Foreign Agents

Bangkok Tattoo
by John Burdett
Knopf, 302 pp., $24
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Burdett's latest novel appears to tweak the gross-out-as-climax dodge. Then again, he's writing about the years following 9-11, when the interminable beheading of Nicholas Berg played across screens everywhere. As he chronicles the murder of a CIA op in southern Thailand (which will undoubtedly be blamed on Muslims), Burdett serves up a few cold reality sandwiches ("His people could not even protect their own buildings," says a cleric). The plot's engaging, but the composed tone of the book's predecessor Bangkok 8 is gone. Here, the Thai cop-narrator addresses the reader ("farang," foreigner) antagonistically, as a spoiled child stamping his feet at the universe. If 9-11 signaled the death of irony, Burdett isn't hearing it. "What is murder but suicide by an extrovert?" a crazed artist asks toward the end. The initial absurdity of the comment fades at the thought of suicide bombings. Maybe he's right. Darren Reidy


The Hungry Tide
By Amitav Ghosh
Houghton Mifflin, 333 pp., $25
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From one of India's most erudite writers comes a tale awash in folklore, displacement, revolution, survival—and dolphins. Set within the archipelago off Calcutta called the Sundarbans, where the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers flush into the Bay of Bengal, The Hungry Tide tells of the fated miscibility of seemingly discrete lives, "like that of fresh water and salt." A resolute Indian American cetologist, an unlettered fisherman whose lifeblood runs through the treacherous waters, a radical who finds his revolution too late, and the islands themselves, where "no place was so remote as to escape the flood of history," are just some of the characters whose stories intersect uncannily. Uday Benegal


Snakes and Earrings
By Hitomi Kanehara
Dutton, 120 pp., $17.95
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Summertime is when I show my tats—silhouette of Anthony Powell on my right bicep, the frontispiece from The Recognitions writhing down my left forearm, and the charter of the Oulipo across my belly. But would-be human ink pads beware: It's a painful process. Twenty-one-year-old Hitomi Kanehara's Akutagawa Award–winning Snakes and Earrings is adequate preparation for your meeting with the needle. This gnarly blast of Tokyo nihilism packs a hair-raising amount of modern-primitive accessorizing, bad sex, and mortal street combat into its svelte frame. The narrator, a lapsed "Barbie doll," is the definition of blasé: "I've had enemas, which were fine, and I've played around with toys." She's so cool you can hold off getting that air conditioner for another year—or given S&E's pamphlet heft, another two hours. Ed Park


Blood From a Stone
By Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly, 276 pp., $23
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The latest in Leon's series of Venice-based detective novels follows her lovably average gumshoe, Commissario Guido Brunetti, as he attempts to unravel a baffling murder. An African fake-handbag salesman—a vu cumpra, in the local parlance—has been shot, apparently by professionals. Somewhat dubiously, Brunetti's on the case; the detective's devotion to cappuccino breaks and leisurely lunches has not been compromised by his rather time-sensitive profess ion. But the commissario's socializing, which revolves around his incredulity that anyone would bother to kill this lowly African merchant, has a tactical purpose. For Leon, cultural roles are integral to the deductive process; only by examining the nuances of the vu cumpra's bottom-tier status can Brunetti progress with his sleuthing. It's a nifty reward system for class consciousness and makes Leon's books either the most ethical crime novels available or the most engaging moral screeds. Theo Schell-Lambert

 
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