John Burdett's BANGKOK 8 is an exotic murder mystery wrapped in
what amounts to a detailed and riveting character study of a city
at the intersection of the old world and the new. Burdett's Bangkok
is a place where Thai culture and American culture meet like two
rivers in a great, chaotic swirl.
The title refers to a police district in the teeming city, the
territory of police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Sonchai is the
son of an unidentified American GI and a Bangkok hooker.
As the story opens, Sonchai and Pichai Apiradee, his childhood
friend and police partner, are assigned without explanation to
follow William Bradley, an American Marine sergeant. They lose
track of Bradley's Mercedes, but pick up the trail not long after,
only to find him dead in the back seat, wrapped in the deadly
embrace of a seventeen-foot python. When Pichai opens the car door
to investigate, he is attacked by one of several dozen small but
highly venomous cobras, and dies on the spot. In the aftermath, the
grieving Sonchai quietly and serenely swears vengeance on those
responsible for his friend's death.
Sonchai is as fascinating a character as you are likely to find in
fiction. A gentle and devout Buddhist, he lives in near poverty.
But as a youth, thanks to his mother's talent and business savvy as
a prostitute, a series of wealthy and sophisticated European johns
provided Sonchai with an education in Western culture --- as
experienced by those with great wealth and great connections.
Sonchai's Buddhist beliefs and essential Thai mindset keep his
Western influences --- particularly a fondness for Italian clothing
designers --- in check. Sonchai has James Bond's sophistication,
but a pauper's budget.
As protagonist in this remarkably rich and detailed story, Sonchai
serves as the personification of the modern day city of Bangkok.
The story is told from Sonchai's distinctly Thai perspective, a
technique that works to great effect in portraying the American
characters, particularly FBI agent Kimberly Jones, as fish out of
water, struggling to understand the complexities, contradictions,
and ironies of Thai culture.
Sonchai steadfastly refuses to take part in the corruption and
influence peddling that define Burdett's Bangkok. But this
corruption has evolved as a solution to the city's many social and
economic woes. Police corruption is seen simply as the status quo,
a system that has practical benefits: the cops on the take never
complain about miniscule salaries, which in turn makes tax
increases unnecessary. The upper echelon officers of the police
department --- the big money guys --- regularly donate a portion of
their take to charities and are also careful to distribute their
wealth on the street to build networks of popular support.
Where the Thais accept corruption and bribery as a fact of life,
the Americans in this story (and let's face it, in real life) say
one thing and do another. They profess astonishment at the level
and sheer visibility of the corruption in Bangkok, while telling
Sonchai that his investigation of the murders of Bradley and Pichai
must steer clear of a wealthy and well-connected American
businessman with an interest in jade and a taste for sexual
Burdett weaves flashbacks of Sonchai's youth into a powerful
narrative that delivers the sensual and meteorological heat of
Bangkok at a measured yet unrelenting pace. It is a place of
mystery and mysticism, of sex and spirituality, of life and death,
and of revenge and rebirth. Burdett's prose is rich in metaphor,
sly wit and insight, and he has written an exotic banquet of a
If your midsummer travel plans extend no further than your patio,
porch, fire escape or sofa, you'll do well to venture into the
pages of BANGKOK 8. It ain't Kansas, Toto, and you may not want to
send your mother the snapshots, but you're going to have a very
Reviewed by Bob Rhubart on January 21, 2011