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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #31 (August 2, 2005), page 15.

Thriller doesn’t transcend beach blanket

The Living Room of the Dead

By Eric Stone

Forge, 2005

Hardcover, 302 pages, $22.95

By Jeff Wenger

There were many good reasons to anticipate Eric Stone’s The Living Room of the Dead, chief among them that the workaday hero (they can’t all be former Special Forces ops, can they?) is based in Hong Kong just two years before the handover, a moment of dynamic ferment among Asian, Russian, and American peoples. But though it delivers rapid reading perfect for beach blankets and airport concourses, it falls short of its exciting promise.

Living Room of the Dead relates the tale of journalist Ray Sharp, a forty-something Yank who looks into a sticky situation for a despised colleague. The colleague’s brother, an upper crust Briton, falls in love with a Russian prostitute and wants to run away with her. Is it possible, like a gentleman, to buy out her contract from her pimp (only the most sadistic of the Russian gangsters operating in Macau)?

Though the answer is a quick and resounding "NO," the wealthy Briton proceeds undeterred. So does Sharp, who displays all the common sense of the horror movie character who never thinks to turn on the light before going down the basement steps.

We fail to grasp Sharp’s continued involvement — he is repeatedly warned against such a course and often questions it himself — until we understand that the thrilling hum of Asia has become to him a monotonous drone. Only when he faces grave danger does Ray Sharp feel truly alive. It is a common rationale in the genre and one for which the reader suspends belief as surely as Trekkies go with warp speed.

However, the plot clatters when an entirely implausible contrivance takes Sharp to the nefarious Black Island where, amazingly, he needed to go anyway!

Once on the island, the reader gets some everyday hero action that is disconnected from a world of everyday consequence. Inside a virtually unguarded chamber of sexual sadism, Sharp kills in self-defense, but then doesn’t act against the architect of the evil when he has the opportunity to do so.

The villain, called the Roman, is described like Tony Soprano without the cuddly family aspects. The Roman has vowed to kill Sharp, and in such a dire circumstance anyone in the world would act decisively and begin to make peace with living a quiet life hiding in South Dakota. However, Ray Sharp does not do what anyone else in the world would do, and this reluctance is inexplicable except to prolong the story to the third act.

Finally, there is the off-putting aspect that runs from the first chapter to the last: the incessant, ubiquitous whoremongering.

No one would dispute this element of life along the Pacific Rim, particularly among expatriates. But let’s not kid ourselves — Living Room of the Dead isn’t a work of Zolaesque naturalism. It often reads like a teenage boy’s fantasy, or worse, that of a middle-aged guy who should know better.

In 1927, the travel writer Crosbie Garstin, in The Dragon and the Lotus, wrote: "The Russians have been much maligned … This is unjust. The Far East at this moment swarms with bright, hard-working little Russian women, who, for intensive business methods and acumen, could take the suspender buttons off an East Side Jew of Scotch extraction."

Never mind that no one can actually come out and say anything so offensive today, it is still the picture that Stone paints of Russian prostitutes, suggesting that little has changed.

Stone tries to show that Sharp’s heart is in the right place with the character’s regard for Vladivostok and individual Russians (including his girlfriend, a Russian prostitute plying her trade in Indonesia throughout the novel). Too bad that Sharp’s preoccupying sexual appetite keeps him fueling the system that he knows to be oppressive.

Readers who desire compelling fiction with a workaday hero, set in the Pacific Rim in a moment of multicultural dynamism should seek out Tom Bradby’s 2002 The Master of Rain. That novel, set in Shanghai in 1926, fulfils its promise, whereas Living Room of the Dead does not.

Stone writes well enough (indeed, better than a slew of suspense writers who are utterly unreadable) but his second novel will benefit from the occasional cold shower.

A discussion by author Eric Stone will be held at 7:30pm on Thursday, August 11 at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne (3723 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland). For information, call (503) 238-1668.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books