Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Review by W. R. Greer
When Bangkok 8 was published in 2003, it was a fresh diversion from your standard murder mystery. Thai detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep gives us not just a tour of his beloved country, but its Buddhist and Asian mindset. Everything you'd ever assumed about Asia, murder mysteries, and police detectives was turned upside down and inside out, leaving the reader with a mix of anticipation for a story and a narrator full of surprises. Sonchai is back in Bangkok Tattoo, and while his disdain for the farang who will read his story continues, he's willing to be patient and courteous while pointing out the errors of our way of life.
Bangkok Tattoo begins with the murder and genital mutilation of an American CIA agent, Mitch Turner, in a Bangkok hotel room. The only person with him was Chanya, a bar girl who works out of The Old Man's Club. This is the sex club envisioned by Sonchai's ex-prostitute mother, Nong, and bankrolled by Sonchai's boss, Colonel Vikorn. Chanya was not only the most popular girl at The Old Man's Club, but the reason it was running a profit at the time. Since everything points to her as the murderer, the first thing that Colonel Vikorn does, with Sonchai's help, is to construct a cover-up that portrays Chanya as the victim acting out in self-defense. A statement is created, Chanya is sent to disappear for a while, and Turner's body is cremated. One item that didn't make any sense to Sonchai, is that Turner's back was flayed, removing a large tattoo that covered all of his back. Sonchai can't imagine why Chanya would do that.
The problem for Sonchai is that he's always had a soft spot for Chanya. He also knew that Chanya spent some time in the United States with an illegal visa and was forced to come back to Thailand after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was too dangerous to be an undocumented immigrant in the United States then. Sonchai goes to southern Thailand where the American was posted to keep an eye on the Muslim citizens of that part of Thailand. Unsurprisingly, Turner stuck out like a sore thumb and everyone there knew he was either CIA or FBI. When Sonchai visits Turner's apartment, he finds a framed photo of Chanya, and knows that their tryst in the Bangkok hotel room wasn't just a horny American buying the services of a Thai prostitute.
Eventually, the CIA comes looking for answers concerning the missing Mitch Turner. They're not buying the cover-up story of Chanya fending off a violent john, so Colonel Vikorn gives them the suspects they want. He blames it on Al Qaeda. The Americans eat this up since it fits perfectly with their mindset and their ambitions. If they want to get ahead within the CIA, they have to catch terrorists, and one or more that murdered an American agent would suit their careers just fine. They're willing to leave Chanya alone if Sonchai finds the terrorists for them. Sonchai knows this would inflame the Muslim population of southern Thailand and possibly bring war to Southeast Asia. Again, Sonchai finds himself in an untenable situation where he doesn't know what happened, and those who want answers aren't necessarily interested in the truth.
The immediate question that comes to the mind of anyone who has read Bangkok 8 is, "Does this book compare favorably to its predecessor?" The answer, at least to this reader, is that it's not quite as excellent, and part of that is due to familiarity. If you've read Bangkok 8, you've already come to know and enjoy the wisdom and practicality of Sonchai. In Bangkok Tattoo, he's more familiar and traveling with him is less full of surprises. The murder mystery at the heart of Bangkok 8 never flagged. It was more taut and focused. John Burdett appears to have made a conscious decision to underplay the mystery surrounding the murder of Mitch Turner in Bangkok Tattoo. The confusion surrounding the murder takes place at the beginning of the novel, and its unraveling drives the final chapters. The center of the novel, though, is the story of Chanya and Turner, two people who are diametric opposites of each other, but who fall in love. It's a new experience for both of them. Mitch Turner, though, is a tortured soul, dealing with his own inner demons and growing psychosis.
John Burdett, through Sonchai's voice, explains the lives and careers of the bar girls. Instead of portraying them as victims of male sexual drives, he shows them to be shrewd businesswomen who have the upper hand in their time spent with their paying customers. The best of them are intelligent with a business plan where their time in the game will provide for them, and their families, for the rest of their life. Chanya is the creme de la creme of sex workers, and spent time in the United States as a working girl. She found her American colleagues to be an unhappy lot, though, and she regularly outearned all of them.
Like Bangkok 8, Sonchai retains his Asian superiority over all things American, partly because he despises his American G.I. father he never knew. Some might find this onerous after a while, but it's this delicious bias of Sonchai's that makes John Burdett's Bangkok novels such an enjoyable read. Toss in his growing love for Chanya, and he's not sure which is worse: whether she's the murderer or whether she's the next victim. He struggles hard to be a good Buddhist and a good cop, but he knows sometimes the truth must be sacrificed for convenience. Any deviation from the Buddhist path must be offset with a good deed to restore karmic equilibrium. It's not necessarily that the ends justify the means, but that sometimes a greater good must be served. Hardboiled American detectives are often rebels who buck the system. Sonchai and other Thai cops modify the system to serve their needs instead of forcing themselves to serve the system.
You might think Bangkok Tattoo suffers from a sophomore slump, and it does it some ways. While it doesn't live up to the level set by Bangkok 8, it's still an enjoyable book with plenty of wry observations from Sonchai and a wild journey through a world so few of us know. Can you enjoy Bangkok Tattoo without reading Bangkok 8? Probably, although I'd suggest reading Bangkok 8 first, for no other reason than it's a great book on its own that will thrill you with its introduction to Sonchai's world. Any time spent with Sonchai Jitpleecheep is sure to bring a smile, and Bangkok Tattoo surely fits that bill.
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Read our review of Bangkok 8.