FIELDWORK By Mischa Berlinski

Farrar Straus Giroux. 320 pp. $24

Even with a protagonist who shares the author's name, as well as various biographical similarities, Mischa Berlinski's first book is indeed a work of fiction: "None of this stuff happened to anyone," he insists in the book's endnote. Never mind that Berlinski proves to be such an effortless conjurer of convincing details that I kept trying to Google for further information. (The meticulous footnotes alone are an enticing literary feat!) But the cover confirms it's "A Novel." How ironic that this disclaimer follows the title "Fieldwork" -- what anthropologists call their real-life primary research.

Having arrived jobless in Thailand to follow his teacher girlfriend, Mischa Berlinski (the character) supports himself writing articles on subjects he knows little about. He observes the Westerners around him, commenting: "There is something about the life as a foreigner in Thailand that draws those who find themselves unwilling or unable to think about their 401(k)s; and in the leisure, freedom, and isolation that the Far East provides, these types swing inexorably toward the pendulum-edges of their souls." When an expat buddy takes Berlinski out for a meal and entices him with hearsay about a dead woman's life, he cannot let the skeletal details go: "My soul, too, began to swing. Such is the power of a good story."

A really, really good story is exactly what "Fieldwork" is.

Here's what the buddy knows: Martiya van der Leun, once a promising American anthropologist studying a remote hill tribe, commits suicide in a Chiang Mai prison while serving a 50-year sentence for killing a young missionary. With the same anthropological zeal that brought an idealistic Martiya from Berkeley to Thailand in 1974, Berlinski embarks on an obsessive search to understand Martiya's murderous intentions. He follows a trail laid out by her relatives, friends, lovers and colleagues, and he pieces together their disjointed recollections to reveal an enigmatic stranger's compelling history.

Berlinski learns that Martiya traveled into the northernmost Thai hills to absorb the language, culture and lifestyle of the isolated Dyalo. Installed in the home of the odoriferous "Farts-a-Lot," his wife Lai-Ma and their five children, she spent the first months of her research stymied by the villagers' stock answers to all her questions: "It would anger the spirits, or it is our custom, or it is not our custom." Those temperamental spirits, Martiya learned, are at the core of Dyalo existence, so much so that Farts-a-Lot even sent two women to accompany her into the forest so that she would not relieve herself "right on top of a bad spirit." But through unwavering perseverance, Martiya gains access to -- eventually participation in -- the multi-layered nuances of Dyalo society. Her breakthrough comes when she begins to comprehend the dyal -- an elaborate rice-planting, partner-switching ceremony designed to assuage the all-powerful rice spirit.

Enter David Walker, heir apparent to the local Christian dynasty founded four generations earlier by the original Walker newlyweds who left the Midwest to save souls in the faraway, heathen East. In spite of David's short-lived rebellion against the rigidity of his missionary roots -- marked by watching "Star Wars" and following the Grateful Dead -- he is prodigally reabsorbed into the Walker family upon his return.

When David's evangelizing trespasses on Martiya's carefully cocooned village existence, tragedy proves inevitable: Rice and Jesus cannot coexist.

With its offbeat style, Berlinski's consummate fieldwork -- fictional though it may be -- produces an intricate whodunit, both disturbing and entertaining. Even as he confesses to feeling "like the baton in a relay race of faulty memories and distant recollections," Berlinski meticulously unearths Martiya's "good story," taking readers on an intoxicating journey filled with missing souls and vengeful spirits.