Burdett trying to cram too much in latest novel
Vail, CO, Colorado
John Burdett’s first two Bangkok novels introduced us to the sordid universe and morally-quixotic inner soul of Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. In “Bangkok 8” and “Bangkok Tattoo,” Burdett established himself as a preeminent voice in the crime fiction realm, setting all the action among Thailand’s sex tourism industry as seen from Jitpleecheep’s point of view as both cop and brothel owner.
Burdett consistently delivers on the promise of supplying a knowledge and detail about the underside of one of the world’s most convoluted cities. His Bangkok is a highly stratified place, where the paunchy, middle-aged farang (that’d be us) float like gaudy air mattresses on a deep sea of a Thai culture and economy they will never see, much less understand. But Jitpleecheep and his countrymen get the game very well, and the detective serves as our guide to understanding how Thai spirituality and honor are able to coincide with an economy built on hired flesh, Viagra and booze.
Jitpleecheep wends his way through his duties as detective and helping his mother run the brothel while mollifying his transgender partner Lek, corrupt boss, pregnant wife and, as it turns out in “Bangkok Haunts,” the ghost of his former lover, prostitute and man-eater extraordinaire Damrong. A DVD of a snuff film turns up, which depicts a masked man having sex with, then strangling a prostitute. When Jitpleecheep sees it, he’s devastated to see it’s Damrong, and he sets out to find her killer against the wishes of his boss, the Colonel, and his wife, who’s tired of his Damrong-fueled nightmares.
Burdett is a gifted stylist and a natural storyteller, and his first two novels sang along in a delightful river of the exotic and the unknown ” virtual guidebooks in their own right to a part of the world one must live in to understand at all. He combines high-level police corruption, gang activity and legitimate police work with super-charged sex scenes juxtaposed with workaday sex-worker boredom. Enter Jitpleecheep’s world for a few chapters and running a brothel seems like a perfectly respectable calling. And you’ll be forgiven, farang, for not understanding where the anything-goes part of Bangkok bumps up against the ceiling of tolerance.
“Bangkok Haunts” starts out in similar fashion to the previous novels, with a horrific murder and a whole lot of more-than-meets-the-eye detail. But “Bangkok 8” and “Bangkok Tattoo” were both endowed with wonderful start-to-finish momentum, while the new novel sags in the middle under the weight of everything Burdett is trying to cram in. With the backdrop of Jitpleecheep’s personal anguish, we’re to understand that the snuff film was created by one of the country’s top bankers, in collaboration with Damrong’s former husband, an American filmmaker, and Damrong herself. There’s a distracting side story about Jitpleecheep having to suddenly oversee the production of porn films at the request of his boss, as well as the mostly unnecessary and largely unexplained presence of a female FBI agent. I’m sure Burdett wanted her there as a foil, a reader’s representative to reflect the Byzantine Thai goings-on in an American face, but we never know enough about her character or her motivations to care.
Ultimately, we discover it is Damrong’s younger brother, a monk, who is driving the action. Or is it Damrong herself, operating from beyond the grave through a combination of pre-death plans and ghostly manipulations? As he attempts to dive deeper into Thai spirituality, mysticism and superstition, Burdett ends up diluting his tale with twists that may be too fantastic to swallow. Although the climactic scene – which involves young elephants, Khmer thugs, a monk, a ghost and a corpse – is wildly original and profoundly disturbing.
It’s not unusual for more creative crime novelists like Burdett to wander out of form in subsequent books, as they try to expand on the well-worn road of whodunit. In “Bangkok Haunts,” Burdett takes some high risks that may lose some readers along the way. In the end, though, taking another dip with the author in the underworld of Bangkok is hard to resist, and I’ll be on board the next time Detective Jitpleecheep sets out to find a killer.