Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, May 15, 2005


By John Burdett. Knopf. 302 pp. $24

How important is good plotting to the mystery and thriller? In The Big Sleep , Raymond Chandler kills off a chauffeur but never actually accounts for the murder. Who did it? asked one of the screenwriters working on the film version of the novel. (He was a Hollywood hack named William Faulkner.) Chandler didn't know and couldn't really say.

Because The Big Sleep is so beautifully written, few readers much care that its plot is somewhat ramshackle. We turn to its pages for other reasons -- the sound of Philip Marlowe's weary, wise-cracking voice, those dazzling similes and descriptions, that portrait of a corrupt, over-ripe Southern California.

John Burdett's Bangkok Tattoo , a follow-up to the wildly lauded Bangkok 8 , offers some of the same sorts of pleasure. The narrator, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, works as a detective for the Royal Thai police force; his mother -- a retired whore -- runs a bar/brothel; and his boss, a police colonel, is the Thai equivalent of a suavely shrewd and charmingly unscrupulous Mafia godfather. The novel opens when Chanya, the most popular working girl at The Old Man's Club, apparently murders one of her clients by cutting off his penis and slicing up his abdomen. At first, Col. Vikorn and Sonchai plan to cover up the killing of this farang , or foreigner; after all, they both have a monetary interest in Chanya's well-being. But then they discover that the skin has been flayed from the victim's back. Why?

Anyone who's read Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr won't have any difficulty figuring out the answer. Moreover, despite the novel's trappings, there isn't really much of a mystery here. For no good reason, Chanya doesn't simply blurt out all that she knows, and Burdett delays her full explanation for a couple of hundred pages. This allows him to develop several subplots (Thai police and army rivalry, inept CIA agents baying for al Qaeda terrorists, the plight of moderate Muslims in the post-9/11 world), while he also goes about explaining some fundamental Buddhism, portraying in rather lip-smacking detail the lives of Thai prostitutes in Bangkok and Washington, and generally keeping the fascinated, slightly appalled American reader turning the pages as fast as possible.

Why appalled? To start with, because of the novel's casual -- indeed admiring -- attitude toward the sex industry, which Sonchai and his mother, Nong, view as crucial to the Thai economy and in no way demeaning to its young entrepreneurs:

"The bottom line," explains Nong during a radio interview, "is that for more than three decades the people of Isaan have been kept alive by what little cash their daughters in Bangkok have been able to send home. There are whole towns, roads, shops, farms, water buffalo, cars, motorbikes, garages -- whole industries that owe their existence to our working girls. These courageous young women are the very essence of the female genius for sustaining, nurturing, and honoring life with life. They are also everything that is great about the Thai soul, with their selfless devotion and sacrifice. They ask for no help or gratitude, they don't expect admiration, they gave up looking for respect decades ago, but they are the heart of our country."

In no way does Nong seem to be speaking ironically. Nor is a Muslim imam when, discussing the murder victim, he comments on American emptiness and hypocrisy:

"But what of these products of capitalism like Mr. Turner? Human souls locked out from God forever. One hears their screams of anguish even while they drop their bombs, these young people who have no idea who they are. They think they are killing others. They are killing themselves. I warned him of his death wish, but a good part of his identity had already been annihilated. He was a collection of cover stories. . . . The Americans will be sending agents very soon, and everyone knows how dishonest they are. Would people who invade sovereign countries on false pretenses stop at anything?"

Col. Vikorn candidly reveals an even harsher view of the United States, spoken not in anger but with his characteristically urbane political realism: "The great weakness of the West is that it has nothing with which to inspire loyalty except wealth. But what is wealth? Another washing machine, a bigger car, a nicer house to live in? Not much to feed the spirit in all that. What is the West but a gigantic supermarket? And who really wants to die for a supermarket?"

Culture shock is Burdett's principal narrative trick, and he exploits it for all it's worth. People are killed in the most obscene fashion, even as the police practice their own casual brutality:

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