09 October 2006

Bangkok 8, by John Burdett

October 09 2006 (22:40:00)

Don't judge a book by its cover. The edition of Bangkok 8 that I read has a lurid one: orange, black, and hot pink, featuring a blurry image of a scantily-clad dancer in what might be a night club. Reluctant to be seen with my nose in such I placed it on a shelf for some time. I should have known better; the friend who gave it to me has great taste in books, and this was no mistake. Bangkok 8 has everything that makes a great mystery novel.

Set in Thailand, the story starts out at a motorcycle-taxi pace with the murder of a police detective, Pichai, partner of Sonchai Jitpleecheep.This murder is committed immediately after the murder of an American Marine named Bill Bradley. Sonchai tells the story. The murders are gruesome and surreal -- snakes are involved. Pichai and Sonchai were unusually close friends (bound even closer by their vows as "arhat cops" as their penance for having murdered a drug dealer in their younger days) and Sonchai's determination to find the person responsible for Pichai's death and kill him or her is grim and powerful.

As W.R. Greer points out in this review, there isn't anything particularly unique in the idea of a mystery novel wherein a cop avenges the death of his partner. In many ways, Detective Jitpleecheep is nothing more than the hard-boiled detective in the hard-boiled novel -- but what I particularly admire is how John Burdett has used the religion, culture, and environment of this Thai detective to create what was for me a completely unique and refreshing book in this idiom. I haven't been so impressed since reading the novels of Elliott Pattison about his Chinese detective Shan Tao Yun, set chiefly in Tibet. Pattison's work is much different than Burdett's, but they both use the atmosphere of Buddhist culture and philosophy to enhance and deepen their plots.

In the course of the story we get a fair dose of modern Bangkok from the viewpoint of a native. We are introduced to a huge overpopulated city with extreme levels of overpopulation, pollution, and poverty. Corruption is quite literally institutionalized, especially in the police department -- except for our arhat hero and his deceased friend. (Sonchai and Pichai vowed to adhere to strict Buddhist principles of honesty in their police careers. In this way they hoped to avoid at least some of the horrible Karmic retribution that they incurred when they committed murder.) Farangs, foreigners, are a much-exploited resource in this city. Many farangs come to Bangkok for sex, usually purchased from the multitudinous variety of prostitutes that work there. We find that Sonchai's mother is a prostitute, and later in the book her desire to improve her business provides an interesting turn to the plot.

The sex trade is an important part of the mystery, and so is the involvement of a wealthy farang businessman. This man is named Sylvester Warren. He is seen to be highly connected to people in the US government, but at the same time he is a person of some interest to Bangkok-posted agents of the FBI. Sonchai works with some of the FBI people. This relationship provides a Western point of view so that we don't feel too much condescension as the story is, after all, written in American English, for American English readers. It also provides a romantic angle in the person of a female FBI agent who seems to have a little extra-professional interest in Detective Jitpleecheep.

The book is artistically done, skillfully executed, well worth your time. If you love detective fiction, it's a must-read. If you have any interest in the Far East or Buddhism, even more so.

I look forward to reading more of John Burdett's work. A quick search for the author's name with Google brought me to this website, where I am pleased to find that there are two more novels featuring Detective Jitpleecheep. You may perhaps soon read of them in this journal.

An odd coincidence: this is the second novel I've read recently that mentions the Karen people. The other was Saving Fish From Drowning, by Amy Tan. I had never heard of them before (my ignorance is boundless) but now have been introduced to them twice, in unrelated, randomly chosen novels set in Southeast Asia.

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