Published by Pantheon Books
Review by W. R. Greer
Murder mysteries in which a police detective also suffers the loss of his partner are commonplace in books and movies. The plot usually follows a standard procession from the aggrieved detective vowing vengeance or justice, often dealing with his own shortcomings along the way, until he finally cracks the case and discovers some enlightenment about himself. The person ultimately responsible for the crime is often a wealthy or well-connected person who is just out of reach of the long arm of the law, or so it seems, until sheer dogged determination by the detective brings about the evildoer's appropriate accounting for his crime. So if I told you that Bangkok 8 by John Burdett revolves around a police detective investigating a murder which also claimed his partner's life and the main suspect is a well-connected U.S. businessman who rubs shoulders with the rich and powerful, you might think that this book just a rehash of similar books you've read many times.
Well, you'd be wrong. Trust me, Bangkok 8 is nothing like you've read before.
Several things make Bangkok 8 stand out from most mystery potboilers. The first is the setting, the city of Bangkok, where sex is sold openly on the street and the police are corrupt. The police, though, are seen as businessman who make money from the crimes committed in their district and the protection they provide in return for keeping the peace. The other key ingredient is the protagonist, Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who is not just an honest cop, but after training in a Buddhist monastery, he is an arhat, a Buddhist saint in this lifetime. Sonchai narrates the novel, telling it to Western foreigners, farang, who are reading his story. Not only does Sonchai tell us about his attempts to solve the mystery, but he educates us in the way of Buddhism, Thailand, and the difference between life in the East and the West. He is the son of a Thai woman, a prostitute, and an American serviceman during the Vietnam war. Sonchai is not fond of Western ideas, and Americans in particular, but he loves his hometown of Bangkok, or Krung Trep, as the locals call it. Sonchai explains, "Krung Trep means City of Angels, but we are happy to call it Bangkok if it helps to separate a farang from his money."
The victim is an American marine stationed at the U.S. embassy, Bill Bradley, who is murdered in his car by snakes. Literally. While Sonchai and his partner, Pichai, were trying to follow the American's Mercedes through snarls of traffic, Bradley was locked in his car and attacked by a python and a swarm of cobras. In trying to save Bradley's life, Pichai is bitten by a cobra and dies. Sonchai and Pichai were childhood friends, smalltime crooks in the sale of yaa baa, methamphetamines, until their murder of a yaa baa dealer had them sent to the Buddhist monastery to learn the eightfold path and learn to become arhat. The abbot's younger brother is their commanding officer, Colonel Vikorn, chief of District 8 in the center of Krung Trep. Sonchai is stung by Pichai's death and struggles to keep his passing in the proper Buddhist perspective, remembering when the abbot sent them to be police officers:
Corruption was forbidden to us, however. If we wanted to escape the murderer's hell we would have to be honest cops. More, we would have to be arhat cops. The abbot is undoubtedly an arhat himself, a fully realized man who voluntarily pauses on the shore of nirvana, postponing his total release in order to teach his wisdom to wretches like us. He knows everything. Pichai is with him now, while I am stranded here in the pollution called life on earth. I must try harder with my meditation.
Sonchai's first meeting after Pichai's death was at the American Embassy with the FBI legal attaché and his assistant. While they fill in Bradley's background for Sonchai, they also hint that Washington may not want much publicity if it appears that Bradley was involved in illegal activity. Sonchai calmly tells them not to worry. "I'm going to kill whoever did it. There won't be a trial."
This would seem to be a contradiction to our farang minds. How can an honest cop murder someone in revenge for his partner's death? Sonchai himself scolds us for thinking too logically, too Western, instead of approaching the problem with an Asian mindset.
We do not look on death the way you do, farang. My closest colleagues grasp my arm and one or two embrace me. No one says sorry. Would you be sorry about a sunset? No one doubts that I have sworn to avenge Pichai's death. There are limits to Buddhism when honor is at stake.
The murder investigation quickly establishes a connection between Bradley and an American businessman named Sylvester Warren, a huge player in the jade market. Warren is so powerfully connected in Washington that senators call the FBI if his name is mentioned at all, and the FBI laboratories are suddenly unable to even read faxes if it concerns Warren in this case. Worst yet for Sonchai is that even Thai police officials don't want Warren investigated or questioned. The American Embassy does its best to distance itself from the investigation, and the only assistance offered to Sonchai is a singular FBI agent named Kimberley Jones. Sonchai refers to her constantly throughout his story as simply The FBI.
