A journalist investigates the suicide of an American anthropologist serving time for murder in a Thai jail.
Mischa and Rachel are a young, bored, American couple who decide, upon college graduation, to move to northern Thailand, where Rachel accepts a job teaching first grade in Chiang Mai and Mischa pieces together enough freelance journalism gigs to make a living. But Mischa’s focus changes when another wanderlust American tips him off to the riveting story of Martiya van der Leun, a middle-aged anthropologist who overdosed on opium while serving a murder sentence in Chiang Mai’s women’s prison. Mischa has almost no information about the crime, and leads on Martiya’s life seem scarce, but he pursues the story with an anthropological fervor—one that he soon learns would have made Martiya proud. He follows Martiya’s life from her childhood in an Indonesian village to her teenage years in California to her career in Thailand, where she began as a field researcher studying the Dyalo people. Slowly he uncovers important puzzle pieces, learning most notably that Martiya’s murder victim was David Walker, a fourth-generation American missionary from a family of Dyalo experts, and that what had began for Martiya as an academic project with the Dyalo eventually became for her an obsessive way of life. As Mischa integrates himself into the facets of Martiya’s story, he becomes as consumed with it as she had become with the Dyalo, and when Rachel returns to America at the end of the year, Mischa finds that he cannot leave. Berlinski’s methodical account of the factors that led a rational intellectual to commit such a heinous crime is air-tight and intensely gripping. But equally notable is his ability to conjure such an elaborate portrait of the fictional Dyalo, and his treatment of both religious missionary and anthropological fieldwork is subtle and insightful.
Impeccable research and a juicy, intricate plot pay off in this perfectly executed debut.