This review of John Burdett's "Bangkok Haunts" incorrectly said that FBI agent Kimberley Jones first appeared in "Bangkok Tattoo," the second book of this series about Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, and that the plot contained drug-crazed cobras. Both are in "Bangkok 8," the first book in the series.
A Thai's Winning Ways
Thursday, June 14, 2007
By John Burdett
Knopf. 305 pp. $24.95
On my third visit to Thailand in as many months this past winter, a Thai friend greeted me on the phone with the words, "Ah, you've come back to paradise!" He was only half kidding. The famous Southeast Asian land of smiles and guiltless hedonism, as well as the most exquisite green curry on Earth, is truly enchanting for most of the 14 million-plus tourists who visit there each year. But too bad for the visitors who are unlucky enough -- or reckless enough -- to come in contact with the Thai criminal justice system. It is rotten to the core, as it's convincingly portrayed in a wonderful mystery series that is at once sprightly and densely layered, like the Thais themselves.
It's a little hard to believe that Bangkok detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, English writer John Burdett's appealing protagonist in "Bangkok Haunts," is the only honest cop in Thailand. It's unclear, too, how he got that way; Sonchai is "leuk kreung," or half-caste, the son of a former prostitute and an American GI father he never knew. But somehow his differentness has made him both unbribeable and a keen cultural anthropologist whose principles are as admirable as his insights are professionally useful and often deliciously droll.
"Haunts" in this third of the Sonchai series acts as both noun and verb. Some haunts are places: the Old Man's Club, the middle-class brothel owned by Sonchai and his hard-nosed entrepreneur mom; the Parthenon Club, a Thai "HiSo" (high society) sex club for the country's "invisible men" who are normally beyond the reach of the law; and the government and capitalist aeries atop banks and other Bangkok skyscrapers -- the apex of a nominally democratic society that remains in many ways stubbornly feudal.
Other "haunts" here are actually hauntings, as in the office of forensic pathologist Dr. Supatra. She proudly shows Sonchai and visiting FBI agent Kimberley Jones (introduced in "Bangkok Tattoo," the previous book in the series) her digital video recording of the ghosts that fornicate in the morgue after she has left for the night. A puzzled Jones later asks Sonchai if he believes these ghosts to be "real." He replies, "Depends on what you mean by real." It's an answer that speaks volumes about the nature of reality in a society that is successfully modern -- Thailand basically works -- even though most Thais are animist Buddhists whose everyday lives are inhabited by ghosts and spirits that must be catered to with offerings, protective amulets and the like. When Jones labels Dr. Supatra "eccentric," Sonchai explains, "All Thais are eccentric, Kimberley. Nobody colonized us. We don't have much of a global norm to follow." One complaint I heard in Thailand about Burdett's series is that it fixates on the grotesque. In "Bangkok Tattoo," an aggrieved transsexual Thai murders a black American Marine with drug-crazed cobras and a giant python. If anything, "Bangkok Haunts" is even more bizarre, with ghosts on the rampage and a uniquely grisly Thai form of execution called the elephant game.
The central crime in "Bangkok Haunts" is the murder by strangulation of a prostitute whom Sonchai once was nuts about. He learns of Damrong Baker's ghastly demise from a snuff film sent to him anonymously. His quest to find the killer is complicated by obstacles thrown up by, among others, Sonchai's boss, Col. Vikorn. He doesn't want any HiSo types prosecuted, and he instructs Sonchai, "Don't spoil a great case with too much perfectionism." Instead, Vikorn would rather that Sonchai helped him supplement his booming illegal methamphetamine business by expanding into video pornography.
Burdett's big finish this time features a deus-ex-machina rescue that's less plausible than his ghostly visitations and their shrewd psycho-cultural underpinnings. What never falter are Sonchai's captivating, sometimes teasing voice -- he often addresses the reader as "farang" (the Thai word for Westerner) and Burdett's affectionate take on everything visiting farangs find fascinatingly upside down and backward in Thailand.
There's a memorable comic scene in which an Australian with a big beer gut, who is marrying into a Thai family, sits quietly eating oysters while the women in the family enjoy a good laugh over the bride's description of the couple's necessarily acrobatic sex life. Talk of sex is open and jolly among the Thais in the Sonchai books, while an exchange between Col. Vikorn and a wealthy banker over a possible bribe is camouflaged as a discussion about the value of an antique vase. In Burdett's always amazing Thailand, euphemism is reserved for the sinister.