John Burdett waits for almost six pages --- three pages of text and change, actually --- before unleashing a politically incorrect statement that is so shocking, so funny and so true that when you read it, you should have all of your bodily orifices empty and/or cleansed. That is how VULTURE PEAK begins. And Burdett never lets up from there.
"Burdett’s plotting along the way is first-rate, but it is the secondary characters who make the book."
This is the fifth installment in his Bangkok series, narrated in the first-person voice of Royal Thai Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Sonchai is a devout Buddhist who attempts to maintain his soul, notwithstanding the fact that he is tasked with investigating some of the worst and most vile crimes imaginable and the criminals who commit them. Among the worst offenders with whom he has contact is the one he works for: the eminently corrupt Police Colonel Vikhorn. Sonchai and Vikhorn regard each other with an uneasy contempt, one that provides a constant tension through the course of each of the novels.
As well-written as these books are, VULTURE PEAK is by far the best to date, removing Sonchai from his Bangkok comfort zone and turning him into a world beater, at least for purposes of this particular story. It begins with Sonchai and his detective partner Lek investigating a bizarre triple murder at a pleasure palace. The three victims are found in a bed with their vital organs and all traces of identification removed. That would include fingers and faces. The problem for Sonchai and Lek is that the trail of their investigation may lead back to Vikhorn.
The Colonel, you see, is running for governor, on a platform of ridding the country of the scourge of human organ trafficking. Of course, it has not been conclusively proven that this is a problem of which Vikhorn’s constituency is aware, so it is entirely possible that he is initiating some high-profile crimes in order to raise awareness of the problem. At the same time, it appears that Vikhorn may be engaged in some organ trafficking himself, given that it is much safer than dealing in narcotics. Sonchai is more or less forced to go with the flow of Vikhorn’s whims, which take him from Bangkok to Dubai to Monte Carlo, and onward to Hong Kong and beyond.
It is not an especially good time for Sonchai to be playing Phileas Fogg, either. There are rumors among the police that Chanya, Sonchai’s wife, has taken a lover, and his Buddhist faith, strong as it might be, is not helping him to have an enlightened attitude about this state of affairs. The fact that Chanya is an ex-prostitute does little to set Sonchai’s mind at ease.
Sonchai must do a balancing act throughout VULTURE PEAK, keeping his soul whole, or something close to it, while ensuring that Vikhorn gets what he needs, if not necessarily what he wants. Burdett’s plotting along the way is first-rate, but it's the secondary characters who make the book. First among equals is Lek, who is a pre-operative transsexual --- dedicated policeman by day, bar girl by night --- and a pair of Chinese body parts traffickers known as the Vultures. You will never forget the Vultures, trust me. Toss in a drunken, aging rock star in dire need of a new (or gently owned) third liver, and you have a tale that is exciting, exotic, and shot through with snide remarks that will offend anyone and everyone. There was a particularly sacrilegious passage that I will find highly offensive as soon as I stop laughing about it in another few weeks or so. What more could you reasonably ask for?
If you have never read John Burdett, the perfect place to start would be VULTURE PEAK.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 12, 2012