Dilemma by Stephen Bentley is Book Two in a series: Steve Regan Undercover Cop. I was attracted to this book because of its geographical setting, Thailand, where I have spent fifteen of the last thirty years. “Undercover Cop” is a bit misleading as protagonist Steve mixes elements of police and intelligence functions. One hundred forty pages make for a comparatively short novel that tries to explore three things: police work, intelligence work, and (most interesting of all) cross-cultural understanding as British Steve builds a relationship with Thai Fon. Although an interesting story, in trying to include too much this novel loses a lot of its appeal. It barely provides a surface look at three complex issues.
Police work and intelligence operations have different end goals. When they are mixed up in the real world, investigations result. Not investigations of bad actors but investigations of governmental agencies. The objective of an intelligence function is information gathering. When intelligence agencies go further by taking action, they risk breaking laws. This happens frequently, much to the delight of investigative journalism. The same problem is mirrored on the police side. When police attempt to gather information through surveillance, electronic and otherwise, they risk breaking some laws while attempting to uphold others. More glee for journalists. Therefore, any kind of blended operation requires a very complex set of interactions at a leadership level, not at a street level. This is where the novel falls short.
We have heads of Mafia families competing for control in the USA using a time trusted way of selecting leaders, murdering the opposition. One relatively successful leader, Carlo Vitale, needs to flee the US and selects Thailand as a place to hide. From there, he can still actively control a drug operation. Unfortunately for him, our protagonist Steve, who will appear with the last name Regan or Ryan, has been establishing his undercover identity as a bar owner in Thailand. Steve is an undercover cop trying to infiltrate drug organizations. Carlo and Steve will meet in the last half of the novel. Carlo will immediately recognize Steve because years previously Carlo had seen Steve once briefly when Steve had visited the US. For the first part of the novel, we have a series of intermediate meetings leading up to the meeting with Carlo while Steve develops his relationship with Fon. As far as the criminal and intelligence part of the novel, we have a Mafia leader (Italian) killing people in the US, fleeing to Thailand where he will eventually encounter Steve (British) in an operation that will eventually involve Australians. OK, but administratively and jurisdictionally a nightmare. Suspend belief here.
The more interesting cross-cultural part was, for me, extremely shallow. For those who have spent more than a few months in Thailand, this appears to have been written by a tourist. Few clichés were missed. The idea of a foreigner (Steve) managing or owning a bar in Thailand which, like many bars in Thailand, are a combination bar and brothel will interest many readers. Steve is a benevolent owner who never accepts the many benefits offered by his employees. Right. Steve will eventually hook up with Fon, who is his manager (mama-san) of the bar and girls. Fon is an ex-bargirl (prostitute) herself but no longer does that work. Now she manages the girls as they meet customers in the bar and occasionally entertain them in one of the twelve rooms adjacent to the bar. Fon’s room in the bar is adjacent to Steve’s but over a period of four months, neither of them has entered the other’s room. Right.
The plot is straightforward. We know from the outset that Steve is going to prevail in all things. The story is the process by which we get from point A to the conclusion. There are action scenes I find extremely improbable. Depictions of the incompetence of Thai police are accurate but the ease of escaping from jail is exaggerated. Stephen Bentley might want to check on sales of his novel in Thailand before vacationing there. The public opinion of Thai police is justifiably low. Corruption is as rampant as described in this novel. But the police don’t like to be reminded of it. They have long memories for slights once they are made aware of them.
Surprisingly, there is little sexually inappropriate language used in a novel about drugs, human trafficking, and prostitution. The lack of any depth to the story leads me to make a sound like “meh” and give the novel three stars. I downloaded it from Kindle Unlimited (KU). The Amazon price is USD 2.99.