500 Words From...is a series of guest posts from Asia-based, locally-published authors, in which they talk about their latest books. Here Jame DiBiasio, an American financial journalist and crime writer now living in Hong Kong, discusses Cowgirl X, the second in his series of Val Benson thrillers – Val is a feisty female amateur sleuth, and she made her debut in Gaijin Cowgirl. The series is published by Crime Wave Press, in Hong Kong.
Gaijin Cowgirl finds Val in Tokyo, where she grabs from a war criminal a map to the location of stolen gold. She makes a run for Southeast Asia to find the booty before the yakuza and crooked CIA agents can get to it. Cowgirl X sees her roaming from California, where she becomes entangled in the LA porn industry, to South East Asia, in an attempt to track down a missing Japanese starlet. She is travelling with an ancient sword hilt in her luggage. It is from Cambodia, and all roads lead to Angkor Wat.
So: over to Jame…
The idea behind the series is to explore Asia’s underbelly – and more profoundly how power works here – from Val’s perspective. But the drivers behind Gaijin Cowgirl weren’t the same as those behind Cowgirl X. The first one was motivated by the sheer awesomeness of living and working in Asia. I was like a kid high on sugar and I wanted to cram in all this cool stuff, like hunting for gold stolen by the Japanese army during World War 2 and buried somewhere in Southeast Asia, or the culture of hostess bars in Japan. Cowgirl X was a more deliberate affair. I had a sense that Val was too good a character to be granted a genteel retirement. She could be a useful tool to explore deeper undercurrents in Asia.
Researching Cowgirl X was interesting; the LA porn industry and an ancient sword hilt from Angkor Wat are not two subjects that you’d normally associate with one another. I just had to make up the stuff about the porn industry. My way in was a character named Naomi Sato, who lives in LA and is a reporter for a trade magazine covering the business. She mostly writes about boring stuff like sales and distribution deals, but of course things get a little messy when she crosses paths with Val. For Angkor, I was able to draw upon a non-fiction book I wrote about its history, The Story of Angkor. It was fun to weave some of that actual history into a Val Benson adventure.
Working on Cowgirl X taught me it’s more difficult to write a sequel than a first novel, particularly when your character is not obviously exposed to episodic challenges, as, say, a professional detective would be: Val is not a PI, or a detective, or a bounty hunter. I had to come up with credible reasons to throw her back into the deep end.
Although the Val Benson series is primarily for entertainment, it nonetheless explores the design of power in the Asia Pacific region after World War 2. A novel needs to have a moral center. There needs to be a calling for a writer beyond titillation. Otherwise it’s pointless, and self-indulgent. Gaijin Cowgirl explored issues around comfort women – the industrialization of rape by the Japanese military during the war – as well as American excesses in Vietnam and related corruption. There are a lot of gender issues bubbling beneath the surface and the exploitation, mainly of women, in the so-called water trade. Cowgirl X continues the investigation of many of those themes.
Still, readers will notice that stuff only if they want to, but most of them will probably be too busy keeping up with the escalating body count. When it comes to Cowgirl X, I hope readers take from my latest offering enjoyment, some thrills, and a couple of oh-shit moments. For readers familiar with the settings – Bangkok, Cambodia, LA – there’s the fun of recognition. I take a few minor liberties but try to be as true as possible to the essence of a place.