A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
Gadfly scion of Albany old money Gary Griswold goes missing in Thailand, and his ex-wife wants him found — with his 38 million dollars. Soon Albany’s only gay PI, Don Strachey, is out of his element, and lover Timmy is out of his comfort zone combing the Land of Smiles for a man with unerring weakness for the poorest possible choice and a daft plan to buy 38 million dollars worth of good karma.
The 38 Million Dollar Smile is book 10 of the Donald Strachey Mystery series and continues the tales of the series title character, a gay private investigator in Albany, NY. If you’ve read any of my other reviews of this series, you’ll know that the Donald Strachey Mysteries are some of my favorite books. As with Stevenson’s other books in this series, the plot is tight and both quick and evenly-paced, and the writing exceptional and spare with tons of humor and witty dialog. Although they can be read out of order without effect to the overall story, it does behoove the reader to consume them in order as Don and Timmy build their lives together over several decades, and there are referenced events and feelings in the later installments.
The story opens as Don is hired by Ellen Griswold, the ex-wife and current sister-in-law (yes, she remarried to her ex-husband’s brother) of a man who she claims has gone missing in Thailand. The Griswolds are old steel money and Gary Griswold left two years before on vacation to the Land of Smiles with his share of the empire, $38M, and never returned. He hasn’t touched base with anyone he knows in the US for six months and everyone is worried that he’s in trouble. It doesn’t take much to convince Don to return to a country that he holds in fond memory from his Vietnam War days, so he — along with a skeptical Timmy — travel to Thailand to find Gary and his money, thus beginning an adventure that neither of them expected.
Although the trademark Strachey style is here — fabulous banter between Don and and his Jesuit-trained long-time partner and conscience, Timmy; Don’s moral and ethical challenges; some type of commentary on a gay theme — this installment is very different from the other books in the series in several ways. First, it almost entirely takes place outside of not only Albany (there have been a few stories where other locations in the US are the backdrop, and one did have Don going to Mexico for a little bit), but out of this country altogether. Thailand is the locale for the majority of the book and, I know for me, it was a culture shock of sorts. It’s very obvious that Stevenson knows Thailand as he masterfully handles the intricacies of the culture (social, political, economic, sexual, religious), phrases and words, cuisine, etc. From his description, Thailand is an amazing country of pleasure, religion and corruption, where the corrupt police force and military live hand-in-hand with food-loving Buddhists and sex workers. Where drive-by assassinations occur next to astrology and numerology and fuck-houses. Where bribery (Johnny Walker does just as well as a few thousand bahts) and gays and the belief in reincarnation coexist.
I seemed to be surrounded by peace-loving Buddhists who found room in their hearts to smack people with phone books, and others who hurled soothsayers and farang retirees off balconies.
Stevenson gives us a Thai feast for the senses. The flora and fauna, smells of food, sounds of the streets, climate and urban landscape all come together in an almost sensory overload, and I felt I was transported half-way around the world in his description. As such, Bangkok becomes a character of its own.
Additionally, this may be the most suspenseful, action-packed and fast-paced book in the series yet, as well has having perhaps the most colorful secondary cast. One of these characters is Rufus Pugh, Don’s former-cop-turned-PI collaborator in Thailand, and he is now my most favoritist secondary character of the series, and maybe ever (he is in competition with Helena Stewart of Charlie Cochrane’s Cambridge Fellows Mysteries for the title). Rufus is Thai-born and raised, but had spent a semester in New Jersey for college, so he speaks a hilarious combination of American English with a Yiddist twist and Thai humor:
“I like your tour d’horizon, Mr. Don. It’s dead-on…There are degrees of innocence in this complex situation. And Mr. Gary, should he perish, would be fulfilling a karma plainly nudged into existence by his own klutziness. Not that we shouldn’t do everything we can to save this wayward farang’s sorry ass from whatever mishigas he has waded into of his own volition.”
“What’s mai pen rai?” [Don asks]
“Literally, it means ‘It is not a problem.’ The larger meaning in Thai thinking and culture is — if I may employ a New Jerseyism you will readily comprehend — whatthefuckyagonnadoaboutit. It’s what is is. Don’t sweat what you cannot control.”
Other standout cast includes Kawee, the sensual androgynous boy-girl-man-woman katoey who Gary befriended and who takes care of Gary’s apartment in his absence; Mango, Gary’s former Thai boyfriend; and Miss Nongnat, Kawee’s katoey roommate.
Though it is never the focus of the books, Don and Timmy’s relationship is dichotomously both an important part of the story, yet plays perhaps the smallest role of any book. I also noted that this is the first time that I can recall that neither their ages, nor the years they’ve spent together are mentioned, which leads me to wonder if these two will now become ageless. Nonetheless, Don and Timmy’s conversations are one of the reasons I love these books:
“The only question in my mind is, why didn’t we come to Thailand sooner? Don, I have to say, now I do see what the attraction is. The Thais are just so comfortable being who and what they are, and so totally laid-back about life’s simplest pleasures — tasty food, sunshine, flowers and trees, affectionate and playful sex. I see why people come here and…well, fall in love with this gosh-darn place!”
So. What was this going to mean? And he hadn’t even seen the reclining Buddhas yet.
“Look,” I said, “I’m glad you’ve come around. Both the Thai Ministry of Tourism and I are pleased.”
Poor Don. He loves Thailand almost like no other place, yet he has moments of crisis when he feels that that the country has let him down (reinforcing the feeling that it’s a living, breathing secondary character).
Now Bangkok felt not so much molten as molting, as if, in the heat, the city was shedding its skin or other outer layer in my presence, and what was now exposed was formless and incomprehensible to a wandering and lost farang like me. I loved Bangkok, but it seemed to be making a fool of me. I wished I knew why. What had I done to it?
Oh, but wait a minute. Now I had a rational thought. The thought was this: No, it’s not Bangkok that’s jerking me around in some cruel and unusual way. Nuh-uh. It wasn’t the place. Bangkok itself was just a large, traffic-choked Asian city full of basically nice Thai people — drive-by shooters notwithstanding — who loved to laugh and believed in ghosts and ate great food. No, it was not Bangkok making an ass of me. Of course it wasn’t. What a silly thought. It was the Griswolds.
The mystery isn’t really a mystery because in the end this book is more like an international thriller than the other books. Yes, there is a mystery element — where is Gary and what has he done with the money, and who is shoving people off balconies — but I found myself more caught up with the suspense and action and danger and Thailand than anything else. This did not present a problem for me at all; it was a delightful change of pace. In fact, the entire package makes this perhaps my now favorite book of the series.
The 38 Million Dollar Smile is a must-read for fans of the series, and I highly recommend it to not only lovers of mysteries and/or international thrillers, but those who enjoy books with gay characters.