on April 29, 2004
First the bad: I found the book to be less than gracefully written. At times the language is painfully stilted. I know that I am not used to the "hard-boiled" style that many detective stories employ, but too often the prose caused me to lurch to a standstill while my brain rotated the offensive sentence around in my head, unwilling to go on. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Burdett used Thai Buddhism to add fascinating depth and nuance to the story. I have often been wary of Buddhism in general, mostly because my only experience with it is as a trendy religion, the accessory of Beastie Boys fans and cause-hungry hippies for whom the Free Tibet bumper sticker perfectly conceals the country club parking permit on the bumper of the Volvo. Burdett's Thai Buddhism, however, is both unassuming and universal. He presents it as inseparable from Thai culture, and naturally the Buddhist way of thinking, so different from our cold Western logic, becomes integral to solving the mystery (we are investigating the gruesome death by multiple snakes of an American marine, by the way.) It's not so tidy as most detective stories, but then that too, follows the Buddhist way of thinking and is the strongpoint of the book.
on March 5, 2004
A black marine sergeant is sitting in the back seat of a Mercedes, dead from cobra bites, and his head in the mouth of a crazed python that is trying to swallow him whole. When detectives Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his best friend Pichai arrive on the scene, one cobra fastens on Pichai's eyeball, killing him instantly. Sonchai, the half-breed product of a brief liaison of a Thai prostitute and an American GI, wants to find the criminal and wants revenge for Pichai. With the help (or hindrance, depending on the situation) of an FBI agent named Kimberly Jones who has a crush on him, Sonchai traces the crime back to a wealthy American jade dealer named Sylvester Warren, who hobnobs with the high rollers on Capitol Hill and has a particularly nasty hobby of flaying prostitutes alive, and his protegée Fatima, an exquisite half-black, half-Asian transsexual who went from street urchin to diva, and now has a hidden agenda all her own.
Sonchai, who is probably the only honest cop left in the graft-ridden Thai police force, quickly solves the "whodunit"; what he wants to know now is the "why". Turns out that Warren and the dead marine are linked together in some pretty shady enterprises, with the connivance and participation of Sonchai's chief Vikorn. Burdett shows us the sordid underbelly of Bangkok: the corrupt police, the sex bars that stay open all night, the drug dealing, the peculiarly Thai mindset that an outsider like Jones can never hope to understand. One of his Burdetts most interesting (and endearing, I have to admit) characters is Sonchai's intrepid mother Nong, a former bargirl who has parlayed her gift of languages, learned from living off Western lovers, and her shrewd head for business, into a venture that is sure to make her rich -- a brothel catering exclusively for the Viagra set. Is this immoral? Or is she simply filling an unmet need? It depends on how you look at it; just as one needs to put aside one's Western prejudices and read this book from an Eastern perspective. The one cavil I have with the book is Burdett's tendency to stereotype; the venal Vikorn probably doesn't represent all Thai policemen any more than the bitter and sexually frustrated Jones represents all American career women. It's the one jarring note in an otherwise very good mystery novel.
on January 25, 2004
I recently devoured Bangkok 8 in a couple of days. It is a compelling mystery with excellent use of local culture and customs to add color to the novel. It is literally overflowing with lurid and accurate details of Bangkok. He also manages to convey a lot about Buddhism. I liked how he used a radio call in talk show with a sociologist host to make observations and analysis about Thai culture and societal problems, rather than giving long speeches to characters. I like the fact that he made the main character half Thai and half Caucasian (or double if you prefer). This dual status gives him access and insight into Thai culture and western culture. Furthermore, it makes him an outsider in both cultures as well. He is also well steeped in the world of prostitution since his mother used to earn her living via the trade. In addition, his Buddhism and personal knowledge of the street makes him a pure cop, who doesn't take a bribe, but is tolerated for his ability to speak English, which can come in handy for the police department. The ending is somewhat anti-climatic, but somehow appropriate to the tone of the story.
on January 2, 2004
An unusual murder and the concomitant death of a partner who was also a cherished, life-long friend - so begins an intriguing, garish, yet sympathetic look into the underside of life in Bangkok. These deaths occurred in Bangkok's 8th police district (hence the title). As summarized on the front end flap, "Under a Bangkok bridge, inside a bolted-shut Mercedes: a murder by snake - a charismatic African American Marine sergeant killed by a methamphetamine-stoked python and a swarm of stoned cobras. Two cops - the only two in the city not on the take - arrive too late. Minutes later, only one is alive: Sonchai Jitpleecheep - a devout Buddhist, equally versed in the sacred and the profane - son of a long-gone Vietnam War G.I. and a Thai bar girl whose subsequent international clientele contributed richly to Sonchai's sophistication."