This is part of Sonchai's charm, a way of telling the story in an understated manner, with little jokes strewn among truths and contradictions. He will often use a pronoun before introducing a character, using "she" to start a paragraph and then not tell us who "she" is for another sentence or two. Sonchai never lets emotions get the better of him, even when his life is danger. After having his side ripped open with a knife, he lies there bleeding and contemplating death. "I lie on the bed while life slips away. It is not an unpleasant sensation, although one remains tormented by the question of what happens next." It's a way of looking at the world, with this life being one in a string of many reincarnations, that is refreshing and entertaining. Sonchai's monastic training also has given him the ability to see people's previous lives, and the effect those have on their present ones.
Sonchai and Kimberley Jones are another staple of detective fiction, the ill-matched partners. John Burdett, though, treats this situation differently to keep it from becoming cliché. There are no wisecracks at the other's expense, no sudden love and passion developing between partners of the opposite sex. Instead they present two faces of the same coin, Sonchai the Asian and Kimberley the American, both attempting to solve the same crime, but for different purposes. Sonchai wants to avenge his best friend's death. Kimberley wants to bring down Warren to win a promotion. Kimberley's mannerisms, logical thinking, ambition, and Western ideals often provoke Sonchai to deliver a treatise to the reader on the superiority of the Asian way of life. It's obvious that Sonchai keeps a bitterness towards all things American, the country of his unknown father, which is one reason he keeps a distance between Kimberley and himself and just refers to her as The FBI. Kimberley, on her part, is flummoxed by Sonchai's behavior, and goes out of her way to seek acceptance by this strange Thai man she cannot understand.
The other main character in this story is Sonchai's mother, Nong. A former bar girl who sold her body to support her family, she's been retired for ten years at the beginning of the novel. Like many of the women who work in the sex industry, she was constantly looking for a man to take her away from Thailand and support her in a lavish lifestyle somewhere else. This had the effect of Sonchai and Nong living for months in different places around the world until things fell apart between Nong and her new suitor, and she and Sonchai would then return home to Bangkok. Nong, though, like many modern Thai women, isn't content to sit in her country home. She's led an active life in the big city, made a lot of money and traveled around the world, and retirement doesn't suit her. She decides to take online business courses from the Wall Street Journal and then open her own brothel in the middle of district 8, but with a new twist. She's targeting the geriatric set, American men who can now take Viagra to rekindle their sex lives. They can bring themselves and their pills to Thailand where they can live out all their sexual fantasies that they'd never been unable to fulfill in the U.S. And who bankrolls and protects her new business venture? None other than Colonel Vikorn, and they pressure Sonchai to become part owner of the business.
Perhaps the strongest theme that runs through Bangkok 8 is sex. The pages almost drip with it at times, but not in a prurient way. Sex, in the Thai mindset, is a pleasure to be enjoyed, and like all things pleasurable, can be bartered and sold at will. Yet sex complicates the lives of most of the characters in the novel. Sonchai avoids it because it affects his Buddhist meditation and morals. Nong has used it as a vehicle to better her life and launch a business. Kimberley feels threatened by the Thai women who flaunt it and sell it. Even Colonel Vikorn will use it as a weapon and then struggles when his fourth wife uses it a bartering device with him. As much as Sonchai tries to brag about Thailand's superior attitude toward sex, he also relates information of Thai women who castrate philandering husbands, Thai men who get penile enlargement surgery to compete with Western men, and the mental and physical stress on young Thai women sex workers who can only ply their trade while they still retain their beauty.
Everything in Bangkok 8 reverberates with a freshness of old ideas seen from a new perspective. Every time the murder mystery seems to fall in a familiar pattern, it veers off in a unexpected direction. Sonchai is such a delightful character and storyteller who takes your elbow and bends your ear as he leads you on a tour of his beloved city. Even his jaundiced view of Western life and his tendency to stereotype all things American is a turnabout of the way Americans see his own country, all sex and corruption. Sonchai sees all the warts of Thai society, but he understands why they happen and has made his peace with them. He's more comfortable with the devil he knows than the devil he doesn't.
John Burdett has perfectly captured a sense of place that is so ultimately foreign to most of us and made it seem familiar. Even his mixture of different ethnicities, Thai, Khmer, Karen, Lao, Chinese, Russian, Burmese, and Siberian, gives this novel a feeling of the larger world outside the U.S. that we consistently ignore. Sonchai Jitpleecheep is our travel guide, daring us to think differently and inviting us to enjoy his home. Feel free to lose yourself within Bangkok 8 and enjoy your visit abroad. It's time well-spent. Bangkok 8 is one of those novels you finish with a smile on your face and warmth in your heart for a story, and a place, that is well told and satisfying.
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