The 38 Million Dollar Smile

by J. Peter Bergman
Contributor
Monday Sep 7, 2009

In The 38 Million Dollar Smile, gay detective Donald Strachey accepts a case that takes him out of Albany to find the missing brother of a corporate Steel executive.

He travels to Key West, Florida and ultimately--and for the bulk of the book--to Bangkok, Thailand. For this trip, he is accompanied by his lover Timothy "Timmy" Callahan.

Over the past seventeen years, in nine earlier books, we’ve gotten to know this couple of men. We like them. We respect them. We don’t want to see them hurt. Stevenson brings us close to despair for a while as Timmy’s life is on the line after being kidnapped. It is writing that grips our imagination.

The book offers thrills galore, love on the beach and in the pool and in the clubs, and a good story that keeps its hold on your imagination right to the end.

Author Richard Stevenson has done this not to frighten us, or make us squeamish in advance of an almost inevitable and gruesome death, but rather in order to show us the oddly insensitive nature of mankind.

On balance, the book is loads of fun. It’s compelling reading, being brilliantly constructed with its incessant twists and turns. From chapter to chapter, we cannot be certain what will happen next, who may withhold or reveal new sets of secrets that could explain the constantly surprising refrains sung by one stool-pigeon after another.

Gary Griswold, the missing man, is emotionally flanked by his sister-in-law who is also his ex-wife, his brother, and a series of men with whom he has been involved over the previous years of his gay sexual involvements. As each voice intones its tightly held secrets, Strachey has to unravel the mystery and get himself safely home.

It is clear that Stevenson knows the country he is writing about. He pops in a word or a phrase that makes it clear without defining, over and over, the meaning behind the foreign lingo.

What he also gets across, and this may or may not have been his intent, is the dangerous aspect of being a tourist in an Asian country. While he shows us wonders and beauties, he also presents the attitudes of a land that regards foreigners, especially tourists, as negligible and unimportant. While I enjoyed the book and the pictures drawn in it by the author, I also decided that a visit to Thailand was not going to be on the top of my "must do" list.

Stevenson conjures the country through the many fascinating characters he creates to populate it. Chief among them is a local detective named Rufus Pugh, whom Strachey employs in the quest to find Griswold. Colorful in thought and word as well as in action, Pugh is one of those wild and wonderful characters that are hard to forget, along with Charles Dickens’ Uriah Heep or Patrick Dennis’ Letch Feeley; characters so unique and special that the impression they make lasts long after you close the book and shelve it.

Pugh is a native-born Thai who spent a year or so in New Jersey and speaks American slang Yiddish like a Philip Roth character might. 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," is one example of Pugh’s penchant for verbal cultural mash-up.

The author, meantime, plays his narrative voice in classic hard detective traditions, but his dialogue is strictly Strachey. The detective cannot leave his sexuality behind, and as a gay man he shines forth for all to see. While I don’t think "pride" was at the base of the author’s intent in creating Strachey, there is more than merely a token nod to that in this work. Strachey, perhaps due to his lover’s influence, is a man with mounds of pride, and that shows throughout the book. He pulls no punches and takes no crap.

"The 38 Million Dollar Smile" (in the Land of Smiles) is a fun read and even though the mystery doesn’t take classic turns, and there aren’t a lot of sweet characters murdered just to keep things interesting, the book offers thrills galore, love on the beach and in the pool and in the clubs, and a good story that keeps its hold on your imagination right to the end.

Stevenson started this series of novels in 1982. More recently, Donald Strachey has become a movie character in several features made for Here! TV. It would be a pleasure to watch a film version of this latest adventure, just to add the true local color to the picture.

by Richard Stevenson

J. Peter Bergman is a journalist and playwright,living in Berkshire County, MA. A founding board member of the Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition and former New York Correspondent for London’s Gay News, he spent a decade as theater music specialist for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives at Lincoln Center in NYC, is the co-author of the recently re-issued The Films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy and a Charles Dickens Award winner (2002) for his collection of short fiction, "Counterpoints." His new novel ""Small Ironies" was well reviewed on Edge and in other venues as well. His features and reviews can also be read in The Berkshire Eagle and other regional publications. His current season reviews can be found on his website: www.berkshirebrightfocus.com. He is a member of NGLJA.

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