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FRIDAY, October 07, 2022
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Sonchai gets in over his head

Sonchai gets in over his head

TUESDAY, January 12, 2016

John Burdett’s latest novel finds the Bangkok detective at the mercy of superhuman gladiators preparing for a global power struggle

The title of John Burdett’s latest novel, “Bangkok Asset”, hardly conveys the depth of the sinuous mystery within the covers. He could have accurately named it “Heart of Darkness”, but of course that one’s already taken. 
Nor does categorising this as a “detective story” do the book any justice. It’s a horror story, really, with the detective, for the most part, joining the reader on the sidelines, among the ranks of cringing, wide-eyed witnesses. 
Burdett – who first gained broad acclaim in 2003 with “Bangkok 8”, the first in a series starring Sonchai Jitpleecheep as the Royal Thai Police homicide investigator – reigns high among the expatriates churning out Southeast Asian noir fiction, a unique brand to be sure. And it’s difficult to imagine noir getting any darker than “Bangkok Asset”.
A third of the way through, the gloom deepens at a foreboding creep until it becomes almost suffocating. The effect is reminiscent of the fog enshrouding the gunboat in “Apocalypse Now” as it pushes into the Mekong Delta. Upriver a maddened Colonel Kurtz, every bit as cunning, is swallowing souls.
Like Coppola’s 1979 film (but not Conrad’s 1899 novella), Burdett’s book has its problems – beginning with that title, which belongs to a guide for foreign investors rather than a crime novel. You soon realise he means a CIA-type “asset” – a human resource, in other words – except that this one’s superhuman.
Moreover, it’s possible that Burdett has overreached with this confusingly complex tale. Judging from the chatter on the Goodreads website, his fans are divided. Most do love this sixth entry in the best-selling series, but quite a few feel be-fogged, if not let down, by the gloomy turn that Detective Sonchai has taken.
The luek kreung cop has always been searching for his American father, and now he finds him in a quagmire far worse than the US intervention in Vietnam. From the scene of a ghoulish murder in Bangkok, Sonchai descends into a morass that encompasses morality, mythology, dark psychology, a commentary on feminism, casual drug use, riot control, mind control and all the sins and transgressions of modern geopolitics. He is standing on the doorstep of a terrifying dystopia, controlled by a confederacy of elite powers, where government surveillance is the least of worries.
If a Bangkok cop with marital problems who helps out his mum in her Soi Cowboy bar seems out of place before this supernatural juggernaut, that’s because he is.
The reader is forced time and again to suspend belief, but the results are on occasion just too far-fetched to be rewarding. There is so much going on in this labyrinthine mystery that the occasional restoration of reality – a domestic cuddle, a taxi jaunt, the odd slash of humour – becomes jarring rather than reassuring or re-orienting. What are we to make of the young, handsome, cultured and charming (if exceedingly tall) “Asset” who just wants a hug but possesses the power to throttle the world?
This schizophrenia of sorts is the most unsettling element of the novel and also its greatest shortcoming. Just as it’s hard to reconcile the daunting professionalism of police inspector Krom with her butch-tom leering at Sonchai’s wife, so too is it difficult aligning Burdett’s long passages of enthralling prose with his characters’ often pokey dialogue.
Fans of the genre will find what they’re looking for. The ghastly murders, the square peg among round holes, the snide repartee, the odd lesson on weapons and the familiar landmarks like Soi Cowboy, the Klong Toey slum (billed as KTC for Klong Toey City), a couple of spots along the Chao Phraya River). But readers get far, far more, and it might be more than they’re capable of absorbing.
In “Bangkok Asset”, Burdett has pulled on several timely threads to weave his yarn. We all gripe about the wealth gap and some of us scent a global conspiracy among the rich and the governments they finance. To maintain their lofty status, they will need to control the increasingly desperate masses. Hence riot cops packing massive firepower. 
But that won’t be enough, Sonchai discovers. So another plucked thread leads from the CIA’s experiments with LSD in the 1970s to the darker mind-control trials of MKUltra and the quest for artificial intelligence and the “singularity” that lies just ahead, when machines learn to teach themselves and have no further need of mankind.
Now there is a new form of global arms race. The US, China and Russia are scurrying to develop hybrid super-soldiers – mentally, physically and emotionally perfect mutants. And, of course, there are already a few on the loose.
Hollywood must surely be panting. And yet Burdett acknowledges there’s a fundamental obstacle in his path to the silver screen. He recently told the South China Morning Post that several of his books have been optioned for film adaptations, but the problem is who would play Sonchai. 
“There are perhaps no more than three or four Eurasian stars in Hollywood who would be suitable for the lead role. So they have to be available and interested. Then there is uncertainty as to how well a movie about a Eurasian detective in Bangkok will sell in the US and elsewhere.”
The author certainly sounds like a realist. You wouldn’t know it from this book.
 
The Bangkok Asset
By John Burdett
Published by Corsair, 2015
Available at Asia Books, Bt650