First off, let’s dismiss the mystery plot. Yes, it’s a detective novel, but the case itself is more intrusive than interesting. There has been a murder that is the end result of some horrible, squalid, violent, psycho-sexual perversion, the primary culprit being a Rich White Male.
Certainly, almost all contemporary literature seems to be dominated by horrible, squalid, violent, psycho-sexual perversion. Walk down the fiction aisle in your local Border’s and you’ll be bludgeoned with it at each glance. Bangkok 8 by John Burdett is no exception. The word ozworthy (definition) comes to mind. And, as enlightened people of the world know, all evil in the modern world is directly or indirectly perpetrated by Rich White Males. I’m sure the combination of an ozworthy murder and politically correct villain provided a lot of security for the faint-at-hearts in the publisher’s office.
By the way, I am not giving too much away by telling you this, these facts are plain by the time you are half way through the book. Besides, that’s just the case work. This novel succeeds in so many other ways that the lurid murder mystery fades into inconsequence.
The lead character is Sonchai Jitpleecheep — whoa! Sorry, the cat just walked across the keyboard. I meant to type Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Hmmm.
Sonchai is a detective in Bangkok District 8. In the course of the first couple of chapters Sonchai witnesses the grizzly death of his partner on the job and “soul brother,” Pichai. Thus begins Sonchai’s journey.
The half-caste son of a Thai prostitute and a Caucasian of some flavor, Soncahi’s childhood was spent amidst the brothels of Bangkok, punctuated by long trips abroad to the West when his mother had long-term liaisons with Europeans or Americans. As a young man, he fell into a life of crime with his “soul brother” that culminated in the murder of a drug dealer; his “soul brother” the murderer and he the accomplice. The duo avoided prison by doing time in a monastery undergoing a rigorous rehabilitation. Through the influence of their spiritual master, they gain positions on the police force where they are, by all accounts, the only honest cops in Thailand.
Sonchai is a tremendously conflicted and contrary character. Both he and his partner are deeply devout Buddhists. His partner is near to taking his vows of monkhood when he is murdered — by drug-crazed poisonous snakes, no less. But despite his devotion to the gentle and anti-materialistic ways of the Buddha, Sonchai is wholly imperfect in its practice. He maintains a deep appreciation for designer clothes, and though he doesn’t indulge in them, one suspects it’s only because he is so poorly paid on not on the take. He defiles himself by indulging in yaa-baa, an illegal narcotic, and binging under its influence. As a police detective, Sonchai is in a position that screams for rational process and Holmesian deduction, yet he eschews logic. Instinct, intuition and perhaps a bit of mysticism are his tools fro solving cases. And in most strikingly contrast to his advocation of gentle Buddhism, he serenely vows to kill this partner’s murders and shares that vow freely with anyone who asks.
Despite this earnest vow, Sonchai is not a committer. Unlike his partner who actually killed the drug dealer from their youth and who actually had the devotion necessary to take the vows of his faith, Sonchai only goes part of the way. From a literary standpoint, that makes him far more interesting than a single-minded hero or villain.
Like most illogical people, Sonchai overemphasizes culture as a motivator. Hardly a page passes when an activity or attitude isn’t described as “very Thai” or “very farang” (farang roughly translates to Caucasian foreigner). Paired with an ambitious and implausibly flirty female FBI agent, Sonchai doesn’t hesitate to explain the root reasons behind her actions — because she is American, because of her Karma and the effects of previous lives, because of her innate rationality, and so forth. He is also given to cryptic cultural analysis like, “America is a culture of guilt, whereas Thailand is a culture of shame.” In real life Sonchai would be bloody annoying to be around — like a Freudian who always is condescendingly informing you about the root psychological causes of everything you do. To his credit, Burdett doesn’t let Sonchai get off scot free with this. He is not portrayed as having some sort of special wisdom, his predispositions, however strange to Western sensibility, are as incomplete and erroneous as everyone else’s, and he certainly can’t resolve the case without help from the hopelessly left-brained FBI agent.
Sonchai also functions as your tour guide to Bangkok. This where the book really shines. Relying on a work of fiction to define a place is probably not the best way to get a solid understanding of it; accuracy has to be secondary dramatic necessity. But Burdett writes with the confidence and certainty of a man who knows of what he speaks, and considering a healthy portion of what he speaks consists of fairly detailed descriptions of the sex trade, Burdett may want to avoid running for public office.
Burdett’s Bangkok is a place of serene madness. Any semblance of order seems to be built on prostitution and corruption. There is a telling passage wherein Sonchai, somewhat sheepishly, explains why police corruption works: it allows police to make a good living without raising taxes to cover their pay. Honor-based, Mafia-like agreements across the various police districts keep everything in check.
The infamous Bangkok sex trade pervades virtually every scene in the book in one way or another. Sonchai spent his childhood surrounded inundated in the sex trade and, perhaps because of that, has tried to avoid vice work as a detective, but the realities of this case force him to troll the brothels and mingle with prostitutes and make observations based on his intimate knowledge. He is compelled to confront his mother about the identity of his father — which she has always kept secret — and confront the skewed leftover memories and sensations of his childhood. Here again, the danger of single-minded, maudlin cliche is deftly avoided. Even though Sonchai would have a God-given right to complex that would make Oedipus seem like a wuss, he has a fairly normal relationship with his Mother, who is one of the most colorful and lighthearted characters in the book.
Burdett’s adroit manipulation of style is another key to the novel’s success. With Sonchai as narrator, we start out firmly in the hard-boiled vein, although the voice is first-person present, which seems almost like a form of Buddhist admonition to deal with the world as it is in the moment. As the plot unfolds, and the events grow more lurid, Burdett softens the boil, so to speak, by balancing the squalor with some lightly humorous scenes and dialog. Sonchai’s mother and his police Colonel star in some clever comedic moments.
Sadly, about three-quarters of the way through, Burdett has to wrap up the case — this is a police procedural after all, technically speaking. Here the prose is neither hard- nor soft-boiled. It’s more like uncooked, cholesterol-free egg substitute. Lots of long-winded, expository dialog and dues ex machina. But it’s a comparatively small portion of the book and doesn’t matter at this point, anyway. As a bonus for making it through wrap-up, you’re treated to a final chapter that is utterly farcical, but now that the reader is fully immersed in the world of Bangkok 8 it seems completely plausible and practical.
I expect the most common description of Bangkok 8 will be “a wild ride.” That’s very true; Burdett has captured on paper a vision of a city as a funhouse of human desires both pure and polluted. If you can stomach the worst of the pollution, it will be a dizzying visit.