This is a pretty special Choose Your Own Adventure review, and one I’ve looked forward to doing for a while now: not only is Shannon Gilligan’s The Case of the Silk King one of the stand-out books in the series, but it is, at least by one measure, the most noteworthy. It’s the only CYOA book to be adapted into any kind of motion picture. The Case of the Silk King was the basis of a half-hour animated ABC Weekend Special on television, which aired in December 1992. I never saw it, but the book it was based on was pretty interesting.
The Case of the Silk King by Shannon Gilligan (illustrated by Frank Bolle)
Published: February 1986
Number in the CYOA Series: 53
The Case of the Silk King is the second book in the CYOA series by Shannon Gilligan, who in real life was the wife of series co-founder R.A. Montgomery who passed away last November. Her first was The Mystery of Ura Senke, which I haven’t read, but I believe this book is intended to be a kinda-sorta sequel to that one, as there’s a brief mention of “you,” a private detective, having solved a previous mystery involving the Japanese mafia. I don’t know about that one, but I perceive some similarities between Gilligan’s and her husband’s styles, at least as far as plotting and exotic globetrotting locales are concerned. Silk King features possibly the most exotic and spectacular locale for a CYOA book yet: Southeast Asia with all its culture and mystery. And speaking of mystery, its premise is based on a real-life one: the March 1967 disappearance of James Harrison Thompson, an American silk magnate who was living in Thailand when he vanished without a trace while taking a walk on Easter Sunday in the Cameron Highlands of West Malaysia. The manhunt for Thompson, which came up with nothing, was reportedly the largest in Southeast Asia up to that time.
The house that Jim Thompson designed and built himself in 1958, in Bangkok, is today a museum and major tourist attraction. It is architecturally as well as historically significant.
The book begins with a grabber: you’re at your detective agency when a mysterious envelope arrives, containing a plane ticket to Bangkok, $2000 in cash and a newspaper article about the Thompson disappearance. What’s happened now (presumably 1986, when the book was written) is that photos have recently been taken in Thailand of a Buddhist monk who strongly resembles Thompson. Some person unknown wants you to go to Bangkok and track him down. There’s a $100,000 reward. The catch: you have no idea who’s hired you, and no time to find out; to claim the plane ticket you have to leave immediately. The first choice is whether you do, or delay in order to get more information.
It’s hard to imagine an opening in a CYOA book that thrusts you into the action more quickly and directly. (The only one I can think of is The Lost Jewels of Nabooti, written by Montgomery–see what I mean about the similarity in style?) Both choices are fair, too, and lead to significantly different plots. If you go to Thailand, you meet up with your local sidekick, Ning, and then have the choice to begin the search immediately or visit a Mr. Sing who claims to have background information on Thompson. If you stay behind you can find out who hired you, and possibly get roped into intrigue involving the CIA. Oh, did I mention that Jim Thompson was in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA) during World War II? That’s how he wound up in Thailand, and stayed on after the war. The book plays with the obvious possibility that he was still a spy in 1967, and that his disappearance had to do with trafficking secrets or perhaps even heroin. It’s rare for hard drugs to be mentioned in a CYOA book, but there you have it.
The mystery plots in the book are all pretty tightly constructed, and Gilligan does well to make the Southeast Asia setting vaguely menacing as well as picturesque and thrilling. At various points in the book you can be stung to death by snakes, mauled by a Bengal tiger, lost in the jungle, swept away by a monsoon flood tide or even wind up as a victim of the Khmer Rouge. While there’s no single unifying antagonist, Mr. Sing, a deranged mystery writer, manages to come across as a credible villain. Jim Thompson himself also manages to remain pretty mysterious, and I like that so many of the plots don’t resolve with pat answers about him. In only one ending do you actually find Thompson alive; all the others are somewhat equivocal about his fate. That rings true to real life. Overall the adventure, though clearly geared for kids, remains generally plausible and engaging even for an adult reader. Really my only quibble is that there are probably too few choices; “turn to page” directions appear a bit more frequently than they should. But that’s a minor point.
This house, in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, was where Thompson was staying on holiday when he vanished in March 1967. It too is a pilgrimage site for curious tourists.
In real life there has been no definitive resolution to the Thompson disappearance, though various people have claimed to have solved it. Looking into the case briefly for this article I read that some bones were discovered in 1985 that might have been his remains, possibly the victim of a hit-and-run car accident; in the meantime an author named Edward Roy De Souza wrote a book in 2010 suggesting that Thompson may have planned his own disappearance to get out of Thailand. Barring something like DNA testing, a slam-dunk resolution is probably out of reach by now. Thompson was only gone 19 years when Gilligan wrote this book; now it’s been 48.
The Case of the Silk King is an excellent Choose Your Own Adventure book, and is a great example of the series’ strengths. This one is highly recommended. I’m not sure how ABC managed to make a cartoon out of it, but I’ll just leave that sleeping dog lie for now.
Next up: Louise Munro Foley takes us into The Forest of Fear.