Friday, January 29, 2010


Following the career advancement, investigations, philosophical struggles, and cultural explaining of Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the main character in John Burdett's Bangkok series has been one of my favorite literary excursions over the past few years. Sonchai, the half Thai/half American (farang) son of a former prostitute and current brothel owner (he is a part owner), is a devout, spiritual Buddhist who wrestles with the karmic implications of his role as a minion (and later consigliere) of his boss, one of the two leading drug barons in Thailand. We are first introduced to him in Bangkok 8, suffering from the loss of his best friend and police partner who is murdered via use of poisonous snakes, and his exploits are continued in Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts, which are interesting and enjoyable but did not quite live up to the first book. Along with his mother and boss, other recurring characters include his faithful assistant and devoted foil, Lek, a pre-op transsexual male (katooey); a female American FBI agent that he taps for special intelligence when required; an Army general and rival to his boss in the drug trade; and numerous prostitutes and colorful personalities who come in and out of the stories (not to mention the rather interesting victims of the crimes he is investigating).
So it was delightful that Burdett's recent addition, Godfather of Kathmandu, was as strong and interesting as the first volume. Jitpleecheep here is dealing with the heartrending loss of his only son and his wife's decision to run off to a Buddhist nunnery, as he is called to assist in the mysterious murder of a prominent and wealthy American film director, while at the same time brokering a high-stakes drug deal with an equally mysterious Tibetan lama (Tietsen), who wants to use profits from the sale to get back at the Chinese. He is valuable to his boss because he can easily traverse the different cultures. Soon he is immersed in the complicated worlds of Chinese/Thai secret societies, a brilliant chemically-dependent pharmacist murderess, a tantalizing Tantric mistress/actress, a upward striving junior police detective, and other members of Thai society (as well as individuals in Tibet and Hong Kong). In all of the books the protagonist talks directly to the reader, explaining various aspects of culture and religion, as well as his thought processes as he works his way through various investigations. There is no way for this reviewer to assess how accurate the author is in describing the inner working of Thailand, but the stories are colorful and engaging, and I recommend them highly. Almost all of the characters are richly complex and compelling. Burdett's descriptions and explanations of Thai society are equally good.

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