Bangkok 8 - John Burnett

Bangkok 8
John Burdett
Bantam Press
ISBN: 0593051734 (Amazon link)

I don't read a lot of crime fiction, and as a result I'm not sure if I should know who John Burdett is, but as Bangkok 8 comes with cover quotes from Carl Hiaasen and James Ellroy, I reckoned I was probably going to be reading something from the quality end of the fiction spectrum. I was right, because about 3/4 of Bangkok 8 is wonderful - the other 1/4, the ending, I'll come to later. What I wasn't expecting was for this novel to be deeply fantastic; ironically I had picked this up as a break from my usual diet of fantasy and science fiction.

The hero of Bangkok 8 is Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a mixed-race Thai whore's son by a white father. The former condition isn't really a social burden in Bangkok, but the later is as Sonchai tells us Thailand is a very racist society. Sonchai's a cop, but an unusual one - he and his soul brother Pichai are devout Buddhists, the only cops in town who will refuse a bribe. Granted, they're atoning for the murder of a yaa-baa (meth) dealer, but still, they're following the eight-fold path, trying to become arhat, living saints.

Bangkok 8 opens with a set-piece typical of much of the crime genre, and its resolution is, in my opinion, one of the things that spoils this otherwise terrific novel - this central crime feels very contrived, and I don't think a simpler version would have spoiled the story at all. Anyway, the plot opens with Sonchai and Pichai arriving on the scene of a murder - a giant African-American marine sergeant is killed inside a locked Mercedes by a swarm of maddened cobras and a giant python. In trying to rescue him Pichai is killed.

Sonchai's loss is terrible, for he wasn't being sentimental when he said Pichai was his soul brother, he really meant it. Sonchai and Pichai have been together before in other lifetimes, their incarnations each bound to the other. "He [Pichai] is one of those who have had enough of the world. His disgust has driven him to ordain and he has named me as the one who, along with his mother, will shave his head and eyebrows, which honour will permit us to fly to one of the Buddha heavens by clinging to his saffron robes at the moment of death. You see how entrenched is cronyism in our ancient culture."

The surreal effect achieved by contrasting Sonchai's deeply spiritual view of the world with the gritty reality of a Bangkok swarming with organised crime, prostitution and drugs is wonderful, and almost every page offers a moment of cognitive whiplash as Sonchai's view of the world clashes with what we the reader have been expecting. Sonchai isn't a naive monk though - he has grown up in the underworld, and was more than happy in his world of yaa-baa and whores and now walks his righteous path with eyes wide open to the corruption around him. The opening section closes with this line, which seems to sum up Sonchai's view of things: "Krung Thep means City of Angels, but we are happy to call it Bangkok if it helps separate a farang from his money."

The fascination with farang and their money means basically one thing in Bangkok - sex. Every single page is saturated with it, and one of the highlights is Sonchai talking to a friend of his mother while she practices her ... unusual ... stage routine. Suffice to say he's holding out balloons to be popped as he asks questions of her. Despite this, there's nothing prurient in Bangkok 8, as we see it all with Sonchai's seen-it-all-before-grew-up-with-it, but without the world-weariness common to this type of authorial 'voice' in crime fiction.

Sonchai naturally swears to kill the killer of his soul brother - what other choice does he have? - but his investigation is going to have to be alongside that of the Americans. Naturally the contrast between their two world-views provides much of the tension in this novel, but there's also a wonderful romantic sub-plot with Kimberley Jones, the FBI agent assigned to the case, which plays out very far from the way you might expect. The contrast in world views is not just a product of culture, even among the Thai Sonchai is far along the path of the arhat - where Jones just sees a machine-gun toting Kmer, Sonchai literally sees something reptilian over-laying the human, and his expectation that those he has met in previous lives will also prove to be important to him in this one is central to the plot, although, dim farang that I am, I was slow to catch on to that clue mid-novel.

The characters are all intensely drawn, including Sonchai's aging but entrepreneurial mother, setting up her own brothel, and his adopted father figure, his boss, the formidable Colonel Vikorn of District 8, but it's Sonchai himself who steals the show, along with the fascinating Kingdom in which he lives. The plot is less strong, revolving around a tale of possible high-end jade smuggling by the murdered Marine and implicating two mysterious figures - a farang called Warren with important friends in very, very high places, and a beautiful, exotic woman called Fatima, presumed to be a working girl. For me, the plot resolution felt unsatisfactory, resorting to gimmickry and complicated set-ups to explain the crime. The denouement has supernatural elements which I've seen other reviews allude to as unsatisfactory, but I found those to be entirely in keeping with the rest of the novel. I do admit that the plot elements I'm complaining about are handled well, but the explanations for these convoluted actions jolted my suspension of disbelief a little; this could well be personal taste as I've found many crime/mystery novels annoy me in this way.

However, my quibbles over the last 1/4 of the novel are relatively minor - for 3/4 of Bangkok 8 I was totally immersed in an alien world, greatly enjoying being shown around by the author, whose writing is by hilarious, touching, and disturbing.

Original and highly recommended.

Posted: Thu - December 11, 2003 at 01:25 AM