From Compass Magazine
DEAN BARRETT ̶MAN OF MYSTERY
Love or hate was the reaction to him and his writing, says Robert Stedman
who reflects on the life and work of American writer Dean Barrett.
by Robert Stedman
A COUPLE OF months ago I was really upset
when I received an email from a friend telling
me that 67-year-old American novelist, mystery
writer and playwright, Dean Barrett, had died.
I had known Dean for over 25 years and was
totally shocked. I knew he had some health
issues but thought he had overcome them.
Frantically, I looked for Dean’s Bangkok phone
number. When I found it, I tried calling…no
answer… my heart sank.
I then sent an email to Dean, hoping that the
news was just a big mistake. It was a strange
email to write and went something like, “Hey
Dean, Hope this email finds you well, and by
the way, are you dead? Someone wrote me
saying that they had read your obituary in a
newspaper.” I even called a few mutual friends
but no one knew anything about poor Dean.
A REAL LOSS
Well, days went by without a reply —
confirming my worst fear. Dean must have
really died. Pity, I thought, he was such a
talented writer. He was also a pretty good client
as we had designed covers for about eight of
his books in as many years.
Still, I reflected what an incredible life Dean
Barrett had lived. He was an accomplished
writer, photographer and surprisingly, a linguist
who could read and write Mandarin fluently.
His language skills came about because,
in the 1960s, Barrett was a US Army specialist
and during his stint in the military he was
trained as a Chinese specialist at the Defense
Language Institute in Monterey, California.
Much to his disappointment, and so true to
the US Military SNAFUS, Dean’s first assignment
abroad was not Taipei or a Chinese speaking
country, but Thailand. So the military that
spent a fortune teaching Dean to learn
Chinese sent him to Bangkok.
During Dean’s army days in Bangkok, he
became terribly ill. Malaria or Dengue,
something like that, I believe. Anyway, as
he told the story, the treatment that was
prescribed to him was to keep cool. The army
physician ordered Dean to spend his time in
Bangkok’s notorious Patpong, as in the early 60s
the bars there were the only places that were
When Dean left the army he began writing
full time. He had a play produced on Broadway,
which is no easy feat and he worked in New
York, Hong Kong and Thailand as an editor for
several magazines. He wrote a tremendous
amount of material on Asia.
He won many writing and editing awards
including the PATA Grand Prize for Excellence
for writing on Asia, particularly on Thailand and
on Chinese culture. But Barrett’s real love was
the writing of novels. And there too he won
GENIUS OR HACK
I have to point out that Dean was the kind of
author that people either loved, or hated. At
cocktail parties when his name got mentioned
you would hear comments from many that
described Dean as a genius, a talented and
brilliant writer. He had his fans, for sure.
On the other hand, he also elicited from
others words like pervert, dirty old man, and
hack. No two ways about it, Dean’s writing was
controversial. He wrote about what he saw
and didn’t care whether his observations were
politically correct or if they offended.
Western women especially hated Dean. He
wrote about Thai bar girls in a few of his novels
and suggested, to the horror of some, that
these girls were happy doing what they were
doing. He pointed out that they made more
money and lived better as prostitutes than as
overworked, poverty stricken girls planting
rice. And Dean used to make what he called
“Femnazis” boil over when he expounded his
belief that it was Okay if young women married
WHO STOLE MY VIAGRA?
For some, even the titles of his novels got a hate
or love response. Titles like: “The Go-Go Dancer
Who Stole My Viagra,” “Murder at the Horny Toad
Bar,” “Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior” or one of
my favorites, “Don Quixote in China.”
Whatever your opinion about Dean, those
who read his books and stories always left them
knowing he was a master at his craft. You might
not like the subject matter but his books were
well-written, researched and clever; and very
often, thought provoking.
You can imagine my surprise when I received
an email about a week after learning the
shocking news about Dean’s death. What was
even more startling was the person who wrote
the email. It was from none other than Dean
Barrett himself and read: “Robert, News of my
death has been greatly exaggerated. As far as I
know, I’m still very much alive.”
Apparently, it was another guy who had the
same name that died. Dean explained that he
had been travelling in northern Thailand and
didn’t have access to the Internet.
Dean Barrett's sequel to Skytrain to Murder is
Permanent Damage and will be out early in 2010.