The Hogwon Murders is a comic mystery novel in which the world's least successful magazine feature writer, Calvin Scott, finds himself in Southeast Asia chasing a story, a pretty blonde and a killer all at the same time.
In the time-honored tradition of tourists everywhere, the passengers aboard the Nam Yang Travel Company's "conveniently appointed, executive luxury, deluxe visitor limousine bus," were enthusiastically lapping up the most outlandish rubbish.
"On your right please enjoy to feast your eyes on the wonderful statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, the internationally famous sailing captain of Korea," said the pretty young tour guide.
"Mmmm, so that's what Admiral Sunshine looks like," murmured a fat man who had never heard of him before.
"Now we are lucky to be approaching the world-renowned Lotte Department Store, featuring a wonderful selection of high quality imported and locally-made products," said the guide.
"Can we stop there. I want to buy some genuine Korean gifts to take home," asked the English lady who, the year before, had come back from Canada with a suitcase full of plastic Mounties.
"Unfortunately, that will be impossible, due to the time scheduling factor of our tour. But I am ecstatically pleased to tell you that we will luckily be stopping in Itaewon. Then you will understand why all the people of the world agree that Itaewon is a shoppers paradise," answered the tour guide.
"I've heard of that place! They say it's a shoppers paradise," exclaimed the woman in the front seat with the short-term memory problem.
The tour continued in much the same fashion as the bus inched its way through the noise and congestion of downtown Seoul.
When the guide mistook her left for her right in pointing out City Hall, forty-three expensive cameras zoomed, exposed, auto-focused and forever immortalized a perfectly ordinary subway station.
Later, the sight of the 1988 Olympic Park prompted shrieks of imagined recognition from two women who'd seen the same TV mini-series about Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.
And when the Seoul Tower hove into view, everybody on the bus burst into a spontaneous chorus of "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."
I wasn't singing. I wasn't talking about Nancy and Tonya like I knew them personally. And I wasn't taking pictures. I didn't even have a camera. All I had was a small notebook on which I had written "Seoul - Seeing is Leaving."
I thought that was pretty funny, but I scratched it out anyway. Nina would never go for it.
Nina is Nina Van Der Klerk, the 49 going on "don't ask or you're fired" Managing Editor of World Horizons, a travel and lifestyle magazine for the terminally un-hip. She was also the reason I was on that wretched bus.
I'll tell you more about Nina later, but right now you're probably wondering who I am. So I'll tell you.
My name is Calvin Scott. I'm a freelance writer. I write articles for newspapers and magazines in dozens of countries around the world. I've been doing it for the better part of six years.
And you've never heard of me.
Don't worry, I understand. Unless you've been reading Bulgaria Today or the in-flight magazine of Air Burundi, this is probably the first time you've seen my name in print.
Believe me, it's not for lack of trying. I've spent so much money mailing query letters, the post office is seriously thinking about bringing out a Calvin Scott stamp.
That's what you do when you're a freelancer. You write query letters, one or two pages outlining your idea and asking for an assignment. You send them out and, if you're P.J. O'Rourke, the magazine sends you a contract and an expense account. If you're Hunter Thompson, they send you drugs and an airplane ticket.
But if you're Calvin Scott, you get a computer generated form letter lamenting the fact that "our editorial calendar is currently full" or "our needs are well satisfied at this time."
Take this Korea gig. I tried everybody. I sent queries to the newsweeklies offering to do an in-depth report on the possibility of North - South re-unification. I pitched the big men's monthlies a story about life with the American troops along the DMZ. I suggested a piece on the effect of rapid economic growth on ordinary Korean society to all the major travel mags. I ... well, you get the idea.
Three months later, my bank account was on life support and the pile of "best of luck placing this article elsewhere" letters was making free movement about my living room a distant memory.
I gave up and called Nina.
"Calvin!" she'd shrieked in delight after I'd identified myself three times and spelled my last name twice. "I'm so glad that it's you. When that blasted phone rang, I said to myself 'What fresh Hell is this?' You can imagine how delighted I am to hear a familiar voice."
That "fresh Hell" business started over a year ago when Nina saw a movie about Dorothy Parker. She adopted all sorts of Mrs Parker's mannerisms but that's the only one left. Office gossip has it that she's actually forgotten all about Dorothy Parker. The "what fresh Hell" line is now just a Pavlovian response to the ringing of a telephone.
Nina copies everybody.
One time she read the first three chapters of a book about Martha Gellhorn and announced her intention to set out for Spain in support of the Loyalists. Only after I explained that multi-party democracy has been a feature of Spanish life since the mid '70s did she abandon her plans.
I should have let her go.
"I have a story idea I'd like to bounce off you," I said, more to remind her who I was than anything else. The first time I called Nina, we were on the phone for twenty minutes before she realized that she was talking to Calvin the struggling writer and not Calvin the wildly successful fashion designer. I've wondered, ever since, whose name is on her underwear.
"Wonderful, wonderful. That's just what I want to hear. I was saying at our last editorial meeting that we really need something fresh and exciting from that talented young Calvin Scott," Nina lied.
I knew it was a lie. I've been in enough meetings with Nina to know that she only ever says things like "if we put him on the cover, can I meet Brad Pitt?" But discretion is the better part of employment and I was willing to be very discreet.
Besides Nina Van Der Klerk's phoniness is an old story and I was calling to pitch a new one. "It's a little different, which is why I called you first," I said. Nina isn't the only liar in town.
"Smart thinking, Calvin. You know, if it's new and unusual it's just what World Horizons is all about. Our readers are the type of people who appreciate a story that goes beyond the conventional. We definitely target a cutting-edge demographic," said Nina.
This wasn't exactly a lie, more of a carefully maintained delusion. Nina Van Der Klerk actually believes that her readers are upscale, cosmopolitan types who spend their free time and vast incomes jetting about the world in search of ever more exotic pleasures. In reality, most of them are more interested in gum that won't stick to dental work.
Two years ago when the magazine was sold for the sixth or seventh time (I've lost count), the new owners commissioned an independent audit and market survey. It's been kept hidden from Nina ever since, but I've seen it.
Among other things, the survey shows that the average World Horizons reader is a 73 year old, former factory worker with an annual income in the low five figures. The most popular column in the magazine is Doctor Dave's Health Tips, about which a full 38 percent of readers have requested "more advice about coping with Arthritis." And where the survey asked "What do you like best about World Horizons?" nearly half the respondents wrote that it was delivered free to their rest home every month.
"Have you been reading the magazine regularly?" Nina asked. "We've been doing some pretty exciting stuff. Rumor has it that some of those big name glossies are starting to sit up and take notice."
"Never miss it, Nina," I answered.
That was true. I really do read it. It's my monthly reminder that I'm not quite the biggest failure in the business. Every issue is chock full of articles testifying to the fact that, somewhere in the world, there are writers more desperate for an assignment than me.
"False modesty aside, Calvin," she said, "I must claim credit for the astrology page makeover."
"The his and hers star-scopes were your idea?" I asked.