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May 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
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One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walking next to me
—From “One Night in Bangkok,” lyrics by Tim Rice
There is no earthly reason why a crime-fiction fan should be limited to only one series set on the Pacific Rim, but should such an absurd requirement be imposed, the choice, though agonizing, would be clear: the winner has to be John Burdett’s Bangkok novels starring one of the genre’s most compelling lead characters, Sonchai Jitpleecheep. What makes Sonchai so distinctive? Start with his backstory: he is both a devout Buddhist and the only police detective in crime fiction who is also co-owner, with his mother, of a bar and brothel (in Bangkok’s notorious District 8, where all variety of vice is on offer).
So Sonchai is not your father’s Philip Marlowe. Now let’s talk about his boss, the imposing Colonel Vikorn, who doubles as chief of police and one of Thailand’s leading drug lords. Though it’s almost de rigueur for fictional sleuths to do battle with their bosses—usually over some form of corruption, what Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch calls “high jingo”—Sonchai takes such skirmishes to a new level of complexity. Yes, Sonchai rebels at Vikorn’s attempts to shoehorn him into aiding and abetting the colonel’s drug dealing, but the two men remain peculiar friends, something much more than mere frenemies, always willing to redraw the lines each won’t cross.
The world of District 8, forever harboring multiple versions of reality, is at the core of this series’ exquisite moral ambiguity, its potent mix of contradictory forces—startling tenderness below the surface of a tawdry, sex-for-sale underworld; bursts of jaw-dropping violence existing alongside moments of Buddhist calm. Sonchai is as multidimensional as the landscape that surrounds him, combining rage and tranquility as if they were complementary herbs in a medicinal tea rather than opposing, seemingly irreconcilable forces.
Burdett’s plots are every bit as complex as his characters and as given to sensory overload as his landscape. This can prove disconcerting for unprepared readers, but it doesn’t faze Sonchai, who would surely remind us that any sense of narrative vertigo we might experience says more about our limited farang consciousness than it does about Burdett’s whirlwind storytelling style.
Take The Godfather of Kathmandu (2009), possibly my favorite in the series and the one that boasts Burdett’s most dizzying array of contrapuntal story lines, all of which exude the cognitive dissonance that is the series’ hallmark. Sonchai, reeling from a personal tragedy, has turned to meditation for solace and with the help of a new guru, the enigmatic Tietsin, an exiled Tibetan lama based in Kathmandu, has begun to practice “apocalyptic Buddhism.” On the more terrestrial front, however, he faces a doozy of a case: the murder of an American film director whose skull was apparently sliced open with a saw, as one would cut the top off a coconut. But that’s not all. Colonel Vikorn, who has been watching a little too much Godfather, wants Sonchai to become his consigliere and broker a massive heroin sale with Vikorn’s archrival from the Thai army, General Zinna. The seller: none other than Tietsin, the holy man. Burdett juggles the various plots with great dexterity—naturally, they all eventually overlap—but each is so rich in ambiguity and interwoven levels that some may wish for a meal with fewer courses. Ah, but that would be another farang mistake.
The two most recent Sonchai novels, Vulture Peak (2012) and The Bangkok Asset (2015), display another of the series’ distinguishing characteristics: Burdett’s ability to create evil antagonists and beyond-chilling premises that seem on the verge of straining credulity but that, in the end, deliver all-too-real haymakers to the solar plexus. In Vulture Peak, Sonchai finds himself hip-deep in the world of organ harvesting. Corruption, of course, drives the organ trade, as Vikorn again seeks to turn the tables on General Zinna, who has a corner on the organ-trafficking business. The trail leads to a set of beautiful but nutso Chinese twins, who operate a fully staffed hospital for “extracting” body parts. Running an elaborate sting operation aimed at snaring both the twins and Zinna, Sonchai confronts a vision of evil beyond comprehension, a future in which humanity descends to “a state of functional barbarism in which we are all eating each other.”
Shockingly, The Bangkok Asset digs even further into the lower depths of depravity. What starts as the latest chapter in Sonchai’s search for his long-missing American father soon lands the detective in the middle of a doomsday scenario involving genetically altered “transhumans” who could become unstoppable enforcers in the police state that many believe is on the immediate horizon. As in Vulture Peak, Burdett teases a B-movie premise into a bravura blend of pure horror and the kind of black humor that reminds us how close laughter can sometimes be to a blood-curdling shriek.
We really shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Sonchai’s singular ability to balance opposing ideas dancing madly on the head of the same pin with something like serenity tempered by terror is what makes this series unlike any other.
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