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BOOK REVIEW

THE PEAK OF THE FLESH TRADE

Thai night workers play rope with children in Soi Cowboy.

Thai night workers play rope with children in Soi Cowboy.

Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is back in action, this time exploring the underbelly of organ trafficking in John Burdett's latest page-turner

Starting with the first shot, the brilliantly warped "Bangkok 8", John Burdett’s series of mysteries starring the Thai-American detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep have traded on flesh: of sex workers and the transgendered, the skin art of a deranged tattooist, the needlepointed epidermises of heroin fiends, and the corpses of those slain in turf wars between Sonchai’s boss, Colonel Vikorn, and his nemesis, Colonel Zinna of the Royal Thai Army.

In "Vulture Peak", the fifth novel in the series, the flesh trade is taken to its most gruesome extreme: organ trafficking.

The first strand of the plot unfurls after a triple homicide in the ritziest part of Phuket known as "Vulture Peak". All three victims have had their internal organs expertly removed.

Sonchai is assigned to the case.

Quickly he realises that it must be linked to Colonel Vikorn’s new campaign to run for the governor of Bangkok. To promote his candidacy he tells the incorruptible and staunchly Buddhist detective, "That your soon-to-be-world-famous crusade to put an end to the nefarious practice of illegal trafficking in body parts, which is so vilely exploiting the poor and the helpless, et cetera, is driven by me."

Ever since Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled heyday back in the 1930s, the wisecracking detective has been a fixture of the genre, but Sonchai’s retorts often reveal humour of a blacker hue. "In twenty years as a colonel in the Royal Thai Police, you have never done a single thing to fight crime, while doing a great detail to contribute to it," he says.

Carrying a cargo of 1,764 human eyes worth some US$200,000, Sonchai flies to Dubai to meet the twin Chinese sisters known in the business as "the Vultures". When a female character in this series does not like sex, a la the poisonous "Mad Moi", it’s a sure bet she’s headed towards villainess status at a bullet’s speed. Since neither of the Yip sisters enjoy bedroom bodysurfing, but have varnished their prick-tantalising skills to a porn-image gloss, that means a double shot of "blue balls" for Sonchai, who is already fretting over the possibility that his partner Chanya is having an affair.

Thrillers are slaughterhouses these days. That’s de rigueur. This is not a subtle genre.

My frequent complaint is that for all the bloodletting, many deliver little more than paper cuts to the hearts and psyches of their characters.

This series is a different story.

The Yip sisters show the detective some of the e-mail they have received from prospective clients: desperate, heartrending pleas, like "I don’t care what you have to do. I don’t care who has to die. It’s my turn to live a whole day without pain."

Coldly calculating, the Yip sisters have a whole list of criteria for judging which clients will pay top dollar. They also prey on the ill and the lame who come to Lourdes to pray for a miracle cure from the Virgin Mary.

Caught in a vise grip between the sisters and the colonel, Sonchai is haunted by eyes popping up in his nightmares. After returning to Bangkok from Dubai and the Monte Carlo, where he escorts the sexy yet sexless sisters on a date to the casino, he moans, "Am I getting softer or are the cases getting harder?"

It’s precisely this vulnerability that makes him more human and likeable than a lot of hardboiled heroes with their bulletproof craniums and cast-iron hearts.

As any follower of the series expects, there will be some scenes set in the fleshpots of Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy and Patpong. The author’s depiction of Bangkok’s tenderloins for tourists and expats has always seemed like a blanket endorsement.

Nary a sad old sexpat or burnt-out, meth-afflicted bargirl appears in these pages.

Whereas some of the earlier books were more concerned with how Bangkok’s carnal kinks took Freudian X-rays of the Western male characters’ neuroses, "Vulture Peak" plays much of the commercial sex for satire and sociological value, as Chanya is writing a thesis about the flesh trade, which comes off looking benign when compared to organ trafficking.

From the start, the series has balanced the sacred with the profane, and the mystical with the material, which is really the yin and yang of Thai society. That intertwining has resulted in some startling bursts of poetry, like in "Bangkok Tattoo" when Sonchai says of his newfound love Chanya, "Not even the Buddha glows like her."

Occasionally, the detective sermonises on Buddhist principles but most of the books place the practical over the theoretical. That is still a guiding light in "Vulture Peak" when a nun uses Buddhist humility and empathy to ward off a hideously deformed, would-be rapist. The detective also delivers an insight into Thai kitsch that I had never heard before. When discussing his own illuminated Buddha image, Sonchai says, "He’s quite gaudy with purple and red lights, which are kitsch enough to remind me it’s only a symbol I’m bowing at."

Not all the Buddhist details ring true, however. The way that the detective talks about his previous incarnations - an ancient Egyptian in "Bangkok 8", an American Indian in this book - sounds more New Age Californian than Thai Buddhist.

That is a minor quibble. Without spoiling any of the serpentine twists, I’ll go out on a limb to say that this is the most suspenseful climax in the series thus far and packs an emotional wallop too.

Lovers of literate novels who are fearful of being seen slumming it in the gutters of genre fiction need not get in a flap over "Vulture Peak". This is lurid literature with a Buddhist conscience and its libido on overdrive.



Jim Algie’s last book was the non-fiction collection "Bizarre Thailand: Tales of Crime, Sex and Black Magic". Check out BizarreThailand.com.






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