Bangkok haunted by caricature
John Burdett's 2007 crime novel couldn't match the lustre of his first
By John Burdett
Published by Corgi Books, 2007
Reviewed by James Eckardt
Many expatriate writers publish a good first novel about Bangkok. Then the rest get worse and worse. Such is the case with John Burdett, who wrote an entertaining first novel, "Bangkok Eight". The plot was outrageous but fast-paced, and Burnett's sense of place was superb.
The second, "Bangkok Tattoo", carried forth his main characters - Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a former monk turned honest police detective; Colonel Vikorn, his venal but charming superior; and Nong, Sonchai's mother who runs a bar near Soi Cowboy and produced Sonchai from the first of her many liaisons with foreign men.
But narrator Sonchai took on an insufferably superior tone. He directed his remarks toward a nameless farang, which was good because he got to explain a lot about Thailand, but also bad because everything about the West was horrible and the only true wisdom resided in the smug person of Sonchai.
Give Burdett's third novel, "Bangkok Haunts", credit for a sharp opening line: "Few crimes make us fear for the evolution of our species. I am watching one right now."
What he's watching is a snuff film, in the company of his good friend, FBI agent Kimberley Jones. It's "five point seven megabytes of distilled evil". Both viewers are reduced to tears, Sonchai more so because he was once in love with the victim, Damrong, a hooker from his mother's bar.
It turns out that Damrong is nearly 30 years of distilled evil. And woe betides the man who loves her. "She wasn't a woman, she was a disease, a disease that infected the blood of half the men she ever serviced," Sonchai observes.
Besides Sonchai, these include Daniel Baker, Damrong's American former husband who's been degraded into her pimp and pornographer; Tom Smith, a high-powered British lawyer; and an all-powerful Sino-Thai banker strangely named Tanakan (the Thai word for "bank").
They are the suspected makers of the snuff film, which appears to involve an exclusive sex club, the Parthenon. Others include hi-so advertising executive Kosana, his katoey artist-girlfriend Pi-Oon and the Parthenon's mamasan, Nok. These three are bumped off early.
Helping Sonchai with his investigation is his assistant, Lek, who's a katoey with ambitions to become a transsexual. Improbably enough, FBI agent Kimberley falls in love with Lek amid much tortured blather of how hard it is to be a single woman in the hideous moral sump hole of America.
Here's a sample, addressed to Sonchai:
"You think the Western mind is some Frankensteinian product of botched religion and a bunch of ancient Greek pedophiles, the same unholy combination of schoolboy logic, lust for blood and glory, we-know-best, and destroy-to-save that slaughtered three million in Vietnam, most of them women and children, all in the name of freedom and democracy, before we ran away because it got too expensive. Right?"
And here's a sample of Sonchai: "We are tiny figurines hanging from the charm bracelet of infinity."
There's also mysterious monk who is seen haunting Internet parlours on Soi Nana and who finds pretexts to give bracelets made of elephant hair to the three big fish in the snuff-film plot - Baker, Smith and Tanakan.
Sonchai undertakes a side trip to Phnom Penh to investigate the suicide of the American porn star Stanislaus Kowlovski, who was Damrong's murderous partner in the snuff film. Then he takes another to Damrong's home village in Khmer-speaking Surin to learn how the sordid details - incest, child prostitution, black magic - of how she became so evil.
Except for the love of her younger brother, there is absolutely nothing good about Damrong. (Even Hitler liked dogs, at least.)
And then onward we stagger to the climax in an borderland wilderness, a witless farrago of kidnapping and murder, former Khmer Rouge automatons laughing maniacally, the transmigration of a soul from one body to another, and a murdered elephant - interspaced with yet more clunky paragraphs of pompous exposition.
Take this book to the beach, if you want to ruin your day.
John Burdett has since released two other Sonchai Jitpleecheep detective novels, "The Godfather of Kathmandu" (2011) and "Vulture Peak" (2012).