Private Dancer by Stephen Leather

by Kristopher Cook
Time to Read: 5 minutes

Sex tourists in the main are taxi drivers, butchers, plasterers, plumbers, low-grade office workers. Men who would find it difficult to get a half decent girl back in their home towns. You think that just because you’ve sat in the economy section of a long-haul flight for a day that you’ve suddenly become a fascinating person? Think again.

This is just a shred of wisdom from Stephen Leather’s brutal look at the relationships formed between foreigners and Thai bargirls, and how both sides have their own ulterior motives.

Pete, a British Journalist, is sent to Thailand to report on the various tourist points for a new travel book.

As time goes by, he spends more and more time in Go-Go bars chasing Joy, a local stripper. With such cultural differences, and ignorance to the other’s situation, what could possibly go wrong?

It turns out, just about everything.

Deceit, deception, love, lust, anger and murder – this book has it all.

Written from a journalist perspective, this thriller is a slow-burn (one of my favourite types), with a build-up of characters and setting.

Each chapter is given as either a monologue or a recounting of events after they’ve passed. This gives characters hindsight in certain situations and wishing to have taken different actions in others.

While the writing here is good, the dialogue believable and the tension substantial, the setting is where Leather’s work begins to take shape.

Bangkok feels incredibly alive, full of neon lights, strip clubs, street vendors, and of course, foreign sex tourists.

Thailand nightlife in an average Go-Go bar.

As a farang (foreigner), Pete is oblivious to the advice given to him by his more experienced friends. Some offer it as a form of humour, to belittle Pete, but others do it out of courtesy for their friend.

Joy was bright, she was smart, yet she was reduced to taking her clothes off and sleeping with men because that was the only way she could earn decent money. It was a form of economic rape: if Joy had been born in Europe or America she’d probably have been at university or working in an office.

Stephen Leather

Despite this, Pete believes Joy is different…

But she’s not like those other strippers. She doesn’t go off with guys who pay her bar fine (a way of paying the bar to take the girl to a nearby hotel for an hour) for sex. She wouldn’t do that.

A detective is brought into the array, which begins to change the philosophy of the story yet again.

From a Thai perspective, on the outside of the relationship, he offers the reader his own opinion on farangs who marry Thais. “It seems to me, based on almost twenty years experience as a private detective, that the vast majority of farangs who marry Thai girls are sex tourists. And most of the Thai girls who marry Westerners are bargirls. This is a fact, no matter how unpalatable.”

When you think about the relationship like this, it’s no wonder most of them end in tears. One turned up in the country to find cheap and easy sex, and the other gave it to him.

Once trades are made, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to avoid putting a price on love; as Joy does.

Pete will consistently pay her bar fine to spend time with her, in and out of the bar. He also grows paranoid, another good stabiliser of a relationship, about Joy’s faithfulness. He sees love, she sees a man who’ll pay her way.

It’s easier to relate to Pete’s friends who’re trying their best to hint and then outright say that things will soon fall apart. It’s a difficult situation made worse by the fact that he won’t listen, but hey, love is blind after all.

It’s often the misconception that just because Joy is a petite woman working in a bar, she needs ‘looking after’ in some way as if she didn’t choose to be there.

She even makes reference to it herself that she earns so much more money doing this work than she would studying and getting a professional paying job.

It says a lot about the economy when bargirls are paid more than teachers but that’s a talk for another day.

“Let me tell you about Thais, Pete,” said Bruce, patting me on the back. “Sometimes you think you’re in trouble when you’re really not. And sometimes when you think everything is hunky dory, you’re in so much shit they’ll need a submarine to find you.”

Stephen Leather

Bruce is the most telling of these friends and offers several pearls of wisdom along the way, but unfortunately, most of it falls on deaf ears.

Private Dancer is a compelling read from the onset. As I mentioned, the city of Bangkok feels alive and busy, thus giving the book a much greater depth.

I suppose it helps that Stephen Leather himself lives in Thailand and has seen much of these scenarios first-hand.

It’s another getting it into a gripping story.

However, there are times when you think to yourself, ‘how can Pete be so stupid?’ and ‘does he not see what’s going to happen?’

I guess it’s easier to see these problems on the outside looking in, rather than the other way around.

Closing Thoughts

Overall, Private Dancer is a great read that, once it gets going, it is difficult to put down.

The writing is crisp, and to the point, the characters suffer believable emotions with their own motives, and the Bangkok Go-Go bars feel vibrant through farang eyes.

Dig a little deeper though, and this book others some great conundrums on Western – Asian relationships, and how culture is only a small part of the differences.

It gets deep under your skin and completely messes with your mind, questioning everything you know about relationships and true love.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good thriller that grounded in normal day-to-day life, at least in Thailand and doesn’t mind a gratuitous amount of sex.

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