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Book Review - Bangkok Haunts by John Burdett

Beyond the Grave

Bangkok Haunts
by
John Burdett

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

Review by W. R. Greer


John Burdett's Bangkok series of mysteries featuring Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep bring a fresh perspective to the murder mystery genre with its combination of wit, humor, and surprising bits of insight into human nature told from an Asian and Buddhist perspective. If you're a fan of this genre, then you're doing yourself a disservice if you're not reading the Bangkok novels. Bangkok Haunts is as gripping, thrilling, and entertaining as any you might read. Letting Sonchai be your travel guide through his world is icing on the cake.

For those who haven't read the previous novels and want to start with Bangkok Haunts, there are just a few bits of information that would be helpful to know beforehand. Sonchai is a detective in Division 8 of Krung Trep (the local name for Bangkok), and his boss is Colonel Vikorn. Sonchai has trained in a Buddhist monastery and is one of the few honest cops in Bangkok. It's not that he has an urge to clean up the corruption, but he accepts that it's not his path in life. Colonel Vikorn runs his division as a business. There is money to be made from crime, and it's all the better if some sort of justice is served at the same time. Sonchai's mother runs a brothel called The Old Man's Club and two of its investors are Sonchai and Colonel Vikorn.

Bangkok Haunts begins with Sonchai and FBI agent Kimberley Jones (whom he just calls The FBI) watching a snuff film which features the murder of a local prostitute. The murder is particularly upsetting to Sonchai since the dead prostitute is Damrong, an ex-lover who once worked in The Old Man's Club. Sonchai's affair with her was short, but incredibly intense, at least as far as his emotions were concerned. Damrong was a natural beauty from the poverty-stricken area of northern Thailand called Isaan, and she used her beauty and guile to convince men to fall in love with her, and then manipulated them to give her what she wanted. As she worked her way up through the upper class brothels of Bangkok, she left in her wake a series of heartbroken and embittered men who can't forget her, including Sonchai. This also leaves these men as Sonchai's list of possible suspects.

Sonchai is now married to Chanya (introduced in Bangkok Tattoo), who is pregnant with his child, whom he affectionately refers to as The Lump and whom he also believes is the reincarnation of his ex-partner Pichai (who was murdered at the beginning of Bangkok 8). Chanya knows the torment Sonchai suffers investigating Damrong's murder, yet she is unaware that Damrong's ghost visits Sonchai, especially at night when Sonchai can't resist it. Sonchai explains to the farang reading this story how Thai culture is rife with ghosts and superstitions. It's a concept that Kimberley Jones has trouble accepting with her Western bias. Part of being in a culture populated by spirits is accepting that some bodies are inhabited by spirits not their own. Such is the case with Sonchai's assistant, Lek, who, while physically a man, has been inhabited by a female spirit since he nearly died as a boy. Lek is going through the transgender procedure, and is referred to as a katooey in Thai culture. Sonchai accepts this as a normal situation, but Kimberley is flummoxed by all that Lek is giving up by releasing the masculine part of his being.

The investigation into Damrong's murder by Sonchai, Lek, and Kimberley doesn't take long to turn up potential suspects, but coincidentally, they were all out of the country the day the snuff movie was made. There is even an oddly-behaved Buddhist monk that appears interested in everything concerning Damrong. Colonel Vikorn isn't terribly interested in their investigation. Instead, he's decided that pornography is his next business investment. He has Sonchai spring a Japanese filmmaker from prison and set him up making a series of X-rated films for the international market. This attracts the interest of one of Sonchai's suspects. When Sonchai's investigation leads to a billionaire businessman, he knows he could be in deep trouble. Chanya fears for his life and Colonel Vikorn is suddenly very interested. He considers blackmailing the billionaire, but he knows if he asks for too much money, it might make more sense from the businessman's financial perspective just to have them all murdered.

Sonchai, driven by both his monastic training and fervent wish to rid himself of Damrong's ghost, keeps pushing forward looking for answers, knowing that this imperils everything precious to him. It takes him to Isaan and to Cambodia, where he learns more about Damrong and unnerving disclosures about her life, and her death. Even understanding all the events that have led to her death may not be enough to prevent the tragedy that might be the ultimate conclusion to this case.

John Burdett's portrayal of a mindset and culture so different from Western civilization is such a refreshing departure from the darkly cynical mysteries that usually populate this genre. Sonchai is well aware of the seamy underside of Thai life, but he accepts it with both a monk's inner peace and a realist's acknowledgement of what he can't change. Each of the Bangkok novels has explored a different facet of Thai culture. Bangkok 8 was mainly centered in Bangkok and Bangkok Tattoo spent much of its time in the southeast part of the country. Much of Bangkok Haunts is influenced by northern Thailand and the life there that sends many of its young women south to Bangkok as working girls. As an employer of these young women, Sonchai knows how they can be used and abused by a system that will take the best years of their lives. At the same time, he knows that families up north can only subsist on the money these women send back home. Then there are those like Damrong who turn the tables on the system and use it to their advantage.

Part of each Bangkok novel is the clash between East and West, and in Bangkok Haunts, Kimberley Jones provides much of this contrast. She's suffering a midlife crisis as a single women unsure what she wants from life, and has come to Thailand to spend time with Sonchai and try to understand the secret to his inner peace.

    The FBI has managed to get drunk on a few beers and stays my hand when I try to pay the cab driver. "Do you know I've never known simple joy? Darker, more complex emotions, yes, but joy, no. Nor have any of my friends. We were infected by the psychosis of winning at the age of five. But you know joy. That's what blows me away. You're the son of a whore, a pimp, you run a brothel, you're an officer in one of the most corrupt police forces in Asia, but you're innocent. I've never broken a law, cheated, lied, or presided over a crooked deal in my life, but I'm corrupt. I feel dirty twenty-four hours a day. Does anyone on the planet recognize the significance of that apart from me? The material you're made of is fifty percent lighter than ours? Why?"
    "We don't have original sin," I explain as I hand a hundred-baht note to the driver. "That iron rod through the skull. We just don't have it."
Bangkok Haunts is another fascinating and entertaining excursion through Sonchai's world. The investigation of Damrong's murder allows him to educate us farang about his exotic world and different way of thinking. At the same time, it challenges Sonchai with forces that may be outside his control, in this world and the next. The novel never loses its pace or suspense, and it lets its humor and wit lift us above the dark story it tells. Bangkok Haunts finds John Burdett at the top of his game.

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Read our review of Bangkok 8.

Read our review of Bangkok Tattoo.

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