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Sunday, Dec. 23, 2007

An odious and deadly trade in antiquities


GRAVE IMPORTS by Eric Stone. Bleak House, Madison, Wis., 2007, 328 pp., $14.95, (paper)

All too many thrillers in which a Western agent sets out to infiltrate some insidious Asian organization come across as vestiges of works from the 1950s and '60s, the era of Ian Fleming and his numerous spinoffs. Today such characters have become increasingly less plausible. "Grave Imports" manages to buck this trend — up to a point — by making protagonist Ray Sharp an investigator for Due Diligence International, a Hong Kong-based consultancy that conducts corporate background checks.

After his corporate investigation ends, Sharp insists, for personal reasons, on delving further into how Cambodia is being plundered of its priceless cultural heritage by illicit dealers of antiquities. The networks that enable the trafficking of guns, drugs, antiques and humans are nothing new of course, but in Cambodia's case the system was particularly odious, since sales of Buddhist art and erotic temple carvings helped fund die-hard elements of the bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge, who held rural parts of the country until the late 1990s.

Sharp and his unlikely female sidekick, a multilingual Mexican-Chinese dwarf named Marisol, set off for Thailand, where the sinister General Tran awaits. A former Vietnamese soldier who became a naturalized Thai citizen, Tran is up to his eyeballs in illicit trade and decides he doesn't need an American goody two-shoes prying into his affairs. Tran orders his minions to arrange for Sharp's death in a sleazy Pattaya Beach hotel. After a harrowing escape, Sharp makes his way to Phnom Penh, where he is aghast to behold a people devastated by decades of conflict. Further surprises await.

The passages of "Grave Imports" dealing with antiquities are well researched, but Sharp comes across as an unlikely hero by practically anybody's standards, boasting no particular street smarts or combat skills. Still sulking over a previous romance gone wrong, he repeatedly fails to pillow with willing Asian ladies. He's also a soft touch for the hordes of street beggars, although the word gets around and his generosity is reciprocated when the chips are down.

Sharp is clearly a figure with honorable intentions, but as a potboiler novel character his sympathy toward Asia's downtrodden is overdone, and starts to border on the patronizing. If author Stone's main motive was to attract attention to Cambodia's plight, however, he certainly succeeds.

Novels featuring Cambodian characters are still comparatively few. One other title, set in the expat community in Seattle, Washington, is "Death Stalks the Khmer" by Patricia Harrington (2000).



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