The unusual circumstances behind the two deaths are matched by a variety of compelling, occasionally surrealistic characters Detective Jitpleecheep encounters as he works his way through seemingly disparate clues - bargirls who use the only resource available to themselves as they try to find a better life, an international art dealer who uses his power to satisfy his sado-sexual fantasies, a transsexual driven by a desire for revenge, and police officials that use and perpetuate institutionalized corruption as a vehicle to achieve personal wealth and power. Along the way he ruminates on his past, his close relationship with his now-dead partner, subtleties of Thai culture, and an uncertain future as he struggles to reconcile his inner conflict: his Western biological roots versus his deep affinity for Thai culture; his role in a tangled world versus his longing for self-enlightenment and inner peace. His struggle mirrors the broader struggle that is Burdett's central theme: the longing for a spiritual Buddhist past versus the increasing encroachment of Western technological consumerism.
The plot is contrived, somewhat larger than life, but luckily doesn't get in the way. It holds one's interest, but the beauty of the book is the story of the seamier side of Bangkok's culture. Burdett has captured the turmoil, the inner conflict, of a spiritual people who avoided outright European colonization (one of a small handful of Asian countries to do so) only to succumb to Western wealth in the second half of the twentieth century. The conflict within Detective Jitpleecheep mirrors this broader Thai conundrum.
Burdett's style is readable; the story well paced. The ending is a bit strange, but the descriptions of Thai culture and life in Bangkok that season the book throughout are a delight. It has the makings of a movie along with a sequel or two. One hope's we have not heard the last from Sonchai Jitpleecheep.
on October 6, 2003
Burdett is covering a lot of territory with Bangkok 8, and raising many interesting issues to do with our sexual mores, spiritual differences between the East and West, corruption of the rule of the law, exploitation of third world people, and the effects of American style capitalism on countries like Thailand. I had mixed emotions about this book, and in many respects, I agree with some of the other reviewers, that the novel has some good things to say but is perhaps kind of flawed as a literary thriller.
Sonchai, the hero of the novel is a terrifically portrayed character - complex, moral, compassionate, emotional, and weak yet also remarkably spiritual. His efforts to find and avenge the horrific murder of his partner Pichai and William Bradley really are quite riveting and involving. But, generally, I found that the story became encumbered with just too many plot twists and too much background story, resulting in an overly cluttered scenario. There's just too much of the ethnic fighting, the Chinese/Tai relationships, the Russian crime syndicates, and American/Tai relations from the Vietnam War. The conclusion seems stretched and becomes almost farcical, as Kimberley Jones, the straight-laced American agent, returns to Thailand and makes a life decision that seems to be so out of character for her. Another major flaw in the narrative is that Bradley's murderer and the link between Bradley, and Warren - the stereotypical rich, wealthy capitalist - is exposed so early on. Although entertaining, I also had a hard time with the character of Fatima, and buying the fact that she could end up being so wealthy and exercising so much control over the other main protagonists.
There is, however, a lot to admire in Bangkok 8. Burdett does a fantastic job of describing the sights and sounds of the red light district of section 8. And he really makes you experience what it must feel like as a tourist wondering down one of the streets of "Krung Thep." With a strong sense of honesty and authenticity Burdett depicts the dance bars, the sexual activity of the prostitutes, the necessities of illegal drugs - ganja and the met amphetamines - and the mainly Western clientele who frequent these neighborhoods. And the author does this without ever passing judgment on the lifestyles of the girls or their clients.
