Chasing Thai body-parts bandits

February 10, 2012

Here we have the fifth of John Burdett’s “Bangkok novels,” all of them featuring the philosophical Buddhist police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep and all of them redolent — in the most enjoyable way — of crime, violence, corruption and sex, not necessarily in that order. “Vulture Peak” upholds the high standards set by its predecessors. Readers who know the first four novels will be delighted to have a fifth, and others coming to Burdett’s Bangkok for the first time will quickly find themselves in a place that may seem mysteriously alien but positively teems with humanity.

It was my good fortune to stumble across advance proofs of the first of these novels, “Bangkok 8,” nearly a decade ago, and to be entirely taken with it. By 2003, when that novel appeared, Burdett had published two previous crime novels but had attracted relatively little attention. A native Englishman living and practicing law in Hong Kong, he turned things around with “Bangkok 8,” to the extent that he has given up his (very successful) legal practice and divides his time between Thailand and France.

Burdett’s novels are not for prigs. Bangkok swarms with prostitutes, and so do his books. His attitude toward them is utterly unjudgmental. Four years ago he told an interviewer for the New York Times: “Prostitution is the oldest profession that we know of, and it isn’t going to go away. The only time it’s ever gone away is in police states, and even then the police state had to be at its most hysterical.” Thailand as he portrays it has plenty of police, but they do not merely wink at the prostitutes, they openly collaborate with them. The sublimely cynical police Col. Vikorn, a regular character in the Bangkok novels and Sonchai’s boss, plays the game for all it’s worth, never more so than in “Vulture Peak.”

That is the name of a place not far outside Bangkok where “someone rich and famous from Hong Kong built a stately pleasure dome high on a hill in Phuket overlooking the Andaman Sea.” As the novel opens, Sonchai has been sent there to investigate a murder: three corpses laid out on an immense bed, “stripped of faces, eyes, genitals, and . . . kidneys and livers too.” There isn’t a drop of blood there or anywhere else. Sonchai has been put on the case by Vikorn, who wants to go after trafficking in human organs not because it is a crime, but because he is running for governor of Bangkok and wants to get the credit for breaking a human-parts operation.

When he appoints Sonchai as head investigator, the latter’s understandable response is, Why me? Well, he speaks English; he “can pass for near white”; he is “accustomed to international travel”; and — the clincher — “you’re actually interested in truth and justice.” So even though Sonchai knows full well that he’s being used, he also knows that Vikorn has him dead to rights. Vikorn tells him that “your goody-two-shoes Buddhist conscience will drive you till you drop” and that when the case is solved, he will merely have to tell the truth:


’Vulture Peak: A Bangkok Novel’ by John Burdett. (Knopf)

“That your soon-to-be-world-famous crusade to put an end to the nefarious practice of illegal trafficking in body parts, which is so vilely exploiting the poor and the helpless et cetera, is driven by me. You don’t even have to confine yourself to Thailand — the Philippines is a world center for organ trading. You can even extend beyond Southeast Asia — in Moldova human kidneys are the staple of the economy. They grow them for cropping the way we grow rice. You’re going to be our first World Cop. It’ll put us on the law enforcement map like never before — we’ll get to be more self-righteous than Western Europe and the States put together. We’ll be the Mr. Squeaky Clean of organ sales.”

Sonchai doesn’t like to admit it, but he “felt a new thrill: this case was going to be a big one, whatever way you looked at it.” Maybe Vikorn is out for his own glory — and revenge against his arch enemy, Gen. Zinna of the Royal Thai Army — but the body trade is a dirty, demeaning business, and Sonchai can’t resist the chance to make a dent in it, not for fame but because he really does believe that the battle against evil is worth waging.

So off he goes, on a quest that takes him to Hong Kong, Monte Carlo, Shanghai and points in between. Though the business of trading in human parts obviously is a serious matter — and Burdett has done plenty of research into it — the reader is advised not to take “Vulture Peak” with an excess of solemnity. Burdett likes to have fun and likes to go over the top. He delights in creating far-fetched characters, including Chinese identical twins who are indescribably beautiful and cold-bloodedly avaricious, a Hong Kong detective who can’t decide whether he’s gay or straight, and a decidedly straight young soldier “so fired with military ambition, he was prepared to sleep with a general.” There’s a fair amount of action, much of it agreeably implausible, and a great deal of atmosphere, which is what Burdett does best. Thus we have one of Bangkok’s innumerable red-light districts:

“Outside on the street we can hardly move for traders, tourists, pimps, and whores. Ever since Pat Pong achieved worldwide fame, merchandisers have been annexing territory, so now you have the whole street taken up with stalls selling clothes, watches, videos, incense, and other tourist junk, which creates an interesting sociological study: farang [Westerners] who arrive in a family group for the safe clean crime of buying a couple of fake Rolexes to show friends at home maintain a strict seclusion from those farang men who arrive as lone wolves and hardly notice the stalls in the middle of the street because they’re focused on the girls in shiny swimming costumes and long silver cloaks who beckon them into the bars. Farang wives watch curiosity work their husbands’ libidos, no matter how good a boy they married; farang husbands don’t notice the curiosity their wives also feel. Respectable women, who would die a thousand deaths rather than sell their bodies, wonder for a moment exactly what it must be like to do such a thing. I see a mother cover the eyes of her son of maybe nine years: too late, the kid saw his dad’s pupils dilate in a most undadlike way at a glimpse of a forbidden world.”

Burdett laughs at the tourists, not at the prostitutes. As Sonchai says (and his wife plied the trade for a while): “I adore whores. Generally speaking, they are the most honest and generous of women, and the only ones who have a clue about men.” What he most decidedly does not laugh at is how the human-parts trade ropes in innocent people as donors. Who are they? “Anybody,” says the detective from Hong Kong. “Anybody at all. A young person coming home from school in India, a minor felon from China, a Western tourist led into a trap in Malaysia, desperate Africans without travel papers searching for work, unemployed Brazilians from shantytowns, orphaned kids in Isaan — in this business, nobody cares where the meat is grown, so long as it’s still on the hoof and breathing when it arrives.”

As that passage makes plain, beneath the bright and dark comedy of Burdett’s fiction is a deep strain of compassion and concern for the people who luck out in the big business of making dirty money, whether that business is conducted in Bangkok or on Wall Street. He’s a funny man, and a clever one, but he has things to say that are worth heeding.

VULTURE PEAK

By John Burdett

Knopf. 285 pp. $25.95

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