By Jason Goodwin
Saturday, January 9, 2010; C10
THE GODFATHER OF KATHMANDU
By John Burdett
Knopf. 298 pp. $25.95
The detective story has always been something of a traveler, dissecting places, going down those mean streets the tourist can't get the concierge to reveal. Holmes's London, like Chandler's Los Angeles, still thrives in the imagination. Agatha Christie took us down the Nile; Georges Simenon to the banlieues of Paris. These days there's practically no city with a five-star hotel and a waterfront that hasn't also got its fictional gumshoe, clueing the reader into the realities of life and death in Calcutta or Reykjavik, shepherding us through the streets of Oxford or Istanbul.
If Bangkok's your bag, then John Burdett may be your man. There are twists aplenty in his latest novel, a baroque crime caper that kicks off when a well-known American film director turns up dead in a Bangkok flophouse. He has been disemboweled, and a small hole has been drilled in his head. You want to know why, but you'll have to wait till the oddly queasy finale.
"The Godfather of Kathmandu" belongs to a series that began in 2001 when Burdett introduced his detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, in "Bangkok 8." The half-caste son of a Vietnam GI and a Thai prostitute turned madam, Sonchai is also the narrator, not averse to a little weed when the going gets tough; not averse, either, to buttonholing the reader like a latter-day Tristram Shandy.
Jitpleecheep's boss is Col. Vikorn, whose job as chief of police has helped him become a drug baron. His rival, for similar reasons, is Army Gen. Zinna. After watching "The Godfather," Vikorn makes Jitpleecheep his dealmaker. Jitpleecheep accepts the job under pressure from his wife and his mother but wonders how to square it with his Buddhist principles, dinned into him by a charismatic Tibetan holy man.
But a big drug deal is about to be pulled off, via Kathmandu. And the Nepali supplier in this case is none other than the Tibetan himself: Jitpleecheep's guru.
This is exotic and mysterious territory for most of us, and Burdett pulls off the exoticism with ease. He trots us through some of the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, and through the back streets of Bangkok, where sex is only one of the illusions for sale. The plot also involves -- but does not quite engage with -- a Chinese pharmacist who has a pill for everything. In one of the best and most pitiless scenes of the book, we meet a young Australian woman with good looks and some brains who has decided she wants what her friends in Sydney have got. All she has to do is hide condoms full of powder inside her body. But the plan goes awry.
Burdett has some fun with the ironies of the drug trade. In the 19th century, fortunes deemed perfectly respectable nowadays were made in England -- and in America, too -- by supplying the Chinese with opium. Now, the position is reversed, and Asians supply the West. It's hard to know where to look, when Western governments squeal with outrage. Touche, Jitpleecheep.
This is a novel brimming with observations and arguments, with absurdity and jokes. It has a plot, and the plot has twists. All it lacks is that element of surprise that belongs not only to detective fiction but to all good fiction: suspense. The characters never step out of caricature; the issue is never in doubt. The revelations lack bite.
Many readers, I suspect, will not mind too much. They will find a novel that drags them into another culture and fast-talks them from Bangkok to Kathmandu to Hong Kong. But for me, Burdett's narrator fumbles the catch too often, slipping into gag-land, the monotonous landscape of the over-knowing, instead of entering gang-land, where the chips are down and the next sentence may set the pulse racing.
Burdett is writing about the zoo of globalization. The backpacker's hostel insights, the gooned-up narrative monologue, the casual and unemphatic travel from Bangkok to Kathmandu, the lazy mix of tenses and hyperbole, belong emphatically to that zoo -- witty, learned and wild. Not so much like the cutting edge of a new kind of fiction as the choice gleanings from the Internet cafe.
Goodwin is the author of "Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire" and "The Janissary Tree," a novel.