Burdett effectively uses Sonchai - and to a lesser extent, some of the other characters - as a window and a cipher showing that in many ways that the capitalist needs of the West are, in fact, feeding the economies and "flesh trades" of the East; each serves and to an extent needs the other. He talks a lot about the reasons why the girls turn to prostitution and why the men go to them. Countries like Thailand, while retaining their deep-seated spiritual values, are finding themselves adopting and catering ever more readily to the materialism and wealth that the West is offering. Although flawed, Bangkok 8 is still and important and serious read; and it's a story that explores dark and violent emotional terrain in city that Burdett had bought to life in disturbing and memorable ways.
on September 16, 2003
What I loved about Bangkok 8 were the snippets of Thai life and culturally-driven attitudes of the everyday people, especially the prostitutes and the members of the drug network. Sonchai, too, is a character study of a man having solid values and beliefs that are melded by experiences. Here's where the touching humor of the book is revealed.
I had no problem with what some consider an attack on Western ideals. On the contrary, it's our boldness, combined with a lack of understanding of other, and older belief systems that causes so much mis-communication.
At one point Sonchai says this is not so much a Who-done-it as a Why'd-they-do-it. And Bangkok 8 is exactly that. It's not your traditional murder mystery. And this vehicle allows the author to examine cultural differences among the various characters, Asian and American. It's very thought-provoking about lots of issues, from the sex trade to police procedures, to economic exploitation, politics, and international diplomacy.
That John Burdett can handle all of these issues adroitly in a single 300-page book is a tribute to his skill and tight-editing.
I read the book thinking that it was more a man's book. I guess I still think so, only now I'm a little less sure.
on September 14, 2003
I came to Amazon searching for a copy of the excellently titled "A Personal History of Thirst" - another alleged 'first novel' by former Hong Kong lawyer John Burdett, and was surprised by a few of the US based reviewers of Bangkok 8. I guess some are still tingling with righteous anger and feel sensitive to criticism (I note the date of one review - 9.11) however historically accurate.
What is this criticism? That the CIA set-up the heroin run out of Laos - there's a surprise. That some SE-Asian economies are still corrupt and in tatters thanks in part to post Vietnam War political chaos - really? This is tamely handled, and quite non-judgmentally described as background explanation for the Thai attitude to the west in Burdettt's superb police procedural. Burdett was careful to apoligize in advance to the Thai police and people, fearing he might ofend them with this tale of endemic and institutionalised corruption, and I am sure he didn't anticipate cultural sensitivity coming the other way.
As an expat swimming to and from Thailand all the time, I appreciate Burdett's ear and eyes for the goings-on in the seedy parts of Bangkok that we business-class tourists know and exploit so very well. His observations ring with genuine experience and he shows an empathic fondness for the working girls and their sorry situation. I read in the South China Morning Post just this morning that Burdett decided to refocus his novel as he found out more about these girls. They are amazing people and prostitution in Thailand is an amazing business. "The sequel is a continuing conversation with them," he is quoted as saying.
I was recommended this book for the entertaining cultural commentary it provides and I enjoyed it for that plus the nicely tuned sexual tension, and the fact that I was lying by the pool in my Phet-Buri Rd hotel as I read it. Bangkok is not Planet Splok to me, but a place I know well, and it is here described finely and astutely. When I see those criticisms I think that maybe, despite Burdett efforts to explain it to the world, Bangkok remains, as Australian band Cold Chisel used to sing, a place, an atmosphere, an attitude "that only other vets would understand."
However the some of the world so convincingly described in Bangkok 8 has already been reshaped. For those who didn't know, Prime Minister Thaksin has recently been cleaning up the streets of Bangkok. The girly shows are nowhere as raunchy and the bars shut promptly at 2am. There has been a sharp rise in the "extra-judicial" deaths (about 2000 shot in Feb and March) of suspected drug dealers in shoot-outs conveniently not involving the police or the justice system. And if they had made it through the courts, Thailand's offical death penalty is by machine gun.
Back to the novel. The weakness is not in the ending, which I thought refreshingly off-beat, but the unrelenting tendency for the various suspects to sit down with Officer Sonchai and a bottle of Mekong for some extended and contrived confessional monologues which burn my plot-device sensitive palate worse than the fieriest Thai prik (chilli).
However, it remains an excellent example of the recent explosion of Bangkok low-life lit that is choking the bookstores in Don Muang airport terminal's shopping areas. For me, the best is the older stuff, particularly John Ralston Saul's hard to find "Paradise Eaters", from 1988 or so, when the political rot was settling in nicely (prior to the most recent coup and well before the Baht's crash.)
