For those of you who have not yet dipped your toes into the ocean of John Burdett’s magnificent Bangkok novels (BANGKOK 8, BANGKOK TATTOO and BANGKOK HAUNTS), I do not recommend a full-immersion baptism into the world of Sonchai Jitpleecheep before reading THE GODFATHER OF KATHMANDU. While some series are new-reader friendly when the latest installment is published, the Bangkok tales really need to be experienced from the beginning to get the full effect. That may be asking a lot of the uninitiated, but it is truly a rewarding experience as Burdett has created a rich, layered world for his readers to become immersed in.
Sonchai, one of the few members of the Bangkok police force who does not accept bribes, is a devout Buddhist whose mother co-owns a gentleman’s show bar with his supervising officer, Police Colonel Vicorn. Vicorn in turn has been involved in a power struggle with Thai Army General Zinna for control of the “illegal” enterprises that are the lifeblood of Bangkok’s economy. Sonchai often finds himself caught in the middle of their struggle with frequently deadly --- and occasionally hilarious --- results. One of the few people whom Sonchai can trust is Lek, his junior police partner and a pre-op transsexual. That merely scratches the surface of Burdett’s world. As I said, you really need to read those first three books. Once you have done that, you will want to immediately turn to THE GODFATHER OF KATHMANDU, which takes Sonchai in new and more complex directions.
The novel begins some six years after the conclusion of BANGKOK HAUNTS. Sonchai is on an emotional edge, reeling from a tragedy that occurred at a point in between the two books. He has also come under the sway of Tietsen, a charismatic Tibetan lama in exile in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. Sonchai, having been appointed by Vicorn as his “consigliere” after Vicorn viewed The Godfather, had originally been dispatched by Vicorn to meet with Tietsen for purposes of putting together a narcotics deal (yes, with a lama). This deal would give Vicorn a leg up in his continuing power struggle with Zinna and provide Tietsen with the funding he needs for what appears to be a suicidal invasion of Red China.
As a show of good faith, Tietsen provides Vicorn with information that results in one of Zinna’s mules getting arrested, thus interrupting one of his drug-smuggling operations. Upon meeting Tietsen, Sonchai wants to become an initiate into his apocalyptic version of Buddhism. To do so, however, he has to facilitate that narcotics deal. Matters are complicated by the investigation, or lack thereof, into the grisly murder of a farang (that’s white man to you, fella). The victim is a Hollywood filmmaker who was a frequent and generous visitor to Bangkok’s sex clubs. It’s an investigation that Vicorn would want swept under the rug, but Sonchai can’t let go of it, particularly because the murder seems tied to the Thomas Harris series of novels concerning Hannibal Lector. And once Sonchai discovers that the dead man had made frequent visits to Nepal, he becomes even more obsessed with the case.
Complicated? Yes. And it is made more so by Burdett’s frequent and extremely entertaining side trips into the culture of Bangkok, trips that are entirely necessary for a full appreciation and understanding of what is occurring at any given moment in THE GODFATHER OF KATHMANDU. But while you might find that you are hanging on to the plotline by your fingernails, you will be immensely entertained while doing so. Burdett can go from funny to horrific to erotic and back again in the course of a page or even a paragraph. There is a hilarious story, for example, about a standoff between Vicorn and Zinna over a hijacked drug shipment that is worth the price of admission all by itself. Additionally, his east vs. west comparisons are always welcome even if one has difficulty swallowing the revisionist historical accounts. This is an extremely worthwhile series with more to come.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011