few weeks ago, I re-reviewed Sleepless in Bangkok, a novel by Ian
Quartermaine. That book still produces a shocked response from its readers,
with Quartermaine being a somewhat graphic writer.
This week, his fifth novel came across the reviewing desk, called Siam
Streetfighter (ISBN 974-91184-5-6, IQ Inc, 2008), and again a note on the
back cover stating that there were scenes of considerable brutality. “Do not
purchase if you are of a sensitive disposition or emanate from a sheltered
The book is set in the early 1900’s, when bare-knuckle boxing was still the
preferred spectator sport, although illegal, with the boxers continuing to
fight until a knock-out or exhaustion. (For the trivia addicts, the last
‘official’ fight in the US was in 1889 between John L. Sullivan and Jake
Kilrain, which went 75 rounds and lasted 2 hours 16 minutes.)
Quartermaine’s hero is James Johnson, a huge man who had been incarcerated
in an American prison for fighting over an ill-treated horse. That is the
first inkling the author gives as to the character of this man.
Johnson is given the opportunity to escape the prison, where whippings were
an everyday occurrence. As Quartermaine advises, “Do not purchase if you are
of a sensitive disposition or emanate from a sheltered personal background.”
Man’s inhumanity to man has been a recurring theme in art and literature for
centuries, and it has not changed much, despite our considering ourselves
living in enlightened times, and Quartermaine has also used this aspect of
humanity in his previous books.
After slipping away from the prison detail, Johnson and a fellow inmate make
it to Los Angeles where they meet the Bernsteins (yes, those ones), but
while protecting their money from a street gang, his friend is killed. What
can a convict on the run do? Complaining to the police is out of the
question, so Johnson is on the run again to San Francisco, where he joins a
ship bound for the exotic port of Bangkok, in a country called Siam.
Johnson finds he had not left brutality behind in America, and makes an
enemy of the ship’s captain, which is not forgotten by the seaman who rounds
up a group of thugs who set about Johnson most comprehensively, leaving him
to die in the streets of Bangkok.
At this juncture, Johnson meets up with a Siamese woman and her son who
nurse him back to strength, despite the prevailing thought that a good
Siamese woman should not consort with a farang. (Still evident in some
The book does hurry along with short chapters, and despite all the wrongs
perpetrated upon him, the hero does make it through in the end. He picks up
much Buddhist philosophy, which is compared to his Judeo-Christian
background and ethics, but in a complimentary way, rather than attempting to
produce conflict. You are also shown that the patronage system in Thailand
is not new.
The ending is thoroughly oriental, with Johnson finding the ‘middle way’
which ensures that nobody is hurt or really disadvantaged, but done in a
most novel method by the large farang.