(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JUL 08, 2003)
The novel starts with a gruesome double murder executed effectively with crazed snakes. American marine Jonathan Bradley and Sonchai's partner, Pichai, are dead. Sonchai vows to avenge his "soul brother's" murder a task that takes him through the seedier pats of Bangkok. The murder of an American leads to the FBI, Detective Kimberly Jones, being tossed into the hunt.
The chase to solve the mystery takes the cops into the Thai flesh trade markets. Sonchai, himself a product of a Thai ex-whore and an American GI, is quite at ease in the setting. As if this sleaze were not enough, the reader is given a glimpse of the yaa baa (methamphetamine) trade, drug trafficking that is made easier because of the porous borders of the region's countries. The yaa baa trade is facilitated in large part by corrupt police officers. Even Sonchai, an arhat or saint, because he does not take bribes, allows yaa baa business to proceed right outside his "hovel." In an explanation that hints at the complicated nature of these operations, Sonchai explains: "From time to time I have toyed with the idea of busting them, but if I bust them someone else will take over the trade and perhaps expand it beyond the scope of these boys. Hit dirt with a stick and you will certainly spread it."
There a few colorful villains in Bangkok 8: Sonchai's boss, Colonel Vikorn, who is corrupt to the core and probably in collusion with an American jeweler, Sylvester Warren. Warren is reminiscent of a James Bond villain -- he is suave, with connections in all the right places (including the White House), an avid jade collector, and quite the megalomaniac. Tossed into this melee is an exotic half-Thai, half-African woman, Fatima, who holds more secrets of her own.
Bangkok 8 would be a clichéd novel (Detective Sonchai relies mostly on intuition and meditation to solve crimes while Jones relies on pure logic) if it weren't for the fact that most of it is written with a strong sense of irony and deadpan humor. The verbal sparring between Jones and Sonchai, even with the inevitable underlying sexual tension, is crisp and on target: "I know all about Eastern Art. Test me," says Jones. "What are the six postures of the Buddha usually represented in religious sculpture?" When Jones gets them all right, it is her turn to test Sonchai on Western culture: "What are the names of the Seven Dwarfs?" she asks.
Bangkok 8 is an entertaining "East meets West" novel and Burdett doesn't mind poking fun at both cultures:
"What we don't realize, we Thais, is just how simple life is in the West. Too simple," says Sonchai, "The most modest of contributions -- a forty-hour week at the least demanding of mechanized tasks -- earns one a car, an apartment, a bank account. Other gifts of the system -- a spouse, a child or two, a small collection of friends -- arrive automatically and gift-wrapped with support of every kind. A whole hemisphere, in other words, lies dying from event-starvation."
Detective Sonchai is also a very able tour guide of Bangkok and the city comes alive with Burdett's descriptions:
It's (the city) a study in bankruptcy if you take note of the great skeletons of unfinished high-rises that loom out of the chaos from time to time, monuments to a building frenzy that chilled with the Asian financial crisis in 1998 and never heated up again. Now these new Stonehenges are home to beggars and bag people. From the train you can see their hammocks, their dogs and their washing in the honeycombs of concrete caves, sometimes a monk meditating in his saffron robes.
Bangkok 8 is an enjoyable mystery thriller, a good summer read, made even more compelling by its setting. Meditating, Buddhism-practicing, yaa baa consuming Detective Sonchai serves as the best pair of eyes one could have to view the Far East's City of Angels. "Complications come naturally to us," says Sonchai of Thais, "we are never without them." Fortunately for us, Burdett tosses in some pretty juicy, meaty ones in Bangkok 8.
- Amazon readers rating: from 174 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Bangkok 8 at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Sonchai Jitplecheep novels:
- Bangkok 8 (2003)
- Bangkok Tattoo (2005)
- Bangkok Haunts (2005)
- The Godfather of Kathmandu (2010)
- Vulture Peak (January 2012)
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- Official website by John Burdett
- Salon.com review of Bangkok 8
- Review of Books review of Bangkok 8
- Review of Books review of Bangkok Tattoo
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Godfather of Kathmandu
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About the Author:
John Burdett is a nonpracticing lawyer who worked in Hong Kong for a British firm until he found his true vocation as a writer. Since then, he has lived in France and Spain and is now back in Hong Kong.