I read John Burdett’s debut mystery “ Bangkok 8 ” when it first came out and have been a fan of his ever since. Set in the red light district of Bangkok, Burdett’s novel describes a strange , cruel , grotesque world populated by bar girls, mamasans, lecherous farangs ( foreigners , usually Westerners) , katoeys ( ladyboys or trans-sexuals), druggies and corrupt cops. It is not a pretty world but it has it’s comic moments as we see it through the eyes of the narrator, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, probably the only honest detective in the Bangkok criminal justice system.
Sonchai is an engaging character and surely one of the strangest protagonists any novel could have .The son of Nong , an ex-bar girl who now runs a brothel called the Old Man’s Club , and a long absent GI father, Sonchai straddles two worlds and understands both of them while not belonging fully to either. Having lived abroad with his mother and her lovers, he is familiar with Western mores but doesn’t subscribe to them . A devout Buddhist and seeker after nirvana, he tries very hard to stick to the Righteous Path but his refusal to take bribes and his mixed blood make him an object of suspicion to his colleagues. In the very beginning of Bangkok 8, the first book in the series, Sonchai’s soul brother , Pichai, is bitten to death by baby cobras. However, this is not the end of Pichai because his spirit continues to commune with Sonchai much as he did in real life.
In The Godfather of Kathmandu, Burdett’s latest novel, Colonel Vikorn,the police chief who is Sonchai’s superior, makes Sonchai an offer he cannot refuse. An unabashed admirer of the Godfather movies, he appoints Sonchai his consigliere, so that Sonchai can advise him and help run his drug-smuggling empire. Specifically, he wants Sonchai to fly to Kathmandu and vet the mysterious Tibetan monk , Tietsin, to find out whether he can deliver 40 million dollars worth of heroin. With this one big shipment, Vikorn hopes to make a ton of money while at the same time eliminating his arch rival, the army chief Colonel Zinna. Sonchai’s first inclination is to refuse the offer but his wife prevails upon him to accept because the money will be useful in raising their six year old son. Reluctantly , Sonchai agrees to Vikorn’s offer though he feels he is laying in bad karma for himself.
At about this time , Frank Castle , a sometime Hollywood producer, is killed in a most gruesome way in his Bangkok hotel room. ( I’ll let you read the details for yourself). Sonchai is told to investigate the murder, along with Sukum, his rival for promotion within the detective ranks.In between trips to Kathmandu , Sonchai begins to unravel the mystery of Castle’s death but tragedy strikes when Sonchai’s son is killed in a traffic accident. Distraught, Sonchai’s wife leaves him to become a nun ; Sonchai must cope with his inner demons alone while still trying to do his job.
The surprises come thick and fast. Why was Castle such a frequent visitor to Kathmandu ? What is his connection with Tietsin ? Why was Castle seen in the company of Mad Moi , the high-society lady who dabbles in designer drugs and who allegedly had two of her husbands murdered ? What is the connection with Suzuki, the Japanese gem dealer who was bankrupted and committed harakiri in his hotel room ? Will Sonchai be able to keep the uneasy peace between Col. Vikorn and General Zinna ? Or will he get caught in the crossfire? Will Tietsin deliver the heroin ?All these threads are woven together in an unbelievable climax that sees Sonchai emerge triumphant in what may be the last book of this series.
Burdett , who was a lawyer in Hongkong before deciding to try his hand at mystery novels, has certainly done his research. He has reputedly spent hundreds of hours talking to the bar girls and other denizens of the red light districts of Bangkok. His descriptions of Soi Cowboy, Sukhumwit and other areas, his depiction of Bangkok street life, the cooked food stalls, the vegetable and fruit sellers, the crowds , the traffic jams,the klongs , the water taxis on the Chao Praya River ,all ring true. Adding to the charm of the story is the voice of Sonchai who narrates the story in the present tense as it is happening. Since he is telling it to you, a farang , we learn a lot about Thai customs and society and it is indeed fascinating. Occasionally, Sonchai throws in an aphorism which make us pause and think.
There are also the distinctive voices of the other players which often seem to stand logic on its head. Here, for instance, is Colonel Vikorn trying to justify his drug dealing . ” What’s wrong with trafficking in heroin ? Why should the pharmaceutical industry take everything ? They want to ban all the fun drugs at the same time as turning every human experience into a treatable disease. Drugs for sleeping, drugs for waking, drugs for peeing, drugs for erections. For them the human body is an oil well of maladies that can be exploited. It’s the biggest fraud in history. You find a perfectly harmless drug like cannabis or opium , which has the advantage of being easy to produce, and what do you do ? You criminalize it , find a substitute that is impossible to produce outside of a laboratry, take out the patent, and your corporation is good for another hundred years. Meanwhile people die all the time from prescribed drugs _ or worse. Ever hear of Vioxx ? ….More than a hundred thousand people die in the U.S from prescribed drugs. Thats more fatalities in a month than smack kills in a decade. And , by the way, what about the killer drug of all killer drugs , alcohol ? The breweries and distilleries don’t like us because we sell a superior product that rivals theirs.” As you read the words, you find yourself nodding in agreement , sort of. The conclusion makes sense, or does it ?
Some critics have faulted Burdett’s novels as not being really representative of Bangkok life , focussing as they do on a narrow segment of the city. Native Thais may also feel that these novels depict their city unfairly.They may have a point but it should not deter readers from checking out Bangkok 8 and its successors Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts and The Godfather of Kathmandu. The novels may occasionally require you to suspend your disbelief , but they are rich in detail and , to quote the blurb, ” wildly inventive, darkly comic and wickedly entertaining “. Give them a shot and try to read them in chronological order. You won’t regret it.