Review

The Godfather of Kathmandu

by John Burdett

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

The Godfather of Kathmandu
by John Burdett

  • Publication Date: January 12, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0307263193
  • ISBN-13: 9780307263193