Back to basics

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 August, 2006, 12:00am

ERIC STONE IS out of place in the bar. He eschews the costumed chic, affecting nondescript. He takes a long drag on his cigarette and a short swig from his beer. 'So,' I begin, the smoke from my Dunhill curling towards the fans in Hong Kong's Fringe Club. 'It was Scarpetta who did it?'

A roomful of witnesses has heard Stone accuse medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, star of 13 Patricia Cornwell novels, of killing the American detective.

Television shows such as CSI have warped popular imagination and now DNA, not deduction, solves mysteries.

But Stone, author of The Living Room of the Dead, and like-minded contemporaries Colin Cotterill (Thirty-Three Teeth, The Coroner's Lunch) and Chris Tao (The Brigadier's Wife), say there's still room to sleuth in Asia, where legwork and local knowledge still count for something.

Cotterill, whose third episode in his Siri Paiboun series, Disco for the Departed, is now on the shelves, was correct in his observation at this year's Hong Kong Literary Festival that if 'you set the story in a country that doesn't have access to the sort of equipment you see on cable television' it means a return to basics.

Bookshop shelves give no clue that Asia, one of the last haunts of the gumshoe, may well be its birthplace too. Like so much else, China invented the genre.

Look at the evidence. The earliest examples date back a millennium to at least the Yuan dynasty, says The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing, and by the late Ming dynasty, gongan (court case) fiction, in which the judge unravels some ingenious crime and balance is restored, was all the rage.

'After 1896, translations of [Sherlock] Holmes stories and floods of sometimes anonymous imitations that constituted as much as a third of all fiction in print in the first decade of the 20th century, triggered China's second boom in detective fiction since the 16th century,' writes Jeffrey Kinkley in The Oxford Companion.

Although such literature was banned after 1949 - 'suspense itself was politically heretical', says Kinkley - illegal, hand-copied, popular thrillers circulated during the Cultural Revolution.

Things are more relaxed these days. China now apparently views crime fiction as fun but immoral - like the west.

Still, Wang Shuo got himself banned in the 1980s for what's known as pizi wenxue, or 'hooligan literature [that] panders to low tastes'. Howard Goldblatt translated Playing for Thrills into English, but there's been nothing since. Western writers such as Christopher West, in his Inspector Anzhuang Wang series of the late 1990s, captured China in early transition.

What today's western writers find attractive is that DNA analysis with its black-or-white evidentiary approach skirts the grey areas in places such as Laos and Myanmar, where guile still counts for more than gizmos.

Stone, a US writer who lived and worked in Hong Kong during the run-up to the handover, looks at Asia through the cynical eyes of Ray Sharp and has written three outings for him that deal with the relatively recent past - the first, The Living Room of the Dead, was published earlier this year and focuses on the Russian mafia in Macau and its ruthless dominance of the prostitution trade there.

His next is about Cambodian antiquities trafficking through Thailand, and the third concerns the 1997 Bre-X gold mine scandal in Indonesia - when, after the head geologist mysteriously fell to his death from a helicopter, it was found that the reports used to drive up the penny stock's share price were fake. As a news story, it had everything: Suharto and his coterie of cronies, a US$250 million fraud, greed and the scattered remains of a corpse chewed over by jungle animals.

Stone draws on his experiences as a business reporter in Asia. 'Eric was famous for knowing all these sleazy bars, but he said it was research,' says writer Nuri Vittachi. Research underpins the work of good detective writers. For his first novel Stone studied international crime reports on trafficking in women and followed a tangle of leads about Russian activity in Macau before the arrival of the same slick Las Vegas casinos that are the backdrop to CSI. Stone signals for another round of drinks as I report the comments of Cotterill and Tao, who have taken decidedly different approaches in their treatment of locations. 'I first saw Thailand when it was untouched,' Cotterill says. He was working in child protection for a non-governmental organisation. 'My writing came out of that work', he says. 'I was getting a lot of reports on my desk I thought people should know about and the only way to do that was through fiction.'

He bought three airport paperbacks 'to see how the big names did it' and has so far turned out The Coroner's Lunch and Thirty-Three Teeth. He has established Siri Paiboun, a septuagenarian, Paris-trained physician and coroner, and his supernatural sidekick, as, perhaps, one of the most beguiling sleuth stories of recent memory. 'Cotterill is a crack storyteller and an impressive guide to a little-known culture,' The Washington Post said.

Stone and Cotterill want to keep their sleuths alive as long as credibly possible, but Tao takes a different tack with a low-profile, one-off The Brigadier's Wife set in Myanmar and featuring a businessman from Yunnan province with hinted-at powerful mainland connections.

'There's some danger working in Burma and writing under your own name,' says Tao. 'But working in Burma has shown me many things I wanted to share with the rest of the world.'

'So much has already been done in thrillers, and done particularly well.' says Cotterill. 'But I think there's a great appetite in the west for good writing about Asia.'

'But,' Tao says, 'you still have to know the people you're writing about and be open to the cultural differences. The reading public is looking for real characters, so you have to avoid ethnic and racial cliche.'

The appeal is fundamental, says Stone. 'Give people information about a part of the world they don't know and they'll be interested.'

However, there are fundamental rules of plot and structure that must be followed, depending on the type of sleuthing to be done. Stone squints through the smoke as he signs off on the drinks and repeats Ray Sharp's deduction: 'Sometimes a cigar is really more than just a cigar.'