From Compass Magazine


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.



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

several awards.



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

older men.



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.  

His sequel to Hangman's Point is Thieves Hamlet.