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Bangkok 8 ()

One evening I was sitting at a bar in Pat Pong, probably the most famous red-light district in the world, when an attractive young woman started talking to me, then a few minutes into the conversation admitted she was a man. She/he was stuck in the middle of the transition from male to female. Her sponsor, a Western man, had paid for the course of medication, most of which consisted of estrogen in one form or another, so that she had grown breasts and developed an impressive luster in her long black hair. Her farang lover had lost interest, however, and now she was trying to raise money for the final step which was surgery. It struck me with some force how radical Western consumerism can be in its effect on the Third World, even to the point of changing men into women. My new friend readily admitted that she did not fit the profile of a transsexual. It had not occurred to her to think she was a man trapped in a woman's body. She had decided to have the operation partly because her lover wanted it but mostly because she expected to be much more marketable to Western men as a woman.

At the same time I thought more and more about Buddhism. I had often reflected in a vague way how infantile Western culture can be when faced with some of the more challenging facts of life, especially death. In the West we pay specialists to keep death out of sight, except when a close relative dies. In my monastery one senior monk used to arrange for the local hospital to send him cadavers, to assist in his meditation on the supreme reality of death � and whatever lies behind. That probably sounds morbid to a Western mind (even in Thailand it's not exactly mainstream), but I no longer find it so. On the contrary, I have at least absorbed the Buddhist lesson to the extent of finding our Western habit of distracting our minds from reality to be morbid and dangerous in itself.

Then one fine morning, about a year after my arrival, I found myself writing a story narrated in the first person by a Thai cop who was half western by blood, who was a passionate meditator, whose mother was a whore and who had grown up amongst those very young women and katoeys (transsexuals) with whom I spent my evenings chatting. I didn't need to think about "voice," it was there every morning, nagging, persistent and quite indifferent to all those rules about novel writing I had so conscientiously studied.
    -The Power of Difference (John Burdett, April 2003,

Talk about having a story, almost literally, fall into your lap...

In the critically acclaimed procedural/thriller, Bangkok 8, John Burdett introduces the Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the son of a whore and an unknown American serviceman and seemingly the only honest cop in town, if not the country. When his childhood friend and partner is killed, along with the black U.S. Marine they've been assigned to follow, in a particular grisly manner, Sonchai is assigned to liaison with the FBI on the case and shocks the agents he's working with when he calmly states: "Detective Pichai Apiradee was my soul brother. ... I'm going to kill whoever did it. There won't be a trial." But as the investigation unfolds it is revealed that the FBI is less interested in the possible criminality of one Marine than in protecting a wealthy white American businessman, who also has ties to Sonchai's superiors, so exacting that vengeance may not be so easy.

Now when an author tries something difficult and does it rather well we ought to be inclined as readers to cut him slack for any unevenness. In a book told from a Thai perspective, including the presence of demons and recognition of past lives, extensive discussions of the local culture, of Buddhism, of the sex trade, and of any number of other unusual topics, it's perhaps inevitable that the story is sometimes overly discursive and, therefore, occasionally loses the incredible momentum it starts out with. But, more often than not, Mr. Burdett fascinates with this glimpse into an alien world and especially at the disturbingly seamy and corrupt milieu in which Westerners looking for easy access to sex and drugs interact with Thais who are only to happy to enrich themselves off of these debauched proclivities. Mr. Burdett does the atmospherics so well and creates such a compelling hero in Sonchai that the few shortcomings pale in comparison. Further installments in the series are to be eagerly anticipated.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

John Burdett Links:

    -ESSAY: The Power of Difference (John Burdett, April 2003,
    -ESSAY: Democracy in Thin Air (JOHN BURDETT, November 27, 2005, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The ghosts of Phuket (John Burdett, January 14, 2005, The New York Times)
    -REVIEW: of WOLVES EAT DOGS by Martin Cruz Smith (John Burdett, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley (John Burdett, Washington Post Book World)
    -Entertainment Weekly Must List: John Burdett: The ''Bangkok Tattoo'' author is the only writer penning thrillers about a Buddhist cop (Entertainment Weekly, 12/04/05)
    -INTERVIEW: with Jon Burdett (A Novel View, June 8, 2003)
    -INTERVIEW: with John Burdett (Transworld)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: In his latest novel Bangkok 8, John Burdett has created an unlikely mystery set in Thailand and centered on experiences of a vigilant Buddhist detective. (WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show, June 10, 2003)
    -PROFILE: Immersing himself in a city of sin: John Burdett goes native in 'Bangkok Tattoo' (Adam Dunn, June 9, 2005, CNN)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Bangkok 8 by John Burdett (Reviews of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 by John Burdett (DAVID WILLIS MCCULLOUGH, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (Michiko Kakutani)
        -REVIEW: of >-REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (Adam Dunn, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (Lin Neumann, Asia Times)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (Sherryl Connelly, NY Daily News)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (Tommy Tung, Asia Pacific Arts Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (Ali Karim, Shots)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (Sudheer Apte, Desi Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (Chris Petit, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (SHERRYL CONNELLY, Thai Visa)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok 8 (Bob Rhubart, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of The Last Six Million Seconds by John Burdett (Charles Waring, Crime Time)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Bangkok Tattoo (MetaCritic)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett (Charles Taylor, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Duncan Campbell, The Guardian )
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Peter Guttridge, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Roz Shea, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Bill, Wallo, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Michael Dirda, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Wayne E. Yang, Asian Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Darren Reidy, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Tom Miller,
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Clea Simon, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (COLETTE BANCROFT, St. Petersburg Times)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Rick Kleffel, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (Peter Millar, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of Bangkok Tattoo (MARK SCHREIBER, Japan Times)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Learning the Thai sex trade: Thailand generates fantasies, both for tourists in search of sex and for aid workers peddling lurid tales of trafficking. The tsunami created more false horror stories. What are the facts of the trade? (Alex Renton, May 2005, Prospect)