Now where was Burdett's other first novel again?
on September 2, 2003
I'm a sucker for crime fiction set in unusual locales, so it was with great anticipation that I dove into this Bangkok-set debut novel. Burdett does a magnificent job in bringing Bangkok to life-from the neon-lit sex industry to shocking poverty, endemic corruption, widespread yaa baa (methamphetamine) trade, ever-present Bhuddism, and the lingering effects of the Vietnam war. Things kick off with straight-arrow cops Sonchai and Pichai tailing an American marine-allowing Burdett to give Bangkok's legendary traffic a cameo. However, in the middle of their task, the marine is killed by poisonous snakes, one of whom also kills Pichai when he tries to rescue the marine. From here on out Sonchai is a man on a mission, dedicated to solving the marine's (and thus by extension his partner's) murder. The death of the marine brings with it the involvement of the U.S embassy, and a female FBI agent comes over to liase with Sonchai. The plot is a typically convoluted thriller effort, involving international jade smuggling, a powerful American with White House connections, extreme S&M, Khmer thugs, Chui Chow Chinese gangsters and more. Actually, the story itself if the weakest part of the book, succumbing to stereotypical thriller elements and scenes. And it has to be said-the ending is really, really lame.
Still, there's lots to recommend the book. This is a thriller with many shades of gray to delight in. For example, on the one hand, Sonchai is an arhat (kind of a Bhuddist living saint), the one clean cop in the district, and yet he's clear that the only justice he intends to bring his partner's killer to is that found in the barrel of his gun. Similarly, his boss is totally corrupt, but Sonchai respects and reveres him. Most interesting is the portrayal of the sex industry, which is much less condemnatory than one might expect. (Although whether or not it accurately represents Thai attitudes to sex is not for me to judge.) The straightforward story also veers into the supernatural, with Sonchai able to see the past lives of people he encounters. Others love this aspect of his character, but it struck me as an unnecessary gimmick that detracts from the book's excellent portrayal of Bhuddism. Sonchai is a wonderfully laconic character, and all the more surprising for having come from the pen of a Westerner. On the whole, this is a very enjoyable thriller with a wonderful protagonist and great insight into Thai culture and Bangkok, however don't approach it with overly high expectations or you'll be disappointed-it is still of the airplane/beach read genre.
on July 25, 2003
Mr. Yardley, book critic for the Washington Post, does not often review books that I might have any interest in - and when he does the review is rarely a positive one. So I was surprised and delighted to see a very favorable review for John Burdett's novel, Bangkok 8. The title comes from the name of a police district in which our hero works. While drugs and sex and some very good plot twists are major ingredients of the story, what sets this book apart are the characters, Buddhism, Bangkok, a murder that I had to reread at least three times, and some sex that doesn't happen. What has stayed with me a week after I have read this book is Bangkok itself, a city I have never visited, but one that now both fascinates me and feels familiar to me. Perhaps with a different ending I would have rated this a "5", but it did not detract significantly from the pleasure this book gave me. One tip to potential readers who may be on the fence - read the first chapter (2 pages) - it gives an excellent flavor of what is to come, and I expect that most will be hooked, as I was.
on June 15, 2003
In Bangkok the corpse of African-American US Marine William Bradley is found in his Mercedes along with cobras and a giant python. Not long afterward, the partner of Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is also found dead in a similar manner.
Because he speaks English, "half-caste Third World" Detective Sonchai is assigned to investigate primarily the marine murder. However, he knows the hidden message that he must work closely with the Americans, which means don't let the facts interfere with the prime objective not to annoy the Yankee authorities. Sonchai escorts FBI agent Kimberley Jones through the nastiest part of town in quest of Bradley's female companion. As they inch closer to locating the missing woman, the half American Sonchai (unknown Yankee father) finds the Fed he is working with quite attractive, but his Buddhist beliefs keep him from crossing a line more dangerous than being stuck inside a car with deadly snakes as companions.
BANGKOK 8 is a refreshing police procedural due to the unique lead protagonist. The who-done-it is well written though the climax seems a bit forced and rushed. The insight into Buddhism is brilliantly interwoven into the tale so that the audience gains depths of knowledge that never slows down the story line. Also cleverly interlaced inside the investigation is a deep look at sex practices. The tale belongs to Sonchai, a vulnerable fatalist with an inner strength and self-deprecating humor that makes him an incredible character that hopefully has many future lives.