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50th Year Anniversary for A Woman of Bangkok

It is 50 years since Jack Reynolds A Woman of Bangkok was published in New York. The ranking of the novel on amazon.com is #1,856,650. The raw number of an amazon ranking isn’t always a true indicator of the importance or significance of a book.

A Woman of Bangkok is, in my view, a significant book. There is no Wikipedia article for Jack Reynolds. No movie was ever made from A Woman of Bangkok. It is useful to look back at A Woman of Bangkok with two other novels set in this region in the 1950s.

During the same time period (1957), Richard Mason’s World of Susie Wong was also published in New York. It has no ranking on amazon.com and the only copies are on offer are from second-hand booksellers. In Mason’s novel a poor English artist falls in love with a prostitute who worked in the Wanchai district of Hong Kong. The World of Susie Wong became a hit film in 1960 staring William Holden. The movie turned the English struggling artist into an American. Largely because of the successful film, The World of Susie Wong continues in the collective consciousness. Although out of print, the novel remains a touchstone for those writing about the dramatic changes in Hong Kong.

The third novel to come out around the same time was Graham Greene’s The Quiet American It remains very much in print with the Penguin Deluxe edition ranked at 20,100.

Why has The Quiet American continued in print while the other two titles have faded into obscurity? I have a couple of theories. Graham Greene wove the French War in Vietnam into the story, and created conflict between Fowler, the old Asia hand, whose cynicism played against the wide-eye, young and innocent Pyle. Reynold’s A Woman of Bangkok lacked the crucible of a war and all of the danger, intrigue and emotion that flow from armed conflict. More importantly, the major defect in A Woman of Bangkok is the absence of a Fowler like character to offset the self-destructive and mindless narrator who was created in the mode of Pyle but without the well-developed background, which explained why Pyle became the kind of person that he did. What Reynolds did capture, however, was the authentic atmosphere of Bangkok in the 1950s and created a prototype novel about the western male who falls head over heels in love with a ruthless bargirl.

There is another explanation for the relative failure of A Woman of Bangkok and The World of Susie Wong. Both were by one-book wonder authors. Graham Greene created a large body of novels so it is possible to say that The Quiet American is his best-loved novel. Neither Reynolds nor Mason went onto produce other novels. They disappeared and in the case of Reynolds his novel of Bangkok in 1957 has largely disappeared with him.

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