My expectations upon hearing that a new book set in Thailand had been released — especially one with a title like The Phantom Lover And Other Thrilling Tales Of Thailand — were low, to say the very least.
The Phantom Lover And Other Thrilling Tales Of Thailand By Jim Algie Tuttle Publishing 330pp 450 baht Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops
Despite the country’s rich, diverse and curious history and culture, books written by expats about Thailand tend to be rather formulaic. They also tend to involve more or less the same characters: expat private investigators, enterprising ladyboys, untrustworthy bar girls and shady Thai men. There’s sex, casual racism and a painting of Bangkok as a hellhole — a steamy and exotic one.
The moral, if any of the majority of these self-published titles bother to include one, usually concerns a warning on the perils of Thai women — or perhaps more specifically, Thai bar girls.
So it was with pleasant surprise that after a few pages I discovered that not only was Phantom well-written, but was also less concerned with leaning on tried-and-tested character archetypes and instead plumped for various, wide-ranging three-dimensional characters.
Stories include The Death Kiss Of A King Cobra Show, featuring Yai, who works in a snake show and whose masculinity and ethics are challenged by a visiting American. Such stories are a delight to read, as they feature unlikely but thoroughly believable and rich protagonists, pitted against characters who perhaps in more formulaic Thailand-set books, would be protagonists themselves.
Other characters include a French freelance photographer based in Bangkok, a Chinese serial killer, a high-society Bangkok collegiate, and a man and his cat.
Some of the tales, like that of Zee Oui, the Chinese migrant serial killer of Thai children in the 1940s, are based on reality. Others, like the tale of hi-so Benz, who has an abortion and is later haunted by the ghost of her smoke child, has its roots in Thai mythology and beliefs.
Written as a collection of stand-alone short stories, some of the previously introduced characters also make an appearance in the final novella, serving as an epilogue of sorts to many of the their journeys, and set against the Asian tsunami of 2004, in and around Phuket and Khao Lak.
The Phantom Lover And Other Thrilling Tales Of Thailand is perfect for those who want a fun crash course in the darker side of Thailand and its myths, superstitions and folklore.
Author Jim Algie has lived in Thailand since the early 90s, and is well-placed to write on such matters, having already penned and released the successful Bizarre Thailand: Tales Of Crime, Sex And Black Magic.
Indeed, Algie has quite a unique insight into many of the characters that feature in Phantom, including Chavoret Jaruboon, also known as Thailand’s “Last Executioner”, about whom a film opens in Thailand on July 3. Algie has met Chavoret on a few occasions in his capacity as journalist.
Phantom entertains as well as informs, and is a great paperback for holidaymakers or indeed anybody who seeks some substance behind the Thai smile.
Thailand is a wonderfully interesting place, with all manner of exciting experiences to be had — experiences that exist outside of the bars and far away from the tourist strips, deep in the jungles, around Bangkok protest sites, or indeed, within a slightly disturbed expat’s house. Books like Phantom prove that there is so much more than bar girls and ladyboys to write about in Thailand that can still manage to captivate an audience. If, of course, that audience is prepared to read it.