo, the 1815 battle when a vast coalition of European forces finally defeated Napoleon and sent him into permanent exile on Saint Helena Island in the middle of the South Atlantic. Many forget that this was the second defeat and exile for the erstwhile emperor. His first exile came in 1814 after the disastrous loss of French troops at the Battle of Leipzig. The victorious allies gave the man they saw as a usurper a mini-kingdom on Elba, an island off the shore of Italy, near his original home of Corsica.
But after only 10 months of exile, Napoleon fled Elba to France and marched on Paris to begin what Forrest calls the “bizarre adventure story” of the Hundred Days, when he sought to reclaim power and restore the empire. He managed to raise a force of 120,000 men to meet the European coalition on the famous battlefield outside Brussels in July 1815. But for some much-discussed miscues among his generals, he might have won.
It was Waterloo, however, that cemented the legend of Napoleon, Forrest says. With his return to Paris, his attempt to restore an empire based on the liberal principles of the Revolution, and his bold final battle, Napoleon in some senses redeemed his reputation.
“[F]or an important section of the French public,” Forrest writes, “and for romantics across Europe, it came as a reminder of Napoleon’s daring, his effervescent character, his indomitable spirit – those characteristics which they admired the most. They would come to see the Hundred Days as a moment of epic tragedy which could so easily have resulted in a glorious endgame, pulling victory from the jaws of defeat the previous year.”
Napoleon’s influence did not end with his lonely death on Saint Helena. His comprehensive reform of the civil code had a lasting effect, not only in France, but throughout much of the continent that at one point had been subject to his rule. The mystique of invincibility that he deliberately fostered led to a pattern of reaction, revolution and counterrevolution that marked France and the rest of Europe for a century. His dream of a united continent motivated French and other European statesmen after World War II to build a European Union.
Those who want more personal details about Napoleon, a fuller treatment of his famous romance with Josephine, or a comprehensive chronology of his military campaigns may want to turn to one of those longer biographies or a specialized study. What Forrest has provided is a relatively compact view of Napoleon’s life and achievements in the context of his times and a sweeping assessment of what he has meant for the history of Europe.
Darrell Delamaide, who was a foreign correspondent in Paris for 11 years, is a writer in Washington, DC.