Skytrain to Murder by Dean Barrett is a decent noirish thriller taking place in Bangkok, Thailand. It doesn't really involve a skytrain, but it does involve a murder, so that's one for two, anyway. Barrett is known for writing Asian thrillers, and Skytrain to Murder is another good example of this. Unfortunately, Barrett spends too much time giving us the flavour of the city rather than giving us an interesting tale. Atmosphere is like a spice: if you use too much of it, you drown the taste. Add to that a subplot that doesn't really seem to go anywhere and you've got a rather short, yet still padded mystery.
Scott Stirling is an ex-CIA agent from the Bangkok bureau, now living there. Short of money, he's moved into an apartment over a local bar. He teaches diving and does some detective work on the side. A beautiful blonde asks him to her apartment, supposedly to request his help, for a good screw. When he gets there, she has decided she doesn't need his help anymore, but the screw could still go ahead if he wants. He respectfully declines, but unfortunately, she later ends up dead. Investigating the murder leads him through the seedy underside of Bangkok life, reaching all the way to the top of the business world. He's also asked to rescue a little girl who is supposed to be used as collateral in a loan-shark deal. In this quest, he's aided by his martial-arts trained girlfriend Dao and her family. It's too bad that she's also a suspect in the murder.
The more I think about this book, the more problems I come up with, though I do have to say that I ultimately enjoyed the book. Barrett throws in a lot of sub-plots, some of them leading to other avenues of investigation and some apparently red herrings (or, for this novel, red pufferfish). It's unusual to have whole subplots be red herrings, though, and I found that it detracted from the book. Especially bad is the rescuing of the girl. After finishing the book, I can see no reason why this was in there, other than giving us a view of his girlfriend's world. This could be fine, but we get to the spice analogy above. It overwhelms everything else. Barrett makes it seem like a big deal, but when he's finished, the only thing it really did was show how tough Dao's brother is. What's the point? He also spends a lot of time on Dao's muay-Thai martial arts match, going into heavy detail about it, punch by punch. If Dao were a major character, I could see the reason for this, but she really doesn't do much in this book. So why are we spending so much time with her?
It's also bad when the narrator draws attention to the many coincidences that permeate a book. Near the end, Stirling (the book is written in first-person) comments on the unlikely string of events that led him to the predicament he was in, and how he got out of it. I think readers should probably come to that conclusion themselves, and they might be a lot more forgiving about it if they do. However, the two comments at end of the book (the one about the coincidences and then the one explaining why there's a skytrain in the title of the book) are so heavy-handed and obvious that they almost don't feel like they were written by the same writer. The rest of the prose in the book is great, reminiscent of a Sam Spade-in-Asia novel. It almost felt like I was watching a black-and-white movie.
It's a shame that there are so many structural problems, because Barrett does give us some very interesting characters. Stirling is a great main character, with a cynical outlook on life yet remaining a pretty positive guy. I almost picture him with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, ala Bogart. Barrett also provides us with quirky bit characters and interesting suspects in the murder. In fact, even Chinaman (Stirling's adopted Chinese brother who adopted that nickname, but only for a select few people to use) is intriguing. We only get a couple of glimpses of him when he calls Stirling, but I definitely would love to read a book about him. The dialogue that Barrett provides for these characters crackles. I loved some of the exchanges in the Boots and Saddle bar between the regulars there. It really added to their character.
I didn't let the problems in Skytrain to Murder get to me until after I had finished it and thought about it. While I was reading it, I really enjoyed the prose, the characters, and the dialogue. While the plot was a bit contrived and there were too many extraneous subplots (especially for a 260 page book!), I was hooked from page one until I got to the end. If you turn you allow yourself to go with the flow, and if you like your thrillers with a bit of the exotic to them, then give this one a try. I'll even add an extra star for the enjoyment factor.