16 September 2007

Bangkok Tattoo, by John Burdett

Alfred A. Knopf New York 2005. 302 pages. ISBN 1-4000-4045-0.

This is the second book I've read by John Burdett, the first being Bangkok 8. The protagonist is again Sonchai Jitpleecheep, detective in the Royal Thai Police, serving under the notorious Colonel Vikorn. Again, the book starts with a murdered American, and takes off at a wild pace into a bizarre mystery set in Bangkok and its surrounds.

While this novel has much in common with the other, I didn't find it the least bit distracting or detracting. Instead, I felt at home in Sonchai's world, having been initiated into the unique atmosphere of Thailand, and having from that other book absorbed some of Burdett's philosophy regarding what we in the West would probably term corruption.

The mystery is excellent, the action never lets up. The characters are well and completely drawn, and I found myself involved with nearly every one.

Mitch Turner, the murdered American, has apparently been killed by a prostitute named Chanya, who is in the employ of a house known as the "Old Man's Club." This institution is owned by Sonchai, his mother, and the Colonel. It becomes evident that Turner is in the employ of the CIA. His murder is particularly grisly, and involves some very particular mutilation.

As the story unfolds, we learn about the Muslim culture in Thailand, and how it feels threatened by the USA's irrational quest to find and destroy all remnants of its arch-enemy, Al Qaeda. There is a fair amount of interesting insight into what might be the attitudes of Muslims in Southeast Asia, as well as their coexistence with the Buddhists who dominate Thailand. There are some interesting discussions of the effects of these two religions, and how they compare to Christianity as manifested in the USA.

Agents of the CIA arrive and become involved. There is in the background a war going on between Colonel Vikorn of the Police and General Zinna of the Army. Incredible dirty tricks are used in this conflict, which weaves in and out of the plot and mystery concerning the death of Mitch Turner.

Turner, who was obsessed with Chanya, was also obsessed with tattoos, and tattoos become an interesting element in this story, as well as a peculiar tattoo artist from Japan. We are introduced to underground characters from both Japan and China as well in this story.

In the end, when most of the mystery is unravelled and some of it is resolved, Sonchai reminds us: "We are distracted from distraction by distraction. Nothing is happening... Says the Buddha: All meaning is realized, the universe is nirvanic."

I very much look forward to my next opportunity to read a book by John Burdett.

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