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Western heroes in Asia: missing and believed dead

by Mark Schreiber

A certain thriller novel, whose title shall remain unnamed, was recently plopped into my hands by a friend whose career included an extended stint on a colonial police force.

“I had trouble getting through it,” he said, sounding glad to be rid of it.

After taking it to bed that evening, I could see why. It was an unoriginal formulaic work in which a heroic CIA agent makes a foray into China to avert a world crisis, by rescuing the People’s Republic from the machinations of a power-hungry madman.

Reflecting on the sheer implausibility of it all, I suddenly realized that spy stories, thrillers and police procedurals set in this part of the world, in which Caucasian superheroes get to whack sinister Asian villains, have been rapidly disappearing.

I still stumble over the occasional work where the odd Westerner goes undercover, perhaps donning a People’s Liberation Army uniform to obscure his presence. But these stories have become increasingly unconvincing, if not laughable.

The simplest explanation for their decline, I would suppose, is that all but the most naive readers now accept that situations so depicted are unrealistic.

The reversion of Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese control, in 1997 and 1999 respectively, has probably contributed to the decline of such books. With the withdrawal from colonial outposts, where Europeans headed the police and judiciary, Westerners have been divested of their last bases of operations in Asia.

In their stead, more authors have come to rely upon Eurasian heroes. In 2002, Barry Eisler launched his series featuring CIA-trained assassin John Rain, offspring of a Japanese father and American mother, who can pass for a citizen of either nation. Similarly, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Thai policeman fathered by an American soldier, made his debut in John Burdett’s “Bangkok 8″ (2003).

Another formula has been to team up the Westerner with an Asian partner. Lydia Chin, creation of S.J. Rozan, and Liu Hulan, created by Lisa See, are the better halves of East-West, male-female teams. Peter May’s mysteries feature a male Beijing cop, Li Yan, and his American female partner Margaret Campbell, a forensic pathologist.

Vinnie Calvino, Canadian author Christopher G. Moore’s Bangkok-based private eye, would seem to be one of the few exceptions of Western characters still on the prowl; but when serious trouble strikes, the hard-boiled American frequently relies on an influential Thai police official to intervene on his behalf.

A growing number of writers have eliminated Western characters from stories altogether. The mysteries by I.J. Parker, featuring the righteous government official Sugawara Akitada, take place in the 11th century. Laura Joh Roland sets her Sano Ichiro novels in the 1690s, half a century after Japan had adopted a policy of national seclusion.

Other mysteries in which Westerners play minor roles include police procedurals set in Shanghai by Qiu Xiaolong, David Rothenberg and Andy Oakes. Eliott Pattison’s hero Shan Tao Yun is a Chinese detective exiled to a labor camp in Tibet. Colin Cotterill just released his fifth novel set in Laos. And this autumn, James Church will release his third work featuring Inspector O, a tough cop in North Korea.

Would this suggest Western protagonists have become completely irrelevant in stories set in Asia? Far from it. But aspiring fiction writers need to stay grounded in reality. Western diplomats, military attaches, investigative journalists, engineers, insurance claims investigators, researchers and scientists, among others, might not be as exciting or deadly as secret agents, but they can be drawn into the narrative without the need for exotic skills — or plots that strain readers’ credibility.