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by John Burdett
A non-review by

Of the twists upon twists that inform John Burdett's thriller, BANGKOK 8; Alfred Knopf, 2003, it is the killing of a black Marine, trapped in his Mercedes hatchback while snakes have their way with him, that begs for an explanation. We're talking cobras and a huge boa that have somehow been injected with enough methamphetamines to go on a killing frenzy on a large American who has gotten himself tangled up in Bangkok's underbelly of crime.

The best angle in this fast-paced novel though is the one where East meets West. Like any good detective story, a Chinese puzzle box of clues opens slowly until only one kernel of blame is left. Kimberly Jones, a stiff, dogmatic, FBI agent has been dispatched to unravel the killing. But FBI bosses at Quantico don't really want her to solve the case if it ends at the doorstep of a phenomenally wealthy American jade dealer. Friend to presidents, senators and the ruling class of American money, Sylvester Warren is untouchable, even if his ultimate game is sickeningly cruel.

Kimberly is sent to work alongside Detective Sonchai Jitplecheep, who is not only the only cop in the Bangkok Royal Thai Police not on the take, he is also an arahat, or Buddhist saint; one who has arrived at a higher insight by following the Eightfold Path. Wait a minute, a cop and a saint? Yup, and, whereas, Kimberly relies on deductive reasoning and logic, Sonchai uses intuition, meditation, insight into previous lives and plain old snooping good luck to get to the bottom of things. According to Sonchai, "American cops are identical to Thai cops at least in one respect. We're all the reincarnations of crooks." Sonchai also "sees" that Kimberly was a womanizing gangster in a previous life, who was poisoned by "his" wife, who happens in this lifetime to be Jack Nape, FBI legal attaché to the U.S. Embassy where Kimberly is assigned. Such is the irony of rebirth.

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Sonchai mostly keeps these esoteric observations to himself, but Kimberly finds his behavior absurd, after all, he is a detective meant to enforce the law. Yet she has taken nabbing the rich untouchable guy personally, even though she's been warned off. Sonchai's mission is simpler: he will kill Sylvester Warren if it turns out he is responsible for killing his cop partner, Pichai. For Thais, compared to their Western counterparts, life is less complex, based on accepting the impermanence of all things. The West assumes logic, and ultimate control over nature, which translates down to money and power. To Sonchai this approach is sadly delusional. He tries to explains karma to the reader, "With us the lifting of the egoic veil at the moment of death reveals the workings of karma in all its pitiless majesty: See that clubfoot in your next life, that's from when you fouled your best friend on the football pitch; see those buckteeth the size of gravestones, that's your cynical sense of humor; see that early death from leukemia, that's your greed." Very interesting for a farang (us) to contemplate. Go ahead, take a minute.

Did I mention Sonchai's partner was killed at the outset? Let's go back to the ill-fated Marine and his Mercedes filled with snakes. Arriving on the scene, Detective Pichai releases the clamps that jam the car doors and when he opens one to see if Sergeant Bradley is still alive, a snake pops out, leaps into his eye and kills him almost instantly. Sonchai shoots the snake and vows revenge. Pichai too was an arahat, but he had already made up his mind to retreat from the world to work on his own enlightenment. Alas. How two childhood friends came to be arahats and cops is due to their having murdered a yaa baa dealer. Pichai did, Sonchai was an accessory. For this deed they sought refuge in the Three Crown Jewels of the Buddha, becoming monks for one year until they were sent back into the world to be police by the abbot of the monastery who happens to be the brother of the corrupt, but likable, Police Colonel Vikorn, Chief of Bangkok District 8. The friends were not given a choice in the matter.

Yaa baa means mad drug and it is methamphetamine produced from pure ephedrine smuggled into Thailand from Laos or Burma or Cambodia. We read of the displacement of peasants into the city with the sudden rush of foreign capitol into Thailand (which just as suddenly rushed back out, leaving the country with one foot in a half built new world, the other in a traditional Asian world). Yaa baa became the drug of choice for country people now forced to keep up with the stressful pace of modern--read Westernized--city life. It turns out our Marine Sergeant had become a middle man for receiving yaa baa ingredients into Bangkok. That would appear to be the cause of his violent demise, but this is only a feint in the Byzantine plot that digs deeper and deeper into the soul of darkness.

On to Bangkok's bustling sex industry, the underpinnings of our whodunit. The author makes a disclaimer at the front of the book: "The sex industry in Thailand is smaller per capita than in Taiwan, the Philippines or the United States. That it is more famous is probably because Thais are less coy about it than many other people. Most visitors to the Kingdom enjoy wonderful vacations without coming across any evidence of sleaze at all." Supposedly Thai women lack many of the "hang ups" Western woman are bridled by, but I am steering shy of that question either way. Burdett also wants to make clear there are honest cops in Bangkok, though official corruption is well documented. His is but a "frivolous" book, he says, and hopes no Thai cop reading it will take offense. That said, the novel is awash in sleaze. Poor Sonchai actually does give offense to the other cops by refusing bribes and to whore at the go go bars. Who does he think he is? He is put up with because at least there is a solid crime in his past, and, as Colonel Vikorn points out, every precinct needs one saint to show to the world when an example of lawfulness is required.

Sonchai grew up among whores. He counts among his friends a woman who shoots darts out of her vagina as a floor show. His mother, Nong, was a bar girl who fetched 60,000 Baht for her arranged deflowering by a white farang. Nong latched onto wealthy Western men after that and played her game well, taking Sonchai with her to Paris, Berlin and the US. Sonchai is a blondish half breed who speaks impeccable English. His father was a GI draftee into the Viet Nam war whose name Sonchai does not know. Anyhow, back to the sex industry which the author suggests brings in more gross income than the whole government. The suggestion too is that condoms are a must, aids is under control and that the sex trade in Bangkok is more fun than sticky. The lack of coyness with regard to doing what comes naturally has its Buddhist take; we are all born into a polluted world anyway, might as well have a sense of play about our fate. It is the Western patrons who often come across as uptight, foolish or mean, and sometimes deadly.

Sonchai's mission to avenge his friend begins to shift, influenced by his arahat insights, as he searches for answers, all of which lead back to Sylvester Warren. In the end he we are left wondering if Sonchai will give in to the softening influence of living better than the humble windowless room his starvation police wages afford. In fact, it was curious all along how he managed to move about the vast, traffic-snarled city bribing all those girls and crooks and whatnots that lead to his unraveling the many crimes within crimes. Not to mention all the food he eats (I could practically smell the Thai cuisine off the pages, and was very glad my neighborhood boasts at least two good Thai eateries so I could indulge myself as I read). For me the real fun of the book is Buddha vs. the FBI. Sonchai: "Despite decades of study, I still find the Western mind hard to take, close-up. The expectation that the world should respond to every passing whim (ice cream, cock, target practice) is shocking to this son of a whore. Like most primitive people, I believe that morality arises from a state of primeval innocence to which we must try to be faithful if we are not to be lost altogether. I fear such a conviction would be quaint and pathetic to the FBI [Kimberly], if I ever dared to express it."

I can't help but wonder how a Thai would react to the book? Anyway, for a thriller no big new ground is broken, the bad guys are basically the usual suspects with the odd Khmer holding an Uzi thrown in. Still, BANGKOK 8, is a Coney Island of a read; dark and funny and a little crazy, while Sonchai, with his amusing, almost bashful wisdom, is a good character to spend time with. As for the gems of Eastern Enlightenment sprinkled throughout, read the book, Grasshopper, and see for yourself.

--© June, 2003 J. Stefan-Cole

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[email protected] | June 2003 | Issue 39
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