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 violence.
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 book.
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 good time.
Reviewed by Bob Rhubart on January 21, 2011