Dean Barrett


"Skytrain to Murder"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer NOV 30, 2003)

Skytrain to Murder by Dean Barrett

Scott Sterling is an ex-CIA agent living above a Bangkok bar, making a living teaching scuba diving and doing some PI work. He never imagines that, when he sees a young woman in the bar beneath his apartment, he will soon be investigating her murder...and that his girlfriend may well be a prime suspect.

Just as in his previous novel, Murder in China Red, Barrett shows a great deal of depth and talent. (As an aside, the Chinaman, who was the main character of that book gets a scene in this book, which was quite fun.) You don't just get a great mystery (the ending was very surprising) but a lot of interesting side stories and great details that make this book a rich and fantastic read.

There are many Taiwanese words used throughout the book, which adds to the feel of it. The most striking is how Thailand is called the land of a thousand smiles...people are always smiling, even if they absolutely hate you and would love to kill you. Sterling has to spend a great deal of time learning what each smile means just to survive, and watching his interpretations is often quite interesting. We learn a lot about Thailand...from descriptions of words to the society. It adds depth and texture to the book, making it seem very exotic. We see all sides of Thailand, from the very beautiful to the ugly, and can not help but be enchanted by its good parts, and like Sterling, we turn a blind eye to its less attractive features. We also get a view of scuba diving, which I enjoyed, especially when it evolved into an ironic side-story that was painfully realistic even as it was slightly satirical.

The mystery in this novel is fabulous. After awhile you...and Sterling...begin to really feel for the victim. Sterling follows the case like an old-style gumshoe, refusing to rely much on anything but his mind and the old-fashioned techniques for gathering information. The places his search takes us are often dangerous, and add a great deal to the book. We begin to like him a lot...he's a quiet, competent guy and the way he puts things in his narration are often really funny. His relationship with Dao gives us some of the best moments, and she sometimes acts as a conduit to the more interesting plot elements, such as when we learn what she and Buen were really doing out the night of the murder. Also, she's a muay-Thai boxer, and her training adds another point of interest. She's quite cool...smart, a little crabby, determined, so she makes a really strong partner for our hero.

For me, the best mysteries...like the best books...take you on a journey to a place you've never been. Since the author lives in Taiwan and has so for many years, he is an authentic guide (another side note: the review copy of this book was sent directly from Thailand, how cool is that?). So hop a ride on this skytrain to murder...you'll not only get a good detective story, but a fascinating look into a different and beautiful land.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 51 reviews
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"Murder in China Red"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer JUN 30, 2002)

“Chinaman reflected that the only thing worse than an overbearing mother-in-law was an unforgiving ex-father-in-law.”

Murder in China Red by Dean Barrett

The Chinaman (that’s the name we know him by, until three-quarters through the book) is a private investigator and past teacher of creative writing and criminal justice. When he was still a teacher, he met the lovely Judy Fisher, a talented writer. They both left for New York, where he began Chinaman Investigations and she attempted to become a writer. Times changed for Judy, and she became a hooker, a choice that would inadvertently cost her her life. She and the gentleman she has just...entertained are found murdered in their expensive hotel room. Called to identify her body by his ex-father-in-law, Manhattan's Chief of Detectives Joseph Abrams, Chinaman recognizes her immediately. She stirs up memories of pleasant times, for he did love her once, and so he decides he has to find the killer. Abrams is not too thrilled. Aside from the fact that his daughter dumped the Chinaman after catching him in bed with Judy, Abrams wants to crack the case himself.

Read excerptThe Chinaman, who’s real name is LiuChiang-hsin, (translates to a mind as sharp as a sword), is a great serial detective character. His name is very accurate, as he puts together clues and follows the increasingly complicated leads. He is also good hearted, for when he discovers that Judy’s roommate was beaten by her john, he goes and puts the man in his place. He also understands that it is not easy to stay pure. To get office space, he proofreads pornographic comic novels for the company that owns the building. He’s uncomfortable with crowds, haunted by the memory of the mob beating and killing his father during the Chinese Revolution. He has built walls around himself, finding it hard to open up, which can make his relationships hard to maintain. Judy was the only one he ever really felt comfortable with. He is also very handsome, which makes him irresistible to ladies, another thing which gets him in trouble. He finds out that she wasn’t the target, and a friend from the CIA warns him that he is skirting dangerous waters, but he decides that he will find out who is responsible for Judy’s death anyway. It is the proper thing to do. All of these facets make for a strong character, one who you enjoy reading about. His sticky relationship with Abrams is interesting and adds tension, especially since they used to be friends.

The mystery itself was well done. There are many factors that come into play, international intrigue and greed mix together to make for a complicated plot. Chinaman uses a combination of intuitive logic and determination to follow the clues. He also has friends who help him by supplying him with information that he quickly puts to use. He is sensible in his approach.

This book is very appealing, especially to anyone who loves an old-time mystery. Instead of concentrating on the forensic aspects of the crime, we watch Chinaman do old-style gumshoe work, following leads and looking for clues, and putting the pieces together with his own mind, not a computer. I hope to see more adventures with him.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews


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About the Author:

Dean BarrettDean Barrett has lived in Asia for over 20 years as writer, editor, photographer and publisher. He was trained as a Chinese linguist at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California and, at graduation, was chosen to present original stage material on China. After serving with the Army Security Agency in East and Southeast Asia, he pursued graduate studies in Chinese Area Studies at San Francisco State College and received his Masters Degree in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii.

He first arrived in Thailand during the Vietnam War as a Chinese linguist with the Army Security Agency. Since then Barrett has written and photographed several non­fiction books on Asia and edited several cultural and travel magazines. He also has written hundreds of articles on Asia and won several writing and editing awards including the PATA Grand Prize for Excellence for writing on Asia, particularly on Thailand and on Chinese culture. He wrote a weekly satire column for the "Hong Kong Standard" for five years under the pseudonym, Uncle Yum Cha ("Uncle Drink Tea").

Mr. Barrett has also written extensively on Hong Kong's traditional fishing community ­ the text for a non­fiction book on the fishing traditions of southern China and a fairytale set in a Chinese fishing village. His novels on Thailand are Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior and Kingdom of Make­Believe. His novels set in China are Hangman's Point and Mistress of the East. He has written several filmscripts set in Asia which have been sold or optioned. His plays have been performed from Off Broadway in America to universities in Indonesia, and his musical set in 1857 Hong Kong was selected by the National Alliance of Musical Theaters to be showcased on 42nd Street.

Dean Barrett is a member of the Dramatists Guild, Mystery Writers of America, an affiliate of BMI (librettist) and a member of the China Round Table. He currently lives in Thailand.

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